Politics of dissent. In the name of liberty: where protest ends and rebellion begins

The Tree of Liberty: A Documentary History of Rebellion and Political Crime in America, by Nicholas N. Kittrie and Eldon D. Wedlock Jr. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 714 pp. $39.50. `THE tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.'' Thomas Jefferson's pungent commentary provides the title for this remarkable sourcebook, a chronological collection of material on protest, dissent, disobedience, violent opposition, and outright rebellion, all acts the editors have chosen to include under the broad rubric ``political crime.'' ``King Edward III's Law'' of 1352 (parts of its restraining principles were incorporated into the United States Constitution) and reactions to state terrorism in 1984 and 1985 bracket 399 other illustrations of and references to the main point of the book.

While the words ``political crimes'' and ``political criminals'' are rarely found in the American literature of the social and political sciences, history, criminology, or even law, both concepts exist in a variety of guises; and Americans have long had definite opinions about those who threaten the government in power or the political system in general. As the editors explain in their introduction: ``To comprehend political criminality, one must view the term `political' quite liberally.'' And they do what they say, using a rather open - or open-ended - definition.

Examining examples of a myriad of ``political crimes,'' Kittrie and Wedlock, both law professors, present American society and culture as a system riven with stresses and strife but somehow uniquely, if often belatedly, responsive to the conflicts among its many interest groups. Their thesis is explained in the introduction and amply illustrated in the case material that fills the body of this huge volume.

The sheer bulk of the book and the number of cases dealt with would seem to discourage a reader from trying to peruse it from cover to cover. But no matter. ``The Tree of Liberty'' is really more a book to be dipped into and used over and over than one to be read in the conventional sense. It is a trove of information for those fascinated by certain specific periods in our history, such as ``The Dawn of the Republic,'' with its Bill of Rights - and fugitive slave laws; its Whiskey Rebellion and alien and sedition laws, its debates over conspiracy and treason; or the years between 1871 and 1916, with the struggles of native Americans, women, and labor; or the latest one, where the focus is on ``International Terrorism and Civil Rights.''

It is also a most useful reference book for students of law and politics, whose professors are always saying, ``You could look it up.'' Now, without much difficulty, they can - be it ``The Right of Secession,'' ``Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamation,'' ``The Bonus Army March'' (including President Hoover's press conference on it on July 20, 1932), ``Statements of Conscientious Objection,'' ``The United States v. McWilliams,'' ``The Trial of Ezra Pound,'' ``Travel as a Constitutional Liberty,'' ``The Letter from the Birmingham Jail,'' ``The Black Panther Platform and Program,'' ``School Prayer,'' ``Abortion,'' ``Aircraft Piracy,'' ``Amnesty,'' and hundreds of other issues, presented in excerpted commentaries from scholarly assessments, party platforms, news accounts, legal briefs, court decisions, federal laws, or executive orders.

What is especially useful to either set of perusers, as well as to those who may try to take it all in, is the cement that binds the book together. The brief essays and finely crafted head notes provide the settings and explanations for what is to follow; each piece is treated both as an entry unto itself and as a part of a larger mosaic.

If anything is missing from this most comprehensive volume, it is discussion and illustration of political crimes and terrorist acts committed by the American government and its agencies in recent years.

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