Michigan State University law professor looks at controversial characters throughout history
The Thanksgiving playbook calls for the whole family,
from Tea Partiers to Occupiers, to sit down for an all-American truce,
lubricated by gravy and minimal meaningful conversation. Michigan State
University law Professor Michael Lawrence has a radically different
feast in mind.
In his new book, “Radicals in Their Own Time,” Lawrence
invites five of the most cantankerous radicals in 400 years of American
history to his table and limits them to the very subjects polite folks
are told to avoid: politics and religion.
“It’s a lively crowd,” Lawrence said. “Without exception, they were all pretty ornery.”
Instead of politic Thomas Jefferson, we get impolitic Thomas Paine. Instead of conciliator Martin Luther King Jr. or
compromiser Booker T. Washington, Lawrence gives us the uncompromising
W.E.B. DuBois. Instead of pious Susan B. Anthony, we get Anthony’s
fiery right-hand woman in the struggle for women’s rights, Elizabeth
They all got hit hard and knew how to hit back. In 1895,
Stanton eviscerated the Bible’s paternalistic take on women, from
Adam’s rib on down, in a controversial magnum opus, “The Woman’s
Bible.” Joining a nationwide wave of outrage, one clergyman called it
“the work of women and the devil.”
“This is a grave mistake,” Stanton drolly argued in her
introduction to the second edition. “His Satanic Majesty was not
invited to join the Revising Committee, which consists of women alone.”
They sound like great company, but each of Lawrence’s
five subjects were banished from the table more often than they were
invited. “I would have been hailed with approval if I had died at 50,”
DuBois said in his 80s. “At 75 my death was practically requested.”
The first to
arrive at Lawrence’s feast is Roger Williams, founder of Providence,
R.I., and an early proponent of religious tolerance and strict
separation of church and state. Williams denies the European powers’
claims to land in the New World, unless they pay the Native Americans
fairly for it. Try discussing that over Thanksgiving turkey.
Lawrence found religion to be a persistent hot spot that hasn’t cooled since Williams’ day.
“What really got these five people into hot water was when they challenged the prevailing religious orthodoxy,” Lawrence said. “That
explains a lot. To this day, any candidate for high office would be ill
served by challenging Christian orthodoxy. It would be an immediate
Lawrence’s second subject, revolutionary firebrand and
pamphleteer Thomas Paine, is a perfect case study. Paine fell from
revered Founding Father to pariah when he published his withering
critique of the Bible, “The Age of Reason,” containing the memorable
credo, “my own mind is my own church.” Six people came to his funeral.
“He was essentially disowned by his revolutionary
compatriots,” Lawrence said. “For decades he was reviled to the point
where Theodore Roosevelt called him ‘that dirty little atheist.’”
After “The Woman’s Bible,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s fate
paralleled Paine’s. Her colleagues in the turn-of-the-century suffrage
struggle, except Anthony, turned against her.
DuBois had little reverence for the church either. His
antipathy to capitalism and sympathy for the Communist Soviet Union
would make him an indigestible Thanksgiving guest in most American
In case the reader gets too smug about Enlightenment
principles of reason, there’s always Lawrence’s fifth radical, American
Indian teacher and activist Vine DeLoria Jr.
In addition to fighting for a new legal framework in
America for tribal sovereignty, DeLoria challenged what he considered
to be the orthodoxy of materialistic science, especially Darwinism, in
the universities. Instead, he laid out a synthesis of Western science,
American Indian belief systems, and Jungian psychology to explain the
DeLoria’s chapter brings the story full circle, echoing
Williams’s call for fair treatment of American Indians 400 years
As a constitutional law professor, Lawrence has due
reverence for the nation’s founding documents, but he’s the first to
caution that they’re just “words on a page.”
“Soviet Russia had a fine constitution, for what good it did them,” he said.
The five radicals profiled in his book had failings, some
of them spectacular, but Lawrence argues that it takes impolitic people
to push the country closer to its ideal of equal justice under law.
Elected leaders simply play it too safe.
Far from an alien idea, Lawrence argues, radicalism runs
in our veins. “Americans love this,” he said. “Look at any holiday
There’s something distinctly American about George Bailey
going up against money-grubbing Mr. Potter or Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the
Turtle shaking the king’s throne with a belch.
“These are icons, they’re heroes, and we love them
because they stand up to authority and demand equal justice,” Lawrence
said. “What else is Dorothy doing when she pulls back the curtain and
exposes the wizard?”
“Radicals in Their Own Time: 400 Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America”
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1
2019 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing