Opposition to WWI

To what extent is it acceptable to limit a citizens civil liberties during wartime?

While the US was at war with the Triple Alliance many citizens
opposed the war. The government felt that opposition to government
policies in time of war threatened our national security. Restrictive
laws such as the Espionage and Sedition Acts were passed in order to
silence opposition. Many outspoken people were jailed. It was a time
of great national crisis and the Constitution was thoroughly tested.

The question becomes, when is it acceptable to limit ones rights.
It is accepted that as a member of any society we give up certain
rights. Going back to political philosopher John Locke we remember
that he said that only in the “natural state” are men totally free.
This total freedom, or lack of all rules, however, creates according
to Locke certain “inconveniences.” What are these inconveniences?
Well for one if there was no government peoples freedom would be
limited by those stronger individuals attempting to exploit power and
strength for their own benefit. This is the inevitable result of
anarchy, only the strongest survive. Therefore the ultimate extension
of the natural state not only leads to limitation of rights but
potentially the limitation of life, the ultimate right. In order to
avoid this men join together to form what Locke referred to as “the
civil body politic” or government. Government is “instituted among
men deriving its just power form the consent of the governed,” the
people. Thus we contract to leave the natural state and thus we give
up certain rights in order to live in a civil society.

Democracy exists as a form of government dedicated to preserving
as many of man’s freedoms as possible. It is natural, however, for
their to be disagreement among men as to what rights even a
government may remove an still adhere to the aforementioned social
contract. These arguments are particularly poignant in a Democratic
society that allows dissent (in a dictatorship all opposition is of
course silenced.). While the U.S. Bill of Rights would seek to
protect these rights and make it clear what the government can and
cannot do there has also been dispute here.

As stated earlier during World War I (and other times but that has
been covered before and will be covered again) the United States
government attempted to silence opposition to the war and thus
restrict the rights of citizens. The government claimed these
restrictions were necessary in order to protect the good of our
society. Where they right? That question was for the United States
Supreme Court to answer.

I. Restrictions on Civil Liberties During World War I

A. What were the Espionage and Sedition Acts? (1917)

1. Persons who commit the following acts may be fined
up to $10,000 and/or jailed for up to 20 years:

a. willfully cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny
or refusal of duty in the military forces . (Espionage Act)

b. prohibited disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive remarks
about the form of government, flag or uniform of the United States.
It even prohibited the opposition to the purchase of war bonds. (not
investment advice!) (Sedition Act)

B. What was the result of the Espionage Acts during World War I?

1. Over 6,000 arrests.

2. Led to the Red Scare.

3. Walter Mathey, arrested and convicted, attended antiwar
conference and contributed 25 cents.

4. Rev. Clarence Waldron, arrested and convicted for telling a
bible study class the “Christians could take no part in the war.” 15
year term.

5. Eugene V. Debs, arrested and convicted for opposing the war, 10
years. Gained over a million votes in a run for President while he
was in prison.

6. Ricardo Flores Magon, a leading Mexican-American Labor
organizer was sentenced to 20 years for opposing the administrations
Mexcio policy.

7. Herbert S. Bigelow, a pacifist minister, was dragged from the
stage where he about to give a speech, taken to a wooded area by a
mob, bound and gagged and whipped.

8. Charles Schenck, member of the Socialist Party, sentenced to 15
years for publishing pamphlets urging citizens to refuse to
participate in the draft. He called the draft slavery, among other

C. How were the Espionage and Sedition Acts challenged?

(Schenck v The United States)

1. Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage Act,
passed by Congress in 1914. The Espionage Act made it illegal to
defame the government or do anything that might retard the war
effort. Schenck, a member of the Socialist Party, opposed the war and
printed and distributed pamphlets urging citizens to oppose the draft
which he likened to slavery. Schenck claimed his first amendment
rights were violated.

2. The court ruled against Schenck saying that the Espionage Act
did not violate the first amendment and that in times of war the
government may place reasonable limitations on freedom of speech.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes outlined the courts opinion by
explaining that when a “clear and present danger” existed such as
shouting fire in a crowded theater, freedom of speech may be limited.

The attorney general of the United States speaking of opponents of
government policies said, “May God have mercy on them for they need
expect none from an outraged people and an avenging government.” As
as for Wilson, he of the religious upbringing, he who was a
progressive leader, he who urged America into war to “make the world
safe for democracy?” It was at his urging the laws were passed in the
first place.”

Were the Espionage and Sedition Acts a violation of civil
liberties? Was the Supreme Court wrong? Perhaps. We must recognize
that rights are indeed and must be limited. The question will always
be, to what extent.