One hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson had, in the name of the war effort, taken temporary control of the nation’s railroads, signed a new law intended to counter espionage, and overall mobilized the economy for war through the National War Labor Board. However, there was another step to be taken: the mobilizing of the American mind. This mobilization came in the form of the Sedition Act. This law penalized speech that could interfere with the war effort, including criticism of the government. A most ominous vote indicating the bill’s broad approach on speech was when an amendment proposed by Sen. Joseph France (R-Md.) was narrowly defeated in the Senate. This amendment provided that “nothing in the bill shall be construed as limiting the liberty or impairing the right of any individual to publish or speak the truth, with good motives and justifiable ends” (Govtrack). Republicans voted for it 23-5, while Democrats went 8-28 against. Along with France, Sens. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) and Hiram Johnson (R-Calif.) led the opposition. The staunchly conservative Lodge defended free speech while the progressive Johnson castigated the Administration for not effectively using the laws in place to achieve its ends (New York Times). Ultimately, Wilson convinced Democrats to unify behind the bill. Before we condemn Wilson too much for this, it ought to be noted that there was significant public pressure for legislation like this, with the war being incredibly popular at the time. The patriotic fervor in the nation, for instance, resulted in sauerkraut temporarily renamed “liberty cabbage” (sound familiar?). The Senate, in other words, gave way to the will of the majority of the people.
The Sedition Act itself passed the Senate 48-26 (D 38-2, R 10-24). A curious mixture of progressive and conservative Republicans voted against the bill, with people closer to the ideological center more likely to vote for it. Among notable conservative opponents included future President Warren Harding of Ohio, former Attorney General and Secretary of State Philander Knox of Pennsylvania, and future Social Security opponents Frederick Hale of Maine and James Wadsworth of New York. Among the left-wing GOP opponents were future New Deal collaborator George Norris of Nebraska and “state’s rights progressive” William Borah of Idaho. Democrats stood overwhelmingly for the bill, progressive and conservative alike, with only Georgia’s Thomas Hardwick and Missouri’s James Reed voting against, and neither man was a doctrinaire progressive.
The act resulted in the imprisonment of numerous radicals. One of the most famous people convicted of violations under the law was Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for delivering a speech critical of the war. Although ultimately a short-lived wartime law with its provisions repealed and Debs pardoned in 1921, this law nonetheless constituted one of the most stunning breaches of the First Amendment. There was also a concerning push in 1920 among some senators and the overzealous Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to pass a permanent peacetime sedition law. This serves as an occasion in which the political opinions on this issue may vex certain modern-day readers. It may stun some progressive-minded people that Republicans…indeed conservative ones, fought for the free speech rights of radicals. Oh…I forgot to mention who pardoned Debs: Warren G. Harding, who unfortunately stands as little more than a womanizing, bumbling doofus in popular historical narratives.
(4 May 1918). Senators Assail the Sedition Bill. The New York Times.
“To Amend H.R. 8753”. Govtrack.
“To Agree to H.R. 8753”. Govtrack.