A mild-looking white man with thin hair, Eugene Debs addressed the crowd in Canton, OH on June 16, 1918 with conviction. Working men, he said, were the ones fighting wars, but they never had the say in making them or in settling the peace. “You have your lives to lose,” he told them, “you certainly ought to have the right to declare war if you consider a war necessary.”
Pointedly, he then went on to praise activists who had been jailed for opposing war, an undertaking Debs said the rich and powerful had committed the country to in their interests, while the working class did the fighting for them. Afterwards, Debs was arrested too for running afoul of the Sedition Act of 1918. The law made it illegal to attempt to obstruct recruiting and enlistment efforts for World War I (equating it to disloyalty, abuse of a military uniform, and flying another country’s flag). Not for the first time, Debs’ case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which held that his speeches did incite opposition to serving in the armed forces.
The Supreme Court’s ruling confirmed the legislative and executive branches’ established limit on citizens’ rights to speak out. Words became seditious threats in and of themselves. Accordingly, it was permissible to repress speech and the sharing of ideas that was contrary to government aims. It’s ironic that the fear of words and hostility to exposing others to political thought established here came under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a scholar and proponent of education. Obviously, the justification was the threat posed to the Republic.
In the previous century, the US almost broke apart on two occasions over government policy. Both issues had significant economic effects on the opposition — the tariff and slavery. In response, Andrew Jackson threatened to hang any treasonous actor who took up arms against the Union, and a compromise to resolve the tariff and nullification dispute without violence was reached by Congressional leadership instead. When rebellion rose again later, Abraham Lincoln reluctantly accepted that military force was necessary to end it — and, eventually, slavery.
In the 20th century, Wilson faced a different dilemma, which was no less about economic impact. Controlling the working class was essential to the economy and the government’s ability to wage war. However, this time, there was no rebellion. Debs and other activists were not trying to secede or overthrow the government. What they wanted was to shift policy and to create a democracy more responsive to workers and their needs. Theirs was a policy battle — not a physical one.
But, the federal government — the whole of US society even — was in a different place then. Police departments that did not exist under Jackson now patrolled city streets. Bureaucratic agencies designed to control where and how citizens lived, worked, and raised their children that Lincoln did not know were available to Wilson, giving him the ability to shape cultural ideology in a way that many previous presidents did not. Washington did not and could not control access to medical information, citizenship entitlements, and employer-employee relations in the way Wilson could (thanks to the post office, treasury department, Bureau of Labor, etc). The world had changed — the country and its government.
Part of this change resulted from a fear of immigrants and differing ideas and values that developed along with industrialization. As the populace became less homogenized in kind and more stratified economically, ideological differences multiplied and traditional appeals would not suffice. Administrative enforcement mechanisms became the favored tool for social control, rather than persuasion (think the post office and sending lottery tickets or birth control information through the mail).
Justification for these bureaucratic means then became contestable too. Done ostensibly for a societal benefit, these acts opened doors for other arguments in favor of the public good (trumping individual rights). They encouraged popular democracy and social activism. Accordingly, words — speech that could incite coordination of the ballot and effective resistance to cooperate with policies that favored the established elite became threats to 20th century leadership. The voting public had changed, as had the means to control the citizenry (including oaths of allegiance).
John Adams signed his Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, and it cost his party the next elections. Congressional support dissipated thereafter and the tide turned to favor anti-Federalist positions. When Thomas Jefferson replaced Adams as President, he pardoned those who’d been jailed by the Adams administration. The opposition freed, the backlash against oppression of speech changed political policy and discourse thereafter.
A similar political shift could threaten Wilson and other proponents of policies opposed by the more numerous working class voters. This did not deter the political leadership of that time from undertaking political repression anyway. If the approach was a repeat, the tone was significantly different. Stifling vocal opposition became a tactic that while not new, expanded with darker effect: excluding participants from political conversations as the face of democracy in the US shifted.
No longer was the conflict between white men of property with differing philosophies. Now, it was traditional WASP culture versus those whose resistance to wealth and power had erupted in protests, riots and armed conflicts in cities across the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (for example, the mine field wars in West Virginia and Colorado). It would take far more (and hardly justifiable) police effort to keep these new democrats down, and thus, it was far more important to control the political dialogue in order to forestall opposition before conflicts required intervention of federal troops. What’s more, avoiding a military response is especially preferable when engaging those with the democratic high ground. No one could understand that better than a president who suffered the PR nightmare of force feeding suffragists arrested because they wanted to vote.
In previous times, political leaders coopted the support of the poorer elements through the ideology of white supremacy. It divided workers with common economic interests through social status — and even some economic benefit. The ideology of the socialists and unions and their like threatened the coalition of whiteness. As such, it threatened the whole social and cultural order — not just political programs. Wilson, a champion of segregation as well, pressed tactics to stop the threats to the status quo.
For awhile, government witch hunts did stifle political opposition, as the country was enveloped in the hysteria of the Red Scare. In time, though, the frenzy ebbed and later the Supreme Court would reset the boundaries on free speech. Still, the labels and hostility to particular ideologies pressed by Wilson et al linger even today. The government may not lock up Socialists like it used to, but it doesn’t have to thanks to the pervasive anti-left bias it seeded so many years ago.