Espionage and Sedition
By Richard E. Noble
First came the Selective Service Act with its traditional opposition, then the Espionage Act, and then the Sedition act. From the radical Labor point of view, World War I was a Capitalist endeavor. The War had been started to quell The Revolution. What Revolution? The Revolution that was taking place around the world; the Revolution that was going to do away with Capitalism and the Capitalist, with the factory owners and their slaves. The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand was just an excuse. To quell the Revolution, was the goal.
How, exactly, the “People” were going to take the world back from the millionaire, monopoly, trust Capitalists who had highjacked it was a matter of opinion. The world, like the Newtonian universe, was now being guided by unalterable laws. Supply and demand was sufficient to dictate the life or death of men, women, and children. The Anarchists had their view of this Revolution. The Syndacalists had a view, the Communists had a view, and the Socialists had a view. It was somewhat like the Biblical story of Armageddon. It was going to happen. It had been foretold by the prophets - the economic prophets, the democratic evolutionary prophets. Its truths were being accepted by the poor and the laboring classes all over the world. The days of the rich and powerful were numbered. The “Robber Barons” were through. There would be a new evaluation of the worth of labor. The day of reckoning was inevitable, if not predictable as to where or when.
The Russians had walked off the battlefield of World War I, and were now engaged at home in the “true” war - the war for the liberation of the common man. In the U.S. a Civil War had freed the black slaves, but now the white wage slaves wanted their freedom also. The wage slaves had been fighting ardently for decades. Jay Gould, industrial baron, had suggested that the best way to end this labor revolution was to pit half the workers of America against the other half and then let them kill one another. Woodrow Wilson found the perfect means of fulfilling Mister Gould’s dream. He had Congress declare war on Germany.
No American war had ever been by the unanimous consent of the people. World War I was the most contested war in American history. The country was very quickly divided once again into patriots and rebels, into loyalists and traitors. The traitors, according to the Espionage and Sedition Acts, were those who opposed the war in any way shape or form. We had seen this type of legislation under the presidency of John Adams. Many were imprisoned for simply speaking their mind under the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts. Thomas Jefferson rescinded these Acts and freed the Adams’ critics from their cells.
Now we had Woodrow Wilson, a supposed “liberal”. We also had Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, a religious man, a man of peace ... a Quaker. Palmer and his predecessor began indulging in mass arrests. With the aid of the F.B.I., Palmer actually conducted raids all over the country - sometimes arresting thousands at a time. If you were between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, you could be stopped on the street and required to show to the authorities your Selective Service exemption card or papers. If you could produce no such authorized rejection you would be arrested. You would be held in jail or prison until it could be proved that you were not a “draft dodger”. If you could not show proof, you were inducted into the military service and quickly shipped over to Europe to help the cause of old Black Jack Pershing.
It was decided by the Supreme Court that once a war began your rights as citizens, guaranteed as unalienable under the Constitution, were temporarily suspended. It was further decided by the Supreme Court (Arver v U.S.) that Conscription, the Draft, was not slavery or involuntary servitude under Article I ... "the Congress shall have the power to raise and support armies."
One might be so bold as to ask what Congress’s right to “raise and support an army” had to do with arresting free men in the streets and impounding their lives. One might be glad that the southern pre-Civil War legislators didn’t get the Constitution to state their economic ... right to plant and raise cotton. We would undoubtedly still be living with slavery today. As the State is granted the power to usurp individual freedom in order to procure "slaves" for its armies of war, the plantation owner could restrict freedom and procure slaves for it "right" to grow cotton. Since when can our God-given rights be suspended for any reason? They can’t – unless we give them up.
Freedom is not something that is granted by the Constitution or the Parliament or the Politburo. Freedom as pointed out in our Declaration of Independence is a prerequisite of "birth". It comes with the territory ... if you want it and have the ability to hold onto it.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness ..." Freedom comes with birth via a Creator, if you believe in such a thing. But Creator or no Creator, our forefathers felt that freedom was "self-evident". It didn't need a proposition. It didn't have to be proved. Freedom was an obvious fact of life. But even then as today in this country there are those who would deny this "truth". There were and are those who did not and do not understand the content of their own declaration.
The chief targets of the Espionage and Sedition Acts were the labor unions and the Socialist reformers, in general the dissident population.
The Wilson government and Mister Palmer began shutting down Socialist newspapers all over America. The first Amendment and free speech no longer applied. We were at war for God’s sake! If any newspaper wrote anything against the war, against Conscription, against President Wilson, the entire newspaper could be fined, imprisoned or both. And many had just such a fate.
The American Socialist Party, which had drawn millions of votes in previous elections, had elected Senators, Congressmen and Governors was now the party of traitors. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist presidential candidate was arrested for speaking out against the War, convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to ten years in prison.
The Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W. would be the biggest single group to be attacked under these laws. It became a crime to simply be a member of this rather large and influential labor union. I.W.W. members were arrested by the busload and train carful. Around the country, I.W.W. members were arrested by the thousands. The United States of America v. William D. Haywood et al is a dramatic example of the circumstances existing at that time.
The entire I.W.W. organization was indicted ... "the indictment portrayed the I.W.W. as a violent, treasonous conspiracy to sabotage the war effort, seize control of industry, and overthrow the United States Government by unlawful, tortuous and forcible means and methods, involving threats, assaults, injuries, intimidations, and murder..."
There were five felony counts to the indictment. The first count charged that the Wobblies conspired to "hinder, delay and prevent by force" the execution of the declaration of war.
The second count charged the defendants with "conspiracy to injure, intimidate and oppress" those citizens who supplied war materials to the government.
The third count charged that the Wobblies conspired to hinder registration for the draft.
The forth count alleged that the defendants conspired to cause "insubordination, refusal of duty and disloyalty" in the United States Army.
And the fifth count charged that the Wobblies had conspired to violate the postal laws by using the mails to further the other four conspiracies.*
Though these charges were serious, evidence supporting these charges was lacking in credibility. The entire case for the prosecution consisted of nothing more than written statements and propaganda put out by the I.W.W. The "overt" acts charged against the I.W.W. were all literary. In fact these overt acts included two telegrams written by Big Bill Haywood protesting the Bisbee deportations.
The Bisbee deportations were investigated by the office of the president and these investigations were supportive of the opinions expressed by Big Bill Haywood in his telegrams to the President. The anti-draft and pre-war negative literature of the I.W.W. was included in the indictment. Even the preamble of the union itself was included as an overt act in the indictment.
The prosecution had 57 packing crates containing 25,000 copies of I.W.W. literature in evidence. There were over four hundred Wobblies arrested. The lawyer for the defense was George Vanderveer. Clarence Darrow would not come to his old friend's defense on this one. Clarence had put his passivism aside and was now in favor of the war.
The presiding judge was Kenesaw Mountain Landis. A decidedly biased man who personally felt that any man that was against the war should be stood up against a wall and shot. In 1917 he had sentenced over one hundred draft resisters to long prison terms. He announced that America was a nation of cowards. The very fact that a draft was necessary indicated to Judge Landis that Americans were cowards. If they weren't cowards they would already be in Europe fighting.
One might wonder why Judge Landis wasn't already there, himself.
It was April Fools Day, 1919 when over one hundred I.W.W. defendants were marched over to the Chicago court house. The prosecutor pointed out to the jury that free speech gave anyone the right to advocate breaking the law. The defense pointed out that the Declaration of Independence was just the type of free speech that the prosecution would like to outlaw.
The I.W.W.'s preamble stated that the working class and the employing class had nothing in common. This was considered incendiary and inflammatory, not to mention against the law. The Sedition Law stated that there would be no writing allowed that might turn the opinions of the public against the government.
The I.W.W. was obviously against the war. They were against war in general. They had made this position known long before war had been declared. No evidence of any nature, written or otherwise was brought forward indicating that they had ever acted on any of these ideas or theories. If patriotism means waving the flag while profiteering or believing that war is the best means of settling disputes then we are not patriots, declared the defense. Vanderveer closed his argument with an idea that has been revived recently. "What would Jesus have done?" was his question to the jury. Would Jesus have called these men traitors or men of peace?
Yes, the I.W.W. in some areas had gone out on strike after war was declared, but so had the A.F. L. and many, many others. These were not strikes in opposition to the war but legitimate labor disputes. They were in opposition to bed bugs and housing for workers built over pig pens, and women workers being forced to sleep in doorways in Mexico City and men being forced to sleep on floors in Rockefeller-owned coal camps. These strikes were about abusive child labor, and migrants sleeping in haystacks and vigilantes beating up workers, forcing them from their homes, if they had one, and dumping them out in the desert or elsewhere as happened in Brisbee.
Yes, there were strikes but they were sporadic and random. None was nation-wide or affecting any industry in particular. Witness after witness was brought to the stand proclaiming the uprightness of individual Wobblies and socially decent acts performed by the organization as a whole. The charges were ridiculous. There was no evidence. The defense had made their case so thoroughly that they actually decided that no closing statement to the jury was necessary. Vandeveer simply appealed to the jury to act as good Christians and to ask themselves ... what Jesus would have done ... if He were in their place.
The jury returned in less than an hour with over forty thousand pages of transcript to ponder, with over 400 cases against 101 men to consider. Their verdict was that all the men were guilty on all four charges made against them in the indictment - Jesus lost once again.
Judge Kenasw Mountain Landis stated. "When the country is at peace, it is the legal right of free speech to oppose going to war and to oppose even preparation for war. But once war is declared, this right ceases." The judge handed out the harshest sentences possible. Ninety-five men were given prison terms amounting to 807 years and fines of more than $2,400,000. Big Bill Haywood was given twenty years at Leavenworth.*
*"Roughneck" The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, by Peter Carlson.
*Works used in this essay include: "Roughneck", The Life and Time of Big Bill Haywood, by Peter Carlson; "Recent American History by Lester B. Shippee; "The American Pageant" by Thomas A. Bailey; "A History of American Labor" by Joseph G. Rayback; "Verdicts Out of Court" Clarence Darrow, edited by Arthur and Lila Weinberg; "The Annals of America vol. 14.; "Labor Problems in American Industry" by Carroll R. Daugherty; "Fighting Faiths" by Richard Polenberg; "The Americans" A social History of the United States 1587-1914 by J.C.Furnas.
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