[Later this year, my next book, Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, will be published in Rowman & Littlefield’s American Ways series. So this year’s July 4th series, I wanted to highlight a few of the contested histories of American patriotism that project includes. Leading up to a special weekend post on the book itself!]
On three telling moments from the histories of the extreme 1917 and 1918 laws.
1) A Xenophobic Argument: It’s easy to imagine that the Espionage and Sedition Acts were a direct offshoot of the U.S. entry into World War I, and that was indeed the timing of their passage by Congress. But in truth, President Woodrow Wilson had been making the case for such laws since at least his December 7th, 1915 State of the Union address (at a time when he was still entirely opposed to the U.S. entering the war). In that speech, he argued, “There are citizens of the United States, … born under other flags but welcome under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life … I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment and feel that in so doing I am urging you to do nothing less than save the honor and self-respect of the nation.” “Pour the poison of disloyalty into the arteries of national life” is perhaps the clearest image ever created in service of the argument that to criticize America is to be unpatriotic and treasonous—an argument that is often most potently deployed in wartime, but that as Wilson here reflects goes far deeper than those moments (and is very often used to target immigrants in particular).
2) A Totalitarian Clause: When Congress did pass the two interconnected laws (after a couple full sessions of debate, with the Espionage Act passed in June 1917 and the Sedition Act in May 1918; it does again seem likely that the U.S. entry into the war offered the final push), they were just as extreme, in both language and ideology, as Wilson’s request would indicate. Exemplifying that extremism is the Sedition Act’s goal of banning “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States ... or the flag of the United States.” The entirety of that quote stands out as (ironically but definitely) un-American in its attack on both free speech and dissent, but I would highlight the final clause in particular: any nation that makes it illegal to say negative things about its flag has at that moment, I would argue, taken a significant step toward totalitarian fascism. I’ve written before (and do again in Of Thee I Sing) about the gap between narrative and reality when it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance—but even the most celebratory version of the Pledge doesn’t view it as a legally binding statement of blind worship of that item itself. That’s where the Sedition Act took us.
3) A Ridiculous Court Case: Such extremist language might seem more for show than for action, but in fact these laws were used to prosecute Americans in a number of disturbing ways. None was more absurd than the attacks on the Revolutionary War-set silent film The Spirit of ’76 (1917): the print was seized by the government for portraying the English (now America’s WWI allies) too harshly, and the film’s producer, a Jewish American immigrant from Germany named Robert Goldstein, was sentenced to ten years in prison; at the sentencing Judge Benjamin Bledsoe told Goldstein, “Count yourself lucky that you didn’t commit treason in a country lacking America’s right to a trial by jury. You’d already be dead.” I’m not sure anyone was lucky to be living in America in the age of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, a moment that truly reveals the destructive potency of our most extreme visions of patriotism.
Last patriotic post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other moments or stories of patriotism you’d highlight?
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