Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 16, 2013
Political cartoon about the Sedition Act of 1918

Political cartoon about the Sedition Act of 1918

May 16, 1918: The United States Congress passes the Sedition Act of 1918, a follow up to the Espionage Act of the previous year. With the fear spread by the Great War taking place in Europe and the fall of the Russian Tsar, it was felt the US needed to maintain a stronger hold on the government’s power base and there was less concern for the freedoms granted by the Bill of Rights.

The Espionage Act imposed a maximum fine of $10,000 ($168,225 in 2009 USD) and up to 20 years in prison for endangering US troops or promoting the enemy in this time of war. The law was passed shortly after the US entered the war on June 15, 1917. President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) was fearful that widespread dissent would harm the war effort.

The Sedition Act increased sanctions against “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, flag, or armed forces during war time. While the Espionage Act made it a crime to aid and abet the enemy, the new law made it a crime to even speak out against the war in any way. A similar set of laws was first passed in 1798 called the Alien and Sedition Acts that was passed when John Adams was in office. The Bill of Rights, however, guarantees the freedom of speech in the First Amendment.

Over 2,000 people were prosecuted, some say persecuted, before the law was repealed in 1921. Eugene Debs, Socialist and Unionist, was sentenced to 10 years under this act. Other anti-war protestors and union men who were said to be interfering with the war effort were brought to trial. The law was cited in Schenck v. United States in 1919 and upheld at that time by the Supreme Court. In 2006, the governor of Montana pardoned all people in his state who had been found guilty of breaking this law.

“What seems fair enough against a squalid huckster of bad liquor may take on a different face, if used by government determined to suppress political opposition under the guise of sedition” – Learned Hand

“The Bill of Rights is a born rebel. It reeks with sedition. In every clause it shakes its fist in the face of constituted authority… it is the one guaranty of human freedom to the American people.” – Frank I. Cobb

“The fact you could have, for example, peaceful protests and end up being charged with sedition. That doesn’t seem right.” – Mr. Howard

“I’m talking sedition. In England I could be hung for this 200 years ago.” – Ken Kesey

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: Eugene Debs was born in 1855 in Indiana. His political life began as a Democrat but he shifted to the Socialist Party of America when running for President. He served as member of the Indiana Senate from 1885 to 1889. He was active with the Unions and was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He became one of the best known socialists living in the US. He first served time in prison for defying a court injunction against a strike. While in prison he read Karl Marx and was mesmerized. He ran on the Socialist ticket for President in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Although sentenced to ten years under the Espionage Act, President Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921. He died of heart failure in October 1926, two years after being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also on this day “Oh-oh! SpaghettiOs!” – In 1965 Franco-American puts SpaghettiOs on the market.
Hank – In 1905, Henry Fonda was born.
Sassafras Tea – In 1866, Charles Hires invented root beer.

One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on May 16, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Protesting the war by itself was not grounds for prosecution under the Sedition Act- actual acts of violence were, in junction with conspiracy to do the violence. All or nearly all the states had and still have conspiracy laws to deal with those planning to do damage. The United states called it by a different name.

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