Civil Liberties During World War One Essay

Mackenzie Deane Period 4 Civil Liberties during World War One According to the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. ” Nowhere in the First Amendment does it state that in times of war, the government can change the laws that have been made to protect the people of the United States.

Although some thought President Wilson’s actions were just, he did not abide by the rules of the First Amendment, and because of that, he went too far in limiting people’s civil liberties during World War One. President Wilson started the Committee of Public Information (CPI) which misled people into thinking differently about the war. The CPI gave one side of the war, and its main goal was to get the American population to agree with President Wilson’s propaganda. The posters shown as evidence portray the Germans only as beastly, gruesome creatures.

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This misrepresentation led to misperceptions of the German people. By itself, the CPI was not a horrible organization, but coupled with the Espionage Act and Sedition Act, it became worse. The Espionage Act was passed in 1917. It made it illegal to say anything negative about the military or to discourage people to join the draft. It also did not let people print certain things against the war. This directly violated the First Amendment rights of freedom of press and speech.

The main problem with this act that related to the CPI was that the CPI could boast about the great army and the committee depicted war as a happy time, that would provide many fun adventures, but people could not give the opposite side of the story, stating that it was dangerous, and many people would come back scarred for life. Not only could people not give this information, but if they dared to do so, they would be arrested and given a prison sentence that could last for as long as the court thought was necessary. If this is hard to believe, the case of Eugene Debs demonstrates how it was done.

Debs lectured fellow socialists on the detriments of the draft. In his speech he stated, “The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another… The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles… I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets”. Debs did just that, this speech cost him ten years in prison.

Many would say that he was only speaking his mind, and he should be able to do that, but the government had most power, and they got the final say. Charles Schenck had a similar case. While passing out pamphlets giving men reasons to not join the army, he was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. Again, he was only trying to inform people of the disturbing side of the war. After the Espionage Act, came the Sedition Act in 1918. The Sedition Act did not allow language “tending to incite, provoke, and encourage resistance to the United States in said war”. This Act infringed further on people’s First Amendment rights.

Individuals’ abilities to express themselves were curtailed. One of the people that went against this Act was Joseph Abrams. Abrams was a Russian immigrant who did not agree with the Americans invading Russia. Because of this, he wrote a pamphlet to hand out, trying to dissuade people from encouraging the Allies to go against the Bolshevik regime who were coming into power in Russia at the time. Abrams wrote, “Workers, our reply to the barbaric intervention has to be a general strike! ” This infuriated the government and Abrams was arrested. Wilson should not have been able to stop Abrams from speaking his mind.

The thoughts that were written were only opinions, not everyone had to agree with them, but they should be able to be heard. Throughout World War One, the people of America were not able to voice their opinions. The First Amendment clearly states that the government, under no conditions should abridge the freedom of speech, religion, or press. The fact that was during a war does not make a difference. Wilson showed, during this time, that he did not respect and honor our founding fathers. No American should be deceived by the person that runs their country. Wilson’s fear of a divided country led him to exercise power beyond his limits.


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