The Defining Generation
The Pen and the Sword
"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." Those are the words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the first of ten such basic principles enumerated in the Bill of Rights that Americans hold dear. Perhaps more than any other fundamental right of the citizen, the right of free speech is prized above all others. We like to think that it is a historically American principle…and it has been…except when free speech becomes the voice of dissent. During the 1960s the voice of dissent became the rumbling of a new American Revolution.
In our diverse nation
it is expected that opinions will vary widely, and they do. Indeed
everyone is "entitled to their opinion," or so we would like to
think. The fact is, all too often a differing opinion is fine if one keeps
it to themselves. When such opinions become manifested in the public
arena, and especially that opinion become the voice of dissention, even in
It was in fact, the
voice of dissention that led 13 American colonies to declare themselves
free from British rule in 1776. One of the first high profile acts of
dissention to manifest itself in civil disobedience was the so-called
Boston Tea Party of
Never in history has our nation had a popular war, save perhaps the Spanish-American war of 1898 that was described as a "Splendid Little War" though it too, had its peace protesters. Few events in our history have evoked more dissention than those involving armed conflict, perhaps because it is at once both very personal and tragically deadly. The successful prosecution of any war demands a consensus of the American public, which is why the age old mantra is that "You don't just send and Army to war, you take a country to war."
The who voiced
dissention against the American Revolution are conveniently remembered as
"Loyalists" or "Tories." Their unfortunate lot must be
remembered in context for, in 1776 the Loyalists, while comprising a
minority of about 20% of the population in the 13 Colonies, were
nevertheless American citizens in those colonies. The Patriots were, in
fact, rebels. One such Loyalist, Samuel Seabury an Anglican clergyman of
Perhaps the only thing that marked the early revolutionaries as heroes rather than as upstart rebels was the fact that they won. Of course in those days of war the voice of dissention, out of a sheer sense of survival, learned to muffle itself within fiercely patriotic cities.
Theoretically the right of dissent and the freedom to unite in opposition to either the policy of government or prevailing popular opinion was made abundantly possible when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Within seven years however the principles of the First Amendment would be put to the test and…at least for a time, would become victim to the very Executive Branch that was sworn to uphold it.
The first major
external crisis to face our young nation came in the late 1790s.
While Americans were struggling to establish and refine their
definition of a democratic government,
The illegal actions of
the French and their insolent demands spurred not only fear in
and Sedition Acts were four pieces of legislation designed to stop any
dissent against the government. The
first three: The Naturalization Act, The Alien Friends Act, and the Alien
Enemies Act, were designed to protect American interests from subversive
actions by foreign (more specifically, but not identified, French)
immigrants, living in the
These three Alien Acts were seen as necessary to national security by the Federalist-controlled Congress, but were decried by the anti-Federalists. Despite the outcry and opposition of civil libertarians, including Thomas Jefferson who had penned the Declaration of Independence, in 1798 the Alien Acts were followed by the Sedition Act. Where the first three limited the rights of aliens during this time of crisis, the Sedition Act made possible a gross violation of the American citizens’ Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
the Sedition Act an American citizen could be fined or imprisoned for
obstructing the implementation of federal law or for publishing malicious
or false writings against Congress, the president or the government.
Among the editors and writers arrested through this Act was
Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin.
Congressman Matthew Lyon was arrested for publishing a letter to
the editor of his
immigrants were charged under the Alien Acts.
The Sedition Act, on the other hand, led to the imprisonment of
some two-dozen American citizens. All
American citizens who were arrested were members of the press whose only
crime had been to criticize the abridgment of civil liberty under the acts
or the unprecedented authority over the citizenry exercised by President
Adams. Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison believed that “the powers claimed under these acts by
President Adams resembled those of a monarch.”
The issues of the right
of free speech and freedom of the press were never addressed by the
Supreme Court in light of the Alien and Sedition Acts; such actions would
not be undertaken by the judiciary for nearly two centuries.
Rather, the debate over the issue of abridgments of these rights in
the name of security was settled in the election of 1800 when Thomas
Jefferson defeated John Adams. In
his inaugural address, the new president confirmed the right of American
citizens “to think freely and to speak and write what they think."
Sixty years later Abraham Lincoln was elected during a time when the country was faced with divided loyalties, “fluid military and political boundaries and easy opportunities for espionage and sabotage,” as well as violent protests. President Lincoln had to somehow find a way to bring about law and order in the face of potential chaos, and to unify the nation.
To make matters worse,
after the attack on
In the Spring of 1861,
President Lincoln responded to the threat of safety against his citizens,
in particular the people living in
A court-ordered writ of
habeas corpus demands a court hearing in order to determine if a person
held in custody is being lawfully detained. It is a fundamental right of
all free people--the right to due process under law.
By suspending the writ of habeas corpus
Article I, Section 9 of
the U.S. Constitution says, “The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus
shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the
public safety may require it.” During
the Civil War Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that only Congress had
the authority to suspend habeas corpus, but President Lincoln adamantly
claimed that he was the one who had the authority to do so.
Since Congress would not be in session until June, several months
Not all Northerners
Burnside, the commander of the military district that included
Clement Vallandigham spoke at an Ohio Democratic Party rally on
In the wee hours of a morning shortly thereafter, while everyone in the Vallandigham family slept, soldiers broke down the door to the house, rushed upstairs, and broke two bedroom doors in their search for the rebellious leader. Under a cloak of absolute secrecy and the dark of night they arrested him and transported him aboard a special train to another city. The authorities there locked Vallandigham up in a military barracks. The arrested former Congressman was not allowed to see a judge nor was he even formally charged with a crime. Vallandigham did subsequently learn what the charges against him were. His crime was:
“publicly expressing in violation of General Order, No. 38….sympathies for those in arms against the Government of the United States, declaring disloyal sentiments and opinions with the object and purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its effort to suppress the unlawful rebellion."
Even after his arrest, Vallandigham continued
to argue that the government was violating the Constitution and had no
legal right to imprison or try him. General
Burnside disagreed and found him guilty.
He wanted to have the former congressman put in prison for the rest
of the war.
friends, believing that the Judiciary branch would overturn and rectify
the unconstitutional actions of the President, went to the U.S. Supreme
Court asking the justices to hear the case.
To their dismay the Supreme Court ruled on
The first major
international conflict involving
To fight that war, when
at last war was declared on
To deal with potential
threats at home once the
One of President
Wilson’s purposes under this Act was to permanently silence German
newspapers. Ultimately this prohibition spilled over to control the
content of American newspapers as well.
As had happened in 1798 and during the Civil War, once again
freedom of the press was effectively outlawed in the
Under the Espionage Act
all males older than 14 who were still “natives, citizens, denizens, or
subjects” of the German Empire were deemed alien enemies.
Soon this term was expanded to apply to any foreign resident who
dared to speak against the government, the war, or the draft; such
violators were deemed undesirable by the government.
The suspicion of German-Americans, who had immigrated, grown up as
Americans, and raised American families, was so intense that many of them
chose to change their names. People
with the last name of Mueller became Miller; American citizens with the
surname of Schmidt became Smith. German-named
American cities and towns followed suit;
Victor Berger, reformer Kate O’Hare, and anarchist Emma Goldman were
among the more than 2,000 people who were jailed for hindering the draft.
Eugene Debs was sentenced to ten years for verbally attacking the
Espionage Act and for defending Kate O’Hare in a speech he gave in
Courts had no sympathy for immigrants or American citizens prosecuted under the Espionage Act. One judge addressed a jury in one of these prosecutions saying that quoting rights guaranteed by the First Amendment is no defense “where the honor and safety of the Nation is involved." John Dewey, a John Hopkins graduate and philosopher, responded, “What shall it profit us to defeat the Prussians if we prussianize our own selves?" The editor of a banned newspaper, Masses, said, “They give you 90 days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible, and pretty soon somebody is going to get a life sentence for quoting Woodrow Wilson in the wrong context."
Immediately prior to
the events at
During the period the
anti-war voice of dissent became united in a powerful and influential
manner never before seen in
The most high-profile leader of America First was the dashing hero of The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh. Other prominent members and supporters however included World War I Ace of Aces Eddie Rickenbacker, Henry Ford, novelist Sinclair Lewis (whose only son was subsequently killed in World War II), Walt Disney, and even two U.S. Senators: Burton K. Wheeler, Senator Gerald P. Nye. Together they stood in opposition to President Franklin's official stance that moved us ever closer to war. As the organization's spokesman Charles Lindbergh perhaps paid the highest price for his dissent; President Roosevelt even tried to revoke his Medal of Honor. His name and reputation remains tarnished to this day by the slanted and often outright lies used by the Administration to discredit him.
The pre-war, anti-war
movement became moot on
The dastardly nature of
the Japanese attack on
When American Marines conducted
their first major assault (after
Perhaps in our nation's history, never have the rights to free speech, peaceable assembly, and public (or even private) dissent become more tenuous that in the 1950s. The McCarthy hearings that were held as we entered a Cold War against Communism and Socialist ideology smothered free speech for all but the most daring or most indiscreet Americans in opposition to the majority belief…and fear. It pitted neighbor against neighbor and was satirized in a line of a popular ditty of the time, "If your mommie is a Commie then you've gotta turn her in." Only ten years later a rebellious new generation came of age, youth who were indeed either daring or indiscreet…or perhaps both. The American right of dissent would be forever changed. Opinions vary as to whether or not this was a good thing.
The purpose of this section is NOT to argue the merit or fallacy, rightness or wrongness of either the Vietnam War or the anti-war protest. What is important to realize from the period is how in an unprecedented way, the voice of dissent and the collective unity of a large segment of American society in opposition to the official policy, impacted the political process by American citizens exercising the right of free speech and freedom of assembly. It erupted into a civil war, not for a specific cause as was the earlier American Civil War, but for the right to be heard and heeded.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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