1917 April 2

President Wilson Seeks Declaration of War, To Make World Safe for Democracy; Warns of Repression

 

President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress on this day for a declaration of war against Germany. The speech is most famous for his declaration that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” While that phrase is an iconic part of American culture, few people are aware of his prophetic warning in the same speech: “If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a stern hand of repression ….”

And so it was. The Wilson administration engaged in the most severe suppression of freedom of speech and press in American history, stifling virtually all opposition to the war. Anti-war publications, such as The Masses, were barred from the mails (see July 24, 1917), and leading opponents of the war, such as Eugene V. Debs, were convicted under the Espionage Act. Debs sentenced to prison for ten years for speaking out against war (see June 16, 1918 for Debs’ speech). The repression led to major Supreme Court decisions on freedom of speech, notably Schenck v. United States, on March 3, 1919, in which the Court articulated the “clear and present danger test,” and Abrams v. United States, on November 10, 1919, which included a dissent by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis that influenced the subsequent development of First Amendment law.

The reaction to the repression also led to the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), on January 19, 1920, the first permanent organization devoted to the defense of civil liberties.

While Wilson spoke on this evening, Alice Paul and other suffragists picketed the Capitol building in the rain, demanding a constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. Paul’s picketing campaign, which alienated moderate suffragists, had begun on March 3, 1913. It intensified during 1917, and Paul was arrested along with others for picketing the White House on October 20, 1917. She conducted a hunger strike that apparently embarrassed the president, and he finally supported a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote on January 9, 1918.

Read Wilson’s famous speech: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/print.php?pid=65366

Read: Paul L. Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

Learn more about President Wilson’s civil liberties record: Samuel Walker, Presidents and Civil Liberties From Wilson to Obama (2012)

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