American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded to defend equal rights for all, including rights to free speech, due process, and freedom of the press.

Summary of Event

The violation of civil rights in World War I was common. Those who dissented or protested against the war, including pacifists, labor groups of leftist ideological persuasion, socialists, communists, and those who actively opposed some aspect of the official policy of the war program, were all victims. This repression reached its climax, ironically, in the “Red Scare” Red Scare (1919-1920) of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, Palmer, A. Mitchell which arose after the war. It was in 1920, at the height of the Red Scare, that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was founded. American Civil Liberties Union;founding [kw]American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded (Jan. 19, 1920) [kw]Civil Liberties Union Is Founded, American (Jan. 19, 1920) [kw]Liberties Union Is Founded, American Civil (Jan. 19, 1920) American Civil Liberties Union;founding [g]United States;Jan. 19, 1920: American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded[05050] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Jan. 19, 1920: American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded[05050] [c]Organizations and institutions;Jan. 19, 1920: American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded[05050] Baldwin, Roger Nash DeSilver, Albert Hays, Arthur Garfield Thomas, Norman Eastman, Crystal Holmes, John Haynes Villard, Oswald Garrison

The largest group opposed to the war was the American Union Against Militarism American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), founded in 1914 by Lillian Wald Wald, Lillian and Paul U. Kellogg. Kellogg, Paul U. Because of his conscientious objection to the war, Roger Nash Baldwin left St. Louis, where he served as a social worker, to join the AUAM in New York in 1917. Baldwin explained his opposition in terms of Christian principles and the liberty of conscience as enshrined in the U.S. Bill of Rights. With Crystal Eastman, he created the Bureau of Conscientious Objectors Bureau of Conscientious Objectors (BCO). After failing to prevent the passage of the law instituting military conscription, Baldwin appealed to the Woodrow Wilson administration, particularly to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, Baker, Newton D. for tolerant enforcement of the law. He urged on the secretary a policy that would permit noncombatant duty or alternate service without punishment or dishonor for conscientious objectors, whether religious or political (socialists, pacifists, anarchists, and others). The administration adopted a rigid policy against exemptions and in actual practice, at local army camps around the country, often engaged in harassment and punitive actions.

With the passage of the Espionage Act in June, 1917, Espionage Act (1917) members of the AUAM, especially Wald and Kellogg, became anxious about the organization’s support of civil liberties and conscientious objectors. To accommodate the internal dissention, a Civil Liberties Committee was created in July, 1917, to create distance between the AUAM and its work in defense of dissent. The separation was completed in October, 1917, when Eastman and Baldwin created the National Civil Liberties Bureau National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB). Wald was not prepared to oppose the government, whereas Baldwin was.

Publications expressing opposition to the war were barred from the mail, including Norman Thomas’s War’s Heretics (1917) and Baldwin’s The Individual and the State (1918). So too was Thomas’s periodical, The World Tomorrow. An issue of The Nation was also barred because it was critical of Samuel Gompers, the American Federation of Labor leader who strongly cooperated with the war program. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson Burleson, Albert Sidney was especially autocratic and high-handed in his censorship of the mail.

Agents of the Wilson administration conducted raids against various groups that were considered suspect or that opposed the war, including, for example, the International Bible Students Association. No group was more the object of assault than was the International Workers of the World International Workers of the World (IWW). Without attention to due process, the IWW was raided in September, 1917, resulting in 169 arrests, including that of IWW cofounder Bill Haywood. Haywood, Bill Raids and arrests of IWW members would continue throughout the Red Scare. Baldwin contended that the IWW’s protests and strikes were economically motivated; the Wilson administration contended they were obstructionist actions against the war. In defending the IWW, the NCLB brought suspicion on itself. The Military Intelligence Division prepared an attack on the NCLB, and in late 1917 the Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (precursor of the FBI) began spying on the NCLB. The New York office was raided by officers under the direction of Archibald Stevenson, and its files were taken. Those files were later used by the New York Lusk Committee to define all pacifists and war critics as subversives. On October 7, the Justice Department decided against prosecution.

Baldwin enlisted the support of Fanny Witherspoon’s Bureau of Legal First Aid, Bureau of Legal First Aid Harry Weinberger’s Legal Defense League, Legal Defense League and the Liberty Defense Union Liberty Defense Union in defense of free speech. To win public support, he defined free speech in the context of the best of the American tradition, demanded respect be shown conscientious objectors, and insisted that due process of law be observed. His appeals were without much success, however, either with the public or with the government. In Schenck v. United States (1919), Schenck v. United States (1919) the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed limits on free speech in wartime. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. writing for the Court, said that speech could be censored if it was “of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that [it would] bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” In the case of Abrams v. United States (1919), Abrams v. United States (1919) however, Holmes dissented. He offered an impassioned defense of free speech. Defining free speech as “free trade in ideas,” he wrote, “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe.” Probably Holmes’s dissent owed more to legal scholars than to the NCLB, but it did affirm the NCLB’s struggle in behalf of free speech.

The NCLB’s members were social workers, Protestant clergymen influenced by the Social Gospel movement, and conservative lawyers. According to Samuel Walker, “Over the next seventy years, this mixture of liberal social reformism and conservative faith in the promises of the Constitution remained the basic ingredient in the ACLU.” NCLB lawyers Walter Nelles, Nelles, Walter Albert DeSilver, and Harry Weinberger Weinberger, Harry dealt with the legal issues of up to 125 cases a week involving conscientious objectors. When Congress extended the draft age to thirty-five, Baldwin himself was forced to register. At Local Board 129, he indicated his opposition to the war. He refused induction, presented himself for prosecution, and resigned from the NCLB. He was sentenced to one year in jail, from which he was released on July 19, 1919. Another opponent of the war, socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs, Debs, Eugene V. in court for his sentencing in Cleveland, best defined Baldwin’s position: “While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

After his release from prison, Baldwin toured the West to study the conditions of American labor, joined the steelworkers’ strike in Pittsburgh, and worked as a manual laborer in St. Louis before returning to New York. The year that had passed while he was in jail was marked by an unprecedented wave of strikes, violence, and race riots. Labor radicals, aliens and immigrants—particularly those of Russian origin—socialists, and others considered “un-American” were often arrested without warrants and detained without cause. Unreasonable searches and seizures were made. The Red Scare reached a climax in January, 1920. Under the Alien Act, 249 “undesirable aliens” were deported on the so-called Red Ark. In a separate incident, properly elected Socialist representatives were denied their seats by the New York legislature.

Baldwin returned to the NCLB intent on taking up the cause of labor. Many members believed the NCLB was too closely identified with the cause of the conscientious objectors, however, so its future was uncertain. Baldwin put forward a plan to reorganize the bureau, which was accepted by the executive committee on January 12, 1920. On January 19, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded. Baldwin and DeSilver were named directors; they were immediately responsible to a local committee that met every Monday to report civil rights violations and ultimately accountable to a larger national board. With only one thousand members at the end of the first year, the ACLU could not support the group’s working budget of $20,000 with its annual dues of $2. Charles Garland, Garland, Charles a young Bostonian who had inherited a great deal of wealth, extended a generous grant to the ACLU, establishing the American Fund for Public Service American Fund for Public Service to support social reform and finance legal defense cases.


The ACLU’s immediate work was related to issues that had brought about its existence. The organization issued a document titled Report on the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice, written by twelve prominent lawyers, that denounced the department’s antisocialist activities. The publication provoked a Senate investigation of the so-called Palmer raids, which ultimately documented civil liberties violations but prescribed no punishment or redress. The ACLU struggled to secure amnesty, or at least commutation of sentences for time served, for those who had been imprisoned because of pacifism, political beliefs, opposition to the war, or labor activities. Although as U.S. president both Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge released many such prisoners, including Debs, the citizenship of these individuals was not restored until Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the presidency in 1933. The continuation of the campaign for free speech was seldom successful. Three examples will suffice: the arrest of author Upton Sinclair for attempting to read the First Amendment at an IWW rally, the prohibition on John Haynes Holmes from speaking in a public school in New York City (later all ACLU members were excluded), and the ban on Margaret Sanger’s attempt to speak on birth control in New York City in 1923.

In 1922, the ACLU created the Labor Defense Council. Labor Defense Council Its work included the cause of textile workers in Passaic, New Jersey, steelworkers in Pittsburgh, marine workers at the Port of San Pedro in Los Angeles, and coal miners in the fields of West Virginia, among others.

In its first decade, the ACLU marked few successes and frequent failures. The organization’s leaders maintained faith in democracy and remained steadfast in their belief that the Bill of Rights is the foundation of American liberties, despite the fact that their organization was under siege by the American Legion, by J. Edgar Hoover, who said it got money from Moscow, and by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, who said it was communistic. In the years ahead, however, the ACLU would become involved with many of the most important civil liberties trials of the twentieth century. Over time, the organization established a body of legal precedents that helped safeguard freedom of expression, as well as broadening the definition of such expression to include behaviors such as picketing and demonstrating. Much of the common law interpreting the Bill of Rights in the twentieth century, for better or for worse, is indebted to the ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union;founding

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cottrell, Robert C. Roger Nash Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Lengthy combined biography of Baldwin and history of the ACLU. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Donald. The Challenge to American Freedoms: World War I and the Rise of the American Civil Liberties Union. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1963. An excellent work on the background of the ACLU, which links the issues of civil liberties to war mobilization. Baldwin is placed at the center of many of the events of critical importance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lamson, Peggy. Roger Baldwin, Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. This work is less a biography than an oral history, an interview with Baldwin at the age of ninety. Its value lies in identifying many of the people associated with the ACLU and its exposition of Baldwin’s point of view on many issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Paul L. World War I and the Origins of Civil Liberties in the United States. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. The author maintains that never before had the government intervened so extensively in civil liberties as during the war; never before had there been such a perversion of the rule of law. Discusses the range of repressive measures critical to an understanding of the origins of the ACLU.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reitman, Alan, ed. The Pulse of Freedom: American Liberties, 1920-1970’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975. A collection of essays by professional historians provides an excellent overview of the first fifty years of the ACLU. Its descriptive accounts include workers in the Great Depression, civil liberties in World War II, McCarthyism, and desegregation in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Foreword by Ramsey Clark.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walker, Samuel. In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999. Only a few pages are devoted to the origins of the ACLU, but no general survey of the ACLU provides a greater account of the issues and cases of the ACLU than this work. Excellent research and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whipple, Leon. The Story of Civil Liberty in the United States. New York: Vanguard Press, 1927. Sponsored by the ACLU. Vanguard, the publisher, was funded by the American Fund for Public Service (the Garland grant to the ACLU).

U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I

Espionage and Sedition Acts

Red Scare

Scopes Trial

HUAC Is Established

Categories: History