Espionage and Sedition Acts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The challenges to Americans’ civil liberties and to political reform represented by the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 redefined the Progressive movement.

Summary of Event

Enacted by the Congress of the United States on June 15, 1917, the Espionage Act made it illegal for a person to obstruct willfully the recruiting or enlistment of individuals into the armed forces of the United States. The 1918 amendments to this act, known collectively as the Sedition Act, carried the original law even further by making it a crime to voice any criticism about the U.S. government or government policy with regard to World War I. Espionage Act (1917) Sedition Act (1918) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement [kw]Espionage and Sedition Acts (June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918) [kw]Sedition Acts, Espionage and (June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918) [kw]Acts, Espionage and Sedition (June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918) Espionage Act (1917) Sedition Act (1918) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement [g]United States;June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918: Espionage and Sedition Acts[04300] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918: Espionage and Sedition Acts[04300] [c]Government and politics;June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918: Espionage and Sedition Acts[04300] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 15, 1917, and May 16, 1918: Espionage and Sedition Acts[04300] Addams, Jane Burleson, Albert Sidney Creel, George Debs, Eugene V. Hand, Learned Stokes, Rose Pastor Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;Espionage and Sedition Acts

Worried about possible opposition to the American position in the war, President Woodrow Wilson’s administration had called on Congress to make it illegal to voice opposition to government policy. A nationwide police structure was created to seek out opponents to the war. Raids were carried out by national and local law-enforcement units, in many cases without proper warrants, against individuals and groups accused of seditious behavior. Property was confiscated illegally, beatings and worse punishments of those accused became commonplace, and restrictions of civil liberties became the norm.

Eugene V. Debs speaks at a labor convention.

(Library of Congress)

Official censorship also was common. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson denied mailing privileges to any publication officially labeled “radical” on the grounds that it contained treasonable messages. Even if a publisher appealed such denial, the government could take other actions to suppress publications that opposed the war. Such was the case of Burleson’s move against the “radical” journal The Masses. After federal judge Learned Hand overturned the postmaster’s decision to close down the journal, Burleson found another way to force it to cease publication. During the appeals process, the journal had missed publishing an issue, and Burleson seized on this fact to assert that it was no longer a regularly issued periodical and therefore was not eligible for second-class postage privileges. The financial burden to the journal was enough to interrupt its regular publication.

Vocal opposition to such government action sprang up immediately. Guarding against objections that might fuel public opinion against the war or government policy in general became the work of the Committee on Public Information. Committee on Public Information Creel Committee Propaganda;World War I[World War 01] Headed by Denver newspaperman George Creel, the committee sought to manage public opinion. The committee organized efforts to promote draft registration, the purchase of liberty bonds, the conservation of food and fuel, and spying on neighbors who expressed opinions against the war. It employed movie stars, famous writers, and other publicly recognized individuals who supported U.S. entry into the war to encourage Americans to rally around the flag. On a weekly basis, it placed advertisements in popular magazines in an attempt to galvanize the population. The committee’s propaganda cajoled factory workers into joining loyalty leagues and called on citizens to make personal sacrifices in support of the war effort. Conformity became the message. Under the banner of “100 percent Americanism,” the committee sought to unify expression in the United States.

The denial of civil liberties during this period went beyond official action against war opponents. Joining the government action were local vigilante groups and other superpatriotic organizations that combined forces to seek out anyone or anything they determined to be radical. Socialists and labor leaders, such as Eugene V. Debs and Rose Pastor Stokes, were arrested. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies)—an early labor union that opposed the war—were arrested, beaten, jailed, and even killed. In Canton, Ohio, Debs received national attention when he was prosecuted for giving a speech supporting antiwar protesters. Found guilty, he was sentenced to a ten-year prison term; his sentence was commuted to time served by Wilson’s successor, President Warren G. Harding, after he had been imprisoned for thirty-two months. Stokes received a ten-year sentence for writing a letter to the Kansas City Star accusing the federal government of encouraging industrial war profiteering rather than serving the domestic needs of U.S. citizens.

Other antiwar protesters and peace advocates were subjected to social ostracism and acts of violence at the hands of hysterical patriots. In Brisbee, Arizona, the sheriff and two thousand vigilante deputies rounded up twelve hundred workers, herded them into railroad boxcars, and shipped them in 120-degree weather to New Mexico. In Montana, six IWW members were lynched because they belonged to an international organization. In Chicago, social reformer Jane Addams, founder of the settlement house Hull House and of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—who previously had been solicited for her support in the 1916 presidential election by the leaders of the two major political parties—was placed under surveillance by the U.S. Department of Justice for speaking out for peace.

The enforcement of these acts also necessitated a buildup of the national, state, and local police machinery. The Military Intelligence Service grew from a staff of two in 1917 to three hundred in 1918. This agency was also assisted in its domestic spying efforts by a thousand civilians. A newly created Bureau of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was charged with crushing all opposition to the war. By war’s end, the Department of Justice had prosecuted some twenty-one hundred cases of purported sedition and espionage. Officially sanctioned support groups such as the American Protective League American Protective League (APL) had been organized. The APL mobilized a quarter of a million citizens in more than six hundred U.S. towns and cities who spied on their neighbors and participated in raids on suspected slackers, protesters, and draft resisters.


It was the unofficial machinery inspired by the Espionage and Sedition Acts that most directly challenged Americans’ civil liberties. By the end of 1917, newspaper stories told of people being harassed by gangs of superpatriots. Explanations for such activity varied: Draft resistance, not displaying the flag, criticizing U.S. war aims, and not contributing financially to the war effort were the most popular. In Nebraska, mechanic Rudolph Schopke was tarred and feathered for declining to contribute to the Red Cross. Wisconsin farmer John Deml was almost lynched because he could buy no more than $450 in war bonds. Professor J. McKeen, a Columbia University psychologist who was opposed to the war yet still participated on the government committee formed to set guidelines for army aviators, was dismissed from his faculty position. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, S. L. Miller shot and killed a waiter in a restaurant for allegedly making pro-German remarks; he was acquitted after a jury trial.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts were judiciously supported by the courts. The U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;Espionage and Sedition Acts upheld the acts’ constitutionality in several cases. In Schenck v. United States (1919), Schenck v. United States (1919) the Court unanimously agreed that Congress could restrict free speech in circumstances of clear and present danger. In Abrams v. United States (1919), Abrams v. United States (1919) the Court upheld the convictions of four Russian immigrants who distributed pamphlets condemning U.S. intervention in the Russian Revolution. In Debs v. United States (1919), Debs v. United States (1919) the Court stated that even though Debs did not specifically urge draft resistance, his speech clearly created a danger for the government.

The raids, arrests, and convictions inspired by the Espionage and Sedition Acts carried over into peacetime. The procedures that arose out of the creation of the acts helped to set the stage for official responses to dissident activity throughout much of the twentieth century. The antiradical, anti-trade union, and anti-immigration sentiments that emerged in the 1920’s continued the official prosecutions of the war years. The U.S. Senate committee that investigated German espionage during the war switched to hunting radicals after the war. The roundup of aliens suspected of being radicals became an official activity of the FBI.

The patriotic wartime fervor reflected in the Espionage and Sedition Acts was later transformed into other fears. Stretching beyond the fear of radicalism were fears about trade unionism and the feminist and Civil Rights movements. The social trauma of World War I and the subsequent measure of U.S. identity it inspired produced exaggerated responses to unpopular ideas and speech in the name of national security. The trauma of the war years also produced responses to the denial of civil liberties. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause were founded by concerned Americans who believed that government power and special interests’ attempts to define American identity needed to be kept in check. Espionage Act (1917) Sedition Act (1918) World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];U.S. involvement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnet, Richard J. The Rockets’ Red Glare: When America Goes to War—The Presidents and the People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Presents an astute analysis of how the manufacturing of consent influences wartime policy making.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blum, John Morton. Woodrow Wilson and the Politics of Morality. 1956. Reprint. New York: Talman, 1995. Analyzes Wilson’s attempts to define U.S. morality, especially during World War I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 2002. Biography discusses the political and cultural influence of Addams’s activities both on her own time and on the generations that followed. Includes chronology and list of Addams’s books.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Preston, William, Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933. 2d ed. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995. Definitive account of U.S. nativism in the early twentieth century puts the suppression of civil liberties during wartime in perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thernstrom, Stephan. A History of the American People Since 1865. 2d ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Includes an excellent overview of the violation of civil liberties during World War I.
  • 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. Comprehensive examination of the history of the American Civil Liberties Union begins with a chapter devoted to the repression of civil liberties during the World War I years.

World War I

U.S. Curtails Civil Liberties During World War I

Red Scare

American Civil Liberties Union Is Founded

Categories: History