The Sedition Act of 1918 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States attempted to maintain its neutrality, but as the growing conflict threatened US interests, President Woodrow Wilson petitioned Congress to strengthen the laws designed to protect national security. In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which enumerated a broad list of prohibited activities and imposed fines, imprisonment, and even death for individuals who wilfully violated its provisions. Then in 1918, the legislature extended the Espionage Act by passing the Sedition Act, which further restricted speech and press in matters deemed related to national security and allowed the postmaster general to refuse delivery of any mail believed to violate the act’s provisions. By the early 1920s, Congress had repealed many of the provisions within both acts, but not before the government prosecuted, jailed, or deported hundreds of individuals under those provisions.

Summary Overview

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, the United States attempted to maintain its neutrality, but as the growing conflict threatened US interests, President Woodrow Wilson petitioned Congress to strengthen the laws designed to protect national security. In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which enumerated a broad list of prohibited activities and imposed fines, imprisonment, and even death for individuals who wilfully violated its provisions. Then in 1918, the legislature extended the Espionage Act by passing the Sedition Act, which further restricted speech and press in matters deemed related to national security and allowed the postmaster general to refuse delivery of any mail believed to violate the act’s provisions. By the early 1920s, Congress had repealed many of the provisions within both acts, but not before the government prosecuted, jailed, or deported hundreds of individuals under those provisions.

Defining Moment

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, the legislature passed the Espionage Act, authorizing harsh punishments for any actions, speech, or writings that willfully jeopardized national security or endangered the war effort. But as the war unfolded and fear of socialist and communist influence grew, the government felt growing pressure to further control any public expressions of anti-war sentiment. Passed in May 1918, the Sedition Act greatly expanded the prohibitions established by the Espionage Act, seemingly to include any speech or writing even vaguely anti-patriotic.

The federal government prosecuted numerous leaders and anti-war activists under provisions of the Espionage Act and Sedition Act. Eugene V. Debs, a member of the Socialist Party who ran for US president in 1904, 1908, and 1912, was arrested and prosecuted for the anti-war sentiments expressed in his June 16, 1818, speech in Canton, Ohio. He was convicted on the grounds that the speech obstructed military recruiting, and he was then sentenced to ten years in prison. He served nearly three of those years before President Warren G. Harding intervened to reduce his sentence and secure his release in December 1921. Additionally, a key provision of the Sedition Act allowed the postmaster general to refuse delivery of any mail believed to violate any provision of the act. This not only prevented anti-war and anti-draft activists from sharing their message via mailed newsletters and pamphlets, but it also placed the creators of these messages in danger of prosecution and imprisonment.

Debate ensued over the sweeping provisions of both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, particularly those provisions that appeared to contradict the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. However, the US Supreme Court upheld the Sedition Act in the 1919 case Abrams v. United States. The defendants in Abrams had distributed leaflets criticizing the war and US interference in the Russian Revolution, and they advocated a general strike among workers producing military goods. They were convicted under the Sedition Act for advocating “curtailment of production” of materials necessary for the war effort. Writing for the court, Justice John Hessin Clarke held that the conviction did not violate the defendants’ First Amendment rights to free speech, because Congress deemed such activity to pose imminent danger to the United States. He cited Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes’s opinion in the earlier Schenck v. United States to support this conclusion; however, Justice Holmes dissented in Abrams, arguing that the actions of the defendants in Abrams did not pose the same “clear and present danger” as did the Schenck defendants, and thus the conviction should not stand.

By March 1919, US Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory recommended that President Wilson pardon nearly two hundred prisoners who had been convicted under both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act. Congress officially repealed the Sedition Act and parts of the Espionage Act on December 13, 1920; other parts of the Espionage Act still exist in modified form, and the US government continues to prosecute individuals under its provisions nearly one hundred years after its initial passing.

Author Biography

The Sixty-fifth United States Congress passed the Sedition Act on May 16, 1918. This Congress sat from March 4, 1917 until March 4, 1919, and oversaw significant legislation, including declaring war against Germany, establishing Liberty Bonds to finance the war, and passing both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act.

Even before the United States joined World War I, President Woodrow Wilson encouraged the legislature to strengthen laws designed to protect national security. Shortly after the country declared war on Germany, the Sixty-fifth Congress passed the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. Eleven months later, on May 16, 1918, it passed the Sedition Act, which amended the Espionage Act to prohibit an even broader array of activities that could jeopardize national security.

The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, more than two years after the end of World War I and after numerous anti-war activists and suspected communist sympathizers were convicted, imprisoned, and sometimes deported under its provisions.

Document Analysis

Section three of the Sedition Act expands the prohibitions defined in section three of the Espionage Act of 1917. Like the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act authorizes fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for up to twenty years for individuals who during times of war make false reports with intent to interfere with US military operations, cause (or attempt to cause) insubordination within the military, or obstruct (or attempt to obstruct) military recruitment activity.

The Sedition Act also expanded the list of provisions to punish those who make false statements to obstruct the sale of US bonds or securities; speak or print any “disloyal” language about the US government, Constitution, military, military uniforms, or flag; display the flag of any foreign enemy; speak or print anything advocating the curtailment, with intent to hinder the US success in the war, of the production of war materials; or advocate, teach, defend, or suggest that others do any of these prohibited acts. Even more broadly, this section allows for punishment of individuals who, by word or act, “support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war” or who “oppose the cause of the United States therein.”

Finally, section three provides that any employee or official of the US government who commits “any disloyal act or utters any unpatriotic or disloyal language,” including criticizing the Army, Navy, or the US flag, will be immediately dismissed from service.

Section four grants the postmaster general authority to refuse postal service access to anyone suspected of violating the Sedition Act. In conjunction with the local postmasters, the postmaster general can return any mail to its sender conspicuously marked with “Mail to this address undeliverable under the Espionage Act” if there is suspicion that its contents or its recipient might be in violation of any provision of the Sedition Act or its predecessor, the Espionage Act.

Essential Themes

Passed in April 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, the Espionage Act authorized harsh punishments for actions, speech, and writings deemed a threat to US interests or national security. However, as fear of socialist and communist influences grew in the general public, vigilante citizen groups reacted to perceived threats and insufficient patriotism with increasing violence. To maintain control over the rapidly escalating situation, the federal government sought to expand its authority to intervene in matters it believed could pose a threat not just to national security, but also to public calm and welfare.

As a result, the following year, the legislature passed the Sedition Act, which greatly extended the prohibitions of the Espionage Act to include nearly any act, utterance, or writing that even vaguely criticized the US government or the war efforts. Expressing one’s opinion about the unfairness of the draft could result in a decade-long prison sentence; even criticizing the US military’s uniforms could result in prosecution under the Sedition Act. These amendments did successfully extend the government’s reach to prosecute any undesirable behavior or critical sentiments, but they also further fueled public fear and the persecution of suspected socialist and communist sympathizers–the first episode to become known as the Red Scare.

Additionally, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson applied with gusto the new authority granted by section four: Working with the postmasters of several major cities, he blocked the mailing of several major socialist publications and facilitated the prosecution of their editors and writers. Initially, the Wilson administration encouraged his enthusiasm, as he successfully prevented dissemination of ideas that were critical of the war and used his nationwide network of postmasters to track and pursue dissenters. However, Burleson’s enthusiastic efforts fell out of favor with President Wilson when Burleson began targeting some of the administration’s supporters.

Despite the enthusiasm with which the federal government incarcerated and deported anti-war advocates and suspected communist sympathizers under its provisions, the Sedition Act was repealed on December 13, 1920.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Doenecke, Justus D. Nothing Less Than War: A New History of America’s Entry into World War I. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2011. Print.
  • Holborn, Mark, and Hilary Roberts. The Great War: A Photographic Narrative. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.
  • Meyer, G. J. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914–1918. New York: Bantam, 2006. Print.
  • Stevenson, David. With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. Print.
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