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101 2. Schenck v. United States (1919); Abrams v. United States (1919) I Schenck v. United States may be the most important case interpreting and applying the Speech and Press provisions of the First Amendment. Schenck dealt with what may have been the first significant legislation bearing directly on these provisions since the Sedition Act of 1798. The United States Supreme Court never had occasion to review any convictions under the Sedition Act. Six months after Schenck, the Supreme Court disposed of the appeals in Abrams v. United States, appeals that challenged much harsher applications of the Espionage Act of 1917 than those seen in Schenck. The Abrams convictions, too, were upheld, with only two dissenters, following upon the unanimity of the Court in Schenck. The patriotic passions aroused by the First World War were thus vindicated, just as had been done by the Sedition Act of 1798 in response to the passions said to have been stirred up in this Country by the dreaded Terrorism of the French Revolution. An even greater threat to the very survival of the Country was faced during the Civil War, which did see suspensions of the writ of habeas corpus but no significant legislation attempting to suppress criticisms of the General Government. The “unschooled” Abraham Lincoln, it seems, had been far more tolerant of criticism of him and his policies than Woodrow Wilson (a former academic) was to be. Testifying to the vigorous and generally uninhibited political discourse in the North during the Civil War was the conduct of free elections there, both in 1862 and in 1864, contests so free that it seemed for a while that Lincoln would not be reelected. II Schenck and Abrams confirmed, in effect, that the most vigorous criti- Part Two 102 cisms of American participation in the First World War had properly been subject to suppression. Serious reservations about that war had been suppressed in Britain as well. The toll exacted by the conflict was much more severe there than in the United States, as may be seen in the rolls of the local dead memorialized in country churches all over Great Britain. It is hard now to overestimate the spiritual as well as the physical damage caused by the First World War, a war which almost wrecked European Civilization. Among its consequences was the empowerment of Josef Stalin , Adolf Hitler, and their movements. It may also have made the Second World War virtually inevitable. One can wonder, upon reviewing the appalling carnage of the First World War, whether anyone “in charge” knew what he was doing. And yet, a few years before the war, the German Kaiser had been the most exalted foreign guest, housed even in Windsor Castle, for the funeral in London of an English king, his uncle. Not long after, however, would begin what turned out to be the devastating Thirty Years War of the twentieth century. III War passions became so inflamed during the First World War that suggestions about a negotiated peace, such as had been possible to end conflicts in nineteenth-century Europe, could not be tolerated. Even so gifted a politician as Winston Churchill was swept up by the passions of that fateful decade. Those passions were such that the privileged classes in Britain sacrificed their sons along with those of the working classes. There were more serious reservations about the war in the United States. For one thing, more than one-fifth of the population here was of German descent. The unpopularity of the war, at least in some quarters, is attested to by the report that three hundred thousand men evaded the draft, which would be equivalent to about a million men today. Besides, Woodrow Wilson had won reelection in November 1916 on a platform which included the assurance that “He kept us out of war.” One can be reminded of the victory by Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964, a victory that was widely expected to keep the United States out of the Vietnam War. Within a year of Wilson’s reelection, however, the President was asking Congress for a declaration of war, a declaration that was based in large part on pre–November 1916 grievances. 2. Schenck v. United States; Abrams v. United States 103 IV Thus, the anti-war utterances complained of by the government in the Schenck Case were hardly unfamiliar. The principal count against the Schenck defendants, as stated by the United States Supreme Court, “charge[d] a conspiracy to...


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