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The assault on the Constitution that was too quickly forgotten

A burst of repression 100 years ago should serve as reminder that threats to American democracy will come in forms that are hard to anticipate.

A. Mitchell Palmer

It is impossible to recall the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the Capitol without feeling how close we came. If Vice President Mike Pence had capitulated to Donald Trump; if the election had been forced into the House of Representatives; if that unsavory mob had flooded the building’s interior before security personnel could hustle legislators away. . . . So many if’s. After watching the searing congressional hearings about that day, many have declared last year’s assault the gravest threat to our constitutional order since the Civil War. But was it?

American democracy suffered a deep, sudden crisis just over a hundred years ago. It saw thousands of people jailed for their political opinions, freedom of the press drastically slashed, and an unprecedented government attack on labor. These are several shameful years that, astonishingly, we’ve almost completely forgotten.


Two events kicked off that dark period in American life. The first was the declaration of war on Germany in April 1917. This provided an excuse for brutal repression. Big business and labor, for instance, had been battling bloodily for years, but now any workers daring to strike could be accused of impeding the war effort. In the summer of that year in Bisbee, Ariz., more than 2,000 striking copper miners and their families were roused from their beds at dawn by a heavily armed sheriff’s posse. A total of 1,186 men who refused to return to work were herded into railway freight cars at gunpoint, hauled 180 miles through the desert, and placed in an Army stockade.

Then came the Russian Revolution in November 1917. The resulting Red Scare provided a further pretext for cracking down on dissent of all kinds. This took several forms.

First, between 1917 and 1921, roughly a thousand Americans went to prison for a year or more — and a far larger number for shorter periods — solely for what they wrote or said. Some were famous, among them longtime Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who had once won 6 percent of the popular vote for president. He wound up in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for speaking against American participation in the war. Others were completely unknown, among them, for example, three middle-aged men who were sent to another federal prison for private conversations with one another in a Kentucky cobbler’s shop. They had been secretly eavesdropped on by a microphone planted by a local vigilante group, and a court found their talk disloyal to the United States.


Eugene V. Debs speaking in Canton, Ohio..

Second, the federal government censored the press on a massive scale. The First World War was the excuse, but censorship continued full steam for more than two years after the fighting ended. Hundreds of specific issues of newspapers and magazines were banned from the mail, and some 75 publications forced to close. The most famous of the latter was The Masses, a New York literary monthly that was in style and content a precursor to The New Yorker. It had published a stellar array of writers ranging from John Reed to Walter Lippmann to Sherwood Anderson to Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Third, the government used the mood of hysteria to crush groups it didn’t like. Debs was far from the only Socialist leader sent to jail, and many of the party’s chapters suddenly found that the post office no longer delivered their mail. Hundreds of members of the country’s most militant labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World, known to all as the Wobblies, were swept up in nationwide arrests. In a single trial in Chicago, a federal judge sentenced more than 90 Wobblies to a total of 807 years of prison time.


The repression climaxed with the notorious Palmer Raids. One pretext for the raids was a string of bombings of sites around the Northeast, including the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer in Washington, D.C. Today the bombings are believed to have been the work of a tiny group of Italian American anarchists, who were never successfully prosecuted. But that didn’t prevent the ambitious Palmer, who had his eye on the 1920 Democratic presidential nomination, from casting a far wider net, rounding up leftists and immigrants of all kinds, some of whom had never been politically active at all. Supervised by the youthful J. Edgar Hoover, agents of Palmer’s Justice Department, accompanied by local police and civilian vigilantes, seized approximately 10,000 people and jailed several thousand of them, often roughing them up for the benefit of newsreel cameras — you can see footage on YouTube. Historian Alan Brinkley called the Palmer Raids “arguably the greatest single violation of civil liberties in American history.”

We did recover from all this, but slowly. It would be nice to say that we recovered because the politicians of the era saw the excesses they had committed and repented. But the change came for other reasons. One was that Palmer, believing his own propaganda about the left-wing menace, rashly warned that a nationwide Communist uprising would erupt on May 1, 1920. National Guard troops were put on alert, cities mobilized off-duty police, business moguls hired extra security men. The day dawned and nothing whatsoever happened. This deflated Palmer’s presidential campaign and the Red Scare generally.


But the other reason the repression eased was that it had crippled progressive forces in the way that its architects intended. The Industrial Workers of the World never recovered from the jailing of hundreds of its leaders. Anti-labor legislation caused even the determinedly moderate American Federation of Labor to lose a million members. Not until the mid-1930s would union organizing recover momentum. Most of the shuttered newspapers and magazines, many of them supporters of the Socialist Party, never saw print again. And the party itself, which had once elected more than a thousand officials to state and local offices around the country, would never again be a significant force in American life.

What lesson should we take from this sorry piece of our history? Exactly the same one as offered by Jan. 6, 2021 — and by the ominous threats Trump and his followers are making right now.

We can have a Constitution full of safeguards like the First Amendment and the separation of powers. But safeguards only work if we enforce them — vigilantly. Last year, they were almost shattered by a president falsely claiming an election was stolen. Between 1917 and 1921 they were shattered because of frenzy over war and the imagined threat of revolution. There will be different dangers ahead, and they will come in ways we can’t anticipate. The crisis of a century ago began not under a spiteful showman urging on his camouflage-clad followers but under the most scholarly and dignified of American leaders, Woodrow Wilson, a former university president. We need to be on the alert for these threats and to remember that the Constitution is not a fixed backstop that will always stand securely but something vulnerable that can be undermined in the blink of an eye.


Adam Hochschild is the author of 11 books, most recently “American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis.”