One of the best ways to determine the intent of the Obama administration in its treatment of the press is by looking at the law it is using. It’s called the Espionage Act of 1917, and therein lies a tale.
Probably the two periods of the most severe government repression in the United States were the John Adams and Woodrow Wilson administrations. Adams won enactment of the Alien and Sedition laws, which were used to imprison his critics, including journalists. At least one journalist died in prison without ever being tried.
“I wish the laws of our country were competent to punish the stirrer up of sedition, the writer and printer of base and unfounded calumny,” Adams’ wife, Abigail, wrote before the acts were enacted.
Adams was defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson in large part because of the acts. Jefferson pardoned Adams’ victims and the acts were repealed or allowed to expire.
In 1917, at President Wilson’s request, Congress revived the sedition concept and also enacted the Espionage Act of 1917. This is the law that President Barack Obama is now using.
A number of commentators have recently written that the Espionage Act was intended solely to combat espionage. Columnist Clarence Page, for instance, wrote: “the 1917 Espionage Act, a law that was intended to punish those who gave aid to our enemies.” Even cartoonist Tom Tomorrow included the verbiage “a 96-year-old statute never intended for this purpose” in one of his cartoons.
But, in fact, the Espionage Act was enacted for the purpose of punishing Wilson’s critics. Wilson, a Democrat, was a deeply committed white supremacist and militarist. In his years in office he began unprovoked wars against Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Russia, Panama, Honduras, Yugoslavia and Guatemala. As the U.S. got closer to entry into World War I — Nevada’s U.S. House member voted against entry — Wilson used the great power presidents have to demonize his critics, which helped aid the passage of the Espionage Act.
Wilson actually wanted the act to be even tougher than it was, but Congress declined to include his recommended power to punish the press, not that Wilson let that stop him. Over the years after its enactment, newspapers were shut down, war and draft critics whose only crime was their opinions were sent to prison. Among those imprisoned for opposing Wilson’s war policy was Eugene Debs, one of his opponents in the storied 1912 election.
In addition, Wilson’s administration encouraged private armies that roamed the U.S. punishing dissenters. Local semiofficial bodies worked to stamp out unofficial opinion. In this state, the Nevada Council on Defense called on news dealers to suppress Hearst publications “under penalty of being considered unpatriotic.” The excesses continued well after the war ended.
After Wilson left office, Republican President Warren Harding released Wilson’s victims from prison and met personally with Debs.
The fact that President Obama has revived use of this discredited law speaks volumes.
Politicians are always talking about “wartime” powers of government, as though the Constitution is suspended during those times. But the founders thought otherwise. Indeed, one of the founders later became president and led the nation in the War of 1812.
James Madison is known both as the father of the Constitution and, as a member of the U.S. House, as the father of the Bill of Rights. And although there was a powerful anti-war faction and he was irritated by their activities, never once did he do anything to crack down on their rights of expression, even though the very existence of the nation was at stake. The capital of the District of Columbia, readers may recall, was burned during that war.
Madison was our only president to fight a war while keeping our rights intact, thus showing it can be done. His example has been a reproach to presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Obama — and to those who tolerated those presidents’ abuses.
Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.