Still Ripe after 100 Years; ED Panel Discusses the Constitution and World War I

To comply with the law that requires all schools that receive federal funding and all federal agencies to observe Constitution Day, September 17, here at the Department of Education, we focused on the Constitutional issues that arose during World War I. We chose to focus on World War I because 2017 marks the centennial of the U.S. entry into that war.

Secretary DeVos introduced this year’s program, held on September 18, by highlighting the importance of the Constitution with the following comments:

You see, the text of the Constitution is about limiting government, not a so-called living document that can suddenly usurp the power of the people on the whim of any politician or social norm. Yet this self-evident philosophy has been lost somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, too many kids aren’t even at the “School House Rock” level. Broadway elevated Alexander Hamilton’s name to cultural fame but too few know the real Hamilton. The author of the Federalist Papers also wrote that, and I quote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments or musty records, they are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased.”

This year’s program featured two distinguished historians; Edward G. Lengel, Chief Historian at the White House Historical Association, and Tony Williams, Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute.  Julie Silverbrook, Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project, served as moderator.

Although it has been 100 years since World War I, the panelists agreed that World War I and the issues that arose from that era are very much with us today.

“I think the impact of this war on our society was much, much, much greater than people realize,” said Lengel.  “We have tended to view this war from a distance. We have tended to view it through stereotype – that it was simply a brutal slugfest with millions of casualties with millions of people dying and accomplishing nothing whatsoever.  And we have very little understanding in this country – not just of its impact in Europe, but on its impact on every day people in the United States.”

In fact, many of the issues which are contentious today were issues during World War I as well.   Williams took civil liberties as an example.  In his description, the America of 1917-18 would be unrecognizable to us today.

Two pieces of legislation, the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, were passed in Congress with the intention of limiting free speech.  Williams set the stage by describing President Wilson’s views on opposition to the war:  “Wilson commented several times on dissent against that war and dissenters who voiced their opinions.   He said the opponents of his war policies were ‘pouring the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.  Those creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy, must be crushed now.’”

“The Wilson administration moved quickly, unfortunately, to suppress dissent and civil liberties,” said Williams.  “The Attorney General, Thomas Gregory, drafted the bill that would become the Espionage Act, which made it a crime to interfere with the operations of the military, or to cause insubordination, disloyalty, rioting, or refusal of duty — or shall willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment services of the United States.   The Attorney General on one occasion said, ‘May God have mercy on them for they need expect none from an outraged people or an avenging government.’”

The Wilson Justice Department went into action to enforce the law and “prosecuted 2,000 plus cases under the Espionage Act,” said Williams.  “Congress created the Espionage Act not just to curtail free speech, but more specifically, to prevent interference with the draft or conscription.  Over 1000 convictions were upheld by the courts, including a very famous socialist, Eugene Debs, and leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW.”

Mr. Williams quoted a fellow historian, who said that, during World War I, “liberty and justice were compromised in ways more extreme and extensive than at any other time in American History.”

And so, in wrapping the Constitution with World War I, we acknowledged the men and women who have served in the armed services to defend our Constitution. Although they are no longer with us, their descendants and legacies are, and the legal lessons learned during that period are still very much with us.

View the Constitution Day program.


Anthony Fowler is Interagency Liaison at the U.S. Department of Education.

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