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Sedition and Domestic Terrorism - Sedition From 1800 To 1917

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Between the close of the Sedition Act controversy and enactment of the Espionage Act of 1917 (ch. 30, title 1, § 3, 40 Stat. 217) during World War I, there were three significant developments in the history of sedition.

Suppression of abolitionist expression in the South. After 1830, the Southern states embarked upon a pervasive campaign to suppress the expression of antislavery opinion. Fears of Garrisonian abolitionism and slave revolt led one state after another to enact stringent prohibitions on the dissemination of abolitionist doctrine. Virginia, for example, made it a crime merely to deny the right to own slaves; South Carolina declared it unlawful to possess, receive, or publish abolitionist literature; and Louisiana rendered it a crime to write, publish, or speak anything that tended "to destroy that line of distinction which the law established between the several classes of this community."

These laws curtailed, but did not entirely suppress, antislavery expression. Many of the laws had loopholes, legal processes were slow, and the courts often were lenient. To remedy these defects, highly structured "vigilance committees" were organized throughout the South. These committees, representing a form of quasi-official mob rule, took enforcement of the law into their own hands. They regularly meted out punishments ranging from the infliction of such indignities as head-shaving to manhandling and transportation by various means out of the community.

The Civil War. Throughout the Civil War, there was open and widespread opposition to the war and the draft. The government recognized that any attempt to suppress seditious and disloyal utterances generally would be seen as simply another example of the despotism so often charged against Abraham Lincoln by his opponents. Thus, largely for pragmatic political reasons, the government did not enact legislation modeled on the Sedition Act of 1798. The government did attempt to minimize seditious expression, however, by limiting the privileges of hostile war correspondents and by restricting the right of anti-administration newspapers to use the telegraph system and the mails.

Criminal anarchy. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the activities of anarchists and other radicals reignited the controversy over sedition. Along with other, less dramatic events, the Haymarket Square bomb explosion in Chicago in 1886 and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 resulted in 1902 in New York's enactment of the first criminal-anarchy statute, 1902 New York Laws, ch. 371. The act prohibited advocacy of the overthrow of organized government by force, violence, assassination, or any other unlawful means. Although several states soon followed New York's lead, there were relatively few prosecutions under these criminal-anarchy laws until after World War I.

Sedition and Domestic Terrorism - The Espionage Acts Of 1917 And 1918 [next] [back] Sedition and Domestic Terrorism - The Sedition Act

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