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78 Pardons Means 78 Abuses of Power

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I just finished reading this article that tells a story about 78 individuals that were charged with sedition during the first World War. Under Montana's sedition law, it was illegal to make any comments about the Constitution, the federal government, soldiers or sailors, the flag or the uniforms of the Army or Navy in "any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive" way. So much for the protections offered by the Bill of Right's First Amendment. The article states:
On Wednesday, 78 people convicted of sedition amid the war's anti-German hysteria received the first posthumous pardons in Montana history, including one who was charged merely for calling the conflict a "rich man's war" and mocking food regulations during a time of rationing.
Seventy-six men and three women were convicted of sedition all together. They were imprisoned for an average of 19 months, often based on casual comments made in saloons. At the time, profane language or insulting the virtues of women usually resulted in a longer sentence.
That last sentence almost sounds apologetic for the government's bad behavior; but I'll leave that for another time. After finishing this article, I thought to my self, "The only way the government could grant 78 pardons would be if it had unjustly injured 78 people in the past." This display of belated justice offered by the State of Montana is basically an admission that they oppressed the voices of citizens. Government, ever fearful of criticism against its use of force, decided to silence dissenting voices... by utilizing more force. This was truly a shameful act to say the least.
As a side note, there's a website for an organization that is dedicated to getting pardons for these folks and their families. It's known as the Sedition Project. While looking around, I ran across the following quote that helps to shed some light on the 'why' behind Montana's extreme sedition law. Have a read through the quote and I'll give you my take on the other side...
The political and economic establishment, led by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, saw a mounting threat by political dissidents, such as the Industrial Workers of the World, and sought laws to destroy them. The IWW had been active in promoting strikes against leading industries, such as copper mining, logging and agriculture to increase wages being eaten away by inflation and to improve execrable working conditions. At the same time, wartime frenzy overtook the state. Even in a state as remote as Montana, most people believed American democracy to be threatened by German threats of world domination. Fear and hatred overcame common sense. Extreme laws were passed. German residents, in particular, bore the brunt of such passions. German books were banned and burned. Even preaching in German from the pulpit was banned, a law that was cruelly enforced even after the armistice was declared.
On one hand, big business sees a growing threat from unionizers, while on the other they see huge profits to be made with the onset of war. How much revenue would be lost to union workers? How much would be lost if they decided to strike for better working conditions? I can clearly see the bigwigs formulating a plan to have legislation passed that was worded so broadly that anyone with an opinion could be charged with sedition. It would be interesting to see how many of those charged had connections to either the IWW or other organized labor groups.
So, do we have a change in government's position towards dissidents? Did government pass laws to protect itself from dissidents or was it acting mostly on the wishes of one of its biggest benefactors (can you say tax revenues)? To me, that really amounts to hair splitting. Any way you slice it, government's force was still used to achieve a desired result. It amounts to nothing more than coercion. Unfortunately, this evil served to spawn even more oppressive laws that further alienated Americans having German ancestry.
To sum up this post, I'd say these events demonstrate: Oppression perpetrated by fear; facilitated by government coercion.


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