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Wilson and the Espionage Act

Overview

President Woodrow Wilson worried about the influence of subversive elements in the United States—including at first German-Americans and Irish-Americans, and later socialists, communists, and anarchists. In 1915, Wilson asked Congress to pass laws designed to “crush out” the “creatures of passion” who he believed might topple the US government. Congress heeded this call with the Espionage Act of 1917, amended by the Sedition Act in 1918. Criticized by some as unconstitutional, these laws were defended by Wilson and Congress as war measures to enhance the security of the United States.

Objectives

Students will:

• Understand Woodrow Wilson’s fear of the “poison of disloyalty” in the US.
• Understand challenges to civil liberties in the US before and during World War I.
• Assess constitutional limits on free speech and whether they change during wartime.
• Evaluate the constitutionality of the 1917 Espionage Act.