This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

Roger Nash Baldwin
Excerpted from the November 9, 1918 Issue

I am before you as a deliberate violator of the Draft Act. I am opposed to this and all other wars. I do not believe in the use of physical force as a method of achieving any end, however good. I am fully aware that my position is extreme, that it is shared by comparatively few, and that in the present temper it is regarded either as unwarranted egotism or as feeble-mindedness. I cannot, therefore, let this occasion pass without attempting to explain the foundations on which so extreme a view rests.

I have had an essentially American upbringing and background. Born in a suburb of Boston, of the stock of the first settlers, I was reared in the public schools and at Harvard College. Early my mind was caught by the age-old struggle for freedom; America meant to me a vital new experiment in free political institutions; personal freedom to choose one’s way of life and service seemed the essence of the liberties brought by those who fled the medieval and modern tyrannies of the old world. But I rebelled at our whole autocratic industrial system—with its wreckage of poverty, disease, and crime, and childhood robbed of its right to free growth.

Personally I share the extreme radical philosophy of the future society. I look forward to a social order without any external restraints upon the individual, save through public opinion and the opinion of friends and neighbors. I believe that all parts of the radical movement serve the common end—freedom of the individual from arbitrary external controls.

Even if I were not a believer in radical theories and movements, I would justify the work I have done on the ground of American ideals and traditions alone—as do many of those who have been associated with me. They have stood for those enduring principles which the revolutionary demands of war have temporarily set aside. We have stood against hysteria, mob-violence, unwarranted prosecution, the sinister use of patriotism to cover attacks on radical and labor movements, and for the unabridged right of a fair trial.

Now comes the Government to take me from that service and to demand of me a service I cannot in conscience undertake. I seek no martyrdom, no publicity. Though at the moment I am of a tiny minority, I feel myself part of a great revolt surging up from among the people—the struggle of the masses against the rule of the world by the few—profoundly intensified by the war. It is a struggle against the political State itself, against exploitation, militarism, imperialism, authority in all forms. It is a struggle to break in full force only after the war.

I ask the Court for no favor. I have no bitterness or hate in my heart for any man. Whatever the penalty, I shall endure it, firm in the faith that whatever befalls me, the principles in which I believe will bring forth out of this misery and chaos a world of brotherhood, harmony, and freedom for each to live the truth as he sees it.

After spending much of 1919 imprisoned for refusing to submit to the wartime draft, Roger Nash Baldwin (1884–1981) founded and served as the first director of the American Civil Liberties Union. Katrina vanden Heuvel is his goddaughter. 

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Sowing the Wind to Reap the Whirlwind

Editorial
Excerpted from the January 17, 1920 Issue

The unprecedented outburst of terror and terrorism which at the moment is venting itself upon Socialists, Communists, “Reds,” and agitators of all sorts in this country grows in volume and intensity from day to day. Every morning now brings news of more raids, more scores or hundreds of men and women arrested, more tons of papers seized, more offices and assembly rooms wrecked, more plans for deportation. Ellis Island is crowded to repletion with the victims of the dragnet. Public meetings are broken up or prevented from being held. Every radical thinker or reformer in the United States today who belongs to any organization which the Department of Justice has put under the ban, or who expresses sympathy with the men and women who have been pounced upon, puts his personal liberty in danger if his sympathies be known.

It is well, in times of general unreason and hysteria, to fix the mind on simple, fundamental things. If any of the persons, whether aliens or not, upon whom the Department of Justice has descended have violated the law, they should be indicted, tried, and punished for their offense. The Constitution of the United States defines the crime of treason and the conditions under which alone a charge of treason can be sustained; sedition and conspiracy are offenses known to the law, and punishable by penalties which the law defines with precision.

Unfortunately for our good name as a nation, however, such commonplaces do not by any means cover the case. Far the larger number of the persons who have been arrested and confined, and over whose heads, if they be aliens, hangs the prospect of deportation to Russia or elsewhere, appear to have been seized merely upon suspicion. Membership in the Socialist or Communist parties is not a crime even for an alien. Few of the persons arrested appear to have been given a preliminary hearing in court, or allowed to furnish reasonable bail, or assured of an opportunity to meet their accusers and offer a defense. It would even appear that in numerous cases the persons arrested have been denied the privilege of communicating with their friends or their families.

Wholesale arrests and deportations such as we are now witnessing will not breed respect for government or crush out socialism or communism. The belief that there is in this country one law for the rich and powerful and another for the poor and weak, will be strengthened; as will the conviction that free speech, free debate, and free publication of opinion, are rights to be enjoyed by such only as say what the Department of Justice and powerful business interests approve. We shall not safeguard liberty by repressing it; we shall not raise American prestige abroad by sending overseas the disillusioned and the unassimilated. The only way to end dangerous discontent in the United States is to remove its causes. Unless that is done, those who today are sowing the wind will before long reap the whirlwind.

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Encounter: Floyd Dell and Michelle Goldberg

Can Men and Women Be Friends?

Floyd Dell
May 28, 1924

Friendship in the Digital Age

Michelle Goldberg
April 6, 2015

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Encounter: William MacDonald and Michelle Goldberg

Take Every Empty House!

Editorial (William MacDonald)
August 28, 1920

Every New Yorker Needs a Home

Mayor Bill de Blasio
April 6, 2015

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In Tennessee

H.L. Mencken
Excerpted from the July 1, 1925 Issue

What could be of greater utility to the son of a Tennessee mountaineer than an education making him a good Tennesseean, content with his father, at peace with his neighbors, dutiful to the local religion, and docile under the local mores?

That is all the Tennessee anti-evolution law seeks to accomplish. The State, to a degree that should be gratifying, has escaped the national standardization. Its people show a character that is immensely different from the character of, say, New Yorkers or Californians. They retain, among other things, the anthropomorphic religion of an elder day. They do not profess it; they actually believe in it. The Old Testament, to them, is not a mere sacerdotal whizz-bang, to be read for its pornography; it is an authoritative history, and the transactions recorded in it are as true as the story of Washington and the cherry tree, or that of the late Woodrow’s struggle to keep us out of the war. So crediting the sacred narrative, they desire that it be taught to their children, and any doctrine that makes game of it is immensely offensive to them. When such a doctrine, despite their protests, is actually taught, they proceed to put it down by force.

Is that procedure singular? I don’t think it is. It is adopted everywhere, the instant the prevailing notions, whether real or false, are challenged. Suppose a school teacher in New York began entertaining his pupils with the case against the Jews, or against the Pope. Suppose a teacher in Vermont essayed to argue that the late Confederate States were right, as thousands of perfectly sane and intelligent persons believe—that Lee was a defender of the Constitution and Grant a traitor to it. But I need not pile up suppositions. The evidence of what happens to such a contumacious teacher was spread before us copiously during the late uproar about Bolsheviks. And it was not in rural Tennessee but in the great cultural centers which now laugh at Tennessee that punishments came most swiftly, and were most barbarous. It was not Dayton but New York City that cashiered teachers for protesting against the obvious lies of the State Department.

Yet now we are asked to believe that some mysterious and vastly important principle is at stake at Dayton. Tell it to the marines! No principle is at stake at Dayton save the principle that school teachers, like plumbers, should stick to the job that is set before them, and not go roving about the house, breaking windows, raiding the cellar, and demoralizing the children.

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) began writing for The Nation in 1920 and contributed frequently until 1936. He once wrote that The Nation was “the dullest publication of any sort ever printed in the world” before, in 1918, Oswald Garrison Villard “took it over, threw out the garbage and started printing the truth.”