Montana’s Inquisition and Wikileaks

(I posted this on my political blog in December 2010, but it is also a particular Montana story that should be posted here again in light of recent discussions on civil liberties with the signing of the NDAA. )

So you are a little girl in grammar school in 1917.  Your name is Christine Shupp and you live near Melville in Sweet Grass County.  Every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, the teacher makes you, alone,  kneel down on the floor and kiss the flag.  It is because you are German. You are a rancher in Rosebud County and you call WWI “a millionaire’s war” and you are dragged off by neighbors to jail.  You’re in a saloon and call war time food regulations “a big joke” and you are sentenced to from 7 to 20 years.

Montana played a huge part in suppressing free speech during WWI.  In light of all the noise about Julian Assange,  Wikileaks, and Joe Lieberman’s “upgrading” The Espionage Act of 1917,  it ‘s probably a good idea to take  a look backwards to the Montana Council of Defense.  (Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it’s a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)

Historian K. Ross Toole wrote a chapter called “The Inquisition” in his book “Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes” about a very dark time in Montana’s history.  At the  beginning of WW I, Woodrow Wilson formed a National Council of Defense and asked each state and each county in the state to help with war propaganda, helping in recruitment of troops, and getting people to buy Liberty Bonds.  The Montana Council of Defense went whole hog into this endeavor and was especially keen on finding “slackers” and “draft dodgers”.  The Governor of Montana, Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature in part to make the Montana Council of Defense a legal body with funding by the state.  The legislature also passed the Sedition Act and the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the federal government would use as a model for the federal Sedition Act which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917. This act was probably one of the harshest anti-speech laws ever passed in the United States.

In order to root out “vipers circulating the propaganda of the junkers”, as Governor Stewart called them, local Councils of Defense made up of  “upstanding” business men were appointed by the Republican governor.  They gave themselves subpoena power and wide berth in issuing orders.   Order Number One made it illegal to have parades, processions, or other public demonstrations  (except funerals) without permission from the governor.  Order Number Two locked up vagrants, prostitutes, and drunks and anybody that didn’t work at least five days a week.   Order Number Three ordered librarians to remove books like “First German Reader”, “German Songs”, “A Summer in Germany” and “German Compositions”.  It also forbade the speaking of German which led to the Mennonites leaving for Canada.  The orders had a strong moral Puritan tone to them and from February to October of 1918. the Council passed 14 more orders.

These county councils  were determined to discover disloyal thought and along with the Montana Loyalty League and Liberty Committees were very busy during these years pitting neighbor against neighbor and class against class.   They would haul in neighbors if they didn’t think that they bought enough Liberty Bonds or publish their names and the amount of contributions in the paper.  “A bond shirker is an enemy to humanity and liberty, a traitor and a disgrace to his country.”  The law stated that

“…any person or persons who shall utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the constitution of the United States, or the soldiers or sailors of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the army or navy…or shall utter, print, write or publish any language calculated to incite or inflame resistance to any duly constituted Federal or State authority in connection with the prosecution of the war…shall be guilty of the crime of sedition.” (p. 276 “Montana: A History of Two Centuries”)

There were heroes in this period. District Attorney Burton K. Wheeler, District Judge George M. Bourquin, and Attorney General Sam Ford tried to stem the tide of war hysteria.  In 1917 Judge Bourquin acquitted the rancher Ves Hall who had remarked that the Germans had a right to sink the Lusitania if it was carrying munitions and that the United States had no business being in this “Wall Street millionaire’s war.”  Judge Bourquin couldn’t see how a rancher in a little town of 60 people and 60 miles away from the nearest railroad could possibly put military operations in jeopardy by these remarks.  This is the case that set off the firestorm and led to the Governor calling the special legislative session.  They tried to impeach Bourquin but were unsuccessful, but Judge Crum who was a character witness for Ves Hall was impeached.

District Attorney Wheeler was hauled in front of the Council but unlike the often quivering neighbors, Wheeler was a force of nature and promptly turned to accusing the council of misdeeds. (Note: He is a particular hero to Governor Schweitzer.) The Anaconda Company lawyer blamed him for not prosecuting aliens.  Wheeler gave an explanation of treason that we all should remember.  Treason cannot be based on rumor, “only on the basis of law”:

“There is such a thing as a treasonable utterance in common parlance, but as matter of law there is treason, but there is not any such crime as treasonable utterance.”

The Council also hauled in William Dunne, editor of the radical labor Butte newspaper, the Bulletin.  Dunne was a harsh critic of the Anaconda Company, the mining company that controlled Montana politics and most newspapers.  He “considered the council not only illegal but foolish and motivated by antediluvian politics.”  He denied any affiliation with the I.W.W., but made no secret of his Marxist views.”  He was dismissed but later was arrested.  Judge Bourquin  dismissed the case but the local council finally convicted Dunne and fined him  $5000.  But the war by that time was over and the hysteria was abating.  The Supreme court would later reverse this decision.

The Republican Attorney General, Sam Ford, wrote a letter to the Council reprimanding them for violence against people attempting their right to make public speeches.  He wrote:

“It is true that we are at war and that the life of the nation is at stake; and these conditions may so affect the minds of overzealous patriots and persons of hysterical tendencies as to lesson their powers clearly to analyze civil rights…but mob spirit is fraught with serious menace to society and to the most precious liberties of the people of the state.”

Eventually 76 men and 3 women would be convicted in Montana in the war years  and 41 of them sentenced from 10 t0 20 years in prison. In 2006, Governor Schweitzer pardoned all of them; the culmination of efforts by law students at the U of Montana to seek the pardons.

Time to take serious looks backward and to remember that we are, or at least were,  a nation of laws.

Leave a Reply