By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Chapter Six: Legacies of the Scare
Progressives, Civil Liberties, and Labor
I. The Education of Jane Addams
"One of the master delusions of the American people is to the effect that they are in favor of free speech. They are actually almost unanimously against it." - H.L. Mencken, 19252
"A liberal journal has recently stated: 'Within a year after the war began the old causes were gone, and we were steadily forced back from our advanced positions - public ownership and enfranchisement of labor, economic freedom, industrial cooperation, and political equality for the black man with the white man, for the alien with the citizen - these were all abandoned like war trenches on the Western Front, and we found ourselves fighting in the last ditch for the primary bases of democratic society, the civil liberties proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and guaranteed in the Constitution.'" - Jane Addams, 19303
"Although divided over the war and bowed by repression, progressives were not broken. They were busy laying down the defense of free speech as a cornerstone of the new progressive politics. Out of the darkness, new stars were beginning to twinkle." - Alan Dawley, Changing the World.4
In working to roll back the excesses of the immediate postwar period, progressives gained a newfound appreciation for both the importance and the need to defend civil liberties, including the right to organize. But in the process, many progressives lost something else - their faith in the general rightness of the masses, and their sense of identification with the American people as a whole. And so, even as progressives phrased their early defenses of civil liberties as being necessary to the public interest - a diversity of opinion being necessary to the formation of sound policy - their gradual alienation from the people at large also propelled them closer to a defense of civil liberties based on notions of conscience and individual freedom.
In her 1922 volume Peace and Bread in Time of War, of which excerpts were printed in The Survey, Jane Addams looked back at her experience as a pacifist during the World War with a shiver. "From the very beginning of the great war, as the members of our group gradually became defined from the rest of the community," Addams recalled, "each one felt increasingly the sense of isolation which rapidly developed after the United States entered the war into that destroying effect of 'aloneness,' if I may so describe the opposite of mass consciousness." For Addams and her fellow pacifists, this separation from the war fervor was not felt as a triumphant stand of principle, but a tortured alienation from the people at large. "We never ceased to miss the unquestioning comradeship experienced by our fellow citizens during the war," Addams remembered, "nor to feel curiously outside the enchantment given to any human emotion when it is shared by millions of others. The force of the majority was so overwhelming that it seemed not only impossible to hold one's own against it, but at moments absolutely unnatural, and one secretly yearned to participate in 'the folly of all mankind.'"5
As she recalls, the pressures on Addams and the pacifists were enormous. On one hand, many of their longtime progressive and intellectual allies, from President Wilson (who had "kept us out of war") to John Dewey and The New Republic, were now openly deriding the pacifist cause. "We were constantly told by our friends that to stand aside from the war mood of the country was to surrender all possibility of future influence," said Addams, "that we were committing intellectual suicide, and would never again be trusted as responsible people or judicious advisers. Who were we to differ with able statesmen, with men of sensitive conscience who also absolutely abhorred war, but were convinced that this war for the preservation of democracy would make all future wars impossible?"
As a result, Addams worried deeply that she had made a mistake somewhere down the line in her thinking. "There were moments when the pacifist yielded to the suggestion that keeping himself out of war, refusing to take part in its enthusiasms, was but pure quietism, an acute failure to adjust himself to the moral world…Every student of our time had become more or less a disciple of pragmatism and its great teachers in the United States had come out for the war and defended their positions with skill and philosophic acumen. There were moments when one longed desperately for reconciliation with one's friends and fellow citizens; in the words of Amiel, 'Not to remain at variance with existence.'"6
Even more jarring, some of the most basic tenets of the progressive faith seemed undermined by what was occurring. Wasn't educated and enlightened public opinion meant to be the fulcrum that would move the world? Instead, Addams and the pacifists discovered that public opinion - stoked to nationalistic fervor "in the interest of war propaganda" - was now a spear directed against them. "We certainly had none of the internal contentment of the doctrinaire, the ineffable solace of the self-righteous, which was imputed to us," she recalled. "No one knew better than we how feeble and futile we were against the impregnable weight of public opinion, the appalling imperviousness, the coagulation of motives, the universal confusion of a world at war." Indeed, Addams ascribed "the large number of deaths among the older pacifists" to this grievous state of affairs, for "[m]ore than the normal amount of nervous energy must be consumed in holding one's own in a hostile world." In sum, she wrote: "Solitude has always had its demons, harder to withstand than the snares of the world, and the unnatural desert into which the pacifist was summarily cast out seemed to be peopled with them."7
Amid this wasteland of loneliness and confusion to which the pacifists had summarily been expelled, Addams and her colleagues wrestled with the prior tenets of their progressive philosophy. "In the hours of doubt and self-distrust," wrote Addams, "the question again and again arises: Has the individual, or a very small group, the right to stand out against millions of his fellow countrymen? Is there not great value in mass judgment and in instinctive mass enthusiasm, and even if one were right a thousand times over in conviction, was he not absolutely wrong in abstaining from this communion with his fellows? The misunderstanding on the part of old friends and associates and the charge of lack of patriotism was far easier to bear than those dark periods of faint-heartedness."8
And yet, in those dark moments of self-questioning, Addams and other progressives began to foster a new appreciation for the importance of the individual against society. "We could not, however, lose the conviction that as all other forms of growth begin with a variation from the mass, so the moral changes in human affairs may also begin with a differing group or individual, sometimes with the one who at best is designated as a crank and a freak and in sterner moments is imprisoned as an atheist or a traitor."
Perhaps, it seemed to Addams, both the pragmatic experts and the vast majority of public opinion were wrong, and thus it behooved progressive men and women of conscience to stay true to their own beliefs, and to endure both the contempt of ones' peers and the calumny and hatred of the masses in so doing. From the intellectual exile of the pacifists during the Great War, Addams observed, "it therefore came about that the ability to hold one's own against mass suggestion, to honestly differ from the convictions and enthusiasms of ones best friends, did in moments of crisis come to depend upon the categorical belief that a man's primary allegiance is to his vision of the truth and that he is under obligation to affirm it."9
Addams was by no means alone in this crisis of confidence - other pacifists and progressives who found themselves on the wrong end of public opinion during the war came to similar conclusions. As Frederic Howe put it in 1926, "Liberty was as dear to me as another kind of patriotism was dear to other hundred per cent Americans. And when I saw liberty laid prostrate by those from whom I had expected protection, when I found my kind of Americanism under suspicion, if not denounced as criminal, when I saw my government using its power in a hysteria of fear, to crush civil and political liberties, when I saw these things, much of my belief in men, in the political state, and in my own America all but died. I think it died for millions of others."10
Even progressives who had gone along with the war effort at the time were now reconsidering their relationship with the public at large. "Many of us," wrote Chicago lawyer Donald Richberg in 1930, "now can look back upon the heroic efforts of La Follette and Norris in the Senate…of women like Jane Addams, and feel a little small and ashamed that, even if we did not join with those who scowled and spat upon them…yet we watched them through troubled, puzzled eyes." Because of the war and reaction, Richberg said, "to doubt, to question the wisdom of the powers that be, to advance new and disturbing ideas, had ceased to be an act of virtue, the proof of an aspiring spirit. Such attitudes were 'radical' and 'destructive.' Progressivism was losing its supreme asset - respectability."11
In other words, progressives, who once thought of themselves as the vanguard of the people, now began to define themselves in opposition to the masses. This new stance would complicate many of the beliefs about the power and efficacy of enlightened public opinion that progressivism had always relied upon. the power and efficacy of enlightened public opinion that progressivism had always relied upon.
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2. Paul L. Murphy, The Meaning of Freedom of Speech: First Amendment Freedoms from Wilson to FDR (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972), 106.
3. Addams, Second Twenty Years, 159. Also quoted in Dawley, 160.
4. Dawley, Changing the World, 160.
5. Jane Addams, "Peace and Bread," The Survey, Jan. 28, 1922, 663.
6. Ibid, 703, 705.
7. Ibid, 706.
8. Ibid, 703.
9. Ibid, 703, 707.
10. Frederic Howe, "Where are the Pre-War Radicals? A Response," The Survey, April 1, 1926, 50.
11. McGerr, 308.
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