Schenck v. United States (1919)
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Historical Context - Directions: Read the contextual information presented below on the Supreme Court case - Schenck v. United States (1919). Use the information to complete the historical context analysis questions on the next page.
Historical Context - Schenck v. United States (1919)
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the United States immediately needed to expand the size of its military. As a result, America instituted the first ever military draft [system of mandatory army service] of eligible young men with the passage of the Selective Service Act. Not everyone agreed with America’s entry to the global war, nor did everyone agree that drafting men into the US military was the proper course of action. Especially vocal about their opposition to the war was the growing Socialist Party of the United States. The Socialist Party had held many anti-war demonstrations and marches; socialists believed that the war would benefit only the rich, while causing suffering and death for the thousands of poor and working-class soldiers who would do the actual fighting in Europe.
In order to protect the war effort, Congress also passed the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Bills of 1918. Among other things, these laws made it a crime to cause or attempt to cause insubordination [refusing to obey orders] in the military and naval forces or to obstruct [prevent] the recruitment or enlistment of persons into the military service of the United States.
In 1919,15,000 leaflets urging resistance to the draft were sent to men who had been drafted by the US Army. On the front of the leaflet the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery or involuntary servitude, was printed. The leaflet asserted that the Selective Service Act violated the idea embodied in the 13th amendment and that a draftee was little better than a convict. In passionate language, it suggested that conscription [being drafted into the military] was despotism [exercise of absolute power in a cruel manner] in its worst form and a monstrous wrong against humanity in the interest of “Wall Street’s chosen few” who would profit from the war.
The leaflets were traced to Socialist Party headquarters, specifically to Charles Schenck, the General Secretary of the Socialist Party, who publically and vocally had opposed United States participation in World War I. Charles Schenck was arrested for violating the Espionage & Sedition Acts. Although Schenck denied responsibility for sending the leaflets, he was arrested, and, among other charges, was indicted for “conspiring to violate the Espionage Act … by causing and attempting to cause insubordination … and to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service of the United States.” He was found guilty in a US district court and as such appealed his conviction to ...