“America is sinking into fascism!” “The government has never been so awful!” While there certainly are serious problems in today’s America, claims like this show a poor understanding of history. Things have been far worse.
Let’s take a quick look through the period from the adoption of the Constitution through the end of the twentieth century. We’ll find many horrible things which American authorities or government-sanctioned mobs have done to people living here. People have been killed, forced into servitude, dragged from their homes, imprisoned without a just cause, and mutilated.
Most of these evils couldn’t happen today, though some persist. That should be a reminder that it’s possible to fix the rest and a warning that we should make sure they don’t happen again.
1787: The Constitution Convention produced a document which implicitly granted legitimacy to slavery. It prevented Congress from prohibiting the importing of “persons” (in slavery) until 1808.
1798: Congress passes and President John Adams signed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to “defame” the government or promote “hatred” to it. Congressman Matthew Lyon was subsequently imprisoned for accusing Adams of “unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp.”
1830: Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the forced relocation of tens of thousands to lands west of the Mississippi. Thousands died on the “Trail of Tears” from disease and hunger.
1857: The Supreme Court ruled, in Dred Scott v. Sanford, that black people weren’t citizens, even those who weren’t slaves, and enjoyed no protection under the Constitution.
1861: The secession of Southern states led to civil war, killing over half a million people.
1866: The Ku Klux Klan, America’s most infamous domestic terrorist organization, was founded. It has been described as “the unofficial paramilitary arm of Southern segregationist governments.”
1879: The California state constitution prohibited corporate and government employment of Chinese. Article XIX, “Chinese,” also authorized the legislature to delegate to cities and towns the power to relocate or remove Chinese.
1890: Over 250 Lakota, largely women and children, were killed by the US Army at Wounded Knee.
1907: The Indiana legislature passed the first mandatory sterilization law in the United States.
1915: President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the KKK in the introductory titles of the movie Birth of a Nation, helping to promote a revival of the organization.
1917: Congress passed and President Wilson signed the Espionage Act. A year later, it was used to sentence Robert Goldstein to 10 years for making the movie Spirit of ’76 (it made our British allies look bad) and Eugene Debs to the same for making an antiwar speech. The Espionage Act has since been amended but not repealed.
1919: In Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the Espionage Act’s violation of free speech rights. Oliver Wendell Holmes made his famous spurious analogy to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre” in his opinion on the case.
1919: The 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages, leading to a wave of violent crime as gangsters took advantage of the lack of legal competition.
1920: At least 3,000 people were arrested, many without warrants, in a wave of federal raids (the biggest of the Palmer raids) on January 2. Prominent lawyers denounced the raids as illegal.
(Yes, the Wilson years were really terrible.)
1927: The Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, upheld compulsory sterilization without due process.
1942: President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, providing for the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans. Over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were moved to concentration camps.
1942: In Wickard v. Filburn, the Supreme Court asserted that the federal government can regulate activity as “interstate commerce,” even if it is neither interstate nor commerce. This claim of power has only grown worse since then.
1948: Congress and President Truman established the first peacetime military draft in the history of the United States.
1964: President Lyndon Johnson massively escalated the US presence in Vietnam. Many Americans subsequently were forcibly sent there to fight for “freedom.” Tens of thousands of them died.
1965: Police brutally attacked civil rights protesters in Selma, Alabama and elsewhere.
1967: Bill Baird was imprisoned in Boston for providing contraceptives to unmarried people, which was then illegal in Massachusetts. Previously he had been jailed in New York for giving information about birth control.
1980: President Carter reactivated mandatory draft registration, which had been suspended under Nixon. It remains in force today.
1985: In an effort to fight the black revolutionary organization MOVE, Philadelphia police dropped a bomb on a house. Eleven people were killed, and 61 houses were destroyed.
1993: Reckless federal law enforcement led to the deaths in a fire of over eighty people, including children, near Waco, Texas.
“Liberty and justice for all” is always an ideal to aim for, and no society has ever achieved it in full. Perhaps none ever will. But throughout our history, people have stopped injustices and achieved new levels of freedom. Things have gotten better in many ways, even if there are always new problems. Keeping a perspective on the outrages of the past helps us to avoid despair when facing those of the present.