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The Suppression of Civil Liberties by The American President

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The Taking of Civil Liberties and the American Population’s Response

This paper explains the motivation of presidents for putting out acts and orders that stifle individual freedoms, oppress a group of people, and create unjust and harmful laws in action while still maintaining the support of the general population. The four acts in the paper all take away both the fourth and first amendment rights of a population, increase presidential power, and made life for immigrants especially exceedingly difficult through ordinances that were passed at the height of war or a major attack. The four presidents who initiated these acts used the fear and increased emotional involvement of the population in order to gain support for their acts that targeted other American citizens. “Othering” the oppressed group made it easy for Americans to identify and willfully eliminate the group that the president was targeting. A phenomenon like this, where president’s enact bills that take away civil liberties have many outside and inside factors that contribute to the success of the passing and implementation afterwards: the use of fear, high emotional intensity, propaganda surrounding target populations, and the subsequent increase of their Executive power.

John Adams passed a series of acts — all encompassed in the title of Alien and Sedition Acts — in 1798. These acts not only went against the first amendment, but took away the basic human rights of those who were deemed “dangerous.” These acts severely limited the freedoms of immigrants in the newly formed United States — a country that was just built on the rights and foundation of immigrants. The acts were constructed and erected up off of the fear of a nation after a series of attacks and only benefited one man — John Adams — by drastically increasing his presidential power.

George W. Bush, in the same vein, passed an act that also took away the rights of those deemed “dangerous” based simply on their skin color and ethnicity. The Patriot Act preyed on the fear of the American population after the attacks of September 11, 2001; a nation in turmoil after the terrorist strikes on the homeland. The Patriot Act immensely increased the power of both president Bush and vice president Cheney and the role of the president thereafter. It goes against the first amendment and against the basic human rights of those targeted by the act.

The Alien and Sedition Acts are a series of acts (Naturalization Act, Alien Enemies Act, Alien Friends Act, and the Sedition Act) that made life increasingly difficult for those who were immigrants. This newly formed nation (only established in 1776) prided itself on being a safe haven for those who were persecuted and needed freedom, yet completely and un-patriotically turned its back on those who they claimed to help. The series of acts made it harder for immigrants to become citizens, imprisoned and deported noncitizens who seemed to be a “threat” or from a hostile nation, increased the length of residency for immigrants from five to fourteen years, and criminalized false statements made to the government (The Alien and Sedition Acts). The acts were passed under the guise of national security and the safety of the American public. Creating this divide between “us and them” made it that much easier for Adams to pass the unlawful acts and to persuade the American society into believing that this was for their benefit.

The Patriot Act made it possible for the indefinite detention of immigrants, allowed houses and businesses of immigrants to be searched without a warrant, and gave the president the power to tap into phone lines, emails, and financial records of those he deemed “suspect” (USA PATRIOT ACT). Bush claimed that this act was in the interest of national security and placed in order to protect the “true” Americans. Creating a separation between “Americans and non-Americans”once again worked in the favor of the president for the agenda he was trying to pass. Americans, alarmed and confused at a trying time in United States history, only wanted the problem solved and the Bush administration swindled the people into believing that they were acting purely in the interest of the greater population.

Both acts target a specific group of people — those who opposed the current president at the time. Bush’s target demographic (middle to upper class, white, Republican, males) are unaffected by the passing of the Patriot Act, yet those who would demographically vote against him (minorities, lower class, immigrants) are the negative recipient of this act’s passing. After the September 11 attacks, Americans succumbed to a mass panic. This substantial act of terrorism happened on American soil, when it was thought that the United States was invincible and something to this statute could not and would not happen here. The Bush administration exploited this terror for their own agenda, going after those who did not view Bush as a re-electable president. With barely any opposition and with the general population lost in the distress of September 11, Bush effortlessly passed the Patriot Act and the American people saluted their leader and put ignorant trust in his abilities to keep their best interest at heart.

After the French Revolution in 1799, Americans feared that French sympathizers plotted to overthrow the presidency, the constitution, and John Adams. Fear quaked throughout the entire nation against a group of individuals who were already integrated into their society. A divide split among the citizens and Adams used that in his favor. Believing that the French would want nothing more than to kill any American who stood as a patriot, that the American population harbored a panic and in turn looked towards their president, John Adams, for assistance and guidance. Adams used this opportunity to push his Federalist agenda and secure that his acts would be passed. Easily, in the alarm of the American people, the acts passed with many supporters.

The Alien and Sedition Acts were denounced by Thomas Jefferson after he took his presidency, but the legacy of the acts does not end there. Later in United States history, the acts were brought back in order to suppress German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants during World War II. Under the same semblance of “national security,” Roosevelt used a ratified version of these acts to deport all illegal German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants in the country. This action led to the internment of the Japanese into labor camps in the United States under Executive Order 9066. (Watkins)

Along the same idea of ridding certain Americans of their first amendment rights like the Alien and Sedition Acts and the Patriot Act, The Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918. After World War I began, the Espionage and Sedition Acts quickly became enacted in order control the immigrant population from “speaking out” against the United States during the war. By taking away rights that every United States citizen is guaranteed, and falsely incriminating those who happened to be born outside of the United States, not only did Woodrow Wilson increase his own presidential power and the power to remove certain populations from America, but the American people who were not targeted by the corrupt act rallied behind him. These laws were enacted on a state of fear after WWI broke out and the United States entered the war against Germany to only further the power of the man in charge of it all — Woodrow Wilson. Many were imprisoned, not for violent or hate filled acts designed to impede on the war efforts, but for simply using their (not always) guaranteed first amendment rights.

The Espionage Act, enacted June 15, 1917, quickly after the declaration of the United State’s war on Germany, gave federal officials the authority to arrest anyone they believed “threatened national security” by expressing or publishing opinions that were criticizing American involvement in the war. This act was controversial for many, but especially those who immigrated to the United States and did not agree with the involvement in the war, the military draft, and the unconstitutional withdrawal of their rights of freedom of speech. Overall, though not going as in depth as the later ratified Sedition Act, the Espionage Act banned citizens from interfering with the United State’s war effort, including spreading false information, impeding on recruitment and enlistment, or encouraging insubordination, disloyalty, or mutiny. The Espionage Act itself did not create an unjust set of laws or ones that seemed even too unreasonable, but the following act, the Sedition Act, made an amendment to the original act in 1918, delved further into taking the rights away from citizens, especially those who were immigrants. (Dashiell, 2015)

The Sedition Act, enacted May 16, 1918, specified the Espionage Act to target German immigrants, perceived threat or not. The Sedition Act made it illegal to use profane, disloyal language to criticize the United State’s government, military, flag, or uniform. Along with stripping away this first amendment right of freedom of speech, it also made other actions like giving a speech that opposed the United State’s involvement, deterring the sale of U.S. bonds, or even atrocities such as displaying the German flag illegal. Violating this law earned the “criminal” up to twenty years in prison or a hefty ten thousand dollar fine. Under this act, as well, the postmaster general banned the mailing of letters, newspapers, packages, and pamphlets that could be seen as opposing the war. Almost seventy-five newspapers lost mailing privilege or were forcibly pushed to keep silent about the war. Most of these publications were German-American run or were published in German language. Along with the target of German publications, two thousand people were arrested for sedition, with as many as one thousand (mainly immigrants) convicted. The Supreme court ruled this just and fair, citing that it was their authority to punish speech that would “create a clear and present danger” (Dashiell, 2015). Even though the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, the Espionage Act remains viable still today.

Fear, as with both the Alien and Sedition Acts as well as the Patriot Act, was a large contributing factor to the enforcement and creation of these acts. Those in the United States were pitted against Germans, even when those who chose to immigrate were as much citizens as those who were born here. The government made sure that the fear instilled in the natural born American citizens was at play when enforcing these acts by “othering” those the United States was fighting against in the war — Germany. German immigrants, just as plagued over the idea of war as any other United States citizen, were targeted by anti-German propaganda, the harshest being the passing of these acts. By just being proud of where one was born — by flying a flag, writing in one’s native language, or talking about the negative aspects of the war — German immigrants could be thrown into jail or arrested, forcing them to censor themselves or face the wrath of the United States government. This separated the German immigrants from other United States citizens, making them an easier target of discrimination and giving the American public people to falsely accuse of treason and harboring ill-will towards the nation they were born into. With World War I in the forefront of every citizen’s mind, the Wilson administration took advantage and instigated the idea of “us versus them” in order to gain the American public’s support for these unjust laws.

Throughout the United State’s history, it is apparent that laws enacted are made sure to keep down those who oppose the president’s viewpoint at the time, this is especially true for the Espionage and Sedition Acts. These acts targeted the German immigrants who came to the United States looking for refuge in one way or another. These laws made many criminals for the simple act of using their first amendment rights, writing about the war in German, or even flying a flag of their native country, which, by the way, are not actions that call for the name of “treason,” “sabotage,” or “spying.” The Espionage Act, still in place, is and has been used during wartimes such as the Cold War, World War II, and the Red Scare.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts greatly increased the presidential power and the power of those directly under the president. By “othering” German immigrants, the president created a law enforcement that unjustly arrested and imprisoned mainly innocent immigrants. Out of the two-thousand arrested for violation of these acts, none were breaching the sabotage or spying parts of the Espionage Act, but all, in one way or another, were guilty of sedition (using their first amendment rights to talk about the war as they felt necessary, flying a flag of their country of origin, or publishing papers in their native language). One prominent example is Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist presidential candidate at the time, who was arrested and sent to prison for ten years for making a speech that “obstructed recruiting” (New York Times, 1921). The speech in question was one where Debs urged the American public to resist the draft and talked out about the war and president Woodrow Wilson. Spending nearly five years of his prison term, he was finally released under the next president’s, Warren Harding, administration.

Executive Order 9066 was an order passed by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt after the attack of Pearl Harbor. This act targeted Japanese Americans purely based on discrimination and retaliation for a crime that many took no part in, supported, or even immigrated from the country that the attacks came from.Executive Order 9066 was a revamping of the Alien Enemies Act of World War I, which tried to get rid of all Japanese, Italian, and German noncitizens. The order increased greatly the power of the Secretary of War in order to fulfil this job. It prescribed military areas and gave the authority to the military to ban any citizen within a fifty to sixty mile radius spanning from coastal Washington to California, and even into the inland in southern Arizona. Not only are the powers expanded and citizens can be banned at random due to the discretion of whoever is put in charge, but those who are apprehended were to be transported to assembly centers that were constructed in California, Washington, Arizona, and Oregon. The main target of those banned and taken to the assembly centers were Japanese Americans, with smaller portions of other populations such as Italian and German residents that were a target of the order as well. (Executive Order 9066)

Such as the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Espionage Act, and the Patriot Act, Executive Order 9066 was also built after a major terror attack, Pearl harbor, and used that as leverage to gain support for the order. Fear is a large motivator for those in support of the acts and orders to want to take action against those who have caused harm to their country of origin. Fear is a largely used political tool for those in charge to pass sometimes unjust and unfair acts and laws under the guise of safety for a nation. Few will question, especially at first immediately after the attack has happened and the wounds are still fresh in their minds, the validity of the act or law and will often enforce and support the act that their leader has passed because they believe he/she has their best interest at heart. Fear is a powerful instrument that is used prominently in the passing of not only Executive Order 9066, but other acts that take away the rights of those who the president considered “threatening.”

Executive Order 9066 increased the power and influence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt during wartime and overall expanded the precedent once again of actions taken against those suspected of impeding freedom during times of crisis. Roosevelt not only arrested and convicted those that were deemed “dangerous,” but placed them in internment camps that mirrored the German constructed concentration camps. 110,000 Japanese Americans were placed in these camps (along with 300 Italian Americans and 5,000 German Americans), when almost sixty-two percent of them were actually naturalized citizens and no threat to the United States (Executive Order 9066). Roosevelt gave the military a large jump in power by signing this order and enacting the removal of Japanese Americans. He showed the true extent of what the president is capable of by trying to remove those who were, in fact, no threat to the United States. For all the effort, only ten Japanese spies were found and convicted, none being of Japanese descent. By pointing the finger of blame at all Japanese Americans, Roosevelt not only enacted a prejudiced and racist order, but set a dangerous model for presidents in the future facing similar decisions.

After the fact, this act, like the others before it, was denounced and was shown in a negative light. Reparations were made in 1988 by Ronald Reagan by giving a twenty thousand dollar check and an apology from the United States to those who were victims of the internment camps. For two and a half years, United States citizens were placed in camps where the conditions were poor, difficult work was required, and rough treatment from guards were the standard. Ironically, one of the reasons for the camps was to keep Japanese Americans safe from racism and prejudice during the wartime. Even the reasons of “national security” and “protection” did not ring true with the enactment of this order. Gen Mark Clark and Adm. Harold Stark (who were prominent in the field of naval operations at the time of Pearl Harbor) testified in front of Congress how the Pacific Coast was not susceptible to more attacks by Japanese Americans (“Stretching Executive Power in Wartime”). An unnecessary evil was unleashed into the United State’s history, unfounded and setting a precedent for the future leaders to act upon.

Even though the acts and order took away first and fourth amendment rights of a certain group of people, the American public got behind the president and actively helped support them. Fear, propaganda, presidential rhetoric, and the “othering” of certain populations contributed greatly to America’s receival of these acts, ensuring that they thought what the president was doing was just. After attacks or in the thick of war, the American population was confused and frightened and looked to their leader to punish the party responsible. Americans started hearing “us vs them” rhetoric that instilled distrust in their fellow Americans, giving opportunity to the president to target and alienate. Increasing their own Executive power, presidents took the initiative to take away civil liberties from those who immigrated to the United States for shelter and security and vilified them for their own gains. Discussed in this paper, many factors contributed to the passing and approval of these bills, initiated by the government for the sole purpose of taking away constitutional rights and removing those who they wanted gone from the United States. The United States government has a long track record with violating rights and giving unfair treatment to their people while citizens follow the actions of their president until they are targeting them personally.

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The Suppression of Civil Liberties by the American President. (2018, November 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from
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