Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Ugly History of North Country Nationalism Offers Lessons For Today

Goodness has long been an admirable part of our identity as Americans. It is evident at the national level in our response when natural disasters strike here or abroad. Closer to home, we see it manifested daily in our own Adirondacks and foothills, where people donate, volunteer, and reach out to help others. Our foundation as small-town folk is one of welcoming, caring, sharing.

Along with that comes the knowledge that we’re also lucky to be Americans, lucky to not have been born in some other country where things are much different. Many of the lessons we learned in school were derived from the struggles of others in less fortunate circumstances.

We were taught to appreciate certain rights and freedoms, to speak out against perceived wrongs, to defend the less capable, and to question the directives of those in leadership positions. In some countries, those rights are viewed as privileges for the chosen few, or are not available at all.

We were taught that in such places, life could be oppressive and downright scary. How would we react as Americans if a fellow citizen were arrested for simply having said that the nation’s leader was a fool? What if our neighbors were required to register with local officials wherever they resettled, just because of their name or who their ancestors were? What if the average, hard-working joe, after tossing back too many beers at the local bar, was jailed for making disparaging comments about our government? Or if the same thing happened to a highly respected professional in the local community? What would we do if a capable teacher was harassed as a traitor and virtually driven from her job, simply because of her supposed ancestral roots?

As freedom-loving Americans endowed with certain inalienable rights, we view such actions as poison to democracy, personally demeaning, and unthinkable in a free-minded society. Those are the types of things that happen elsewhere.

But brace yourself. Those exact things, and more, did happen here, repeatedly—not only in America, but right here in the North Country. They are lessons from the past, providing a glimpse of our possible future. Folks back then were sure it couldn’t happen on their watch, but it did. And folks today are surely just as confident that it can’t happen now.

Those incidents occurred a century ago, which seems distant and disconnected from modern times. But try this perspective: they occurred during World War I (and similar things happened in the post-war years), so the folks involved, both victims and perpetrators, were our grandparents and great-grandparents, people we knew, loved, and admired.

Briefly explained, here’s how American law made such actions not only legal, but laudable as acts of patriotism. In April 1917, almost three years after World War I began, America joined the fight for the final 18 months. While soldiers headed for Europe, the path followed at home was partially defined by the Sedition Act of 1918 (an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917). The new law forbade a range of actions and spoken statements that we generally assume are inalienable rights, a term that mainly applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The new law, an extension of previous statutes, made it illegal while the country was at war to “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States.” Punishment was “a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.” Just for saying something negative about our president or government.

Freedom of speech, of the press, and other constitutional guarantees are abridged during special situations, like wartime. To maintain order among the citizenry under those conditions, leaders seek to enjoin everyone in a common cause—to rally ’round the flag. A powerful tool to that end is defining an enemy and focusing blame on them for all manner of grievances. So, in 1918, a deep distrust and outright hatred for all things German spread across America. People of German descent were required to register as “Enemy Aliens,” and their movement was restricted.

Citizens were, in fact, encouraged to join groups with such patriotic names as the American Defense Society and the American Protective League, the latter of which formed a branch in Essex County’s Port Henry in July 1918 and described itself in this manner:

“The American Protective League is a countrywide organization engaged in patriotic activities along Secret Service lines, organized with the approval of, and operating under the direction of, the U.S. Department of Justice. One of the chief functions of the league is to investigate all cases of seditious or disloyal utterances, and to investigate all activities that apparently have a sinister significance.”

In laymen’s terms — despite the high-minded, patriotic title — the APL was citizens spying on citizens and reporting them to the government. People arbitrarily decided whether or not other community members were patriotic enough—and if not, charges were brought. APL membership reached 250,000, with the government claiming that a branch existed in nearly every city and town nationwide. Abetted by a sense of self-importance, people dove right in and the attacks began. The collateral damage left behind was immense.

Using the term “utterances” was particularly worrisome. Even speaking one’s opinion in a private conversation could — and frequently did — land someone in jail. Bail was set and hearings were held, followed by trial and punishment if a commissioner deemed it appropriate. It was a perfect example of governing by fear: point fingers, divide the populace, and just let it happen.

Aside from what occurred elsewhere in America at the time, consider a few of the many incidents that took place right here in the Adirondack region.

Because a citizen reported that Giles Schermerhorn of Keeseville said something negative about America, Giles was arrested, charged with violating the Espionage Act, humiliated by stories in several newspapers, forced to gather witnesses for his defense, and required to appear at several hearings. His case was eventually dismissed by a commissioner. Schermerhorn, it turns out, was a respected citizen; had recently chaired a patriotic meeting in support of the Second Liberty Loan program; was an active Grange member; was an American citizen; was a descendant of a Revolutionary War colonel; and was of Dutch, not Germanic, ancestry. But the damage was already done. He was an innocent victim of misguided patriotic fervor.

How about Webster Chandler of Ogdensburg? While riding on a train and discussing the war, he referred to President Wilson as “an educated fool.” An uninvolved stranger on the train, Henry Hughes of Lewis County, overheard the comment and had Chandler arrested for making seditious statements. He was dragged into court, forced to provide testimony in his own defense, reprimanded, and then released. The evidence was turned over to federal authorities, who ultimately did not pursue the case any further. But a dozen upstate newspapers had already damaged Chandler’s reputation by carrying the story. The man who accused him, on the other hand, was praised in at least two papers with the headline, “Henry Hughes, A Lewis County Man, Stands Up for His President.”

Shortly after loggers George Saulters and William Deyo left the forests of Tupper Lake for some “rest and recreation,” they were the subject of newspaper articles titled “Woodsmen Held on Sedition Charge.” Living it up as lumberjacks are wont to do, they drank to excess at a hotel and reportedly made comments in support of Germany. This prompted a call to the local police, after which both men were jailed and sentenced to 20 days for public intoxication. In addition, they soon had a federal record: the arresting officer provided a report on their “illegal utterances” to the Justice Department for further investigation.

Long Lake dentist Dr. Carl Longnecker, well known there and in the Olmstedville area, was arrested by a deputy U.S. Marshal and jailed at Plattsburgh. The charge by a fellow citizen was that two weeks earlier, after imbibing a few too many beers at Raquette Lake, the doctor said he was German and had known the Kaiser as a child. Longnecker, required to defend himself in court, was eventually absolved of guilt after asserting he had been drinking too much at the time. This “dangerous threat” to America was 67 years old, a widely respected professional, and the son of a Civil War Union soldier. He and his parents were U.S. natives.

Ogdensburg schoolteacher Mildred Hollenbeck was accused by a fellow citizen of allowing “a pro-German verse to be circulated by students in her class.” Denying accusations of disloyalty as a supposed native of Germany, Hollenbeck cited her participation in Red Cross activities, her work with other war-relief organizations, and the fact that she was of Dutch descent, not German. Under pressure and humiliated by the accusations, she resigned and accepted a teaching position in Schenectady.

There were many incidents like those, and some even more startling. Citizens who didn’t outwardly express hate for Germany and all things German were considered suspect. Editorials in several North Country newspapers openly encouraged such hatred, thus enshrining it with legitimacy. At the bare minimum, the results were deeply disturbing.

When a freshman at the Canton Theological School said, “No true Christian can have hate in his heart,” a full investigation was launched in search of subversives (pacifists) at the school, and the boy was called before the board of trustees to explain his “seditious statements.” When school professor Herbert Morrell said that a minister’s sermon was wrong because it encouraged hatred for Germans, he was called before the same board to explain himself. How unsettling to see hatred as good and pacifism as evil.

At St. Lawrence University, a patriotic speech by graduating student Helen Hazen condemned the Germans and questioned the loyalty of those refusing to hate them as much as she did. Imagine uttering the words, “There are times when to hate is holy.” She justified it with, “A sound, normal, healthy loathing of evil is not wrong. It is necessary to overcome that evil. There can be no moderate patriotism today, no half-heartedness about this war. A man is either a patriot or a traitor.” Again, define an enemy and vilify him, even if he’s your neighbor.

Jail time, false accusations, public humiliation, job loss, fines up to $1,000 for voicing personal opinions were all prices paid by innocent American citizens because unfounded suspicions driven by hatred for an outside enemy turned neighbor against neighbor. And it all happened right here in our beloved North Country, even though our grandparents and great-grandparents knew back then that it couldn’t. We’re probably just as certain it won’t happen again today.

Looking back at our treatment of African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Irish, Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, and others at different times in our history, they all have two things in common: none of them are moments we are proud of, and none had positive outcomes.

Considering our past and the current rhetoric akin to xenophobia, perhaps paying heed to the lessons of history would be a wise path to follow instead of simply trusting in our own goodness.

Photos: Cartoon from the New York Herald, Library of Congress (1918); Headline from the Adirondack Record (Ausable Forks, 1918)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

34 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    My great grandfather changed our family name to sound less German prior to his enlisting and fighting in the civil war for the union. Being too “german” was a big problem here in NYS.

    The law that made it illegal for all Chinese to come to the US is another one to consider. The same law even made it illegal for a legal Chinese immigrant to ever become a US citizen. It was called the “Chinese Exclusion Act” – passed in the 1880’s and in force into the 1940’s.

    We apparently wanted folks “yearning to breath free” as long as the were not Chinese.

  2. amygodine@gmail.com says:

    A particularly interesting and useful Gooley post. Thanks!

  3. Bellota says:

    Chilling. The road to fascism is a slippery slope. Could it happen here? Easily. We are less than four weeks into the current administration and congress that many of us, who believe in the principles of our constitution, fear are leading the country into authoritarianism.

    • Boreas says:


      Agreed. It seems fascism is rarely recognized or addressed as it is taking place – only after the fact when it is too late. A free society needs to be ever-vigilant as it can be very insidious.

      • Paul says:

        This is exactly the kind of stuff that the anti-Obama crowd was saying when he took office. Basically the exact same type of wording. It is amazing what we see going on right now.

    • Paul says:

      “fear are leading the country into authoritarianism”

      Can you please explain why you think this is happening and what has been done so far to make you have these fears?

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Nothing new under the sun. Hate is an equal opportunity employer. Liberals go after conservatives. Conservatives go after liberals.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      That’s a lazy response, Pete. The article presents a thesis and supports it with well documented facts. These are frightening times whether the head-in-the-sand crowd wants to admit it or not. Tyranny thrives on complacency. Repeating the old “you like Fox or you like CNN” version of classification is like painting over mold. People need to look beyond their Us v. Them perspective and start thinking like a united society or the slope might just get slick enough for really bad things to happen.

      • Pete Klein says:

        You can be frightened if you want. I, my parents and my immigrant German, Catholic grandparents were never frightened by anyone.
        Cowards deserve whatever they get.

        • Balian the Cat says:

          That’s mighty noble of you and your kin, Pete. But not everyone is in a position to keep the stiff upper lip your folks did (I won’t bother calling BS on the “never frightened by anyone” statement). Maybe you could speak with the oldest surviving members of your German ancestry and ask them about the last time rampant nationalism swept across Europe. Or the time before that when ~17 million people died in the trenches. I am guessing there are a couple frightening accounts of that. If there’s truly nothing new under the sun, maybe it’s okay to be a little be concerned?

          • Charlie S says:

            “my immigrant German, Catholic grandparents were never frightened by anyone.”

            Ignorance frightens me more than anything else on this planet earth!!

  5. kathy says:

    Unfortunately the same sentiments and prejudices are with many people hating and fearing what and who are different from them ,perhaps even as their past generations were treated the same. History does repeat itself over and over with nationalism and religion binding the fearful against each new color,religion,ethnicity and even political affinity as the new “enemy”.

    • Balian the Cat says:

      I would add ignorance (be it willful or inherent) to nationalism and religion, Kathy. Well said!

      • kathy says:

        Yup as long as we don’t equate ignorance with level of schooling but interpretation of facts to bolster their views. I know educated people who use facts to further their views as they see it fit or to take sides drawing the line in the sand. It may be the the uneducated that could hold an open mind. Unfortunately many prejudices are passed down thru families and small localized communties.
        Salem witch hunts where having a common enemy to unite against pulled people together to create a sense of security against the known tangible threat .

  6. Charlie S says:

    Paul says: “My great grandfather changed our family name to sound less German prior to his enlisting and fighting in the civil war for the union. Being too “german” was a big problem here in NYS.”

    Being Jewish was also a problem way back then too Paul…is why the Jewish people slightly altered the spelling of their names also. Who know’s what we’re gonna have to do to rid this planet earth of the hate mongers. It seems like many of them came out of the woodwork during this last election….and their man won. Fasten your seat belt!

  7. Charlie S says:

    Pete Klein says: “Hate is an equal opportunity employer. Liberals go after conservatives. Conservatives go after liberals.”

    Yes but some of us are far more rational and it is not hate that stirs us. There’s passion and there’s hate and the latter clearly stands out. Hate is something that stains the brain Pete and let me tell you there are many stained brains among us….and there’s no getting through to them! They’re stuck!

    • Paul says:

      Thinking that liberals are more rational than conservatives is part of the reason that we have this new president. Many of them (like many liberals) are very rational. Anyone who thinks that Trump and his supporters are a bunch of irrational boobs is walking right into their trap. See what happened on election day? Keep pretending that one side is smarter and more rational than the other to your own political peril.

  8. Charlie S says:

    Paul says: “…fear are leading the country into authoritarianism”

    Can you please explain why you think this is happening and what has been done so far to make you have these fears?

    >> I have an answer to your query Paul. The dictionary defines authoritarian as a “Believer in rigid exercise of authority.”
    When Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General,refused to defend Trump when he decided to close our borders to people with a different skin color from a handful of Muslim countries….he fired her. His way or the highway Paul. That’s what we saw the first few days into his newly found power.Certainly wasn’t what you would call liberalism.

    • Paul says:

      And the courts are weighing in on if that was within his authority (the temporary ban I mean). That is what checks and balances are for. I think that some of these fears people have are not rational. The man promised he would ban all Muslims from the country. I was glad he didn’t follow through so what he did propose (despite how dumb it was) made me feel more comfortable. Wasn’t happy with the ban – think it is counterproductive. But he did get elected on that promise. Most polls of likely voters (the people who actually hold the power) showed that a majority of those people supported the temporary ban. I don’t really see that as authoritarian. That was the will of the people that voted him into office. Going off and doing whatever you want despite the will of the people is when I start to get nervous.

      • Charlie S says:

        “The man promised he would ban all Muslims from the country….but he did get elected on that promise.”

        Which says quite much about his electorate hey Paul?

        • Paul says:

          For sure. My point there is that it appears that he is doing the will of the people (no matter how dumb it is) why that makes someone think he is authoritarian doesn’t make any sense.

  9. Charlie S says:

    Balian the Cat says: “If there’s truly nothing new under the sun, maybe it’s okay to be a little concerned?”

    Some people just don’t like anything new Balian they’re afraid of change. Is why there’s so much support for war,so much of the “Kill them all” attitude. These people concerned! The only thing concerns them are their wee circle of like-minded friends and their wallets….generally speaking that is.

  10. Charlie S says:

    “The American Protective League…In laymen’s terms — despite the high-minded, patriotic title — the APL was citizens spying on citizens and reporting them to the government.”

    This is the reason why Anne Frank was murdered by the nazi’s just weeks before the war was over. Because some racist imbecile snitched on her whereabouts when he found out. There are hints of the ‘American Protective League’ having a presence in this country now Lawrence. You’ll see them on billboards or on signs in Penn Station NYC – “If you see something say something.” Ever since the terrorist GW Bush was in power we’ve had that.

    • Larry says:

      Yes, Charlie … it was echoes from the past for me when, “If you see something, say something,” surfaced again. Most people (not all, but most) want to be part of something (even reluctant gang members have attested to that fact). “If you see something, say something,” is meant to scare people, and it always works well because it seems inclusive, making people feel like they’re actually doing something by spying on what other citizens are doing.
      Scare tactics work great … remember the 1950s and 1960s? Duck-and-cover drills (our favorite last step following “put your head between your legs” was “and kiss your ass goodbye!”) And bomb shelters … boy, those were a great investment, just like during W’s reign, when scared folks heeded government warnings and built “safe zones” in their houses, sectioning off rooms with plastic and duct tape. It kept people busy, but that was about it. Then again, the whole “prepper” thing has become a financial gold mine, all based on people’s fears.
      When people question why a business or government would want to scare us, the answer lies in history: because it works!

      • Charlie S says:

        ““If you see something, say something,” is meant to scare people, and it always works well because it seems inclusive, making people feel like they’re actually doing something by spying on what other citizens are doing.”

        It’s all about people not being able to think for themselves Larry nothing less. It seems to me there is this organized attempt to dumb this society down and if you ask me it’s working. Fortunately there’s many who have their wits about them and so maybe there’s still a glimmer of hope left. Thank you for this piece.

  11. Charlie S says:

    “Going off and doing whatever you want despite the will of the people is when I start to get nervous.”

    This means you got nervous when GW Bush (there I go again with that dreaded name) went against all of those protesters,the most protesters since the Vietnam War,and dropped all of those bombs on that innocent society over there in Iraq not long after Saudis (not from Iraq) flew two planes into the World Trade Center and killed over 3000 of our brothers and sisters?

    • Paul says:

      Gonna have to get used to the fact that the will of the people comes from the voters not from the protesters. Thank god for that – no big fan of mob rule!

      That is why all the politicians lined up behind Bush and approved that idea. They all saw the same intel all made the same poor decision. Did make me very nervous but not because of a bunch of protesters.

      • Boreas says:

        “Gonna have to get used to the fact that the will of the people comes from the voters not from the protesters.”

        Citizens can protest any time, but they only vote during elections (if then). Protests literally started this country before the vote was even instituted. Protests helped push through emancipation, civil rights and helped shorten the Vietnam war. Our first amendment rights are very powerful and should never be usurped. It is arguably the most important part of a democracy.

  12. Charlie S says:

    “.. the will of the people comes from the voters not from the protesters. Thank god for that – no big fan of mob rule!”

    ‘from the voters’ You mean the misinformed constituency Paul which is exactly what those who supported the Iraq War were. I recall when I was with my dad at the VA Albany a few years ago. I met an Iraqi War veteran in there who had no idea that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11 when I presented that to him…which came as no shocker to me. And if misinformed doesn’t fit them then hate and or ignorance does i’m sorry to say. Or all three or one or two of them does!

    When you say mob rule I took it to mean that you meant that protesters have no place in this society but i’m way off on that one I bet? I do know that when there are protesters out doing what our Constitution encourages them to do there is a segment of this society just shrivels up at the thought of it. When protesters marched on Washington recently I saw some of their (a segment of this society) grievances in letters to the editors of the local rags. Things like “Wouldn’t it be more constructive if they helped those in need instead of protesting….” Stupid stuff like that. The more of those we have the more trouble we’re in which i’m sure you’ll agree on.

    May peace finds it way into the tortured souls of every human on earth who wishes to do ill will upon others or other living things. Sweet dreams!

  13. Joe Hansen says:

    Thank you Lawrence, as usual well researched and written and now timely as well.

  14. Larry says:

    Thanks very much, Joe.

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