On trial for pacifism

This is about the 1918 trial of American radical political cartoonist Art Young and others for conspiracy and interfering with enlistment. Most of the article is a quotation of Young’s own words. The words provide some perspective on today’s struggle for freedom of speech.

Capitalism, Art Young, private collection (reproduced in Harper's, Jan 2016, p. 64)

Capitalism, Art Young, private collection (reproduced in Harper’s, Jan 2016, p. 64)

When I was made to study American history in school, starting in the fourth grade, I was given the impression that the rights given us as Americans were automatic. We had these rights, simply because (after some struggle) the Constitution was made to say that we did. It took years for me to start to understand that words on paper were not self-interpreting or self-enforcing. Some time in my twenties, when I read Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, I became indignant about many things, not least the violation of free-speech rights during the First World War. How durst the United States of America contradict the very document under which it was constituted? It was the naive question of somebody who thought the whole world should be as orderly as mathematics.

As I have been writing in this blog, the country where I have been living and working as a mathematician for more than fifteen years is now engaged in suppressing the right of free speech. It is doing so, for the same reason that the United States did: certain speech is deemed contrary to the state’s war aims. If we in Turkey look to the United States for help in securing free-speech rights, we ought to recall how the United States has interfered with such rights within its own borders.

An article in the January, 2016, issue of Harper’s helps us do this. In “To Laugh That We May Not Weep,” Art Spiegelman writes of A nearly forgotten cartoonist we need to look at—right now!

Art Young would have turned 150 years old this month, and the finest gift we could have given him is Bernie Sanders’s campaign to welcome socialism back into America’s parlor after decades of keeping it chained in the basement. Art Young? He was the greatest radical political cartoonist in our history, a one-of-a-kind American original. His ability to boil complex social issues down to memorable symbols, drawn with justifiable anger but permeated with genial warmth, would be an immeasurable asset to Bernie in explaining the realities of today’s class war to its casualties.

In the course of the article, Spiegelman writes of Young’s legal trials:

He was never quite convicted for his convictions, though the Associated Press did sue him for libel after he (accurately) accused it of covering up the bloody details of a West Virginia coal-miners’ strike. During the First World War, he was tried for treason for his pacifist cartoons in The Masses. He had to keep being nudged awake in the courtroom, and doodled an endearing portrait of himself snoring in his chair, captioned “Art Young on trial for his life.”

Technically Young and his colleagues had two trials, and each of them was a mistrial, because of a hung jury. Let us note then a difference from Turkey, which does not have trial by jury. Another difference is that Young and colleagues were not kept in pre-trial detention.

It turns out that Young himself wrote about his trials in On My Way: Being The Book Of Art Young In Text And Picture (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928). Through the miracle of the Internet, and the willingness of people to make books available there, Young’s work can be found in the Internet Archive. For the convenience of myself and any other interested reader, I transcribe the relevant pages below. They are good reading. (Page numbers are as in the original, bracketed at the bottoms of the pages they number. The cartoon O Blessed Sleep itself appears facing page 296. I have cut and pasted from the plain text file provided by the Internet Archive; but I have had to supply italics and em-dashes and to correct a few typographical errors. I have also supplied the links of course, to Wikipedia if possible, and otherwise to whatever seemed best. The links give a review of American radical history.)

It is characteristic of us human beings to look back over a period of our lives when we were in the midst of a thrilling adventure, to remember the romance of it and to minimize the troubles and disasters of our experience. I shall make no such mistake in writing of The Masses.

To keep going was our problem from the beginning. We had well-wishers in plenty, but to get money to pay for paper, engraving, printing, agents and office help was a constant worry.

Except a few book publishers, no business of importance would advertise in The Masses.

A large sale of the publication did not help much; we were still without the support of advertising. Debts, which our income would not cover, were met as a rule by individuals of wealth who thought our experiment worth while and were partly, at least, in sympathy with our ideas. The rest was collected through lecture tours of the editor, fancy dress balls, debates, and dinners at which there were appeals for funds. [292]

Up to May, 1916, The Masses had encountered much enmity and many obstructions. We were indicted for criminal libel by the Associated Press (case of the Associated Press versus Max Eastman and Art Young, 1913-14), ejected from the reading rooms of many libraries, the subway and elevated stands of New York, refused by the large magazine distributing companies of Boston and Philadelphia, and our mailing rights revoked by the Government of Canada.

Then, as before stated, came the big bump when the U. S. Department of Justice took a hand in the obstructions and decided that this upstart magazine was a conspiracy and was also interfering with enlistment. We appeared to be conducting ourselves in such a shameful way as to threaten, by golly, the pillars of our Republic.

Four of us—Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Merrill Rogers (business manager) and myself—were first tried in April, 1918, by District Attorney Earl Barnes for the Government. Late in September, 1918, a second trial was begun when John Reed was also indicted. John was in Russia but returned to join us. Well, Art, said John as we were taking our places in the court room, got your grip packed for Atlanta?

Both times the war fever was still raging and bands were playing patriotic tunes in City Hall Park, just below the room of the Federal Building where we were tried. Judge Augustus Hand presided at the first trial and Judge Martin Manton at the second.

Josephine Bell was included in the indictment as originally drawn up. Miss Bell had written a poem for The Masses about Emma Goldman. Mr. Hillquit, one of our attorneys, was sure there was no line in the poem that could be construed as illegal, so he appealed to the Judge to quash the indictment against Josephine Bell. Mr. Hillquit handed the [293] poem to the Judge to read. His Honor adjusted his glasses, read it slowly, then handed it back to Mr. Hillquit, saying: Do you call that a poem?

Mr. Hillquit replied, Your Honor, it is so called in the Indictment.

The Judge said, Indictment quashed.

I was put on the witness stand to explain some of my cartoons that had been published in The Masses. One of them entitled Having Their Fling was Exhibit F. In reply to the Prosecuting Attorney’s question, Did you draw that cartoon? I told the jury I did. That fact settled, I said I drew it with a pencil. As for the idea, I said that I tried to show a mad orgy of men representing the principal institutions of our country: press, pulpit, politics, and business. I tried to picture them war-mad and crazy. The jurors had a copy of the cartoon and were passing it along to each other.

Having Their Fling, Art Young, 1917.  From Wikimedia Commons.

Having Their Fling, Art Young, 1917. From Wikimedia Commons.

But, said the Prosecuting Attorney, as if he suspected I was holding back some of the points in the cartoon that would condemn it as seditious and connect it with the conspiracy, when you put that orchestra playing on war-implements in the background of your cartoon and the Devil leading the orchestra, what did you mean by that?

My reply as nearly as I can remember was to quote General Sherman’s definition of war and to insist that war, being Hell, the Devil ought to be the conductor of the band.

Once, while being cross-examined, I said I drew my cartoons for the public good. Our attorneys were very anxious that I explain in detail what public good I intended,—I hadn’t thought of that question, and I didn’t know what to say—what kind of good—now let me think?—As I looked around and saw reporters waiting for my answer, and everybody all ears—my mind became more and more a [294] vacuum. I intended—why—the good of the public, I replied. But that wasn’t satisfactory. Every one seemed to think it was a queer reason for drawing cartoons. If I had said I drew them for money (which I did not) that would have been understood. For a long time the lawyers kept at me, hoping I would say something that would sound sensible—to a jury. It was an ordeal. Once I thought it was over, but the lawyer started again. The Judge finally came to my rescue. He seemed to think it was about time I was let alone. He made a few remarks on the purport of the question then gave an interpretation of public good that I didn’t understand and asked me (in effect) if I intended some such public good as he had described.

Like the typical harassed witness I was ready to agree to anything to have the matter settled. So I merely said, That’s it exactly—I was even ready to say, Go ahead and hang me but stop pushing. Up to this point in the trial I was a fairly good witness—and I was sorry I was not smart enough to define public good in definite terms.

A half dozen of my cartoons were in evidence also one article I had written. I had to explain them all: why I drew a cartoon called Iceland declares war on Africa—and another one of Congress represented as a humble individual asking the war-board-of-financiers: Where do I come in? and the answer Run along, we got through with you when you declared war for us. These cartoons and others were my sins—and be it said that they looked bold and bad—when all framed up in the antagonistic atmosphere of those days. But still I insist that I drew them for the public good.

We, the defendants, were seated with our attorneys at a long table. Occasionally we would pass notes back and forth—perhaps a comment on the jury like: Best bet, [295] No. 6, or No. 10 looks human, or No. 8, hard boiled. The proceedings dragged on through days and weeks, relieved by the appearance of some witness distinguished in official life or the arts who would testify in our behalf. George Creel, publicity agent for the war, who years before had been an amateur-radical and had written an article for The Masses on Rockefeller Law, came up from Washington to testify to our characters, or whatever it is that is supposed to have weight with a jury. I thought then and still think that this was a courteous and courageous thing for Creel to do.

Inside the rail I would see Richard Le Gallienne, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savel Zimand, Dean Kirchwey, Amos Pinchot, Darwin Meserole and others looking on, no doubt as guests of our attorneys. Teachers, young lawyers, village poets, and artists, and some humble working people who seemed to be taking time off, were back in the audience.

—O, BLESSED SLEEP— A self portrait of the cartoonist drawn during the trial of himself and other editors of The Masses for conspiracy against the government in time of war.


A self portrait of the cartoonist drawn during the trial of himself and other editors of The Masses for conspiracy against the government in time of war.

One afternoon the proceedings drearily dragged through the hours and I fell asleep. This incident created much amusement, and I often hear it referred to to-day as the time I fell asleep when on trial for my life. But I did not expect to be hung if found guilty, or shot at sunrise. At the worst I was sure it would be but a few years in prison. But I do not doubt, had a severer penalty confronted me, I would have taken a nap just the same or at least tried. I have never thanked our attorney for waking me, although I know his intentions were admirable and probably saved me from the terrible crime of contempt of court. Here I must tell the old story of the Irishman who was fined ten dollars for contempt of court. He got out his pocket book, handed ten dollars up to the Judge, and said: Judge, it’s worth it Tin dollars don’t begin to pay for the contimpt I have for this court. But in my case I was not contemptuous of [296] this particular court, nor did I feel animosity toward the Government attorneys (they had a job to perform for the Department of Justice); but the waste of time, the droning of lawyers over technicalities: whether a letter was signed in green or blue ink, whether it was Monday or Tuesday, what direction the wind was blowing, if at all, is enough to drive one into hysterics or to seek sweet refuge in sleep. An artist eliminates detail, a lawyer piles it up. Your sense of humor breaks down after the first week of such a trial. They won’t let you go home and forget it, so nothing can save you but a quiet little nap. I am not recommending it to other criminals, but it put me en rapport with the higher law where every case goes at last.

When I was awakened, I made a brief sketch of myself as I thought I must have looked during this short but peaceful oblivion. Max Eastman took the sketch, saying, Let’s run this in the next number of The Masses.

At the first trial our defense was conducted by Attorneys Morris Hillquit and Dudley Field Malone; at the second by Seymour Stedman, assisted by Charles Recht and Walter Nellis. After each the juries disagreed—in legal parlance, they were mistrials. At the first, only one juror, Mr. H. C. Fredericks, voted for our acquittal. He told the other jurors he would hold out for us till hell froze over. After many years of regular service on juries, Mr. Fredericks was never called to serve again in the City of New York. This he told me when I chanced to meet him about six years later.

At the last trial, more jurors were for our acquittal, but others for conviction, and could not agree. So again the Department of Justice had failed to get us—with much less hope than before. We wondered if there would be still another trial, but in a few days we were notified that the case had been dropped—nolle prosse [sic]. [297]

The war was soon over—the treaty of Versailles had done its miserable job, and liberal thinking people were walking around as if in a daze. I met a pro-war friend on the street. He said: Say, Art, if they should try you Masses boys now, I’ll wager the jury would acquit you in five minutes and vote you medals besides.

But the remark of juror number two after the last trial was the one I often quote as significant of justice swayed by emotional prejudice. Juror number two said to us on the night of the verdict: It was a good thing for you boys that you were all American born; otherwise it might have gone pretty hard with you. In other words, this well-meaning gentleman admitted that justice as he saw it was subject to change if you happen to be born in a foreign country. Justice! a question of geography! Get born in the right place!

By this time, many news dealers could not afford to incur the risk of handling this magazine branded with the stigma of sedition. Some dealers were arrested, and we raised money for their defense. The expenses of our trial and various troubles of those terrific times, especially the tyranny of the Post Office, finally got the publication with its back to the wall. It became plain early in 1918 that we were facing a doubtful future. But again The Masses was reorganized and called The Liberator as a technical means of placating the Post Office. Most of us felt, however, that we had done about all we could in those dark days.

The Liberator continued for over four years with many of The Masses staff contributing. It was finally taken over by the Workers’ Party, and was called The Workers’ Monthly. Apathy had spread its opiate pall over the radical movement, and many real earnest men and women who [298] were with The Masses and of it were, temporarily at least, discouraged.

Inadequate as it was, The Masses helped to open the way for that which is individual in art and literature. This alone was annoying enough to a public brought up on the pap of prettiness and the trite. But our real offense, our crime, was voicing opinions that were irritating to financial rulers. Not one of us, I think, but knew that their iron juggernaut had the right of way and that we were just throwing things at it.

Whether it was worth while is to ask whether life itself is worth while.

Thus Art Young, in 1928.

One Comment

  1. Arianela .
    Posted March 31, 2016 at 1:24 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks. I look forward to seeing more of his cartoons. Arianne

One Trackback

  1. By NL XL: Peace and Plenty « Polytropy on September 25, 2018 at 8:46 am

    […] of bank-notes for pipe-lighters.” For more on these things in this blog, I refer to “On Trial for Pacifism,” the proximate source for the Art Young cartoon […]

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