I recently posted comments on The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind--and Changed the History of Free Speech in America by Thomas Healy. If occurs to me that it is hard to understand this book if one does not understand the times in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, wrote his opinions in 1919 that concerned freedom of speech.
Of course these were written in the aftermath of the First World War, known as The Great War at the time. Fighting had started in Europe in 1914, the United States had entered the war in 1917, and the Armistice had come in 11/11/1918. During the war there had been German sabotage in the United States, which had been widely recognized. Indeed, the war had fueled prejudice against large classes of immigrants:
In 1916, President Wilson warned against hyphenated Americans who, he charged, had "poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life." "Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy", Wilson continued "must be crushed out".American soldiers were returning in great numbers from Europe; they and U.S. soldiers who had not yet been sent to Europe were being demobilized by the million. They needed civilian jobs.
Blacks had migrated from the south to the northern industrial states in great numbers during the war, in part to take jobs in war production and jobs that had been left by men going into uniform. Thus Blacks too would be competing for jobs in ways that they had not before the war.
Foreign immigration to the United States was also important:
Throughout eastern and southern Europe after 1880, Poles, Ukrainians, Greeks, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Jews, and dozens of other ethnic groups were fleeing repressive regimes in Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire, seeking both economic opportunities and personal freedoms in North America. Millions of others came from Britain, Scandinavia, Italy, and other parts of Europe. With very few restrictions on European immigration to the United States and a booming economy, immigration reached all-time highs in the decade prior to the Great War. Whereas immigration had averaged about 340,000 per year during the 1890s, between 1905 and 1914, it jumped to more than 1 million per year. Although Canadian policy was more restrictive, the trend was the same. During the 1890s, immigration to Canada averaged about 37,000 per year; between 1905 and 1914, the figure rocketed to almost 250,000 per year.Thus in the immediate aftermath of the war, large numbers of immigrants were also competing for jobs in the United States.
I some time ago read 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country by James Chace. Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, both progressive Republicans, both wanted to be president. Taft won the Republican nomination, and Roosevelt ran as the candidate of the Bull Moose Party. Wilson, ran as a Democrat, but also as a progressive and won the election (as well as the election in 1916). Eugene Debs, running as a Socialist, received some 6 million votes. This was the high mark for Socialism in national politics. Justice Holmes himself was the target of an anonymous bomb sent through the mails -- one of some 30 letter bombs attributed to anarchists.
World War I had also led to the fall of several empires, and to the rise of Bolshevik government in Russia. With increasingly grave doubts about the ability of monarchs and aristocrats to govern, democracy, socialism, Bolshevism, and anarchism were all in the air; fascism was soon to follow. It is perhaps not surprising that those holding power in the United States were concerned about the spread of ideas antithetical to those on which the USA had been founded.
There was a recession after the war.
After the war ended, the global economy began to decline. In the United States 1918–1919 saw a modest economic retreat, but the next year saw a mild recovery. A more severe recession hit the United States in 1920 and 1921 (see: Depression of 1920–21) when the global economy fell very sharply.This must have further complicated the employment picture as black and foreign immigrants competed for jobs with servicemen returning to private life and the job market.
The Ku Klux Klan had been reborn in 1915 as an organization of white, native-born American, Protestant men. Opposing Catholics, immigrants and blacks, it achieved a membership of some five million in the 1920s, perhaps one-third to one-half of all eligible Americans.
The summer of 1919 was known at "the Red Summer".
The Red Summer refers to the race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities in the United States during the summer and early autumn of 1919. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans. In some cases many blacks fought back, notably in Chicago, where, along with Washington, D.C. and Elaine, Arkansas, the greatest number of fatalities occurred.
The riots followed postwar social tensions related to the demobilization of veterans of World War I, both black and white, and competition for jobs among ethnic whites and blacks. The riots were extensively documented in the press, which along with the federal government conflated black movements with bolshevism.This was also the time of a government move against purported immigrant radicals.
The Palmer Raids were attempts by the United States Department of Justice to arrest and deport radical leftists, especially anarchists, from the United States. The raids and arrests occurred in November 1919 and January 1920 under the leadership of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though more than 500 foreign citizens were deported, including a number of prominent leftist leaders, Palmer's efforts were largely frustrated by officials at the U.S. Department of Labor who had responsibility for deportations and who objected to Palmer's methods. The Palmer Raids occurred in the larger context of the Red Scare, the term given to fear of and reaction against political radicals in the U.S. in the years immediately following World War I.The Palmer Raids are thought to have been an early important boost to the career of J. Edgar Hoover.
Perhaps this situation in 1919, and especially the summer of that year, encouraged Justice Holmes towards a more favorable position towards freedom of speech. His "great dissent" was published in November of 1919.