Civil Liberties

After the U.S. Declaration of War, a climate of compulsory patriotism swept the country. Americans were legally and culturally required to support the President and support the war.

Many of Eastman’s colleagues feared their continued protests for peace would be seen as a seditious challenge to government authority. Eastman, on the other hand, insisted on the right to press their anti-war position, to maintain popular discussion and debate, even after the country entered the war.

In fact, she argued the maintenance of such democratic civil liberties in wartime lay at the very heart of the war effort. It was what ‘making the world safe for democracy’ was all about.

Even more, she believed direct democracy by the people – even over or against the policies of national governments — was the means to achieving the international equality and justice that represented the only recipe for world peace.

She would not be cowed or back down.

AUAM Constitutional Rights in Wartime Pamphlet. Credit: Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.

Desperate to save both the peace organization she cherished and the agenda she believed was right for the world, Eastman engineered an eleventh-hour solution to keep both alive: separate all the civil liberties work into a separate bureau, to function as a collaborating entity with its parent organization.

By 1920, that bureau would become the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Through the summer and early fall of 1917, Eastman continued to press forward on the civil liberties agenda, all the while caring for her infant son, born in March. Ever an attorney, she particularly urged a targeted program of test cases to “undertake the actual testing of the right of free speech in the districts and localities where it had been specifically denied.” 1

But for reasons both personal and political, she struggled to maintain her prerogative over the identity and mission of the new bureau. Her own epic vision of the fledgling ACLU has since faded away, even while the organization vanquished a different set of mortal challenges to grow into the shining hallmark of national philosophy and character that it is today.

ACLU march photo. Credit: American Civil Liberties Union.


  1. Crystal Eastman, “Secretary’s Recommendations,” AUAM Records, reel 1. See also, Witt, Patriots & Cosmopolitans, 196.
Crystal Eastman by Amy Aronson

The social justice issues to which Eastman dedicated her life – gender equality and human rights, nationalism and globalization, political censorship and media control, worker benefits and family balance, and the monumental questions of war, sovereignty, force, and freedom – remain some of the most consequential questions of our own time. Available from Oxford University Press.

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