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Disloyalty a crime; ‘Be careful what you say’ Macon newspaper warns during World War

William Allen Rogers. Now for a Round Up. Published in the New York Herald, May 9, 1918. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (092.00.00)


President Woodrow Wilson spoke at Washington, D.C., on Flag Day, June 14, 1916, charging that, according to a story the following day in the St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette of St. Joseph Mo., “foreign-born citizens of the United States are trying to levy political blackmail and to undermine the influence of the national government.”

President Wilson told the thousands of people gathered at the foot of the Washington Monument: “There is a disloyalty active in the United States and it must be absolutely crushed.”

War was raging on the Western Front, the Germans and the French battling for Verdun, a cherished French city. This battle would continue from Feb. 21 to Dec 18, 1916, all the while the United States maintaining a popular peace-making role.

In November 1916, President Wilson was elected to a second term in office, based upon his campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.”

But America’s peace-making role was not to last. In February and March 1917, eight American (non military) ships were sunk by the Germans.

On April 6, 1917, per the request of President Wilson, the United States declared war on Germany.

Winning loyalty

The government undertook a public relations campaign in order to sway public opinion to facilitate the enlistment of troops and financial support for war efforts.

In June 1917, according to, “Congress passed the Espionage Act, making it a crime for Americans to speak against their government's war effort, to incite disloyalty, or to encourage men to resist the draft. A year later, the more restrictive Sedition Act outlawed "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" against the flag, the Constitution, and even the uniform of the armed forces. Those who continued to speak against the war risked heavy fines and jail sentences of up to twenty years.”

Suspicion prevails

Back home, an air of suspicion prevailed in communities both large and small. The Flag Day speech made less than a year prior by President Wilson was playing out on the streets and gathering spots of American towns both large and small.

On January 30, 1918, the Palmyra Spectator reported that five prominent businessmen from Kirksville had been arrested for “alleged disloyal remarks.” One was the long-respected owner and publisher of a Republican Kirksville newspaper, Thomas E. Sublette. Another was a florist and yet another was a retail shoe dealer. In addition, one man was a former sheriff and yet another a restaurant owner.

On Jan. 25, 1918 – after the arrests in nearby Kirksville - the Macon Chronicle-Herald touted a headline: “Be careful what you say about the U.S.”

The Macon newspaper carried the statement that the Kirksville publisher was alleged to have said, in part:

“There is a worse autocracy in this country than there is in Germany. This is not the people’s war, it is a monied man’s war.”

Neighbor vs neighbor

On June 10, 1918, the St. Louis Post Dispatch ( offered an editorial that fed into this frenzy:

“The country is ringing with denunciations of disloyalty and demands that disloyal persons be arrested and, when guilty, punished, promptly; at least put out of harm’s way, where they cannot obstruct or endanger the processes vital to the winning of the war.”

Charges dropped

In June 1918, a Federal Grand Jury met at Hannibal to investigate the charges made against the Kirksville men. Charges were dropped against T.E. Sublette.

Sublette would continue as owner and publisher of the Kirksville Weekly Graphic for 50 years, until his death in 1931.

War’s influence

At Quincy, Ill., the county superintendent of schools offered a reminder to teachers that school administrators had the authority to take away a teaching license from any educator whose attitude toward the war was one of disloyalty.

And dietary limitations were suspect as well. In mid 1918 the food administration put out a dispatch that it was OK to eat sauerkraut, because it was of Dutch, rather than German origin.

Another incident

In June 1918, the Quincy Daily Journal reported that a foundryman from Bethel was being held at the police station on a charge of disloyalty. “He is alleged to have cursed President Wilson and to have denounced the government for entering the war.” He was turned into police by a bartender in a saloon at Third and Vermont in Quincy. The man “sat on the curbstone and expressed his feelings to a crowd that gathered,” the newspaper reported.

Be on guard …

The Post Dispatch editorial of June 10, 1918 continued: “The Government warns the people to be on guard against disloyalty. It asks the people to co-operate with the Department of Justice in uncovering disloyalty. If there is a need for speed for anything connected with the war, it is in dealing with disloyalty, in prompt action concerning those charged with disloyalty – determining their guilt or innocence, so that the country may be safe from the disloyal and the innocent may be safe from injury.”

Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at

Sources included, “The History Place, World War I,” and Wikipedia.

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