Most Americans assume that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides an impenetrable shield protecting their right to speak and assemble without fear of reprisal from their government. As Geoffrey R. Stone makes clear in Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, however, when the country faces a crisis, those rights are often ignored in the interest of creating what politicians and the general public consider to be a climate of greater security.
To illustrate his point, Stone concentrates on six periods in American history when the nation felt threatened, and when political leaders thought it necessary to pass legislation restricting the activities of individuals or minority groups. He begins with a review of the actions of the federalists in the late eighteenth century, when fears of a new revolution spurred by radicalism emanating from France caused President Adams to drive through Congress the Sedition Act of 1798. Sixty years later, Abraham Lincoln acted to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and muzzle opposition to the North’s efforts in the Civil War. Stone’s analysis reveals that Lincoln’s actions were eerily similar to those of his predecessor. Stone then examines in turn the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson and the Congress in World War I to legislate loyalty from American citizens, similar activities by Franklin Roosevelt and legislators during World War II, the chilling effect of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt during the Cold War years, and the tug-of-war between the Nixon administration and the U.S. Courts as a result of the White House’s attempt to block publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.
Stone demonstrates exceptional knowledge of American law and history throughout his study. Though heavily footnoted, Perilous Times is highly readable, largely because Stone devotes considerable attention to the people whose actions led to the infringement of First Amendment rights for a segment of the American population. As a result, his book provides valuable insight into ways historical events have shaped thinking on this important American Constitutional guarantee.