Days after the United States entered World War I, the Legislature created a watchdog group to marshal the state’s resources and ensure the safety of its citizens. Named the Commission of Public Safety (CPS), the seven-member group led by Governor Joseph A. A. Burnquist had little oversight as it worked to conserve fuel, distribute food and attend to other wartime matters.
To ensure loyalty to the war effort, the commission began scrutinizing the state’s immigrant population and, in particular, anyone with German heritage. The effort soon grew as some Minnesotans were swept up in a passionate embrace of wartime patriotism that brought about loyalty tests, sedition trials and national publicity.
The commission’s work inspired particular devotion in Red Wing and Goodhue County, where anti-war speeches were met with charges of treason and German-American homes were splattered with red or yellow paint by hateful vigilantes.
It was a time of “superpatriots, seditionists, secret agents, radicals, firebrand farmers, profiteers and provocateurs,” said Dustin B. Heckman, the executive director of the Goodhue County Historical Society. It’s captured in author Frederick Johnson’s latest book, “Patriot Hearts: World War I Passion and Prejudice in a Minnesota County,” released last month.
Johnson, the author of 12 books on Minnesota history, said he was drawn to the stories of men like Joseph Gilbert, a leader of the Nonpartisan League who was indicted in Red Wing for violating the Minnesota Sedition Act. Gilbert’s crime had been to deliver a speech in which he said the war was for the wealthy, according to Johnson.
Secret agents working for the CPS were in every Minnesota town at the time, and anyone who publicly expressed doubts about the war effort was suspect, Johnson said.
“You couldn’t voice any kind of dissent in public without being named by secret agents who were just regular people watching for this kind of behavior,” he said.
Gilbert was quickly sentenced to a year in prison.
Even though the war soon ended and with it the patriotic fervor that led to his indictment, Gilbert’s case was affirmed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 7-2 that the Minnesota sedition law was constitutional and that Gilbert’s free speech rights had not been violated.
A dissenting justice, Louis Brandeis, wrote that Minnesota’s wartime policies were among the most repressive in the nation.
Johnson said that he was trying to show in his book what’s been shown about Minnesota before — that during the war effort of 1917 and 1918, individual freedoms were taken away. Some nine people, including Gilbert, were indicted for their political leanings or public speeches at a time when the public had little patience for free speech.
“The whole system, the democracy, started to collapse,” Johnson said.
Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., before his son earned fame as a daring pilot, ran for governor as the Nonpartisan League candidate. Lindbergh opposed the country’s entry into war, and in the spring of 1918, led a parade of 150 cars across western Goodhue County, meeting hecklers along the way. Voters in Stanton Township pelted the caravan with eggs and hanged an effigy of Lindbergh. In Red Wing, he was met by mobs of people throwing red paint.
After the war ended, the political passions subsided and life went on. Johnson said people soon forgot about the whole ordeal.
“People forgot about it, and it’s hard to believe that this permeated the whole culture,” he said.