1.5.2. New England (1900-1925): Coming to Terms With Diversity

Sedition laws 

  • How broad is the right of free speech in America?  The modern debate over this question began during World War I, when the federal government and many states enacted anti-sedition laws in order to limit criticism of the war effort.  American judges disagreed on what test should be applied to determine whether speech was legal.  The “effects test” advocated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, which says that government may restrict speech which may lead to violent or disruptive conduct, prevailed over the “content test” advocated by New York federal judge Learned Hand, who argued that it was dangerous to predict the effects of speech in advance and that only direct advocacy of violence against the government should be prohibited.   
  • Some state courts, particularly those of Minnesota and New York made significant contributions to the debate (see § ___), but few challenges to New England sedition laws came before the courts and those that did, failed.

“[H]istorically, a red flag has been a revolutionary and terroristic emblem … Personal rights may be curbed in a rational way for the common good.   Liberty is immunity from arbitrary commands and capricious prohibitions, but not the absence of reasonable rules for the protection of the community.” Justice __, upholding the conviction of the carrier of a red flag at a Socialist rally, in Commonwealth v. Karvonen (Massachusetts, 1914) (106 NE 556).

English-only laws 

  • During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many states, including most New England states, enacted laws limiting the use of foreign languages in schools.  The first wave of laws was a response by Yankees and older immigrant groups to the proliferation of parochial schools in areas of heavy settlement by recent immigrants, many of which conducted classes in the recent immigrants’ native language.  A second wave of laws enacted during World War I reflected general anti-German sentiment.  
  • Before any legal challenges to New England’s English-only laws made their way to the courts, a series of challenges in the Midwest reached the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1920s.  The high Court struck down the laws on the ground that they interfered with freedom of religion.  That effectively ended the English-only movement, but time and assimilation of second-and third-generation immigrants into the broader American culture accomplished that which the English-only laws could not.

Eugenics laws 

  • One of the less attractive byproducts of advances in genetic science in the late 19th century was the “eugenics” movement, which advocated sterilization of Americans perceived as mentally defective, including the insane and the slow-witted, in order to strengthen the nation.  The movement elicited support from Americans uneasy about the nation’s increasing diversity and its future in the modern world, and between 1900 and 1930 many states enacted laws allowing forced sterilization of mentally disabled persons. 
  • Courts in many parts of the United States were uneasy about the laws and made clear that they would not be upheld unless they were strictly limited in scope and they gave proposed victims a fair opportunity to be heard prior to sterilization.  Many state lawmakers also could not stomach such laws.  Four New England states enacted eugenics laws – only Massachusetts and Rhode Island held back – but the laws were applied more sparingly than in other regions. 
English-only laws
Laws against flag desecration
Anti-sedition laws
Eugenics laws (date of repeal in parentheses)

New Hampshire



Rhode Island


Boston police strike (1919) - courtesy Wikimedia Commons

James Higgins - first non-Yankee governor of Rhode Island (1903-05)