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War Protest

November 13, 1847

Photo of Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin

Nine former senators have won the Senate's highest honor in having their portraits affixed to the walls of the Senate Reception Room. Two of the nine partly earned their fame for asserting Congress's constitutional prerogatives during times of war.

In 1847, Kentucky's Henry Clay delivered a speech to an enthusiastic home-state audience that included his protégé, Representative Abraham Lincoln. With the nation sharply divided over the recently launched war with Mexico, Clay demanded that President James Polk explain in detail his goals for that increasingly costly conflict. Said Clay: "If a war be commenced without any previous declaration of its objects, Congress must necessarily possess the authority, at any time, to declare for what purposes it shall be further prosecuted." He continued, "Either Congress or the president must have the right of determining upon the objects for which a war shall be prosecuted. There is no other alternative. If the president possess it and may prosecute it for objects against the will of Congress, where is the difference between our free government and that of any other nation which may be governed by an absolute czar, emperor, or king?"

In October 1917, Wisconsin's Robert La Follette reviewed Henry Clay's address in preparing a classic Senate oration entitled "Free Speech in Wartime." In April 1917, La Follette had been one of six senators to vote against U.S. entry into World War I. A federal judge in Texas reflected the resulting national outrage when he called for those senators to be brought before a firing squad. Said the jurist, "I would pay for the ammunition."

Weeks later, President Woodrow Wilson played on wartime fears in prodding Congress to pass the Espionage Act. That statute, and a 1918 amendment, banned "profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" directed at the Constitution, flag, or government of the United States.

As citizens' petitions demanding La Follette's expulsion on grounds of treason flooded the Senate, he delivered his three-hour floor address. Inspired by Henry Clay's remarks of 70 years earlier, La Follette blasted President Wilson and the Espionage Act's war-induced erosion of constitutional protections. "People are being unlawfully arrested," he said, "thrown into jail, held incommunicado for days, only to be eventually discharged without even being taken into court . . . the most sacred constitutional rights guaranteed to every American citizen are being violated."

Robert La Follette would doubtlessly have been gratified to learn that his assertion of the right of members of Congress to question presidential leadership during wartime helped to earn him a place, along with Henry Clay, in the Senate Reception Room's gilded Pantheon.