For good or for ill, some Americans like to monitor fellow citizens’ patriotism. They hold those who have diverged from their patriotic ideals to public account. In the past, Kentuckians have also applied public pressure to those not deemed patriotic enough.
One hundred years ago, for example, there was an organized effort to push American citizens to support the nation’s involvement in the First World War. Councils of Defense organized parades, pushed for donations to charities, encouraged agricultural production and worked to enforce laws pertaining to vagrancy and rationing.
In some instances, those who failed to comply faced public shame.
In Kentucky in August 1918, the Fulton County Council of Defense placed an announcement in the Hickman Courier pledging to enforce a vagrancy law. They would inform authorities about “men between sixteen and sixty years of age, who refuse to labor, as the law requires of every man to do, thus helping to relieve labor shortage, produce and save large crops and help win the war.”
The council — comprised of 10 farmers, doctors and business leaders — also scrutinized how their neighbors spent money. They tracked how much residents had given to the YMCA and the Red Cross and how many war bonds they purchased. “When a man is found who has failed to do his duty along these important lines, an investigation will follow, and such a man will be given an opportunity to show his reason for his failure to help win the war,” they said.
The council was serious about these threats. On Sept. 12, 1918, newspapers reported that a man named Barbee, who lived near Fulton, “will be given a hearing Saturday before the Council on charge of disloyalty by reason of his not having purchased Liberty Bonds or War Savings Stamps.”
Barbee told the council that he could not afford to purchase bonds. “The Council, however, is not satisfied with his pleas,” a reporter wrote. Because Barbee owned a “100-acre farm besides personal property,” the council believed that he could have done more to support the war effort.
The councils — and newspapers that reported on their work — used public shame, community pressure and boycotting to force people to comply. The power of their investigations lay with local merchants, who had signed a resolution “to do business only with 100 per cent Americans.”
On Oct. 2, 1918, a headline in the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer showed exactly how this played out. It read, “Alleged slackers are barred from trading.” The newspaper reported that the Fulton County Council tried J. F. McNeese from Cayce and a Mr. Morehead from Crutchfield for “not having done their part in buying Liberty bonds and war savings stamps.” The council found the two guilty and barred them “from all trade of all kinds in this county or elsewhere. The council is going after slackers in this county.”
Within two weeks, McNeese “was ready to stand behind his government in the prosecution of the war and offered a check for the full amount of his quota of the Fourth Liberty Loan.” The council ended the sanction and said McNeese should “be congratulated on his change of heart.”
In addition to investigating residents’ financial support of the war, the council applied pressure to ensure an adequate work force. In October 1919, the council told men to “Work or Fight!” They reminded the public that “loafing” was illegal and that those who did not carry a council-provided “Employment Card” were “subject to arrest and fine.”
In Louisville, a notice in the Courier-Journal called on readers to “Report all disloyal acts and utterances, draft or tax evasions to the Jefferson County Council of Defense.” That council charged William Zeiser, a member of the Board of Aldermen, with disloyalty for making “violently pro-German speeches” and for refusing to wear an American flag pin. Zeiser dismissed the charges as a “political frameup,” but later said that “the charges had greatly distressed and humiliated him for fear those not personally acquainted with him might think him unpatriotic.” The council ultimately found Zeiser to be “a loyal citizen” and exonerated him.
In Harrodsburg, the Mercer County Council of Defense had J. T. Rynearson removed as principal of the Salvisa High School “for alleged disloyal and pro-German tendencies.”
So, while Big Brother was not watching, multiple Councils of Defense were.
Stuart W. Sanders, Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate, hosts the “History Advocate” series on the society’s YouTube channel.