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Letter to Newton Baker

Defending Those Opposed to War….
FRANCES M. WITHERSPOON, Letter to Newton Baker (1918)

Frances M. Witherspoon devoted her life to activism. She was a women’s suffrage and labor organizer in New York City during the early twentieth century. When World War I broke out in Europe, she helped found the Woman’s Peace Party and pioneered direct action campaigns to oppose U.S. entry into the war. Then, when the United States entered the war in 1917, she took up the cause of conscientious objectors, those whose religious beliefs and principles forbade them from participating in war efforts. The Selective Service Act of 1917, however, defined those entitled to objector status as individuals who were members of well-established religious groups whose teachings explicitly forbade war activities. Ultimately, it was up to local draft boards to decide which objectors’ claims were justified. Conscientious objectors were frequently imprisoned. Others were segregated within military camps where they suffered harassment and physical abuse. As a co-founder of the New York Bureau of Legal Advice and its Executive Secretary, Witherspoon worked on behalf of conscientious objectors. In this letter to Secretary of War Newton Baker, she raises questions on behalf of conscientious objectors who were court-martialed.

May 3 – 1918

My dear Secretary Baker:

I am making an urgent request for information in regard to court-martial of conscientious objectors in cantonments1 near New York City. I do this at the suggestion of Mr. Roger Baldwin, Director of the National Civil Liberties Bureau and for the reason that this Bureau which is local in scope, has been closer in touch with the situation in these camps than the national organization.

The New York Press of May first announces the general court-martial of conscientious objectors, the enclosed clipping from the NEW YORK TRIBUNE being a typical report. Those interested in the problem here are anxious to learn if this news is authentic and if a general order for court-martial under Article 96 has been issued by the Department [of War] for all camps.

From Section 3 of the Executive Order of March 20th those interested in the conscientious objectors problem understood

1) That conscientious objectors refusing assignment to non-combatant military service as defined by the President would continue to be segregated under the command of a special officer;

2) That punitive hardships already forbidden by your order of September 15th, were not to be imposed;

3) That such persons would remain as above described until classified by you and until orders from you should be received by the Post Commander as to their disposition;

4) That court-martials of absolute conscientious objectors were not to take place until such orders should have been issued direct from the War Department and that when ordered, trials should be conducted under Articles of War 64 and 65.

May I now learn whether those court-martials which have already taken place within the last few days have been held with your consent or through misinterpretation of the Executive Order? Do they find justification under the last clause of the Order, section 3, which reads “but not to allow their objections to be made the basis of any favor or consideration beyond exemption from actual military service which is not extended to any other soldiers in the service of the United States”?

The whole theory behind the action of the conscientious objector seems to be that his consicence [sic] and principles against war are violated not only by actual military duty in trench and field, but as well by the wearing of the uniform, drilling in training camps and even by the performing of any labor, physical or mental, in any way connected with the military system. It is for this very reason that he has refused even those forms of non-combatant service which would seem least connected with the promotion of the war or of the military establishment. It is this very unwillingness to cooperate even in ways most remote from actual military operations that their conscientious scruples would appear to have their root. And this being so, it would seem that if court-martials are now being permitted for those whose fault lies merely in a logical adherence to their principles, then the Executive Order offers them no protection whatsoever. Yet the whole spirit of the order would indicate that this is an entirely false deduction. It seems to provide not only fair and generous treatment for the man who can not conscientiously accept service in fighting units but who can serve his country in non-combatant capacity, but uniform and humane handling as well for those men who can not serve the country in any way connected with the war.

It would at least indicate that the matter is not left to the discretion of the individual commander who might experience extreme difficulty in understanding in the slightest degree the motives back of the conscientious objectors’ conduct and it will be an acute disappointment to those who have been relying upon the liberal and humane attitude of the War Department to learn that the paragraph quoted can be taken by commanders as authority for any notion which they may deem desirable.

I enclose the clipping from the NEW YORK WORLD in regard to the case of William Daisenberger, whose offence according to this statement (which, of course, may be wholly inaccurate) seems to have consisted merely in conduct similar to that of all absolute conscientious objectors of whom we have any knowledge. It therefore becomes a test case and information as to whether the War Department approved the court-martial would I suppose answer the general question raised.

Thanking you for your patience with this lengthy inquiry, prompted as I am sure you will understand by very great anxiety.



1. What information is Witherspoon seeking from the secretary of war? What is the situation that has given rise to her letter?

2. What does this letter suggest about the roles women played during wartime? To what extent does Witherspoon’s letter challenge stereotypes regarding women’s activism during this period?

3. How does the plight of the conscientious objectors Witherspoon discusses reveal the limits of civil liberties during wartime?

Witherspoon, Frances, “Letter May 3, 1918 from Frances Witherspoon to Newton Baker,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914–1920, accessed September 10, 2019,