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Politics of the Past: Safety commission suspended civil liberties, persecuted immigrants

Editor’s note: This summer and fall, Capitol Report is dipping into the Minnesota Historical Society’s political archives and scooping out documents and artifacts exploring the state’s rich record of voting reforms, colorful politicians, contested elections, curious facial hair and more.

In April 1917, eight days after the U.S. entered World War I, the Minnesota Legislature agreed to create a seven-man Commission of Public Safety with nearly limitless control over the state’s “military, civil and industrial resources.” Empowered by its mandate to defend public safety, the commission suspended civil liberties, demonized foreigners and censored newspapers during a three-year-long, politically motivated crackdown on anyone it considered “disloyal.”

The commission was chaired by the moderate Republican Gov. Joseph A. A. Burnquist, but its reactionary extremist soul was embodied in the person of John McGee, a corporate attorney who testified before the U.S. Senate that Minnesota’s U.S. attorney didn’t have the “fighting stomach” to punish traitors with the firing squad. “There is no power on earth that can budge me one inch from following the path of duty as I see it,” McGee wrote in a 1918 letter to a federal official quoted in “Watchdog of Loyalty,” Carl H. Chrislock’s history of the commission.

The commission never resorted to firing squads and, in fact, served a number of important wartime functions, such as conserving fuel and preventing price inflation. But today it is remembered mostly for its dictatorial excesses. Encouraged by the commission, a climate emerged of nativist paranoia, violence and vandalism directed against German-Americans, feared loyal to the kaiser.

Under McGee’s leadership, Minnesota’s largest ethnic group saw many of its civil rights suspended. The commission investigated citizens’ grievances against their German-American neighbors, including 174 complaints about German being taught in schools, according to an article in Minnesota History Magazine. It singled out German non-citizens and forced them to register with the state. It formed a network of Pinkerton agents and spies who monitored German-Americans with roles in public life and the Lutheran Church. And it charged New Ulm’s mayor and city attorney with sedition after they suggested the draft be reformed so German-Americans wouldn’t have to fight on the front lines.

The anti-immigrant hysteria served a larger goal held by the commission and its supporters in the business community: to silence farm protesters, trade unionists and labor activists.

Under the pretense of protecting production of food and goods, the commission tried to eradicate the state’s growing labor movement (which counted German-Americans as a core base of support). The Home Guard, the commission’s 7,000-man armed militia, was used to break up strikes and shut down Minneapolis saloons used as meeting spaces by the Industrial Workers of the World. The commission denounced the Nonpartisan League as “un-American,” and leaders of the progressive agrarian movement were subpoenaed, accused of “pandering to a treasonable sentiment” and jailed. In Goodhue County, an NPL organizer was forced to kneel and kiss an American flag. “No matter what he says or does, a League worker is a traitor,” McGee told the U.S. Senate.

The commission’s anti-labor plotting backfired. McGee’s vitriolic Washington testimony, in which he called the “German-Swedish” people “vipers,” was met with widespread protest, and public opinion turned against the commission. “Ironically, the MCPS legacy was in many respects the antithesis of what the commissioners and their sponsors intended,” Chrislock wrote in his 1991 history of the commission. “Bitter memories of the agency’s repressive measures … helped reinforce Minnesota’s liberal tradition.”

The commission disbanded in 1920, soon after the end of the war. A contentious confirmation hearing didn’t stop McGee from becoming a federal judge, but he killed himself in 1925, lamenting in his suicide note of the “strenuous life I have led, particularly since 1917 in April.” McGee’s physician attributed his death to “a temporary form of insanity in which he was absolutely irresponsible for what he did.”

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