Author Interview--Julie Roy Jeffrey (‘They Cannot Expect . . . That a Loyal People Will Tolerate the Utterance of Such Sentiments’)

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Julie Roy Jeffrey to talk about her new article in Civil War History, “‘They Cannot Expect . . . That a Loyal People Will Tolerate the Utterance of Such Sentiments’: The Campaign against Treasonous Speech during the Civil War” (Civil War History 65:1 (March 2019))

Julie Roy Jeffrey is Professor Emeritus at Goucher College. Her work includes The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Abolition Movement.

Julie, to start could you tell our readers what your article's argument is and what made you decided to pursue this subject?

JRJ: The article traces the effort in the North to suppress “treasonous” speech during the Civil War.  I argue that the vague meaning of free speech and the loose interpretation of treason, coupled with the extra-legal procedures employed in the effort, resulted in questionable arrests and imprisonments.  Furthermore, I point out that the program’s assumption that it was easy to distinguish between loyalty and disloyalty obscured the many different kinds of loyalties (to family, community, and political party, for example) that northerners actually held.

I became interested in this subject because I came across digitized documents from the National Archives when I was doing family research.  I was intrigued by the notion that there were “Subversion Investigations,” and so I began to read the files.  Once I realized what kinds of information they contained, I was hooked.

You mention that loyalty and disloyalty were ill-defined concepts, how did the Lincoln government determine what meant loyalty? Did they use historical precedents? You mention in the article that sometimes comments made while intoxicated could raise loyalty questions, did not that raise concerns or questions about the definition of loyalty?

JRJ: The problem was that there was no government definition of loyalty. The way the program worked was that individuals accused others of treason or disloyalty (by sworn affidavits) and there was no procedure for examining these claims in any legal sense.

Interesting. You have a few personal stories in your articles, like Iowa's Dennis Mahoney. How did you decide on Mahoney, for example? Why do you think personalizing the issue of loyalty and treason is important?

JRJ: Frequently the affidavits do not give enough information to provide a full story of the arrest, imprisonment, and release back to home. Since Mahoney was an important figure his experience could be reconstructed from several sources.

I think it is important to personalize the impact of the program to get across the obvious truth that it had an impact on real people and to highlight the questionable nature of the effort to root out “treasonous” speech.

JRJ: Well I hope that the article will contribute to a more complicated understanding of loyalty and contribute to a more visceral sense of the policies that attempted to enforce loyalty-not a subject divorced from our own times.

Julie, thank you for this conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your article with us here on H-CivWar.