Conscientious Educators Under Fire

Charles P. Howlett & Patricia Howlett                                              [Excerpted with Permission from Peace & Change, 44 (2), 169-206]

     On matters of teacher loyalty and conscience, World War I marked a legal watershed in the United States. During this conflict, schools became seminaries of patriotism and teachers had to promote loyalty and allegiance to the government. On the local level, the New York State Legislature passed a 1917 law mandating that teachers would be subject to dismissal for “the utterance of any treasonable or seditious word” and even created a commission to hear and examine complaints about “seditious” textbooks in subjects like civics, history, economics, and English literature. In elementary schools, teachers were instructed to teach the themes of patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice as well as learning about the differences between German autocracy and the American democratic way of life.

     New York City, the nation’s largest school system, became the flash point for conflict over conscience. One Board of Education member, General Thomas Wingate, displaying the bluntness of a drill sergeant rather than the aplomb befitting his retired military rank, proclaimed in the New York Times that “It is time to read the riot act to some of these teachers . . . [T]he teacher who teaches pacifism and that this country should not defend itself is a thousand times more dangerous than the teacher who gets drunk and lies in the gutter.” Despite elaborate hearings, defense counsel and all the appearances of a trial, the decision to fire teachers had been largely predetermined by the hysteria and overzealousness of the educational officials in charge of conducting the proceedings. Throughout the city’s school system, teachers were suspended, transferred to another school, or dismissed for questioning American military involvement, refusing to teach patriotism in their classes, or not taking the recently enacted loyalty oath.

    At first, the New York City Board of Education denied certificates of morality and loyalty to probationary teachers which they needed for permanent licensure and tenure. This became the backdoor method for avoiding a school hearing or trial. Anyone in the classroom who was suspected of disloyalty or sympathetic to socialist ideas or pacifism risked an investigation that would determine if they could keep their certificate. High school teachers such as Harrison C. Thomas at De Witt Clinton High School were denied their certificate even though Thomas had been classified as a conscientious objector. Because he would not enthusiastically promote Liberty Bonds with his students and  proclaimed “he would do anything but fight,” the high school committee of the Board of Education found him unfit to teach. Although not a conscientious objector, Bernard M. Parelhoff of George Washington High School was also denied his certificate “because he did not believe in teaching patriotism in the schools and had no reverence for the uniform.” Thomas and Parelhoff were just two of many teachers from city high schools, including Girls’ Commercial, Stuyvesant, Brunswick, and Julia Richman, to have their certificates not renewed.

     Teachers faced much the same on the elementary level. Alexander Fichlander of Public School 165 in Brooklyn was denied his certificate. At Public School 62, twenty-four teachers were grilled by their immediate supervisors and then their cases were referred to the board of education for a public hearing about their fitness for certification in January 1918. In all of these cases of certificates denied, no trial or hearing took place.

     A number of secondary and elementary teachers possessing licenses and accused of disloyalty resisted; they were willing to go to trial (such proceedings were classified as a hearing before school administrators and board officials, which were conducted in legal fashion with both the board’s attorney and defense counsel for the accused, so it really was a trial). One of the most notable cases occurred at De Witt Clinton High School in the northern part of The Bronx. Three teachers — Samuel Schmalhausen, Thomas Mufson, and A. Henry Schneer — were dismissed from their teaching positions. A trial was held for all three in early December 1917.

     Schmalhausen, an instructor in English, was charged with “unbecoming conduct” because he gave a writing assignment asking students to compose “a frank letter to Woodrow Wilson commenting on his conduct of the war against the government of Germany.” Schneer, a mathematics teacher, was found guilty because he insisted that if uniformed soldiers came in to address students so, too, should pacifists be invited to speak as well as his opposition to military training in schools. Mufson, also an English teacher, was accused of discussing anarchism in class and for taking a neutral position on the war — during his testimony he refused to answer any questions pertaining to active support for the war.

     After the day-long trial they were discharged, according to the City Board of Education, for “holding views subversive of good discipline and [sic] undermining good citizenship in the schools.” They were fired because of their socialist opposition to the war and alleged “radicalism”; Mufson also felt that anti-Semitism played a role since all three were Jewish.

     Whatever the precise combination of factors, school officials quickly became obedient servants to the state and followed orders. Gustave Straubenmuller, acting superintendent of the city’s schools, instructed principals to submit to his office the names of any teacher whose patriotism was questionable. Investigations throughout the city school system were rampant. Given the nationalistic climate at that moment, the superintendent had numerous supporters within the teaching ranks. Many teachers were quite vocal in demanding the dismissal of any colleague who criticized the war effort.

       One of the clearest examples occurred in December 1917, when a large contingent of   teachers gathered at the respected Stuyvesant High School in lower Manhattan for a “loyalty meeting.” They called for the firing of “disloyal” teachers, demanding their immediate dismissal from the classroom. The meeting concluded with teachers loudly proclaiming a loyalty pledge which stated in part: “We declare ourselves to be in sympathy with the purposes of the government and its efforts to make the world safe for democracy, and believe that our highest duty at this moment is to uphold the hands of the President and Congress in this crisis.”

     What quickly followed was the New York “Teachers Council” establishing an investigative arm to sanitize every school of “disloyal” and “unpatriotic” teachers. A questionnaire was sent to all 23,000 teachers ascertaining their beliefs about the war as well as undertaking an effort to remove from the classroom German alien teachers who had not taken out citizenship papers. Such action prompted the Teachers Union to counter with a petition opposing the signing of such loyalty pledges under compulsion. Some eighty-seven teachers endorsed it; the union also wrote President Wilson requesting that he draft a pledge, which teachers could sign “without violating their consciences.” It never materialized.

     John Dewey, sympathetic to the union’s position and seeing the rise of Prussianism at home, lashed out at the Board of Education by calling them “self-righteous patriots” who impugned other people’s loyalty. He also stated that the three teachers at De Witt Clinton were treated unfairly in being “charged with a lack of that active or aggressive loyalty which the state has a right to demand, in wartime particularly, from its paid servants.” Putting it bluntly, he referred to it as an “Inquisition.” These condemnations addressing compulsory loyalty fell on deaf ears. The momentum for total obedience continued unabated despite the 1897 New York State statute enacting tenure to protect teachers from unfair firings or political pressures. Creating a loyalty pledge provided a convenient pathway for charges “unbecoming a teacher” as allowed under the governing tenure statute.

     America going to war created an inconvenient truth for teachers when it came to matters of conscience. One of the earliest victims in this regard was Brooklyn elementary teacher Miss Fannie Ross of Public School 88; she was benched for six months. On December 27, 1917, according to the Flushing Evening Journal, Ross “had been found guilty of opposing the draft and of having used her influence against military enlistment.” As reported in the education journal, School and Society“It was charged that while acting as a census agent, she advised persons not to enlist in the military service, and induced them to claim exemption and that she was opposed to the drafting of men to wage war against the German government, and openly approved of the action of persons who refused to render military service.” However, after her hearing before the Committee on Elementary Schools, though found guilty of the charges, it “expressed the opinion that her utterances were tactless and not made in a spirit of disloyalty.” She accepted her suspension without pay.

     A German-born elementary schoolteacher, also from Brooklyn, became a clear-cut victim of legal injustice in the chapel of patriotic obedience. Unlike Ross, she was not so fortunate to keep her job. Gertrude Pignol, was fired after  a Board of Education hearing on May 7, 1918, on the grounds of “conduct unbecoming of a teacher,” an all too familiar and hard to overcome charge. Pignol immigrated to the United States from Germany when she herself was school aged and in 1911 applied for U.S. citizenship. A strong critic of German autocracy, she taught German and French at Brooklyn Manual for twelve years. In the fall of 1917, amid the patriotic hysteria sweeping the city schools she came under fire when an anonymous letter written by zealous teachers was sent to the board of education accusing her of being proGerman. In the spring of 1918, after she told her principal that she did not support U.S. military involvement but kept her personal beliefs to herself. She never once spoke about it to her students, yet her fate was nevertheless sealed. As evidence of her so-called “disloyalty,” disciplinary charges were brought against her for “wearing a locket engraved by her father and having a picture of the Kaiser’s grandfather on one side and the cornflower on the other.”

     Pignol could have challenged her dismissal in a court of law. This was a teacher’s last resort if the Commissioner did not overturn the school board’s ruling. Some dismissed teachers did file a claim in court, but the time and expense made this course of action prohibitive to most. When considering the wartime climate of opinion, moreover, the chances were most unlikely that a sympathetic judge or jury would rule in favor of the dismissed teacher. Still, there were a few teachers who chose to take their case to court in the name of conscience and to stand up to the loyalty craze. One of the most famous cases in this regard was the dismissal of Phi Beta Kappa, Swarthmore College graduate, and Quaker Mary Stone McDowell from Brooklyn’s Manual Training High School, the same high school as Pignol. When she refused to take the loyalty oath because of her Quaker faith, school officials promptly gave her a hearing and then fired her anyway. Little consideration was given to the right to conscience claimed by the Society of Friends’ religious opposition to war. Grounds for her dismissal in terms of insubordination were that she turned over her homeroom responsibilities for participation in student fundraising for the war and leading students in the pledge of allegiance to another teacher while she remained respectfully silent as well as not joining in supporting the teachers’ loyalty pledge formulated by the “Teachers Council.”

     McDowell, encouraged by attorneys for the New York Religious Society of Friends, chose to challenge her dismissal in state court, but she lost. Ironically, the reason she lost was because her attorneys, believing that this case was of such great magnitude in terms of religious freedom, decided to bypass the normal appeals process with the state Commissioner of Education and, instead, sought immediate relief in the state courts. The court ruled that she should have first appealed to the commissioner as part of the established due process procedure before filing suit. When they did take her case to the Commissioner, he also stood by the board’s decision. Her counsel then chose not to file a brief in the Court of Appeals, perhaps because no procedural error could be found meriting a review of the lower court ruling; the tactical strategy her attorneys employed bypassing established state education department procedures in such matters involving teacher discipline ultimately backfired. Her legal challenge, nonetheless, was the first case in American history involving the issue of religious  freedom in public education that went to a state court.

     To a certain extent, the anti-preparedness efforts of pacifist-socialist Brooklyn schoolteacher Jessie Wallace Hughan made teachers prime targets for loyalty zealots. Before the United States entered the conflict, Hughan was active in speaking out against the war. When the war first broke out she joined forces with other female pacifists Tracy Mygatt and Frances Witherspoon to initiate a number of peace groups that joined pacifism, Christianity, and socialist politics. In 1915, she organized the AntiEnlistment League, which enrolled 3,500 men who were willing to sign a declaration against military enlistment. After the country entered the war and three of her students signed an AntiEnlistment pledge, Hughan immediately became the subject of intense investigation by the city board of education for her antiwar activities. Fired up by the Wilson administration’s call for loyalty in schools her superintendent proclaimed, “We expect to bring before the Board of Education a resolution that will put a stop to Miss Hughan’s utterances and to those other teachers who have adopted a similar attitude.”

     Hughan was not intimidated. She insisted that as long as she separated her role as teacher from her actions as a citizen she was free to express her position on matters related to war and social injustice — the same defense Pignol raised to no avail. “The whole question it seems to me,” she vigorously argued, “centers not about war or peace, but about the right of an individual to express a personal opinion in public . . . I has never expressed my views in the school in which I teach and have never spoken as a teacher. So I cannot have been ‘taking advantage of my position as a teacher.’” Despite tremendous pressure from the local press, public, and school board Hughan was not dismissed because her actions occurred prior to American entrance into the war. However, it was her case that “was partly responsible for the [subsequent legislation on loyalty] that enabled New York school boards to fire teachers, such as Pignol and McDowell, who did not fully endorse the war effort.”

    In the years right after the war, fear and suspicion among teachers regarding the demands of state continued, with New York as its flashpoint. On March 26, 1919, the state legislature established a joint committee of six under the chairmanship of Senator Clayton R. Lusk. Although created as an investigating and not prosecuting body, this committee went out of its way to sponsor two new school laws. The first required a loyalty oath of all teachers and compelled any educators deemed guilty of advocating “a form of government other than the government of the United States or of this state” be removed from the classroom. In taking this oath, a teacher swore “that I am, have been and will be loyal and obedient to the government of this State and of the United States; that I have not while a citizen of the United States advocated, either by word of mouth or in writing, a form of government other than the government of the United States and of this State, nor have I advocated, either by word of mouth or in writing, a change in the form of government of the united States or of this State by force, violence or any unlawful means.” The second law required all private schools to be licensed by the state education department and stipulated that no license be granted to any school “where it shall appear that the instruction proposed to be given including the teaching of the doctrine that organized governments shall be overthrown by force, violence or unlawful means.” It was only  after Al Smith became governor that these laws were repealed. “I firmly believe,” Smith proclaimed, “that I am vindicating the principle that, within the limits of the penal law, every citizen may speak and teach what he believes.”

     Between the world wars, numerous states, including New York, required schoolteachers to sign an allegiance pledge supporting the Constitution of the United States. The residual effects of the war’s patriotic impulse, apart from the imposition of newly enacted loyalty oaths, also resonated long after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Teachers were still being held accountable for their remarks and positions on war and peace. Again, New York took center stage. A teacher in Public School 83 in New York City, Louis Jacobs, had been drafted but because of his conscientious scruples was declared “a sincere objector by the Board of Inquiry, and had been furloughed to the Friends’ Reconstruction Union [Unit] for service in Russia.” His conscientious objection to war made no difference in the eyes of Superintendent William Ettinger. His reinstatement was denied in 1919 on the grounds that the Superintendent “deemed him unfit for further teaching once the War was over.” On May 28, 1919, Louis H. Blumenthal of Public School 148 in Brooklyn was officially terminated “because as a conscientious objector to war, he refused to enter the Army.” Morris High School German and Spanish teacher Fritz A.H. Leuchs, in one of the strangest cases, was originally suspended on October 30, 1918, right after he decided to enlist in the Army. He was officially tried after the war for “unbecoming conduct” — sympathy for Germany, avoiding assemblies involving the flag salute, and lack of participation in War Savings Stamps and Liberty Bond drives. At his trial, the New York Times reported, “he appeared in the uniform of a United States soldier and showed his honorable discharge from the army. The only thing that he did not deny was that he had tried to enter the German army as a non-combatant before the war was declared by the United States.” The charges for dismissal were not upheld, his suspension removed, and his reinstatement immediately went into effect. Because of hostility expressed toward him by fellow teachers, he was transferred to another school due to his perceived lack of “respect to the war programme at Morris.” English teacher Garibaldi LaPolla, at De Witt Clinton High, the focal point of numerous investigations, and Stuyvesant High history teacher Charles Hamm found themselves scrutinized for possible dismissal in 1922 because four years earlier they “signed a letter . . . urging that men with conscientious scruples against killing be permitted to serve in noncombatant work.” In 1922, history teacher Simon Goldblum, again from De Witt Clinton, had to defend himself “because of a reputed remark in 1918 that reports of German atrocities had been exaggerated.”


Beale, H. (1936). Are American teachers free? Washington DC: American Historical Association.

Dewey, J. (1917). “Public education on trial,” New Republic 13. Ekirch, A. (1969). The decline of American liberalism. New York: Athenaeum.

Howlett, P. and Howlett, C. (2008, August). “A Silent Witness for Peace: The Case of Schoolteacher Mary Stone McDowell and America at War,” History of Education Quarterly 48(3). 

Kennedy, K. (1999). Disloyal Mothers and Scurrilous Citizens: Women and Subversion during World War 1. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press,

Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York (January 23, 1967),

New York Times (February 22, 1919). “Find Teacher Is Loyal: charges made against Fritz A.H. Leuchs dismissed.”

New York Tribune (December 17, 1917). “Loyal teachers urge internment of the disloyal.”

Peterson, H. and Fite, G. (1957). Opponents of War, 1917-1918. Seattle: University of Washington.

Pierce, B. (1926). Public Opinion and the Teaching of History in the United States. New York: Knopf.

School and Society V (April 28, 1917).

School and Society VI (December 8, 1917).

School and Society VII (January 12, 1918).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s