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The Internationalist Beginnings of American Civil Liberties

55 Pages Posted: 4 May 2004  

John Fabian Witt

Yale University - Law School


Historians have long sought to resolve a deep problem in the history of American civil liberties. Why did the kinds of rights claims that constitute contemporary civil liberties practices only take up important roles in American law in a twentieth century in which many sophisticated legal thinkers called into question the truth value of abstract rights claims? This article offers a new interpretation of the rise of civil liberties practices. Our ostensibly domestic civil liberties movement has its roots in a pre-World War One cosmopolitanism in international law. In particular, the social movement that coalesced around the phrase civil liberties during World War One began in the years immediately preceding American intervention as a group of self-consciously internationalist organizations that had begun to question not just the abstract metaphysical truth of rights claims but also the usefulness of that other great abstraction of nineteenth-century law: the sovereignty of the nation state. The civil liberties movement in American law thus did indeed emerge out of a pragmatist critique of abstract legal fictions. The relevant abstraction, however, was not so much the formal concept of rights as the formal concept of state sovereignty. With American intervention in World War One, however, obligations of loyalty to the nation state required that American internationalists reframe their critique of nation-state sovereignty in terms made available by the constituent documents of American nationalism: the Bill of Rights.

Keywords: Civil Liberties, Internationalism, International Law, Free Speech, First Amendment, Crystal Eastman, Roger Baldwin

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, The Internationalist Beginnings of American Civil Liberties. Duke Law Journal, Vol. 54, 2004. Available at SSRN:

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4944 (Phone)

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