The Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities (New York State Legislature)

The following text comes from the New York State Archives' Guide to the records of the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities ("Lusk Committee"), written by Daniel J. Linke. It should provide you with some background on the informants' reports that appear as links on the syllabus.

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In 1919, the New York State Legislature established the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities (Concurrent Resolution, March 26, 1919). This committee was given broad authority to investigate individuals and organizations in the state who were suspected of promoting the overthrow of the American government in violation of the criminal anarchy articles of the state's Penal Code. With the exception of a minor case, this was the first time that these statutes had been implemented since their enactment following the assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist in Buffalo in 1902.

For approximately a year, the committee gathered an enormous body of information on suspected radical groups by raiding organization offices and examining documents, infiltrating meetings, assisting law enforcement agents in the arrest of thousands, and subpoenaing witnesses for the committee's hearings. The investigation generated nationwide publicity and the repressive attitude which resulted throughout the State contributed to the expulsion of five Socialist members from the New York State Assembly and the prosecution of a number of individuals on criminal anarchy charges. The committee's investigation officially ended when it submitted its final report with recommendations to the legislature in April 1920.

The "Red Scare"

The committee's investigation was part of (and contributed to) the "Red Scare" which occurred throughout the United States following the First World War. The ideas of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had spread throughout Europe, and some perceived these ideas as a threat to this country as well, especially as economic conditions quickly deteriorated after the war's end in November 1917. Increasing inflation, high unemployment, widespread labor strife, and a severe housing shortage, combined with nationalistic feelings stirred during and after the war, led to a strong distrust of pacifists, political radicals, liberals, and foreigners who did not support the war or traditional American economic and political values. The recent influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as the movement of blacks to northern cities, was also seen by many people as a growing economic threat. Labor strikes, bombings of government officials by suspected radicals, and other events occurring throughout the country in 1919 led many New Yorkers to support the legislature in its investigation of the activities of socialists, Communists, anarchists, left wing labor groups, and others suspected of undermining the American way of life.

Committee Activities

The Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities consisted of four senators and five assemblymen. Headed by Senator Clayton R. Lusk of Cortland County, it was known popularly as the "Lusk Committee." While most of its investigation centered in New York City, the committee also undertook investigations in Buffalo, Rochester, and Utica. Private detectives and legislative staff members assisted in the investigations, and the State Attorney General acted as the committee's general counsel. Additionally, the committee cooperated closely with local police and district attorneys and officials from the federal government's Immigration Bureau and Justice Department.

During its investigation, the committee raided the headquarters of suspected radical organizations to gather evidence that these organizations advocated the overthrow of the government. Among the organizations raided were the Russian Soviet Bureau, the Rand School of Social Science, the left wing section of the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (all located in New York City), and 73 branches of the Communist Party. Using search warrants in the raids, the committee seized thousands of documents from these organizations, retaining the originals (or making copies) for examination and, in some cases, for inclusion in its final report. In addition, the committee seized financial records and membership lists and shared them with local district attorneys throughout the state, who, on the basis of the lists, indicted many individuals on criminal anarchy charges. The investigation also involved committee investigators who observed mass meetings held by suspected radical groups and reported to the committee on the makeup of the audience and the content of speeches.

In conjunction with the raids, the committee held a series of public hearings and gathered over 3,000 pages of testimony. Individuals associated with these organizations were subpoenaed to answer questions about their activities. Much of the testimony was given by the State Attorney General, local law enforcement officials, and private detectives who provided evidence on various aspects of the investigation of radical activity.

The Committee's Report

On April 24, 1920, the committee submitted its four-volume report to the State Senate. Entitled Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose and Tactics, the first two volumes of the report detailed the development of radical and left wing movements in Europe and the United States and discussed how radical organizations used propaganda to spread ideology and promote seditious activity, particularly in the United States.

The last two volumes of Revolutionary Radicalism discussed existing constructive elements that could combat the spread of radical thought. The committee in particular stressed the role of education in the formation of traditional American political, economic, and social values among citizens. The committee recommended re-educating teachers and "the educated class"--those in colleges and universities and with advanced degrees--by reorganizing and extending the educational system. The report's principal recommendations were embodied in four legislative bills aimed at reforming the educational system. These bills would require: 1) that teachers obtain a special certificate certifying that they were persons of good character and loyal to the institutions of the state and nation; 2) that all schools not under the supervision of the State Education Department or maintained by a religious denomination obtain a license from the Board of Regents; 3) that courses in adult and immigrant education be extended; and 4) that educational facilities be expanded to factories and other places of work.

These bills were passed by the legislature but Governor Alfred E. Smith, a Democrat, vetoed them. When Republican Nathan Miller assumed the Governor's Office in 1921, the legislature passed the laws again and Miller signed them into law. When Smith took back the Governor's office two years later, his administration repealed the laws.

Results of the Committee's Investigation

The effects of the committee's investigation were short-lived. While the evidence uncovered by the committee led to the prosecution of criminal anarchy cases, of the thousands who were arrested, only a few score were charged, and only a handful convicted or deported as little incriminating material was found within the thousands of documents seized by the committee. The proposed legislation calling for teacher loyalty oaths and expanded school licensing, though enacted for a two-year period, had little effect. Clayton Lusk himself was caught in an embarrassing situation in which he accepted expensive silverware from law enforcement officials when he chose not to run for re- election. And while the committee's evidence assisted in the expelling of five Socialist members from the Assembly, the public outcry over the expulsions eventually led to denunciation of the committee's work and methods. As it happened throughout the country, many New Yorkers eventually came to believe that the raids, investigations, prosecutions, and deportations of suspected radicals led to violations of civil liberties that were more harmful than the threat from radical groups.

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