ROYAL WILBUR FRANCE INFURIATED WINTER PARKERS, BUT HIS COMMITMENT TO FREE SPEECH STILL RESONATES.
In mid-April 1920, Royal Wilbur France, a lawyer by profession, arrived in Philadelphia to address a mass meeting protesting the expulsion from the New York State Legislature of five duly elected Socialist Party representatives.
That night at the Philadelphia Armory, the first speaker began by reading aloud from the Declaration of Independence, including the familiar passage regarding “certain unalienable rights,” that include “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Then the trouble began. “When any government becomes destructive of these ends,” he continued, still quoting the document verbatim, “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” A policeman sprang to the stage, shouting that all were under arrest for advocating the overthrow of the government. France, along with others on the dais, was taken to the city jail.
The next morning they appeared before a judge. France, who would serve as a professor of economics at Rollins College and become a national leader for free-speech advocacy, made a brief but powerful statement.
He demanded the record show that he and his colleagues had been arrested “within the sound of the Liberty Bell for quoting the Declaration of Independence.”
Red-faced, the judge banged his gavel and declared “Case dismissed!” All the speakers were released.
The episode showed not only the depth of hysteria produced by the first Red Scare. It also marked the beginning of France’s lifelong career as a champion of First Amendment rights.
France once wrote a friend: “When I feel that injustice is being done, I cannot be silent without becoming a party to the wrong.” Failure to speak out was a charge that would never be lodged against France.
Later, however, France’s high-profile crusades would confound and infuriate many Winter Park residents.
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At first glance France’s left-wing politics seem somewhat at odds with his childhood background. He was born and raised in the historic town of Lowville, N.Y., an upstate rural area populated by dairy-farming Republicans. After high school he attended Hamilton College, an academically prestigious liberal-arts school in central New York.
According to his 1957 autobiography, My Native Grounds, France experienced nothing during his four years at Hamilton College to awaken his “latent idealism.” It was from his family that he received an education in social responsibility.
France’s father, Joseph H. France, was a Presbyterian minister who abandoned the fundamentalist wing of the church and began to preach and practice a theology advocating tolerance, brotherhood, compassion and peace. Those principles, ingrained from childhood, would guide France for the rest of his life.
Some people who wish to advance social justice do so by becoming lawyers. That was the path France chose, attending Albany Law School and graduating in 1906.
He first formed a practice with a former judge in whose office he had studied. Two years later, he joined the New York City firm of Duell, Warfield and Duell, becoming a partner in 1914.
But France was ill at ease practicing corporate law, which was the conservative firm’s specialty. He found a way to express his idealism by helping to form the Progressive Party and working for its candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, in the tumultuous presidential election of 1912.
Although France’s autobiography provides little detail about his involvement in this ill-fated third-party movement, he became well acquainted with the volatile Rough Rider.
That association led to France’s involvement in one of the most sensational trials of the early 20th century: a 1915 libel suit filed against Roosevelt by Republican powerbroker and Albany newspaper publisher William Barnes, whom Roosevelt had publicly accused of corruption.
When France told Roosevelt that Barnes had tried to bribe him with a judgeship in return for his political support, the former president invited France to testify at the trial.
France agreed, and remained on hand for several weeks working with Roosevelt’s lawyers. The jury ultimately found in favor of Roosevelt.
In retrospect France admitted his relationship with Roosevelt was a bit self-serving. “Roosevelt and I,” he observed, “were in many ways at opposite poles. I hated war, and when World War I broke out I was a pacifist. [On the other hand] Teddy gloried in war as bringing about the manhood in men.”
France was committed to the Progressive Party, but he thought Roosevelt’s progressivism was “phony,” a pose that he projected for political gain. France conceded that he chose to ignore those differences because he “was flattered by [Roosevelt’s] friendship and hopeful that he would advance my own ambitions.”
Although nominally still a Republican, France had long since moved to the left of the party, particularly in the realm of civil liberties. The passage of the Espionage Act of 1917 only confirmed his contention that wars inevitably endangered such freedoms.
France argued that the act was a clear and dangerous violation of the First Amendment, and publicly deplored the sedition conviction of Socialist Party of America leader Eugene Debs for advocating opposition to the war.
Nonetheless, France served in the military. When the U.S. joined the war, he was working from a New York office as vice president and general manager of the Triangle Film Corporation, a major motion-picture studio based in Culver City, Calif.
Despite his pacifism, France left his job with Triangle and entered the army as a captain. He later was promoted to major and was assigned to the Clothing and Equipage Division of the Quartermaster’s Corps. In that capacity, he supervised millions of dollars’ worth of government contracts.
France’s army stint was spent entirely in New York. And he continued to attend meetings of pacifist organizations despite his position as a military officer. He recognized the incongruity, but gives the episode short shrift — less than a page — in My Native Grounds.
After the war, France returned to Manhattan and resumed practicing law before accepting a lucrative position as legal counsel to a wealthy textile manufacturer. Despite his success, however, France felt unfulfilled.
“I was not doing the things I liked to do,” France wrote. “I was working on matters that had no permanent value. I liked to work with people, not with things, and what I wanted to do was to teach young people.”
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After a search through a national college directory, France found a school in Florida that seemed to fit his purposes and philosophy. He had never heard of Rollins, but he knew President Hamilton Holt, a fellow liberal, and was aware that Holt had instituted widely acclaimed educational reforms at the college.
He contacted Holt, and within a few months was hired by the innovative president as a professor of economics.
In January 1929, when France arrived in Winter Park, he found a charming village that resembled his home town in upstate New York. And at Rollins, he found an experimental, progressive institution that had become a liberal oasis in a conservative community.
France continued championing unpopular causes, a proclivity that brought him immediately in conflict with locals. “A college professor with liberal views in a community like Winter Park was not all honey and roses,” he wrote.
For example, he ruffled feathers with his views of racial equality. France made many acquaintances on Winter Park’s west side, which had been designated in the 1880s by the community’s founders as the “colored” area. He even attended services at west side churches from time to time.
France also established a close relationship with novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, who was raised in Eatonville. Hurston often visited the area and frequently spent the night in the home of France and his wife Ethel.
This unconventional behavior caused considerable gossip. After one visit, an irate resident called expressing a “disgust so great it was almost tangible,” France wrote. Some owners of retail stores were reluctant to serve him, he added.
When France learned that a mob in the panhandle town of Marianna had lynched an African American named Claude Neal, France sent a “blistering letter” excoriating Florida Gov. David Scholtz for inaction. Then he published the letter in a local newspaper.
Scholtz wrote Holt demanding that France be fired for his “insulting” remarks. Holt replied that he could hardly do that, since he agreed with France.
After the stock market crash in October 1929, France began writing articles and giving talks critical of what he called President Herbert Hoover’s “stodgy and unimaginative” economic policies. In the presidential campaign of 1932, he looked for a positive program from Democratic candidate Franklin Roosevelt, but found none.
“Seeing no lights emanating from either of the old parties,” he wrote, “I came out for Norman Thomas,” the Socialist candidate. A few weeks later, France accepted the chairmanship of the Florida Socialist Party.
Membership in the Socialist Party anywhere in the country was certain to bring immediate opprobrium. But in 1930s Florida, it was downright dangerous.
In November 1935, Tampa authorities raided a meeting of local Socialist Party members and arrested its leaders. One man died of his injuries after being beaten by police. France rushed to Tampa and, along with Thomas, organized a protest that filled Tampa’s largest auditorium.
Despite these efforts, the outcome was predictable. Authorities charged and tried several of the assailants, but after years of legal maneuvers they were acquitted.
The incident taught France two lessons about American society. First, whenever a group attempted radical change it would be crushed “not through reasoned argument, but by force and violence.” Second, the First Amendment was no protection for those holding views contrary to conventional beliefs and traditions.
He would encounter and confront this reality over and over again during the next two decades. But he remained hopeful, a characteristic reflected in his first (and only) novel, Compromise, published in 1936.
Compromise, which France called “a novel with a purpose,” tells the story of a once-idealistic young lawyer who’s corrupted by his mentor, a politically savvy judge.
The lawyer becomes district attorney, governor, senator and eventually a leading candidate for the presidential nomination. When he rediscovers his old ideals, he loses his chance at the nation’s highest office.
A reviewer in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle opined that France “remains a better economist than a sociologist or novelist.” But he added that the story was “earnestly told,” and aptly described the pressure on reform-minded elected officials to abandon their integrity.
Concluded the reviewer, “If his novel reaches readers who would have been impervious to tracts, it was very worth having written.”
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One of France’s most serious confrontations occurred at the close of World War II. In June 1945, shortly after the surrender of Germany, France delivered the baccalaureate address to the Rollins graduating class. He chose as his topic the nature of Allied peace terms.
Despite Nazi atrocities, France contended, the majority of Germans were good, civilized people who had been duped by Hitler and intimidated by the Nazi regime. Therefore, he argued, while Nazi leaders should be held accountable, the German people as a whole should not be punished. Harsh, vengeful peace terms following World War I, he reminded the seniors, had contributed to Hitler’s rise.
A punitive peace, he added, also would be questionable on moral grounds. He encouraged the audience to consider the Christian doctrine of forgiveness.
A firestorm of criticism broke the next day when the Orlando Sentinel Star printed the complete speech. Publisher Martin Anderson wrote a stinging editorial that questioned France’s loyalty for underestimating the complicity of the German people.
If France liked the Germans so well, Anderson suggested, he should “retire from his rather questionable glories at Rollins” and move to Germany.
The Sentinel Star also published a strident commentary by Dr. John Martin, a local dignitary recognized as an authority on international relations, who excoriated France for his “namby-pamby softy stuff in dealing with any enemy who showed its enemies not heart, not soul, not mercy.”
For several days, angry letters to the editor criticizing France appeared in local newspapers. Many blamed Rollins for allowing France to fill young peoples’ minds with such misguided ideas.
Holt, who was in San Francisco at the time, received a letter from another administrator warning him that France’s speech had precipitated a crisis. Several trustees wanted the college to issue a public denial of any support for France and his views.
The uproar caught France by complete surprise. He had given the same speech several times around Florida without experiencing such a hostile reaction.
He wrote a long letter to Holt, apologizing not for his ideas, but for unwittingly causing trouble for the college. Holt replied that, while he was sympathetic with France’s views, he thought the baccalaureate ceremony had not been an appropriate occasion at which to express them.
France was undoubtedly embarrassed by the episode because he makes no mention of it in his autobiography. In truth, the reaction to the speech was simply one of a long list of incidents involving France that brought criticism down on the college.
Even so, in 1949 France was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Holt, who acknowledged the seemingly constant controversy surrounding France while extolling his moral character and his commitment to justice.
“Not a few people have told me that you were too radical,” said Holt. “This charge, when analyzed, has meant little but that you are guilty of the crime of being ahead of your times. … You are one who is as radical as is truth and justice, because that is the kind of radical you are.”
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By 1952, France had taught at Rollins and lived in Winter Park for more than two decades. They were years of personal satisfaction and contentment, but now he was growing restive.
In My Native Grounds, he observed that everyone was very pleasant when he announced his retirement in 1952. But, he mused, “I cannot escape the feeling that the Board of Trustees were glad to see me go.”
He was probably right. But he was also far from finished.
“I felt increasingly that I was too much at ease in Zion, while one of history’s great struggles for the preservation of free speech was taking place right here in our own country,” he wrote.
The “great struggle” was the effort to protect those threatened by the anti-communist crusade conducted by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican, and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
France’s epiphany came January 1952, when he read an article in the New York Times Magazine written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. The article was entitled “The Black Silence of Fear.”
Wrote Douglas: “There is an ominous trend in this nation. We are developing tolerance only for the orthodox point of view, intolerance for new and different approaches … Fear has mounted: fear of losing one’s job, fear of being investigated, fear of being pilloried.”
What most galvanized France was Douglas’ additional observation: “Fear even strikes at lawyers and those at the bar. Those accused … have difficulty getting reputable lawyers to defend them”
During this incarnation of the Red Scare, the 1940 Alien Registration Act, commonly known as the Smith Act, was used as a pretext to arrest and prosecute socialists, communists and other radicals. It had originally been adopted as a response to the threat of Nazi subversion prior to World War II.
France saw alarming consequences as a result of the Smith Act. “If mere advocacy could be made a crime,” France warned, “it would be easy to accuse — and to silence and destroy — any political movement critical of the status quo.” If affiliation could be interpreted as guilt by association, he believed, then no citizen was safe.
Even more alarming was passage in 1950 of the Internal Security Act, usually called the McCarran Act, which required communists or suspected communists to register with the U.S. Attorney General.
Congress passed the act over a veto from President Harry Truman, who called it “the greatest danger to freedom of speech, press and assembly since the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798.”
These were France’s concerns as he prepared to leave the secure confines of Rollins for the treacherous terrain of Cold War anti-communism. He was 68, an age when he could have retired, played golf (which he loved) and led a contented social life virtually free of care.
Many thought he was making a serious mistake. An ACLU lawyer visiting Winter Park wondered how France could leave such a paradisiacal place. Others told him that defending communists in the toxic climate of the Cold War would destroy his career and his reputation.
Later, France would reflect on his motivations: “I could not be at peace with myself until I had genuinely and without reserve offered myself, at this crucial moment in history, to defend the principles which lay at the basis of my philosophy of life. To do so required defending communists.”
In fact, France had never met a communist, nor did he agree with communism’s every tenant. But ideological particulars hardly mattered. “I am an old-fashioned liberal who believes that the First Amendment means what it says, and what it says is important,” he would later tell a client.
France’s first case after leaving Rollins was handling the appeal of six Baltimore communists who had been convicted of violating the Smith Act. At the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, France found three federal judges whose demeanor presaged an unfavorable outcome for his clients.
They were led by Chief Judge John J. Parker, a North Carolinian whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court had been rejected because of his vocal prejudice against labor unions and African Americans. When France looked into the “hard faces” of the judges he knew they “were doomed to lose.”
The hard-faced trio indeed voted to reject the appeal, sending the defendants to prison. The outcome reminded France, if he needed reminding, that it wouldn’t be easy to convince judges and jurors that free speech and association, not national security, was under threat.
During the next four years, working with the ACLU and other civil-rights groups, France was involved in cases ranging from an unsuccessful appeal of the death sentence of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the defense of a group of clergymen accused of communist subversion.
In 1952, France was asked to help a New York University professor named Lyman J. Bradley, who had been dismissed from this teaching position for having earlier served as an officer in an organization created to help refugees from the Spanish Civil War.
Five years earlier, HUAC had declared that the organization, called the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, was a communist front, and had demanded that Bradley that turn over all the organization’s records.
Bradley had refused, was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison, where he was released after serving three months.
During the trial, Bradley had been suspended without pay by the university. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to set aside the conviction, he was dismissed. In an attempt to gain reinstatement, he had demanded a hearing before an advisory council appointed by the university.
For France, a former professor, the Bradley case hit close to home. Often critics had urged Holt to dismiss France for his outspoken advocacy, but the president had refused. France undoubtedly realized that, in the era of McCarthyism, Holt would have had a much more difficult time resisting those demands
Such was the case with Bradley. Following the hearing, he was not reinstated, nor was he granted severance pay. His academic career lay in ruins.
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France’s last case was one of his most sensational and nationally significant, but it was also the most disheartening.
In 1953, France received a call from a friend, Wil-lard Uphaus, seeking legal representation in a case brought against him by New Hamp-shire Attorney General Louis C. Wyman.
Uphaus held a doctorate in religion from Yale Divinity School, and had spent most of his career attempting to relate Christian principles to the needs of the workers and their labor unions. He was also involved with several religious and peace organizations that appeared on the U.S. Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations.
Wyman, empowered by the State Legislature to investigate subversives, demanded that Uphaus turn over the names of guests at a conference hosted by the World Fellowship of Faiths, a peace and social justice organization with summer headquarters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
Uphaus gladly admitted his own involvement, but refused on principle to name other participants. He was found in contempt by the Superior Court in Concord, N.H. After the conviction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1959, Uphaus spent nearly a year in a jail.
Throughout the ordeal, France had been at his friend’s side. From France’s point of view, the Uphaus case revealed the depth and the breadth of the cancerous spread of McCarthyism into the American body politic.
The unreasoning fear of communism had infected even small communities that had never seen, nor would ever see, a communist, leading to condemnation of even benign, pious religious communities.
As France watched this peaceful “man of conscience,” leave for jail, he might have been pardoned for thinking that all his efforts were hopeless. But instead of retiring from the battle he accepted another challenge.
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From 1958 until his death in 1962, France headed the National Lawyers Guild. The NLG was created in the 1930s as a home for liberal lawyers who were disenchanted with the conservative-leaning American Bar Association.
From the beginning, the NLG was a lightning rod for conservative criticism, particularly when it accepted African-American lawyers as members. During the Great Depression it supported Roosevelt’s New Deal measures, helped organize labor unions and fought against racial segregation.
In the post-war period, the NLG, along with the ACLU, was the most active organization defending individuals against charges of subversion. The NLG’s refusal to require loyalty oaths from members, many of whom were leftist radicals, left it open to charges of harboring subversives.
France became director of the organization when it was trying to prevent the Justice Department from placing its name on the List of Subversive Organizations. The NLG brought suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. And after years of litigation, it won a favorable ruling.
The government dropped its action. But the NLG’s effort to defend itself had cost the organization dearly. During the ’60s it lost membership and its funds were depleted, leaving only a shell of its original self.
France’s NLG work took a toll on his health. He was 73 when he agreed to head the organization, and the struggle was “strenuous and in many aspects difficult.”
His sacrifice, however, didn’t go unrecognized. At a gathering held to honor France’s service, one of his NLG colleagues reminded the audience of 400 people what Royal France had always stood for, regardless of the cost:
“We came to pay tribute to a great teacher, trained economist, courageous defender of religious and civil liberty, a fearless peacemaker, and above all a warm-hearted humanitarian. Among his friends are those who have been sustained by his legal and moral strength. The dignity and depth of this man to spend his life in defense of our freedoms took courage beyond the call of duty.”
Dr. Jack C. Lane is a professor emeritus of history at Rollins College. This story is an adaptation of the foreword he wrote for an upcoming reissue of My Native Ground, the autobiography of Royal Wilbur France. Lane is also annotating the book. A release date has not yet been announced. The lead illustration was created by Joan Zak, a Rollins communications studies major, using an image from the college’s Department of Archives and Special Collections, Olin Library.