World War I: Conscription Laws

(The following is a guest post by Margaret Wood, a legal reference librarian at the Law Library of Congress.)


Six weeks after the declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, ch. 1, 40 Stat.1, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. Initially, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress had hoped the needed 1 million men would volunteer for the army. But when by May only about 73,000 men had signed up, it was clear other measures needed to be taken.

The United States had experimented with conscription laws during the Civil War. The Confederacy had passed the first such law (S.32) on April 16, 1862. The Union followed by passing a conscription law on March 3, 1863, ch. 75, 12 Stat. 731. Both Union and Confederate subscription laws allowed for a number of exemptions as well as including the very unpopular measure of “substitutes,” which allowed wealthy men to pay for someone to serve in their stead.

However, the World War I Selective Service Act, ch. 15, 40 Stat. 76, specifically forbade the use of substitutes. This law, which was passed on May 18, 1917, applied to all “male citizens, or male persons … who have declared their intention to become citizens, between the ages of twenty–one and thirty.” The law directed that quotas for each state should be established based on the state’s population. The law also addressed the issue of exemptions based on moral objections, as well as occupation. Those exempted from the draft included federal and state officials and judges, religious ministers, seminary students and any person who was found to be a “member of a well-recognized religious sect or organization … whose existing creed or principles forbid its members to participate in war in any form.” However as the law went on to state, “no person so exempted shall be exempted from service in any capacity that the President shall declare to be noncombatant.” The law also exempted persons in certain classes or industries, including workmen in armories and those in agriculture whose work was “necessary to the maintenance of the Military Establishment.”

Ultimately the regulations issued by the president divided up the men subject to conscription into five classes. This law directed the president to create local draft boards in each county that were to consist of three or more members who were to determine all questions of exemption in their jurisdiction. The law further set up district boards that could hear appeals from the county draft boards.

Between Aug. 6-19, 1918, the House Committee on Military Affairs held hearings to consider expanding the ages between which men should be drafted.  Secretary of War Newton D. Baker testified at the hearing that, “There are two ways of fighting this war. One is to make every possible effort and win it soon, and the other is to proceed in a somewhat more leisurely fashion and win it late.” Congress appears to have preferred the first method, and a little less that two weeks later amended the Selective Service Act (ch. 166, 40 Stat. 955). This law made all men between the ages of 18 and 45 subject to the draft. The penalties for evading the draft remained the same. The evader would be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to a year of imprisonment unless the evader was subject to military law, in which case they would be tried by a court-martial. Congress anticipated a shortage of “manpower” and directed that soldiers’ wives should not be disqualified from working for the government because they were married women.  Indeed, 10 years after the war, Congress held hearings about the effect of the universal draft and conscription in times of war.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.


  1. Yee
    September 13, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Given the time and logic of this period in american history what would have been considered a valid or “well-recognized religious sect or organization” at the time? I’m thinking there wasn’t much and because it had to be a “well-recognized religious sect or organization”, conscription laws during WW1 would have been very discriminant of other religions.

  2. Lorraine Berry
    September 29, 2018 at 2:50 pm

    This act would lead to the arrest and imprisonment of Emma Goldman. She spoke out against the draft in 1917 and was arrested for interfering with conscription. She made a speech in front of the jury, which can be read online as part of her papers archive, in which she defended the rights of citizens to refuse to serve in an unjust war.

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