United States v. Schwimmer

United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644 (1929), was a case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States. It concerned a pacifist applicant for naturalization who in the interview declared not to be willing to "take up arms personally" in defense of the United States. Originally found unable by the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to take the prescribed oath of allegiance, a decision reversed in appeal, the case was argued before the Supreme Court, which ruled against the applicant, and thus denied her the possibility of becoming a United States citizen.

United States v. Schwimmer
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued April 12, 1929
Decided May 27, 1929
Full case nameUnited States v. Rosika Schwimmer
Citations279 U.S. 644 (more)
49 S. Ct. 448; 73 L. Ed. 889; 1929 U.S. LEXIS 64
Pacifists are liable to be incapable of the attachment for and devotion to the principles of the U.S. Constitution that is required of aliens seeking naturalization.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William H. Taft
Associate Justices
Oliver W. Holmes Jr. · Willis Van Devanter
James C. McReynolds · Louis Brandeis
George Sutherland · Pierce Butler
Edward T. Sanford · Harlan F. Stone
Case opinions
MajorityButler, joined by Taft, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Sutherland, Stone
DissentHolmes, joined by Brandeis
Laws applied
Naturalization Act of 1906
Overruled by
Girouard v. United States (1946)


Rosika Schwimmer was a pacifist who would not take the oath of allegiance to become a naturalized citizen. She was born in Hungary and while in the United States delivering a lecture she decided that she wanted to become a US citizen. When asked if she would be willing to "take up arms in defense of her country" she responded in the negative. She stated that she believed in the democratic ideal, but she asserted that she was an uncompromising pacifist. "My cosmic consciousness of belonging to the human family is shared by all those who believe that all human beings are the children of God."

Court decisionEdit

The Court held in a 6–3 decision that citizenship should be denied.

Quotes from the majority opinion by Justice ButlerEdit

The government has established statutes regulating who can become naturalized citizens because of the benefits it brings. "Because of the great value of the privileges conferred by naturalization, the statutes prescribing qualifications and governing procedure for admission are to be construed with definite purpose to favor and support the government. And, in order to safeguard against admission of those who are unworthy, or who for any reason fail to measure up to required standards, the law puts the burden upon every applicant to show by satisfactory evidence that he has the specified qualifications." The Court accepts the importance the government has assigned to being able to compel military service of its citizens if necessary. "And their opinions and beliefs as well as their behavior indicating a disposition to hinder in the performance of that duty are subjects of inquiry under the statutory provisions governing naturalization and are of vital importance, for if all or a large number of citizens oppose such defense the 'good order and happiness' of the United States cannot long endure." The pacifism that Schwimmer professes may hinder her ability to develop the nationalism that the country attempts to foster. The reason for her pacifism is immaterial because she is not yet a citizen who possesses the rights of citizenship that allow for conscientious objection.

Quotes from the dissenting opinion by Justice Holmes (Justice Brandeis concurring)Edit

Surely it cannot show lack of attachment to the principles of the Constitution that she thinks that it can be improved. I suppose that most intelligent people think that it might be.

Some of her answers might excite popular prejudice, but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.

I would suggest that the Quakers have done their share to make the country what it is, that many citizens agree with the applicant's belief and that I had not supposed hitherto that we regretted our inability to expel them because they believed more than some of us do in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.


The Court placed great emphasis on the interest of the state to foster feelings of nationalism, even though the nationalist beliefs of the country may have some conflict with religious beliefs. The case is best known, however, for Justice Holmes's phrase concerning "freedom for the thought that we hate," which has become a favorite statement of the underlying principles of free speech embodied in the First Amendment.

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Tennant, John S. (1931). "Aliens: Naturalization: The Promise to Bear Arms". Michigan Law Review. The Michigan Law Review Association. 30 (1): 133–137. doi:10.2307/1280646. JSTOR 1280646.

External linksEdit