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HOME > ARTICLES > JUNE 2002

PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE
JAILED FOR SEDITION


by Jeannine Coup

During World War I The United States Congress passed laws limiting traditional rights of free speech. The Espionage Acts of 1917, 1918 made it a federal crime to criticize America's participation in "the European War." The law forbid citizens to criticize military conscription or to contribute to lowering the morals of American soldiers.

In 1919 the Supreme Court ruled that these laws did not violate the First Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., delivering the courts unanimous opinion argued that the "right of free speech could be limited in war time." Holmes wrote:

...The most strident protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic...When a nation is at war many things that may be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its efforts that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight.

The most prominent political leader to be arrested under the Espionage Act was Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party of the United States. Before his conversion to socialism in 1895, Debs had been an important force in the labor union movement. He began working as a fireman on the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railway. There he helped organize The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1876, becoming a national officer five years later.

As president of the American Railway Union, which he helped to form in 1893, Debs led its members in a sympathy strike against the Chicago Pullman Company in 1894. Due to this act he was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. While incarcerated Debs became familiar with the writings of Karl Marx. When he left jail he was a full fledged socialist. In 1897 he founded the Social Democratic Party of America which three years later became the Socialist Party of America. By 1912 Debs was the Socialist's presidential nominee for the fourth consecutive time.

Debs's Socialist Party supported the United State Constitution, but wanted to replace America's free-enterprise economy with government ownership of industry. On June 16, 1918 Debs gave a speech before the Ohio State Socialist Convention in Canton, Ohio. In his speech he denounced the military leaders of Germany. However, Debs used equally strong language to denounce President Wilson. He accused the President of misleading the American people about his reasons for going to war. Wilson had said America was fighting because "the world must be made safe for democracy." Debs claimed we were fighting to help weapons makers sell their product. Debs said, "When wall Street says war the press says war and the pulpit promptly follows with its Amen..."

Debs knew that a government stenographer was in the audience and recording his words. He said that it had become, "extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world." He defied the authorities to arrest him saying, "I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than be a sycophant and a coward in the streets."

No one was surprised when two weeks later he was arrested under the Espionage Act. Debs spent one night in jail and was released on $10,000 bond. His trial was set for September 19, 1918.

At the trial, the prosecutor charged Debs with making seditious anti-war statements. Prosecution witnesses testified that Debs had denounced the war as an "immoral conflict of capitalist interests." The stenographer read Debs's exact anti-war speech to the jury.

Debs called no witnesses but spoke in his own defense. He admitted that the charges were true. "I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it, gentlemen, I abhor war. I love the flag as a symbol of freedom." But Debs said he also believed in, "a wider patriotism," and international "union of workers to replace the capitalism-competitive situation in which we live."

Debs then attached the Espionage Act. He told the jury he believed in the, "right of free speech in war as well as in peace... I would under no circumstances suppress free speech. It is far more dangerous to attempt to gag people than to allow them to speak freely what is in their hearts."

In concluding his speech to the jury Debs said,

Gentlemen, I am the smallest part of this trial. There is an infinitely greater issue that is being tried in this court, though you may not be conscious of it. American institutions are on trial here before a court of American citizens.

The jury found Debs guilty. Judge D.C. Westenhaver praised Debs's courage and sincerity, but that he was still an "enemy of his country," and sentenced him to a ten-year prison term. Debs remained free while the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. World War I ended on November 11, 1918 and the government ceased enforcing the Espionage Acts. However, the Supreme Court upheld Debs's conviction.

As Eugene V. Debs began serving his sentence on April 1919 he said, "I enter the prison doors a flaming revolutionist- -my head erect, my spirit untamed and my soul unconquerable."

Soon after the war-end public figures urged President Wilson to pardon hundreds of Americans jailed for speaking against the war. Senator Joseph France of Maryland supported the idea saying,

Freedom of opinion is the cornerstone of American democracy. It does not mean merely freedom of sound opinion, freedom to say what the majority approves. It means freedom to err, to differ from the majority and even to believe what is not true.

When Debs was told that Wilson would pardon those who would publicly repent their criticism of the war he shouted,

Repent! Repent! Repent! Repent for standing up like a man! For having a conviction about a public question and standing by it for the cause! Why, before I would don the sackcloth and get down into the ashes before the Attorney General or any other man on earth for having a principle, I would gladly walk to the gallows or the stake.

President Wilson heard of Debs's statement and said,

I will never consent to the pardon of this man. While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, he stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them. Before the war he had a perfect right to exercise his freedom of speech to express his own opinion, but once the Congress of the United States declared war, silence on his part would have been the proper course to pursue...This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.

Debs was given Wilson's message and replied, "It is he who needs a pardon, not I."

Eugene V. Debs's incarceration in an Atlanta federal prison influenced the 1920 election. The Socialist Party nominated Debs again as its presidential candidate. The Republicans nominated Warren G. Harding who then accused the Democrats of filling American jails with political prisoners. Harding promised, during his campaign, to free most of the prisoners jailed for speech crimes.

The Democrats nominated James M. Cox, who received only 9 million votes. Harding garnered 16 million and Eugene V. Debs, in jail, received over 900,000 votes.

Wilson still felt malice towards Debs. Before Wilson left office Attorney General Mitchell Palmer recommended a pardon for Debs. Wilson wrote on word on the petition, "Denied."

It was left to Harding, who seemed to be in no hurry to pardon Debs until finally issuing the pardon on Christmas Day in 1921. Later, when Debs was invited to the White House, Harding said, "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally."

Since World War I the Supreme Court seems to agree with Eugene V. Debs and has handed down several decisions that have limited the government's ability to restrict free speech in wartime. From World War II to today, dissenters are allowed to speak and publish freely.

The Bandwagon wished to thank Richard Sheppsaid for much of the information in this article.

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