Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926) was one of the most prominent labor organizers and political activists of his time. Nominated as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president five times, his voting tallies over his first four campaigns effectively illustrate the remarkable growth of the party during that volatile time period:
America’s entrance into World War I, however, provoked a tightening of civil liberties, culminating with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Act in June 1917.
This totalitarian salvo read in part: “Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment of not more than 20 years, or both.”
One year after the Espionage and Sedition Act was voted into law, Debs was in Canton, Ohio for a Socialist Party convention. He was arrested for making a speech deemed “anti-war” by the Canton district attorney.
In that speech, Debs declared, “They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.”
He concluded: “Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth.”
These words lead to a 10-year prison sentence and the stripping of his U.S. citizenship. At his sentencing, Debs famously told the judge:
“Your honor, years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
While serving his sentence in the federal penitentiary, Debs was nominated for the fifth time, campaigned from his jail cell, and remarkably garnered 917,799 votes. (By contrast, in 2004, Leonard Peltier collected 25,101 while running for president from his prison cell.)
President Woodrow Wilson ignored all pleas to release Debs from prison. But, after serving 2 years and 8 months behind bars, President G. Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.
Postscript: While some of more controversial sections were repealed in 1921, the Espionage Act remains on the books today and has been used against, for example, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, and perhaps eventually, Edward Snowden.
Note: To continue conversations like this, come hear Mickey Z. in person at Hunter College on May 17.