Supreme Court

Today in History: Socialist Eugene Debs Sentenced to Prison for Giving Anti-War Speech

In case in which the government and the courts rejected the First Amendment.


Library of Congress

On this day in 1918 federal authorities sentenced the socialist leader Eugene Debs to serve 10 years in federal prison for violating the Espionage Act, a 1917 law that made it a federal offense to interfere with U.S. involvement in World War I. How did Debs run afoul of this notorious law? He delivered an anti-war speech to a crowd of leftists out for an afternoon picnic in Canton, Ohio.

Debs' speech was plainly protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But constitutional fidelity was not exactly a defining characteristic of the Woodrow Wilson administration, which helped to craft the Espionage Act and then used the vile law to silence political opponents. To make matters worse, the U.S. Supreme Court also failed to take the First Amendment at its word. Writing for the Court in the unfortunate case of Debs v. United States, Progressive hero Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. brushed aside Debs' First Amendment arguments and upheld his preposterous conviction.

By 1919 World War I was over and U.S. troops began returning home. But Debs still languished in prison, his health faltering. President Wilson, whose health was in even worse shape, came under pressure to pardon the ailing Debs. But Wilson flatly refused to free the political prisoner. As H.L. Mencken, an outspoken critic of what he termed the "Wilson hallucination" put it, "confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor Debs, all his instincts compelled [Wilson] to keep Debs in jail." President Warren G. Harding finally pardoned Debs in 1921.

The case of Debs v. United States went down nearly a century ago, but it still contains some useful lessons for the present day. Foremost among them is the lesson of what can happen when the government and the courts stop respecting the First Amendment.

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  1. Well, it could have been worse.

      1. Crucifixion is a dottle.

    1. No trigger warning with that handle?

      1. We’re all Hitlers even if by another name.

        1. Deplorables?

          1. Show some RESPECT here, or else I am triggered! We’re all not just “Deplorables”, we are uber-uber-uber-untermenchenlichly-deplorably, basket-case, cases of deplorability! We deserve all the rights and pre-VILE-ledges bestowed upon us, by the full terms of our dishonorableness!!!!

            1. I hope we get assigned to the same gulag quarters.

  2. Enough about gross violations of the First Amendment, when will Reason write about Woodrow Wilson’s health?

    1. I’m just happy to read about the good old days when America was free. Nowadays, damn leftist just strutting around like the cock of the walk.

      1. I’m conflicted. I’m generally for the oppression of all Marxists, as their end goal is always the elimination of our rights and the implementation of an all powerful state. However, in this case, the extended incarceration of this Marxist idiot does appear unjust.

        1. I guess we can’t shoot or imprison Marxists until they have control of Government Almighty, and are imprisoning and shooting us left and right… Or is that left and left and left? Only THEN can we shoot back! I guess it’s some sportsmen-like-conduct thingee or other…

    2. Did he have pneumonia?

    3. Reason’s pro-Kaiser biases are coming through yet again. Look, it’s fine that the author grew up speaking German at home, but not everybody has and this blog should find someone who writes from a different perspective.

    4. But constitutional fidelity was not exactly a defining characteristic of the Woodrow Wilson administration, which helped to craft the Espionage Act and then used the vile law to silence political opponents.

      When America was great.

    5. There is an interesting argument that Woodrow Wilson being incapacitated was what prevented the new Fed and other Progressives from making the 1920 recession worse, as they did for the 1929 recession. Namely, the Fed could try (and did) hold back the natural and healthy post-war deflation (see here for how post-war deflation undid war-inflation up until WW I), but they had no leadership to apply all the crap they did under Hoover and FDR which made things so much worse.

    6. It’s bad enough that the dead vote. Someday they will vote one of their own into office.

  3. Foremost among them is the lesson of what can happen when the government and the courts stop respecting the First Amendment.

    Fortunately we have constitutional scholars and committed civil libertarians running our federal government.

  4. Isn’t this the case where “yelling fire in a crowded theater” comes from?? I wonder if people who use that as a justification realize they are justing rehashing nonsense to shut down an antiway speech

    1. No, it was a draft protester’s conviction, but same law, same “justice.”

      1. ah, I thank you

    2. No, Holmes didn’t even use that fig-leaf.

      The “crowded theater” case was where the defendant sent an antidraft leaflet to draft-eligible men – calling it a violation of the 13th Amendment.

      I suppose Holmes could point to those circumstances and suggest that the defendant was trying to incite lawlessness.

      But Debs? He was speaking against the war, and in support of war resisters, at a political gathering. All Holmes could say was that there could be draft-eligible people in that gathering, but that’s another way of saying it’s just a mixed crowd of different ages and sexes, like you’d expect at a political gathering.

  5. There’s a rather long history of authority harshly dealing with iconoclasts corrupting the youth by teaching them to question authority.

    1. These days they just have accidents, like being shot in the back.

      1. -1 Seth Rich.

  6. Wait a minute.. socialists used to be against war?

    1. “Capitalistic” wars that don’t advance the cause of international socialism, sure.

    2. Yes, the (para-)military is supposed to be used internally to suppress dissent and ensure the appearance of a functioning society. It would be wrong to attack other people. Unless they’re nasty capitalists undermining the authority of “the people” with their subversive ways.

    3. Republican wars bad, democrat wars good (unless you’re Lyndon Johnson, in which case it becomes really complicated).

      1. The US entered WW1 under Wilson, a Democrat.

        1. In line with my below post,

          WW1: The European aristocrats (i.e., what Republicans would be if they lived in Europe) started the war.

      2. democrat wars good

        No such thing. Every war was started by, connected to, or otherwise the fault of a Republican. No exceptions.

        WW2: Fascists, Republicans, what’s the difference?
        Korea: There was a war in Korea? Otherwise, we only fought it because the Republicans bullies forced us to make communism look bad.
        Vietnam: Nixon. Alternately, it was the fault of colonialism, which Republicans supported.
        Somalia: Bush 41 started it.
        Bosnia: Reagan broke the place.

        Yes, none of this makes any sense. It doesn’t have to.

    4. And for war. It was not as if Wilson was not a socialist of the progressive flavor.

  7. It’s a good thing that history never repeats.

  8. Under the administration of a Progressive icon. Wilson really was a revolting man.

    1. He was an ur- progressive. They are revolting.

  9. The So-Shul Contract is NOT a Suicide Note.

  10. Woodrow Wilson administration, which helped to craft the Espionage Act and then used the vile law to silence political opponents.

    Something our fair commenter Joe now fully supports.

  11. President Warren G. Harding finally pardoned Debs in 1921.

    Technically commuted the sentence to time served, not a pardon, IIRC. Got him out of prison, but didn’t erase the record.

    1. More than fair. Every Marxist belongs on some kind of blacklist. When they’re not, we end up with what we have now. Got to kill those weeds before they grow.

      1. “Maybe if we just oppress the socialists, they’ll go away!”

        … historically, this has not been a winning strategy

  12. Despite being a socialist, Eugene Debs is one of the people I most admire in American history.

    Partially because despite this horrid conviction he still ran for President in 1920 and got around 3.5% of the vote.

    1. … and thankfully lost stupendously to Warren G. Harding, who, while not too bad himself, died and paved the way for Calvin Coolidge to be President.

      1. Stay cool.

  13. Who cares?

    Debs was not a proponent of free speech unless it furthered the socialist cause.

    He, like all his kind, would have gladly sealed the mouths of all who would speak against socialism given the power to do so.

    1. Well, because of the adage of bring willing to give the Devil benefit of the Law, if just to ensure my own protection.

    2. So you’re saying the First Amendment shouldn’t be used to protect those who don’t believe in it…? That’s an interesting perspective. Interesting as in horrible.

      1. No.

        What I’m saying is that it better serves libertarians to allow socialists to commemorate their ‘milestones’ than to have reason try to shoehorn respect for this statist into something that furthers the cause of liberty.

        Though that is an interesting question–should the first amendment protect those who would seek to destroy it? On principle one would HAVE to say yes. But then one must ask, how can one protect the right to free speech while simultaneously protecting the right to destroy free speech?

        1. But then one must ask, how can one protect the right to free speech while simultaneously protecting the right to destroy free speech?

          By retaining the right to keep and bear arms, so that the tree of liberty can be watered in the event that free speech is destroyed.

  14. Tangentially related: About 20 years ago I got a call from a friend who wanted help moving a desk. It was one of those old-timey roll-tops with mail slots and such. An Indiana State University fraternity was getting rid of it and gave it to him, along with a bunch of other stuff. Turns out it was Eugene Debs’ desk, as the frat was located in his old house. The loot included a Debs/Hanford election poster. I was more than a little jealous.

    1. Did you at least get a couple of beers for helping?

  15. Tyranny will never happen in America, they say.

  16. “Socialist Eugene Debs Sentenced to Prison for Giving Anti-War Speech”

    If I weren’t such a principled libertarian, I might wax nostalgic for a time when socialists were thrown in prison for being unpatriotic in wartime.

    From a purely qualitative perspective, if you had to choose between one or the other, would you rather live in a world where socialists are persecuted for exercising their First Amendment rights in wartime or a world where socialists persecute everyone else in the country for exercising their First Amendment rights in peacetime?

    1. Who gets persecuted during kinetic military action?

      1. I don’t know.

        Is it “the Germans”?

  17. I can imagine reading a news commentary somewhere a hundred years from now:

    “On this day in [2013], Officials in [Oregon] [destroyed the business] of [Christian] [Melissa Klein] for violating the [Oregon Equality Act], a [2007] a law that [protects gays and lesbians using public venues]. How did Klein run afoul of this notorious law? [She declined to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple]”.…..-embraced/

    Hopefully, people will look back and think, “How could they have so cavalierly disregarded that lady’s First Amendment rights? Wow, we’ve sure come a long way since then!

    1. No. They will say “Why wasn’t she thrown in prison?”

      1. I dunno.

        Natural rights aren’t natural because we say so. They’re natural for a reason. They reassert themselves over time.

        And time makes us more objective, too. I suspect there are still a lot of people out there who think what they do now about association and religious rights because of George Wallace and Sarah Palin.

        They’re called “baby boomers”.

        I suspect a lot of Millennials like Obama because he’s black.

        100 years from now, they’ll have their own biases, and ours will seem as silly as people throwing Debs in prison because of the Zimmerman telegram.

  18. I agree that Woody Wilson was a douche, but you got most of the facts of the Debs conviction wrong.

    1. Debs’ speech was not merely anti-war, it actually urged people to resist the draft. You can argue about whether that’s still protected speech, but please don’t misrepresent it as merely being anti-war.

    2. He was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918, not the Espionage Act of 1917.

    3. Harding did not pardon Debs, just commuted his sentence.

    But thanks for educating us Damon!

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