Candidate With Conviction: When a Jailed Debs Ran for President

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On this date in 1996, William Jefferson Clinton was reelected as president. Although his second term was marred by scandal and impeachment, a majority of the American people weren’t simpatico with the opposition party’s efforts in Congress to remove him from office. Bill Clinton was a rare U.S. president who had higher approval ratings leaving the White House than when he entered.

Is there a lesson there for today’s congressional Democrats? You’d have to ask them: Most of the party’s leaders seeking to oust the current president were in Congress 20 years ago when that last impeachment drama unfolded, and they universally defended their president.

November 5 is a significant day in the political history of this country. On this date in 1968, Richard Nixon attained his longtime ambition of being elected president. Nixon would also face an impeachment crucible and did not emerge from it nearly as well as Clinton.

On the other side of the historic ledger, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a third term on a November 5, daring to tread on ground George Washington had eschewed. Finally, on this date in 1912, with William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote, Woodrow Wilson was elected president. A fourth candidate, Socialist Party nominee Eugene V. Debs, received just over 900,000 votes that day -- good for 6% of the popular vote.

It was not the first time Gene Debs ran for president, nor would it be the last. He’d garner even more votes in 1920 while running from a prison cell. His crime? Speaking out against war.

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Eugene Victor Debs was born in 1855 in Terra Haute, Ind., the son of immigrants from the Alsace region in France. His parents’ intellectual bent and progressive leanings can be gleaned from his name, borrowed from two French writers, Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.

Gene Debs was a solid student but a restless soul. Leaving school at 14, he went to work as a fireman on the railroad line between Terra Haute and Indianapolis.

The 1870s and 1880s were a time of political upheaval in the trade unions and Debs was in the middle of it. His first union was the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. As he rose through the ranks of the BLF, Debs became editor of the union magazine and a well-known political personage in his hometown. He served as city clerk and was elected to Indiana's state legislature in 1884. But by then he was becoming too radical for the Democratic Party, and served only one term.

He was also finding his own labor union too conservative for his vision. After an 1888 strike against Burlington Railroad ended in defeat for labor, Debs began pushing for a more unified -- and confrontational -- approach. In 1893, he helped form the American Railway Union, which promptly went on strike against the Great Northern Railway, winning higher pay and benefits.

In the summer of 1894, Debs and the ARU reluctantly joined an ongoing strike against the Pullman Car Company. This fight would pit Debs and his union against the federal government, most of the Democratic Party, and the nation's liberal establishment.

Federal troops were called to quell the strike; court injunctions were issued. Through it all, the union held fast, an effort widely denounced as encouraging anarchy.

“Organized labor makes a miserable showing in its attempts to give aid and comfort to the anarchists at Chicago,” intoned a July 9, 1894 New York Times editorial. “The truth is that every labor union man in the city of New-York knows that he becomes a criminal the moment he puts himself on the side of Debs.”

Calling for Debs’ jailing, the Times added, “[h]e is a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.”

That was one view. To his followers, however, Debs' was a great friend of the human race. They believed he was only the enemy of a corrupt political system that sustained itself by crony capitalism and stepping on the throats of working people. He was jailed (for contempt of court) during the Pullman strike, but all that did was further alienate Debs from a political system he believed needed reforming.

He ran for president as a Socialist for the first time in 1900. In 1916, he ran for Congress for an open Indiana seat, mainly on the same platform Woodrow Wilson was using in his reelection campaign: keeping America out of the First World War. Debs lost while Wilson won -- and the latter then promptly steered the United States into war.

Outraged, but unsurprised, Debs began giving antiwar speeches. It seems incredible now -- and it seemed incredible to progressives at the time -- but the Espionage Act of 1917 made such speeches a federal crime. As Debs addressed a June 16, 1918 rally in Canton, Ohio, undercover Department of Justice agents in the crowd took notes as he spoke. “The working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war,” Debs thundered. “If war is right, let it be declared by the people -- you, who have your lives to lose.”

War had been declared by Congress, however, and that month U.S. soldiers were fighting and dying in France as they resisted the kaiser’s desperate gambit to capture Paris before Germany’s forces gave out. Antiwar speakers had been arrested across the country and after the Canton speech, it was the turn of 62-year-old Debs.

Once again, America’s most influential newspapers egged the government on. The Chicago Tribune’s headline was typical: “Debs Wakes Up Howling at War; U.S. May Get Him.” At his trial in federal court in Cleveland, Debs was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. And though it venerates Debs today, The Washington Post cheered his conviction at the time.

“His activities in opposition to the war preparation were dangerous,” the Post editorialized. “His conviction … serves notice to all that disloyalty and sedition, even though masquerading under the guise of free speech, will not be tolerated.”
That’s an odd phrase, if you think about it -- “under the guise of free speech” -- and the U.S. Supreme Court should have seen through it and set aside the conviction. But it didn’t. It would take a presidential commutation by Woodrow Wilson’s successor to free him. In the end, Gene Debs himself had a much clearer understanding of the First Amendment than federal prosecutors, the jury, the courts, the president, even the press.

“I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs testified at his trial. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”

“I have been accused of having obstructed the war,” he added. “I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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