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On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio in opposition to World War I urging resistance to the military drafts of World War I. During the Palmer Raids, part of the First Red Scare in which people who were suspected of being radical leftists were arrested under fear that they would cause anarchism, Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The period was characterized by supporters of communism and socialism being arrested and detained under suspicion of sedition. Deb’s speeches against the Wilson administration and the war earned the undying enmity of President Woodrow Wilson, who later called Debs a “traitor to his country.”
Debs was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life. Debs presented what has been called his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:
“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, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Debs appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In its ruling on Debs v. United States, the court examined several statements Debs had made regarding World War I and Socialism. While Debs had carefully guarded his speeches in an attempt to comply with the Espionage Act, the Court found he still had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and recruitment for the war. Among other things, the Court cited Debs’s praise for those imprisoned for obstructing the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated in his opinion that little attention was needed since Debs’ case was essentially the same as that of Schenck v. United States, in which the Court had upheld a similar conviction.
Debs went to prison on April 13, 1919. In protest of his jailing, Charles Ruthenberg led a parade of unionists, socialists, anarchists and communists to march on May 1 (May Day) 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. The event quickly broke into the violent May Day Riots of 1919. Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 write-in votes (3.4%) the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. and slightly more than he had won in 1912, when he obtained 2.2% of the vote. This stint in prison also inspired Debs to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and was collected into his only book, Walls and Bars, with several added chapters. However, Debs died before the book’s completion, and it was published posthumously.
Learning of Deb’s ill health, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer prepared a clemency petition on Debs’s behalf for a presidential pardon in order to free Debs from prison, feeling it would damage the administration if he died in custody. Upon being given the petition, President Wilson replied “Never!” and wrote ‘Denied’ across it.
On December 25, 1921, Republican President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served.
Read the Canton, OH speech here
Read an article on the opening of the trial