Eugene V. Debs mug shot

A mugshot of union leader and socialist politician Eugene V. Debs with his prisoner number circa 1920.

(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

On Imprisoning Presidential Candidates: From Eugene Debs to Donald Trump

It is hard to imagine Trump serving even any time in prison for the alleged felonies he has committed, let alone anywhere near the 2.5 years served by Debs, the American socialist leader imprisoned for speaking out against war and in favor of civil liberties like free speech. How's that for justice?

Now that a New York jury convicted Donald Trump of 34 counts of falsifying business records in order to conceal hush money paid to a porn star and to evade campaign financial regulations, speculation has begun about his sentencing. Even though his outrageous behavior towards and slander of the district attorney, the judge, the witnesses, and the jury should warrant a punitive sentence, up to and including prison, it is highly unlikely that he will spend any time in jail.

However, for those who argue this is a first-time offense for a white-collar crime, this neglects the whole pattern of lying and fraud for which he and his business associates have already been convicted in a civil case. Moreover, given the credible allegations of rape, and the guilty judgment in the E. Jean Carroll defamation and sexual abuse case, Trump clearly is a serial offender against a whole host of individuals and institutions.

As much as Trump rails against a “rigged” justice system, he has been treated with the kind of latitude and privilege befitting a wealthy white member of the ruling elite.

It is, of course, Trump’s political crimes that constitute other egregious felonies for which he has already been indicted. Unfortunately, through delay and the intervention of a politically compromised U.S. Supreme Court, the Orange Blob has avoided wearing the Orange Suit of a jailed prisoner. In addition, because of the feckless Merrick Garland, Trump’s incitement to insurrection and efforts to overturn the 2020 Presidential election were not immediately prosecuted. Thus, it may be that Trump avoids going to prison for any of these political crimes.

As much as Trump rails against a “rigged” justice system, he has been treated with the kind of latitude and privilege befitting a wealthy white member of the ruling elite. However, over a century ago, another presidential candidate was not as fortunate when it came to what passed for justice during World War One. While there may be some oblique reference in the mainstream media to the 1920 presidential candidate of the Socialist Party sitting in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, it is important to recount the context in which Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to a ten-year prison term.

Debs, like the majority of the members of the Socialist Party of the United States, opposed the U.S. participation in WWI and denounced conscription as a vehicle for providing “cannon fodder” for the slaughter-fest. The presumption of a constitutional right to free speech, however, was contravened by the passage in 1917 of Espionage Act and in 1918 of the Sedition Act. Under these acts, the Wilson Department of Justice arrested hundreds of prominent opponents of the war and conscription. Indeed, when Debs came to Canton, Ohio in June 1918 to address the Ohio Socialist Party convention, three of its leaders were already serving sentences and being tortured in jail for antiwar speeches.

Addressing the thousands gathered to hear his talk on June 16, 1918, Debs defended the right to free speech during wartime even as he attempted to lay out a carefully constructed criticism of conscription. Nonetheless, there was enough in the address for a Cleveland federal grand jury on June 29, 1918 to indict Debs for alleged violations of both the Espionage and Sedition Acts. During the September 1918 trial, he reminded a jury composed of well-to-do residents of rural and small Ohio towns that “the right of free speech” should be upheld “in war as well as in peace.” Debs did not try to obscure the fact that he opposed the war precisely because it was the “ruling classes that make war upon one another, and not the people.”

Unmoved by Debs’s arguments, the jury found him guilty on all the charges and the judge then sentenced him to ten years in prison. Released on $10,000 bail (nearly a quarter of a million in today’s dollars), he began an appeal process that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for the unanimous decision of the Court on March 10, 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. re-affirmed that Debs’s Canton speech was “seditious.” A little more than one month later, Debs was sent to a maximum-security prison before being transferred to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on June 14, 1919. It was in that facility that Debs received over 900,000 votes in the 1920 presidential election.

Upon being sent to prison, there were requests from progressive and liberal voices, including from AFL union members, for President Wilson to pardon Debs. All those appeals were rebuffed. When Warren Harding took over the presidency in 1921, there was even a louder chorus urging a general amnesty for all those languishing in prison as a consequence of their vocal opposition to WWI. Although rejecting a general amnesty, Harding pardoned Debs in December 1921, commuting the reminder of his ten-year sentence.

It is hard to imagine Trump serving even any time in prison for the alleged felonies he has committed, let alone anywhere near the two and a half years served by Debs. Moreover, if Trump manages by hook or crook (and the arcane electoral college is definitely an antidemocratic hook) to recapture the White House, one can imagine self pardons for federal crimes and the overturning of state crimes. Finally, given Trump’s avowed intentions to punish his political opponents, round up and deport migrants, and to shape his own “Justice” Department, any prospect of a Trump presidency must be viewed with alarm.

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