Justice Holmes and the ‘Splendid Prisoner’

Library of Congress
Eugene Debs just after his release from the Atlanta penitentiary, December 25, 1921

Eugene Debs is a largely forgotten man today, an odd footnote in American history of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this fascinating book about his climactic last years makes clear that he really mattered. In both political and legal ways he played a significant part in reducing intolerance of dissent in this country, and bringing to life the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Debs was a radical union and political leader who twice went to prison for his beliefs and twice was the subject of Supreme Court decisions. In 1895, in In re Debs, the Court upheld his contempt conviction for violating an injunction against the great Pullman strike of 1894, which paralyzed many railroad lines for days. In 1901 he helped to found the Socialist Party. Over the next twenty years he was five times the party’s candidate for president, running the last time in 1920 from the Atlanta federal penitentiary, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for a speech that Woodrow Wilson’s administration said encouraged resistance to the draft during World War I. The Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 1919 in Debs v. United States.

Conflict between Eugene Debs and Woodrow Wilson is a running theme of Ernest Freeberg’s book. It shatters any illusion that Wilson was a liberal-minded president. On economic issues he was a reformer, but on civil liberties he was a disaster. He pushed through Congress in 1917 an Espionage Act that criminalized not only espionage but speech critical of the government. Wilson proposed to include, but Congress struck out, a provision for censorship of newspapers. In 1918 Congress passed an amendment, known as the Sedition Act, that made it a crime to use “disloyal” or “profane” language that might encourage contempt for the Constitution or the flag.

Postmaster General Albert Burleson, empowered by the Espionage Act to cancel the mailing privileges of journals he deemed unpatriotic, put many left-wing magazines out of business. Wilson did nothing to restrain Burleson. (Nor did he intervene when, earlier, his cabinet members imposed racial segregation on the Treasury and Navy Departments and the Post Office.)

When the United States entered World War I, much of the public—encouraged by Wilson—turned jingoistic. Thousands of people were prosecuted for such things as overstating the horrors of war. Vigilante groups harassed suspected opponents of the war. Debs was a particular target. When he was prosecuted in 1918, The Washington Post said, “Debs is a public menace, and the country will be better off with him behind bars.”

It is hard to understand, now, why Gene Debs aroused hatred. Unlike many of the socialists, anarchists, and other radical figures of the early twentieth century in this country, who were immigrants from Europe, he was utterly American. He lived…

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