1921 December 25

President Harding Pardons Eugene V. Debs


President Warren G. Harding on this day pardoned Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs who had been sentenced to ten years in prison for his antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. In that speech, Debs made no reference to the war or President Woodrow Wilson’s conduct of the war. He confined his remarks to a general socialist critique of war as a product of capitalism. Nonetheless, he was convicted. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction and ten-year prison sentence in Debs v. United States (March 10, 1919).

President Woodrow Wilson rejected pleas to pardon Debs after the war ended. Debs was ill while in prison,  but ran for President in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket, receiving about one million votes. Interestingly, President Harding pardoned him on the condition that he would get to meet Debs at the White House. Harding greeted him by saying “I have head so damned much about you.” Debs was greeted by many well-wishers at Union Station where he took the train home to Terre Haute, Indiana.

The prosecution of Debs was only one part of the massive repression of dissent during World War I directed at anti-war activists, the Socialist Party, the radical I.W.W. labor union, and immigrants. See the raid on the Socialist Party headquarters on September 5, 1917; the suppression of the anti-war magazine, The Masses, on July 7, 1917; and the government raid on the offices of the National Civil Liberties Bureau (NCLB) on August 30, 1918, in which all the organization’s documents were seized.

See rare silent film footage of Debs’ release from prison: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8-g_coXTzao

Read: Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (1982)

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