Alexander Mitchell Palmer

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Alexander Mitchell Palmer served as U.S. attorney general from 1919 to 1921. Palmer, who also served as a congressman and federal judge, became a controversial figure for rounding up thousands of aliens in 1920 that he considered to be politically subversive. These "Palmer raids" violated basic civil liberties and ultimately discredited Palmer.

Palmer was born May 4, 1872, in Moose-hood, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Swarthmore College in 1891 and then studied law at Swarthmore, Lafayette College, and George Washington University. Though he did not earn a law degree, he passed the Pennsylvania bar exam and was admitted to the bar in 1893. He entered a small law firm in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, and practiced there until 1901. He then became a solo practitioner.

"Fully 90 percent of the Communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to aliens."
—A. Mitchell Palmer

During the 1890s, Palmer became active in democratic party politics. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1908 where he served until 1915. In 1912 he played a key role in securing the Democratic presidential nomination

for New Jersey governor woodrow wilson. Following Wilson's victory that fall, Wilson asked Palmer to join his cabinet as secretary of war. Palmer's pacifist Quaker beliefs, however, precluded him from accepting the office.

In 1914 he ran for the U.S. Senate but lost. In April 1915 Wilson appointed him a judge of the United States Court of Claims. It was a brief appointment. He resigned in September and returned to his law practice. He continued his political career, however, serving as a member of the Democratic National Committee during Wilson's eight-year term.

In 1917, after the United States entered world war i, Wilson appointed Palmer custodian of alien property. Palmer's duties included seizing and selling properties belonging to aliens, primarily Germans, and his methods often met with disapproval.

In March 1919 Wilson appointed Palmer U.S. attorney general. Though World War I was over, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia caused political hysteria in western Europe and the United States. The Communist movement advocated world revolution, and U.S. leaders suspected that left-wing radicals, who were primarily aliens, were plotting to overthrow the government.

Palmer used the espionage act of 1917 and the sedition Act of 1918 to begin a crusade against this perceived threat. He deported the anarchist emma goldman and many other radicals, but these actions were a prelude to his unprecedented dragnets. On January 2, 1920, at Palmer's direction, federal agents in thirty-three cities rounded up six thousand persons suspected of subversive activities. Agents entered and searched homes without warrants, held persons without specific charges for long periods of time, and denied them legal counsel. Hundreds of aliens were deported. Palmer's actions were part of an anti-Communist "Red Scare" that ignored civil liberties in the pursuit of rooting out allegedly subversive activities. He steadfastly defended the raids in the face of widespread protests.

Palmer sought to succeed Wilson as president but lost the Democratic Party nomination in 1920. After leaving the office of attorney general in March 1921, Palmer resumed his private law practice and remained active in Democratic Party politics, campaigning for presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in 1928 and franklin d. roosevelt in 1932.

Palmer died May 11, 1936, in Washington, D.C.

further readings

Coben, Stanley. 1972. A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician. New York: Da Capo Press.

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Alexander Mitchell Palmer

As U.S. attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer (1872-1936) was instrumental in creating the "red scare" of internal Communist subversion after World War I and was responsible for the illegal arrest of thousands of aliens.

Born in Moosehead, Pa., on May 4, 1872, A. Mitchell Palmer graduated summa cum laude in 1891 from Swarthmore College. He then read law for 2 years and became a prominent attorney in Pennsylvania. A moralist and moderate reformer, he was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Democrat in 1908 and again in 1910 and 1912. His personal charm and debating skill, together with his championship of tariff reform, woman's suffrage, and abolition of child labor gave him a considerable reputation. Yet the partisan, dogmatic, and combative qualities which ultimately compromised his career were already evident.

After declining appointment as secretary of war because of his Quaker beliefs, Palmer ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson then named him to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Claims, but he rejected the appointment because of his unwillingness to abandon active politics. In 1917 Palmer returned to government service as alien property custodian and was soon enveloped in controversy over his partisan appointments and loose construction of the law.

Appointed attorney general in March 1919, Palmer used the office to further his presidential aspirations. He perceived, among other things, that public sentiment was turning against labor, a group he had supported generously in the past. Prompted partly by J. Edgar Hoover, then a division chief in the Department of Justice, Palmer freely issued injunctions against strikers and soon charged striking miners, steelworkers, and railroad workers with promoting economic and social revolution. Meanwhile, influenced partly by the bombing of his own home, and again encouraged by Hoover, he authorized the unconstitutional dragnet arrest of thousands of suspected alien radicals. The action is generally regarded as the most flagrant violation of civil liberties up to that time. By most estimates, the bitter reaction of liberals and organized labor cost him the presidential nomination in 1920.

Palmer stayed on in Washington and practiced law. He maintained a peripheral interest in politics through the 1920s, and in 1932 he composed the more conservative sections of the Democratic platform. He died in Washington on May 11, 1936.

Further Reading

Stanley Coben, A. Mitchell Palmer, Politician (1963), is a full and generally convincing account of Palmer's career. It should be supplemented, for the attorney general years, by Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria (1955), and William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters (1963). □

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