Debs v. United States 249 U.S. 211 (1919)

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DEBS v. UNITED STATES 249 U.S. 211 (1919)

During his long and controversial career as a labor leader and radical, Eugene V. Debs twice ran afoul of the federal government, which looked upon his activities as a threat to the nation's economic and political orthodoxy. In 1894 he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment for contempt of court as part of the grover cleveland administration's efforts to crush the Pullman boycott in Chicago. In in re debs (1895) the United States Supreme Court affirmed this conviction and upheld the sweeping labor injunction which Debs and other leaders of the American Railway Union were alleged to have violated. Two decades later, as the leader of the American Socialist Party and one of the most visible critics of the woodrow wilson administration's decision to enter world war i, Debs again found himself in federal court, this time charged with violating the espionage act of 1917.

Debs was tried and convicted on the basis of a speech he delivered at a socialist, antiwar rally in Canton, Ohio, for inciting insubordination, disloyalty, and mutiny in the armed forces and for obstructing military recruitment. In his oration, Debs praised other imprisoned leaders of the party who had been convicted for aiding and abetting resistance to the draft. In the course of his speech Debs also accused the government of using false testimony to convict another antiwar activist and he labeled the war as a plot by "the predatory capitalist in the United States" against the working class, "who furnish the corpses, having never yet had a voice in declaring war and … never yet had a voice in declaring peace." He told the audience that "you need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder," and he ended by noting: "Don't worry about the charge of treason to your masters; but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves." Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison.

When the Debs case reached the Supreme Court, a postwar "red scare" had descended on the nation. criminal conspiracy trials of leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World were still underway. The Department of Justice had embarked on a large-scale program that would culminate in the palmer raids and the deportation of hundreds of alien radicals.

Without even a reference to the clear and present danger test enunciated a week earlier, a unanimous Supreme Court affirmed Debs's conviction in an opinion written by Justice oliver wendell holmes. Although Holmes conceded that "the main theme" of Debs's speech had concerned socialism, its growth, and its eventual triumph, he argued that "if a part of the manifest intent of the more general utterance was to encourage those present to obstruct recruiting … the immunity of the general theme may not be enough to protect the speech." As Harry Kalven has remarked, "It is somewhat as though George McGovern had been sent to prison for his criticism of the [ vietnam ] war." Holmes saw the case as a routine criminal appeal; in a letter to Sir Frederick Pollock, Holmes referred to the Debs case, saying, "there was a lot of jaw about free speech."

Debs remained in federal prison long after the armistice. Although a convicted felon, he received the Socialist Party nomination for President in 1920 and nearly a million votes. President Wilson, in failing health and embittered by the war and its critics, refused to pardon Debs before leaving the White House in 1921. His successor, the Republican conservative warren g. harding, displayed greater compassion by granting the socialist leader a pardon.

Michael E. Parrish


Freund, Ernst 1919 The Debs Case and Freedom of Speech. The New Republic, May 3, 1919, p. 13. Reprinted in University of Chicago Law Review 40:239–42 (1973).