Monday, May 14, 2007

May 13, 1920:

Debs Nominated for President

Eugene V. Debs ran for president as a socialist every election from 1900 to 1920, except for 1916, polling remarkably good numbers, especially in 1912 and 1920, when he won 900,672 and 919,799 votes in those respective elections (third-place William Howard Taft got about 3.4 million votes in 1912). It was the high-water mark of organized socialism in this country.

On May 13, 1920, even more remarkably, Debs was nominated for the presidency at the Finnish Socialist Hall in New York City while he was in Georgia, unable to attend. He was, in fact, in federal prison, convicted under the draconian Espionage Act of 1917 for an anti-war speech he made in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, It's clear from the text of the speech he knew what was coming:

"I have just returned from a visit over yonder, where three of our most loyal comrades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

"I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. They may put those boys in jail—and some of the rest of us in jail—but they can not put the Socialist movement in jail. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect, and for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind."

A critical factor in the Democratic loss of the White House in 1920 was Woodrow Wilson's overreaction in suppressing dissent during the war and during the Red Scare afterwards, which featured many of the same applications of coercive federal power. Wilson's successor, Warren Harding, commuted Debs' sentence on Christmas Day 1921. In ill health by that time, however, he never ran for office again and died in 1926.

No comments: