September 11, 1918 – Eugene Debs Convicted for Violating Espionage Act
Pictured – The socialist anti-war leader and presidential candidate was sentenced to ten years.
Indiana-born socialist Eugene V. Debs had given a speech in Canton, Ohio in June 1918 criticizing America’s entry into World War One. He castigated a war he felt was being fought for “Wall Street bankers” and “vampires” at home, a war which it would be the “working class who fight all the battles.” And he attacked the government for the hypocrisy of claiming to fight for freedom in Europe while clamping down on liberties at home. The Espionage Act made any criticism of the US war effort illegal, and had been used to imprison a number of anti-war critics. Debs assured the crowd that he would probably be convicted for what he said that day: “I’ll take about two jumps and they’ll nail me, but that’s all right.”
They did. US v. Debs assembled a minimum of evidence that Debs had undermined recruiting by “by indirection and insinuation.” The defense called no witnesses. But before the jury went off to deliberate, Debs harangued them with an appeal: “I do not fear to face you in this hour of accusation…I can look you
in the face, I can look the world in the face, for in my conscience, in
my soul, there is no festering accusation of guilt.”
After six hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict. The judge sentenced Debs to ten years in the Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia, from where he ran for president in 1920 as Convict 9653. The election winner Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’s sentence to time served in 1921.