This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him

This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him

Matthew Weber - May 15, 2017

There has never been an actual member of the Socialist Party to be elected to the White House, and only twice has one of their members sat in the House of Representatives. The original Socialist Party dissolved in 1972, and while it was reconstituted in early 2017, it is nowhere near where it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Socialist Party itself was founded in 1901, but was the combination of three other socialist political organizations that had been put together in the 19th century. Despite its lack of success on the national level, the Socialist Party was able to make a name for itself. One of, if not the most famous Socialists of all time is a man named Eugene V. Debs.

The reason why the Socialist Party was influential at all in the early 20th century is because of the push for labor equality and the ability of workers to Unionize.

The ability to strike and negotiate for better wages and working conditions was a struggle that was fierce for most of the 60 years following the Civil War. Debs got his start in politics by working with several different unions, he was even the leader of several unions throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.

He was instrumental in founding the American Railway Union in 1893, and is considered one of the United States’ first industrial unions. After growing the union, he helped organize the Pullman Strike of 1894 when 250,000 railway workers refused to work on trains that pulled Pullman cars. Pullman made palace cars that were used for passenger transport, and they were very popular.

The courts ruled that the strike was illegal, and Grover Cleveland, the President at the time, used the Army to break up the strike. Eugene Debs was arrested and convicted for defying the court’s orders, and he ended up serving six months in prison. It would not be the last time he would spend time in jail, but we’ll get to that.

This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him
Debs campaign poster. History

Because of his popularity with the Unions, and his organization of several socialist groups, including the Socialist Party of America, Debs was a prime candidate for running for higher public office under the Socialist umbrella.

During his political career, Debs ran for President five times.

  • In 1900, he earned 0.63 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1904, he earned 2.98 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1908, he earned 2.83 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1912, he had his best showing and earned 5.99 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1920, he ran for the last time and received 3.41 percent of the popular vote.

This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him
Eugene V. Debs Giving a Speech 1912. Source: Cunningham Memorial Library

Campaigning From Prison

It was very, very dangerous during the time the US participated in World War I to speak out against the US’s forces in Europe. Eugene V. Debs was vehemently against the United States ‘ participation in World War I, and specifically the draft that was instituted to bolster the army’s numbers.

On June 16, 1918, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, where he urged workers to resist the military draft. This was a violation of a new law that was passed in 1917 called the Espionage Act of 1917. It made sedition a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Sedition was then defined as anything that spread false news for the American military forces with the intent to disrupt operations. It was then further added onto by the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to make any statement criticizing the United States Government.

While these laws were largely repealed by 1921, they were held up in court. Debs was found guilty of 10 counts of sedition and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He started his sentence in April 1919. During his trial, he made a speech that is to this day very famous. He said:

“Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means…

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally, the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom.”

At his sentencing hearing in November of 1918, he made what is considered his most famous quote:

“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Debs eventually made his appeal to the United States Supreme Court, where his conviction was upheld. It seems the decision was based mostly on Debs’ views on the draft, and his comments urging working Americans to dodge the draft in any way possible.

His conviction led to widespread protests. A large protest in Cleveland, Ohio led by Charles Ruthenberg on May 1, 1919, led to the May Day Riots of 1919, where 2 people died, and 116 people were arrested. Order was only obtained when the police brought in horses, army trucks, and tanks.

Debs was considered for clemency by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, but he was advised against it. He then wrote: “While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them…This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him
Debs leaving prison in Atlanta in 1921. Wikipedia

It wouldn’t be until 1921 when President Harding was in office, that Debs’ sentence would be commuted and he would be released from prison.

While in prison, Debs did something he had done four times before, but never with those conditions. He ran for president. Even more surprising is that he received quite a bit of support. He received almost a million votes, which added up to around 3.4 percent. While it wasn’t his best showing, he was in prison, so it was fairly impressive nonetheless.

Socialism was very unpopular, as you might expect after World War II ended. And while the party would be around for many years in different forms, being an outright socialist in the modern age is much more taboo than it ever was in Debs’ time. Debs, unlike many other politicians, did not let the label of socialist bring him down, but instead embraced it to further his goals. Whether he would be able to do the same today is debatable.