With the holiday season upon us, it’s worthwhile to remember Christmas 1921, the day that arguably the most successful socialist in American history, Eugene Debs, was released from prison. Let’s hope the rising generation of working-class leaders can surpass his achievements without diluting his egalitarian vision.
In 1918, Debs made a speech in Ohio opposing World War I. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” he told the crowd. “And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.” For this, he was charged with sedition.
At his trial later that year, Debs freely admitted he opposed World War I and called no witnesses. In boundlessly empathic words that would be his most widely-quoted, Debs told the court, “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 was sentenced to 10 years of incarceration.
Debs had been imprisoned decades before, in 1895 for his leadership of the Pullman Strike. According to historian Howard Zinn, strikers at the time “tied up the railroad system, burned hundreds of railway cars, and were met with the full force of the capitalist state: Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer, got a court injunction to prohibit blocking trains. President [Grover] Cleveland called out the army, which used bayonets and rifle fire on a crowd of 5,000 strike sympathizers in Chicago. Seven hundred were arrested. Thirteen were shot to death.”
While under lock and key for opposing World War I, the aging Debs ran as the Socialist Party’s candidate for president of the United States for his fifth and final time in 1920. “Although he topped his 1912 total, the 919,000 ballots cast for convict 9653 did so only barely, and his share of the national vote dropped from 6 to 3 percent,” according to historian Nick Salvatore.
Succumbing to public pressure, a few days prior to Christmas the next year President Warren Harding decided that Debs, along with 22 other political prisoners, would have their sentences commuted, effective on the 1921 holiday, according to Salvatore.
“The president offered individual acts of clemency for two dozen [political] prisoners, leaving more than a hundred still behind bars, and ignoring the call for general amnesty,” writes historian Ernest Freeberg. “Debs had often insisted that he would only leave prison after all his fellow comrades were released, and if he accepted his freedom now, he would break that promise.”
According to Freeberg, the elderly Debs’ cellmate “insisted that a true revolutionary would reject Harding’s offer, escalating the conflict to stir radical ferment.” But Debs’ outside supporters urged him to accept the offer, arguing he could do more good for the others while at liberty. He ultimately took their advice.
“On the day of his release, the warden ignored prison regulations and opened every cell-block to allow more than 2,000 inmates to gather in front of the main jail building to say good-bye to Eugene Debs,” according to Howard Zinn. “As he started down the walkway from the prison, a roar went up and he turned, tears streaming down his face, and stretched out his arms to the other prisoners.”
Debs then traveled by rail to the nation’s capital to meet with President Warren Harding and Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Daugherty claimed Debs came of his own “volition,” but Debs said his trip was “at the request” of the attorney general, according to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Debs said he had been given a ticket by the warden to Washington, despite having planned on going home to Indiana.
“[Debs] announced that, instead of riding in the expensive Pullman car provided by the government, he would travel in a more humble coach and donate the difference to Russia’s famine victims,” Freeberg writes. “He also gave his prison-issued five-dollar bill to the legal defense fund for Sacco and Vanzetti.”
The meeting between Harding and Debs was apparently cordial. Harding is reported to have risen to shake the socialist’s hand, saying, “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally.” According to Freeberg, Debs told reporters afterward that he believed Harding to be a “very kind gentleman.”
“Some speculated that the meeting had been arranged to satisfy the president’s simple curiosity about this man, so beloved and so hated,” writes Freeberg. “Others suggested that Harding tried to persuade Debs to abandon his radical views, or at least tone down his revolutionary rhetoric in the name of national harmony.”
Either way, according to Freeberg, Debs said to reporters afterwards that he had told the president he was committed to his political trajectory prior to his imprisonment. The New York Times reported that a crowd of 50,000 supporters greeted the socialist leader upon his return to his home of Terre Haute, Indiana. He would die a few years later, in 1926, at the age of 70, of heart failure.
Photo: Eugene V. Debs leaving the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, on Christmas Day 1921. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons