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“Convict 9653’s Presidential Campaign”

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On April 4, 2023, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg announced the indictment of former President and current Presidential candidate Donald Trump on 34 crimes related to alleged crimes involving the accounting of a 7-year hush money payment to an adult film actress.

Trump is unlikely to end up in an orange jumpsuit, at least not on this charge, and probably not before November 2024 anyway. But if he does, he wouldn’t be the first candidate to run for office from the Big House. White House.

In the 1920 election, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s presidential nominee, received nearly a million votes without ever hitting the campaign trail.

Debs was behind bars in federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia, where he served a 10 years in prison for sedition. It wasn’t a bum rape. Debs had disobeyed a law he considered unjust. the Sedition Act of 1918.

The law had passed an anti-freedom of speech measure by order of President Woodrow Wilson. The law made it illegal for a US citizen to “intentionally utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, abusive, or abusive language about the government of the United States” or to discourage compliance with the draft or voluntary enlistment in the military.

By the time he was imprisoned for sedition, Eugene Victor Debs had spent a lifetime dealing with government authority. Born 1855 to bourgeois comfort in Terre Haute, Indiana, he worked as a clerk and grocer before joining the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875 and finding his calling as a advocate for labor.

Eugene Debs ran for president five times, including in 1904 when he wrote this column for The Spokane Press.
Library of Congress

Representing American Socialism

For the next 30 years, Debs was the face of socialism in America. He ran for president four timesin 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, with about a million votes in the last cycle.

“The Republican, Democratic and Progressive Parties are just branches of the same capitalist tree,” he told a cheering crowd at Madison Square Garden during the 1912 campaign. “They all stand for wage slavery.”

In 1916 he chose it seek a seat in Congress and deferred to socialist journalist Allan L. Benson to lead the ticket of the party. Both lost.

In April 1917, as America joined the carnage of World War I in Europe, Debs became a fierce opponent of American involvement in what he saw as a death cult orchestrated by predatory munitions manufacturers. On May 21, 1918, wary of a small but energetic and eloquent anti-war movement, Wilson signed the Sedition Act into law.

Debs wouldn’t be muzzled. On June 18, 1918, at an address in Canton, Ohio, he stated that American boys were “fit for something better than cannon fodder.”

In a short time he was arrested and convicted of violating the Sedition Act. At his sentencing, he told the judge he would not retract a word of his speech, even if it meant spending the rest of his life behind bars. “I ask no mercy, argue for no immunity‘ he declared. After a brief stint in West Virginia Federal Penitentiary, he was sent to serve his sentence at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

A vintage newspaper clipping with the headline
Last-minute pre-election campaign on behalf of Debs by the Socialist Party is described in the October 27, 1920 New York Tribune.
Library of Congress

Imprisonment only cemented Debs’ status with his followers. On May 13, 1920, at its national convention in New York, the Socialist Party unanimously nominated “Convict 2253” as its standard-bearer for president. Debs later got new numbers, so the campaign buttons read “For President, Convict No. 9653.”

When Debs’ name was entered in the nomination, a wave of emotion swept over the delegates, who cheered for 30 minutes before bursting into a rousing chorus of the “Internationale.” the communist anthem.

A ‘front cell’ campaign

Debs’ opponents were both better financed and enjoyed freedom of movement: they were Warren G. Harding, the GOP junior senator from Ohio, and James M. Coxgovernor of Ohio, for the Democrats.

Still, Debs didn’t let the voters’ incarceration keep his message from his message. In a wry response to Harding’s ‘front porch’ campaign style, in which the Republican nominee was visited from the front porch of his home in Marion, Ohio, the Socialist Party announced that its nominee a ‘front cell’ campaign from Atlanta.

In 1920, radio broadcasting played no role in election campaigns, but another electronic medium was just being used for political messages. On May 29, 1920, in a carefully choreographed event, newsreel cameras filmed a delegation from the Socialist Party arriving at Atlanta Jail to officially notify Debs of his appointment. The silent screen intertitles described “the most unusual scene in America’s political history — Debs, serving a ten-year term for ‘incendiary activity,’ accepts the Socialist nomination for president.”

After accepting “a floral tribute from socialist female voters,” the “Moving Picture Weekly” reported, the jeans-clad Debs was shown giving “a last loving goodbye” before going “back to the prison cell for nine years”.

In movie theaters across the country, audiences watched the staged ritual and, depending on their party registration, responded with cheers or hisses.

The New York Times was baffled that a felon could solicit votes through the movie screen.

“Influenced by this unreasonable mafia psychology, the recognized criminal is applauded every night as loudly as many of the candidates for president who have earned their honorable eminence through great and unflinching service to the American people.” read an editorial dated June 12, 1920.

An old-fashioned telegram about President Harding's commutation of Eugene Debs' sentence.
A year after the 1920 election, President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence and he was released from prison on Christmas Day, 1921.
Library of Congress

Public opinion is changing

On November 2, 1920, then the election results are in, Harding had defeated his Democratic opponent with a record electoral majority, 404 electoral votes to Cox’s 127, with 60.4% of the vote to Cox’s 34.1%. Debs was a distant third, but he had won 3.4% of the electorate – 913,693 votes. Debs’ personal best result was in the 1912 presidential election, with 6% of the vote. To be fair, he was more mobile then.

Even with the Great War over and the Sedition Act repealed on December 13, 1920, by a remorseful US Congress, Wilson steadfastly refused during his final months in office to pardon Debs. But public opinion had turned emphatically in favor of the convict candidate. President Harding, who took office in March 1921, finally commuted his sentenceeffective on Christmas Day, 1921, along with those of 23 other Great War prisoners of conscience convicted under the Sedition Act.

When Debs left the prison gates, his cheered fellow prisoners. He lifted his hat in one hand, his cane in the other, and waved back at them. Outside, the news cameras were waiting to greet him.

It was the kind of photo shoot that Donald Trump might enjoy.

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