The Freedom to Insult Politicians: Eugene V Debs and the Sedition Act Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Freedom to Insult Politicians: Eugene V Debs and the Sedition Act

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Is it against the law to insult your country? Can you mock your government, its leaders, and its institutions and symbols without fear of reprisal? Some would argue that this is the acid test of democracy: do personal civil liberties allow you the right to get passionate in your disagreement?

If that was the test of true democracy, then in 1918, the United States of America failed, big-time.

The question was, could you say this in public?

Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot!

Apparently not. For saying this – and a lot of other, similar things1 – Eugene Victor Debs, head of the American Socialist Party, was indicted (and convicted) of ten counts of violating the Sedition Act of 1918. He waged his next presidential campaign2 from jail.

Just what in the world was going on? And how mad were they about what he said about Teddy Roosevelt?

Making the World Safe for Democracy

Frankly, the Great War was not horribly popular in the US at first. Why should it be? In the first place, the nation that had engaged in heated debate about the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines was settling down to an anti-imperialist attitude generally called isolationism. Meaning, 'We'll mind our own business, as long as the corporations aren't losing sugar plantations again.' As Europe had a dearth of things corporations coveted – such as sugar and banana plantations – most Americans were content to leave the continent to its own devices. Particularly the millions of immigrants. They'd just left the place, and they weren't eager to go back.

Unfortunately, a combination of British propaganda, German submarines, and a really silly diplomatic proposal to Mexico3 drew the US into the conflict then called 'The Great War'. Once the US got into the war, everybody had to pull together, so the reasoning went, and dissent, wasteful behaviour, and speaking German were just not on anymore. If that meant losing a few personal liberties – such as, say, free speech – well, so be it.

Woodrow Wilson called this sort of carry-on 'making the world safe for democracy'. Eugene V Debs did not agree. But then, he never did. Troublemakers like Debs were why Congress passed the Sedition Act.

The Sedition Act

What was the Sedition Act of 1918? Here it is, in all its glory – at least, Section 3 of it. (Take a deep breath before reading.)

Section 3. Whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States, or to promote the success of its enemies, or shall willfully make or convey false reports or false statements, or say or do anything... to an investor or investors, with intent to obstruct the sale by the United States of bonds or other securities of the United States or the making of loans by or to the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully cause or attempt to cause, or incite or attempt to incite, insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall willfully obstruct or attempt to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States, and whoever, when the United States is at war, shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States or any language intended to bring the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute, or shall willfully utter, print, write, or publish any language intended to incite, provoke, or encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies, or shall willfully display the flag of any foreign enemy, or shall wilfully by utterance, writing, printing, publication, or language spoken, urge, incite, or advocate any curtailment of production in this country of any thing or things, product or products, necessary or essential to the prosecution of the war in which the United States may be engaged, with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of war, and whoever shall willfully advocate, teach, defend, or suggest the doing of any of the acts or things in this section enumerated, and whoever shall by word or act support or favor the cause of any country with which the United States is at war or by word or act oppose the cause of the United States therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $10,000 or the imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both: Provided, that any employee or official of the United States Government who commits any disloyal act or utters any unpatriotic or disloyal language, or who, in an abusive and violent manner criticizes the Army or Navy or the flag of the United States shall be at once dismissed from the service4.

In other words: it is now illegal to say any of the following:

Now it is true that Theodore Roosevelt was no longer President. But some people took umbrage at Debs' remarks in his Canton, Ohio, speech, that disparaged the former President:

You remember that, at the close of Theodore Roosevelt's second term as President, he went over to Africa to make war on some of his ancestors. You remember that, at the close of his expedition, he visited the capitals of Europe; and that he was wined and dined, dignified and glorified by all the Kaisers and Czars and Emperors of the Old World...

Lest Mr Debs be misinterpreted again, let us point out that by Teddy's ancestors, Debs was referring to the innocent primates slaughtered by the Great White Hunter. Along with elephants, rhinoceros', etc. Debs' further point was that Roosevelt had been a great friend of the Kaiser's only a few years ago, whereas he was now firmly opposed to the evils of all things German. It might seem a mild enough point, but taken together with Debs' opposition to conscription, the war in general, and, frankly, the whole capitalist system, it was simply too much.

Free speech has no place in wartime. Unless, of course, the speaker happens spontaneously to approve of absolutely everything the government do. In that case, it's patriotism.

Trial and Aftermath

Did Debs' arrest really lead to his incarceration? You bet it did. The court found him guilty of sedition, and sentenced him to ten years in prison. He served time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary from April 1919 until December 1921. Then, his successful opponent in the president election, Warren G Harding, pardoned him.

It was just as well that Harding got used to the idea of politicians in jail. Soon, he would have to deal with the Teapot Dome Scandal in his own administration.

Debs had a lot to say to the court at his sentencing. Small surprise, there, but his words might be worth noting:

Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own...

He said a lot more than that, actually – you can read it here, courtesy of friendly Marxists. Finally, Debs found a place where he could exercise free speech: in front of a judge.

Is there a lesson in all of this? Indeed there is. Free speech: use it or lose it. Just ask Eugene V Debs. But the world is still waiting for that 'better day for humanity'.

1Like almost all politicians in the Progressive Era, Debs was a bit verbose.2Debs ran for president five times. He always lost. But in 1912, the Socialist candidate got 6% of the popular vote.3It was called the Zimmermann Telegram. It offered the Mexicans German help in recovering Texas in return for support in the Great War. Call it unrealistic if you like, but the publication of this decrypted message made a lot of people angry – which was the intention of the British cryptographers who let the cat out of the bag.4Federal Judicial Center, Sedition Act of 1918.

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