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Presidential Pardons and the Spirit of Clemency

A century before Donald Trump commuted Roger Stone’s sentence for personal, political reasons, another GOP president magnanimously used his pardon power to unite the country.
July 14, 2020
Presidential Pardons and the Spirit of Clemency
Eugene Debs, just released from prison, leaves the White House after meeting with President Warren G. Harding on December 26, 1921. (Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s commutation of Roger Stone’s prison sentence brings to mind another occasion, nearly a century ago, when a conservative Republican president commuted a convict’s sentence—not out of self-interest, as in Trump’s pardon of Stone, but out of concern for what he thought was right for the country.

The prisoner in this case had been serving time for violation of the Espionage and Sedition Acts passed during the administration of Democratic president Woodrow Wilson. Given the widespread resistance to the United States entering the war then raging in Europe, in 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which prohibited interference with American armed forces in wartime. The next year, Congress added onto it with the Sedition Act, which prohibited “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States” or that would bring government, the Constitution, the military, or the flag “into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute.” Convicted violators could be punished with “a fine of not more than $10,000”—that’s over $150,000 in today’s money—or “imprisonment for not more than twenty years, or both.”

The man convicted and sent to prison for violating this law was the leader of the American Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs. In a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio on June 16, 1918, Debs spoke out against U.S. participation in the war, which he believed was an unnecessary one waged on behalf of bankers and business leaders.

“As a Socialist,” Debs told the crowd of about a thousand, “I have long since learned how to stand alone.” Corporate leaders, he said, “are today wrapped up in the American flag” and “make the claim that they are the only patriots.” What particularly offended government officials who were there listening to the speech was Debs’s defense of the radical syndicalists of the self-proclaimed revolutionary union movement, the IWW. The U.S. attorney general, upon reading a transcript of the speech, concluded that Debs was “close to, if not over, the line,” but recommended against his arrest and prosecution. After all, anyone who read the speech immediately saw that Debs had never advocated draft resistance or any other overtly militant and illegal action.

The U.S. attorney for northern Ohio, however, obtained a grand jury indictment of Debs on June 29, charging him with violations of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. Debs admitted to all he was accused of having said except for one thing: He stressed that he never favored violence or violent revolution, but opposed capitalism and war profiteers.

“I am not on trial here,” Debs explained in the courtroom. “American institutions are on trial here before a court of American citizens.”

Sentencing him to ten years in prison, the judge condemned those “who would strike the sword from the hand of this nation while she is engaged in defending herself against a foreign and brutal power.”

Civil libertarians and labor and progressive activists flooded the White House with demands for his release. Woodrow Wilson simply turned down every request he received and was adamant that he would not pardon or commute the sentence of the socialist leader. While serving out his sentence in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Debs ran for president in 1920 on the Socialist Party ticket—and received an astonishing 913,000 write-in votes.

Debs had been imprisoned for two years when a new Republican president, Warren G. Harding, was elected. He was known as a staunch conservative, and progressive publications like the Nation and the New Republic predicted that his election would be catastrophic for the country. The last thing they expected was any sympathy on his part for Debs and other political prisoners.

After his victory, though, Harding quietly began to reassess the cases of many of those arrested for their opposition to the war in the Wilson years. He decided that he would commute the sentences of those imprisoned if they met certain criteria: that they had not committed any criminal or destructive act in connection with their anti-war activities, and had not advocated violence.

Of all the self-proclaimed “political prisoners,” Debs was the most prominent. At Harding’s instructions, the new U.S. attorney general, a Harding crony named William Daugherty, arranged to have Debs let out of prison for a few days, so he could travel on his own—without any guards—to come to Washington, D.C, to meet with Daugherty on March 24, 1921 to discuss his case.

Daugherty had only good things to write about Debs. He wrote in his memoir of the Harding years, published in 1932, that he and Debs talked for most of the day. Debs told him his ideas on government, religion, and socialism, and while Daugherty judged them “woefully wrong,” he wrote that “a more eloquent and fascinating recital I never heard fall from the lips of any man.” He proclaimed Debs to have “a charming personality, with a deep love for his fellow man.” Yet Daugherty advised the president not to pardon Debs or commute his sentence. (He claimed the opposite in his memoir, but the evidence contradicts him.)

Harding originally had planned to free Debs at year’s end, but he changed it to December 24, so that, as he later said, Debs could “eat his Christmas dinner with his wife.” But before Debs returned home, Harding insisted that upon leaving prison, he come to Washington, D.C., and meet with him at the White House, a meeting that took place December 26, 1921.

Harding was widely petitioned on behalf of the other wartime political prisoners as well. He “would never, as long as he was President,” according to a July 19, 1922 White House statement, “pardon any criminal who was guilty of preaching the destruction of the Government by force.” But most of the remaining prisoners were, like Debs, peaceful, and Harding would go on to free nearly all of them.

Harding’s commutation of Debs’s sentence had received strong opposition from patriotic groups. The American Legion led nationwide protests, as did other pro-war groups. In their eyes, Debs’s stance simply could not be forgiven. The New York Times warned Harding that “the majority of the American people will not approve this commutation.” Harding’s friend, the journalist Malcolm Jennings, wrote Harding, “I don’t know what led you to do it.” He was shocked at Harding’s decision, as were other conservative and patriotic Republicans.

Harding had also gotten protests from the left, whose leaders demanded that Debs be freed. Debs’s successor as head of the Socialist Party, Norman Thomas—a pastor and Princeton graduate who knew Harding from Marion, Ohio, where Thomas also was born—met with the president at the White House several times. Writing to a friend, Thomas revealed that Harding “pointed very dramatically to a pile of pardon applications on his desk and told me that a lot of people were in jail for political reasons . . . who should be free.” Turning to Debs in particular, the president told Thomas “he would pardon him when he could get as much” sentiment for doing so as much as “had been manifest . . . against such action.”

Why did, then, Warren G. Harding, a confirmed conservative, free the socialist radical, Eugene V. Debs? The first answer is that, unlike our current president, Harding knew that with the end of the war, the country wanted reconciliation and an end to division. As he wrote a friend, Ben Myers, on August 30, 1921, Harding believed Debs “was within his rights in supporting and promoting the theory to which he subscribes. We cannot punish men in America,” he stressed, “for their exercise of their freedom in political and religious belief.” He had no sympathy for Debs’s ideology, he made clear, “but I recognize his right to his belief and I think him wholly sincere.” Moreover, other nations had freed their political prisoners, and he found that course “the magnanimous one.” His main object was, he added, “to restore good feeling and get our feet on normal paths again.”

Harding’s main explanation came in a lengthy letter written to Malcolm Jennings on January 6, 1922. Even if taking an unpopular stance meant losing re-election, he wrote Jennings, “I would vastly prefer a limited career with the consciousness of having done the right thing.” He thought he would encounter criticism no matter which path he took. The matter “was given very serious and earnest study,” and even his wife, he confided, was opposed to freeing Debs. “However,” he wrote, “I was persuaded that it was the right thing to do.” Attorney General Daugherty too advised against clemency, but “I did not think it wise to make a martyr of Debs.” He then wrote these remarkable words:

I recalled that he had been several times a presidential nominee, but personally he is of a very clean and lovable character, and I am sure I have heard men in Congress say things worse than the utterances upon which he was convicted and the men in Congress, of course, went scot-free.

In fact, Harding wrote, he could pick out a half-dozen of them in both the House and Senate, he wrote, “who deserved quite as much to be in the penitentiary as did Debs.”

Finally, as the new postwar president, “I thought the spirit of clemency was quite in harmony with the things we were trying to do in Washington; that Debs had never been guilty of any overt act; that he never countenanced destruction of government by force, and probably I could persuade him to become a factor in contributing to tranquility throughout the land.”

It is difficult to imagine, in these divided and troubling days, that our nation once had a conservative Republican president who believed that a socialist like Debs was just an American citizen with whom he disagreed, not an enemy who ought to be destroyed. It would do well for Donald Trump to take a leaf from Warren G. Harding and work to bring the country together, instead of working so hard to divide us.

Ron Radosh

Ronald Radosh is a professor emeritus of history at CUNY, and the author and co-author of many books, including A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel (with Allis Radosh) and Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Twitter: @RonRadosh.