A shorter version of this essay first appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday, January 3, 2024, and can be seen here.
Many people are asking, can a candidate run for the presidency from prison? Yes, and it’s happened before—to a Socialist who received nearly a million votes.
Eugene Debs ran as the Socialist Party nominee for president five times in the six presidential elections between 1900 and 1920—and in 1920 he ran from the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. He left home at age fourteen to work on the railroad and became involved in the nascent efforts to organize labor unions. Before his 20th birthday he helped create a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, rising to become a national officer within five years. By the time he was 30 he was serving in the Indiana legislature.
Debs was a labor organizer, but he was not anarchist. He had been shocked by Chicago’s Haymarket Riots of 1886. Though he was the son of Alsatian immigrants, he still indulged in nativist rhetoric, insisting that the incoming tide of Eastern European Jews and Southern European Catholics in the late 19th century threatened Protestant White Americans. “The Dago,” he said, “works for small pay and lives far more like a savage or a wild beast than the Chinese.” Like a modern-day cable news talking head, he warned that “Italy has millions to spare, and they are coming.” He denounced the influx of Russian Jews as “criminals and paupers.”
By the 1890s, the growing power of corporations and the threat they posed to workers led Debs to oppose all attempts to divide workers against themselves based on ethnicity. Class, not religion, was his fault line. He led the American Railway Union in a successful strike for higher wages against the Great Northern Railway in April 1894.
Debs gained greater renown—and vilification—in 1895 when he was sentenced to six months in jail for his role in leading the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Company strike, which severely disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest during the summer of 1894. That strike was historic: it marked the first time that the Federal government resorted to an injunction to break the strike.
Sitting in jail for his 40th birthday, Debs read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, and though he never embraced Marxian Socialism, he grew to loathe competitive capitalism. Lincoln, not Lenin, remained his hero. But the rail-splitter’s America was gone, replaced by an economic system that Debs felt would have been unrecognizable to the Founders.
Debs emerged from jail more defiant than ever. An inspiring speaker, he energized a crowd of more than 100,000 in Chicago, denouncing capitalism and advocating for “the Spirit of ’76” and a system that allowed every worker “the opportunity to advance to the fullest limits of his abilities.” He was not a revolutionary, calling instead for workers to seize power through the ballot and reclaim the country that was rightfully theirs.
In 1897 he proclaimed himself a Socialist and founded the Socialist Party of America, injecting European-style class conflict into American politics.
Debs ran for president at the head of his party in 1900, receiving 96,000 votes; the total grew to 400,00 four years later. He ran again in 1908 and 1912, receiving 6 percent of the vote.
With the U.S. entry into World War I, the Federal government’s need for increased industrial production clashed headlong with the goals of Debs and organized labor. In the flurry of war-time patriotism, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, designed to punish acts deemed disloyal, dangerous, and disruptive of the war effort. “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs declared. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.” Flouting the law, Debs encouraged young American men not to fight: “The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought the battles.”
Federal authorities pounced. Prosecutor Edwin Wertz announced that “No man, even though four times the candidate of his party for the highest office, can violate the basic law of this land.” Debs was charged with violating the Espionage Act and convicted of sedition in 1918—and disfranchised for life. He was sentenced to three concurrent ten-year sentences. (Ironically, the same Act was used to charge Donald Trump in his handling of classified documents.)
Whether First Amendment martyr or war-time traitor, Eugene Debs found himself running as the Socialist candidate for president in 1920 from the Atlanta Federal prison. He told his supporters, who handed out photos of the candidate in convict denim, along with campaign buttons for “Prisoner 9653,” “I enter the prison doors a flaming revolutionist, my head erect, my spirit untamed and my soul unconquerable.” Despite the obvious impediments to his campaign and doubts about his eligibility, Debs received 915,000 votes for president—3.5 percent—the highest total the party ever won.
President Warren Harding finally released Debs—but did not pardon him—on Christmas Day 1921, and promptly invited him to the White House, where Debs’s charm was on full display. Fifty thousand supporters greeted him on his return to Indiana. But it was a pyrrhic victory, as prison nearly broke him. His health was ruined.
Debs died five years later, in 1926, at age 70, his dream and his cause in ruins. To this point, Eugene Debs remains the only presidential candidate to seek the office while imprisoned after a Federal conviction.
Stan’s guest this week is renowned (and recovering) sociologist John Shelton Reed, who discusses his career, what’s still southern about the South, the Campaign for Real Barbecue, and writing country music lyrics.
Stan’s guest this week is political scientist Sidney Milkis of the University of Virginia, who discusses his new book, What Happened to the Vital Center? Presidentialism, Populist Revolt, and the Fracturing of America. This is a wide-ranging discussion about American political history and the US Constitution.
President Joe Biden announced last week that he will seek a second term. For some, the power of the presidency is irresistible. Almost no one walks away voluntarily from seeking a second term. Lyndon Johnson was the last man who did in 1968, but only after Vietnam and domestic unrest combined to nearly destroy his presidency. And he was swept into office in one of the greatest landslides in history just four years earlier.
Many presidents seek a second term to complete what they consider the unfinished business of the first term; in fact, the current incumbent used almost this exact language in announcing his bid for re-election. Only one president, James K. Polk, felt that he had completed everything he set out to accomplish when he stepped down willingly in 1849 after one term. His four years encompassed the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, and the violent controversy over the westward expansion of slavery. The stress of it all contributed to Polk’s death at age 53, just three months after his term ended.
Historically, second terms are almost always disasters. From Washington to Barack Obama, almost every president who has served beyond four years came to grief on the rocky shoals of a second term. Political scandals, wars, assassinations, economic blunders, natural disasters, and foreign affairs (and sometimes domestic ones too, a la Bill Clinton) can quickly diminish popularity and political power, limiting a president’s leadership and ability to govern effectively.
Second-term woes go all the way back to our nation’s first president. George Washington agreed to seek a second term only after being persuaded to do so by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Both men then promptly resigned and left Washington to preside over an increasingly divided country polarized by Jefferson’s Republicans and Hamilton’s Federalists.
Washington’s second term was bedeviled by diplomatic troubles with Great Britain—most notably the controversial Jay Treaty—and Revolutionary France. The day Washington left office he saw this vitriol directed at him in a Republican paper: “Would to God you had retired to private life four years ago. If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by you.”
Thomas Jefferson’s first term was one of the most successful in American history—the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the country and hastened the Federalist party into extinction—and his popularity propelled him into a second term. But it was a disaster, again thanks to the diplomatic tangle of European affairs. Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807, which basically stopped American shipping abroad, nearly ruined the American economy and was enormously unpopular. Jefferson practically fled the White House in 1809.
Most other presidents who served two terms fared no better. The British army chased James Madison out of Washington before burning the city during the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson was censured by the Senate in his second term during the Bank War, the one and only time that has happened.
Lincoln was assassinated in his second term (as was McKinley), but had he lived his reputation might have foundered on the shoals of Reconstruction, just as Andrew Johnson’s did.
U.S. Grant was a war hero but the scandals of his second term marked his presidency as one of the worst in history.
World War I and the fight over the League of Nations nearly killed Woodrow Wilson in his second term. FDR’s ill-advised court-packing scheme during his second term nearly derailed his presidency and had World War II not been looming on the horizon, his political fortunes would have dropped considerably. Civil rights unrest, Sputnik, the Cold War, and Castro’s rise in Cuba all managed to douse Dwight Eisenhower’s popularity in the last years of his second term.
During the last 50 years, second terms have all been fraught with peril: the afore-mentioned LBJ (technically not a second term, but close, after finishing out JFK’s term); Nixon and Watergate; Reagan and the Iran-Contra affair; Clinton’s impeachment; while the Iraq war, the fumbled response to Katrina, and the economic meltdown eroded George W. Bush’s popularity to record-setting lows. And while Obama’s second term was not marked by outright scandal, it is not difficult to see Donald Trump’s 2016 election as a stinging rebuke to his administration.
Perhaps the Confederates got this part right: they limited their President to one six-year term, period. No worries about re-election, and the Congress knows it will have to deal with the same president for the next six years.
So why seek a second term at all? There is something about the power of the presidency, the pinnacle of political power, that is hard to give up voluntarily. Only time will tell if the current occupant succeeds where others have not. But history is not on his side.
As Thomas Jefferson said about the presidency from personal experience: “No man will ever bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it.”