Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


The Election of 1920: The Sedition Act, Eugene Debs, and the “Red Scare”

Eugene V. Debs was a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and a frequent Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.  Debs became a well-known socialist both through his political activity and as a result of the government’s criminal prosecution of his activities.  Other essays in this series cover the numerous Presidential elections in which Debs ran, as well as the other candidates in the 1920 Presidential election. This essay focuses on the Sedition Act of 1918, Debs, and the “Red Scare.”

Eugene Debs- Union and Political Activity

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855 to immigrant parents from France.  Debs dropped out of public high school at the age of 14 and went to work for the Vandalia Railroad.  In 1875, Debs joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen Union, where he became an active member and held various leadership positions, including Editor of the Firemen’s Magazine, Grand Secretary, and Treasurer.  In 1905, Debs and others founded the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, at a convention in Chicago.

Debs was also active in politics, serving two terms as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1879 to 1883. In 1884 he was elected, as a Democrat, to the Indiana General Assembly where he served one term.  Debs was one of the main organizers of the American Railway Union, one of the first industrial unions in the United States.  Debs at first advised against the Pullman Strike of 1894, but reconsidered when the strike was extended to St. Louis.  The strike became known as “Debs’ Rebellion.”  After the United States government obtained an injunction against the strike for interfering with the delivery of mail, Debs violated the injunction and was convicted of contempt of court.  Clarence Darrow represented Debs at the trial.

While in prison in Woodstock, Illinois, Debs received a variety of materials on socialism and was also visited by a socialist newspaper editor from Milwaukee.  Debs left jail a socialist, and for the rest of his life he supported and promoted socialism.

In 1900, Debs ran for President of the United States on the newly-created Social Democracy of America ticket, but only received 0.6% of the popular vote and no electoral votes.  In 1901, Debs split from the SDA and founded the Social Democratic Party and was elected its Chairman of the Board of the National Council.  Debs ran for President as a member of the Social Democratic Party in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, never receiving a single electoral vote nor more than 6% of the popular vote.

The Sedition Act of 1918

In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917 which made it a crime to convey information for the purpose of interfering with the United States military’s war efforts or aiding and abetting any enemy of the United States.  The Sedition Act of 1918 extended the Espionage Act to false statements that interfered with the prosecution of the war and made illegal any “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government, military, or flag.  The Sedition Act was aimed at socialists and other vocal opponents of the government or the war efforts.

Debs and the “Red Scare”

In June 1918, a month after passage of the Sedition Act, Debs gave an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio and was arrested and charged with ten counts of sedition under the Sedition Act.  Debs was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison and was permanently stripped of his right to vote.  Debs’ conviction was upheld in 1919 by the United States Supreme Court in a unanimous decision.  Justice Holmes cited to Schenck v. United States (1919), a case in which Charles Schenck, a Socialist, was convicted under the Espionage Act under nearly identical circumstances.  The ruling in Schenck is famous for the “clear and present danger test” for limits on free speech outlined by Justice Holmes.  In the Debs case, Holmes stated:

The main theme of the speech was Socialism, its growth, and a prophecy of its ultimate success. With that we have nothing to do, but if a part or the manifest intent of the more general utterances was to encourage those present to obstruct the recruiting service and if in passages such encouragement was directly given, the immunity of the general theme may not be enough to protect the speech. 

The Supreme Court concluded Congress has the power to prevent such statements in times of war.  Along with the Schenck and Debs decisions, that same year the Supreme Court upheld, in Abrams v. United States, a third conviction under the Sedition Act involving Socialists and speech concerning the war efforts.  .

The initial “Red Scare” had commenced.  Based on fears of a Bolshevik Revolution in the United States, and with the enforcement power of the Sedition Act and Espionage Act, the nation attempted to prevent the rise of socialism and communism.

The 1920 Election

Debs went to prison on April 13, 1919, following the Supreme Court’s affirmance of his conviction.  While incarcerated in Atlanta, Georgia, Debs ran for President in 1920.  Debs received more than 900,000 votes, the largest number of votes ever received by a Socialist Party Presidential candidate.  Debs also earned the distinction of being the only Presidential candidate to have run for President while imprisoned and despite having lost his own right to vote for life.


Congress repealed the Sedition Act in 1921, although much of the Espionage Act remains in effect.  Debs’ sentence was commuted on December 23, 1921, with President Harding issuing a statement that Debs likely received the sentence he did because of his prominence.  The Supreme Court has throughout its history been more tolerant of restrictions of citizens’ rights during times of war.  World War I was such a time with the Supreme Court upholding the Espionage Act and Sedition Act as valid restraints on free speech.  Following passage of the Sedition Act in 1918, many states enacted syndicalism laws that both restricted free speech and made it a crime to use violence to effectuate social change.

Dan Cotter is a Partner at Butler Rubin Saltarelli & Boyd LLP and an Adjunct Professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies.  He is also Immediate Past President of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to Butler Rubin or any of its clients, The Chicago Bar Association, or John Marshall.

1 reply
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    Ironically, progressive Justice Louis Brandeis, a member of the 1919 SCOTUS said, “Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

    It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own. Herbert Hoover

    To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. Frederick Douglass

    If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. George Washington

    Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom – and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech. Benjamin Franklin

    America’s greatest contribution to the world is its concept of democracy, its concept of freedom, freedom of action, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. Benazir Bhutto

    Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men’s lives. Robert Kennedy

    “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Benjamin Franklin

    “The framers of the constitution knew human nature as well as we do. They too had lived in dangerous days; they too knew the suffocating influence of orthodoxy and standardized thought. They weighed the compulsions for restrained speech and thought against the abuses of liberty. They chose liberty.” dissenting Justice William O. Douglas

    “The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. That’s all.” M.L.King Jr



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