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1921 Seventy-five Years Ago

June 2024
1min read

Land of the Free

On December 24 the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs was released from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, his sentence commuted by President Warren Harding. Debs had been convicted of violating the wartime Espionage Act by criticizing the Wilson administration in a June 1918 speech. He had also received almost 920,000 votes for President as a jailbird in 1920. When Harding took office in 1921, he began reviewing the cases of hundreds of socialists, labor activists, and miscellaneous troublemakers who had been imprisoned in America’s World War I frenzy over disloyalty. Debs and twenty-three other political prisoners were the first to be released.

Debs met with Harding at the White House on the twenty-sixth and ate a delayed Christmas dinner at his own home in Terre Haute, Indiana, the next day. The other freed prisoners, released to much less acclaim, were a mixed bag of Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) members, pacifists, and ordinary citizens that a White House press release portrayed as weak-minded dupes. One had been jailed for “advising young men that they were fools to join the army and be shot down like dogs, &c.,” while another “wrote pamphlets opposing the war with Germany and alleging that the Selective Service act was unconstitutional.” Among the more credulous were “a laborer of ordinary intelligence who was misled mainly by other persons”; a member of a group of farmers, “ordinarily honest, hardworking men with large families,” who “were for the most part ignorant and had been worked on by I.W.W. agitators and vicious leaders”; and “a woman of intelligence and education, but not well balanced mentally,” who had “arranged with an oculist whereby [draftees] would be fitted with glasses which would affect their eyesight.”

Then there was Claus (alias Claude H.) Freese, perhaps the unsung hero of the war. Freese had gone to Mexico and offered the German consul secret plans for a gun supposedly developed by the U.S. Army. The consul turned down his offer. Freese was arrested upon his return to America, whereupon he “claimed that the gun was no good and he was trying to play a Yankee trick on the German Consul.” An ungrateful country sentenced him to five years in Leavenworth, but the President commuted his sentence since “no harm actually resulted from his acts, and it is believed the ends of justice have been fully met.” Not all the calls were so easy, but by the time of his death in 1923, Harding would free almost everyone who had been imprisoned for subversive activities during the war.

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