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.
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.”