Wednesday, March 08, 2006

President Wilson Locks up Debs

As we listen to the media and the blogosphere complain about the alleged erosion of civil rights and constitutional violations under the current administration, it is easy to forget that past American presidents did things which would seem far worse by comparison.

FDR had thousands of Americans locked up in interment camps because of their Japanese ancestry. President Lincoln repeatedly suspended the right of habeas corpus on American soil during the Civil War. President Andrew Jackson defied the Supreme Court (an impeachable offense!) and moved the Cherokee down the trail of tears. John Adams allowed the Alien and Sedition Acts to be used to throw supporters of Thomas Jefferson in jail.

However, one 20th century case I have always found shocking is Eugene Debs. The Wilson Administration persecuted him for the act of giving an anti-war speech during World War I. Wikipedia notes it, "On June 16, 1918 Debs made an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I, and was arrested under the Sedition Act of 1918. He was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison and disenfranchised for life."

I still find this outrageous. Even in war time, free speech of this sort should be allowed. President Harding pardoned Debs so that he did not have to serve the whole ten years. I think this case from 80+ years ago shows that constitutional protections are actually stronger today that they have been in the past. Thankfully, war protestors today do not face jail time for speaking peacefully and they can hold all the rallies and post all the blog entries they want.


Jennie W said...

People do seem like to like scream how unfair the US government is, when really it is very lenient - by modern world standards and historically. I live in Kent, Ohio - we all should know what happened to war protestors here when they staged a protest. It took KSU until the 1990s to put up a memorial and close the parking slots where the kids died. I actually think that people get away with too much in the US - for instance while I don't want to see prisoners tortured or starved, I also don't think they should have more amentities available to them than most of the general population.

Michael said...

I remember seeing that memorial when I went to Kent State in 1992/93.

I also remember having a friend joke by saying, "Be sure to duck when you get to Kent State!"

The whole Kent State Shooting incident really was low key on campus when I was there. Other than the yearly memorial service, it did not get much attention.

Jennie W said...

I think the KSU administration would like to pretend it never happened. I'm pretty sure the students had to stage a sit-in protest to get the parking slots closed in the 1990s as the president (who is retiring this year) really didn't want a memorial...bury your problems and all. And even the name does that...calling it the May 4th Memorial rather than the KSU massacre or something along that line.