The time a president put an opponent in prison

Donald Trump’s threat last night to put Hillary Clinton in jail if he’s elected president raised the usual eyebrows at the presidential debate.

“Threatening her to her face in a national debate with jail was an assault that went beyond his attacks on women, Muslims, Mexicans, the disabled, prisoners of war and Gold Star families to strike at the American democratic system itself,” Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn writes today. “We don’t jail our political foes here like in tin-pot, third-world banana republics or dictatorships. We attempt to succeed them via orderly transitions of power.”

Yes we do. Or, at least, we did.

It was 1918 when activist and socialist Eugene Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio urging resistance to the World War I military draft.

So President Woodrow Wilson — Debs ran against him in 1912 — ordered him arrested and charged with violating the Sedition Act. He offered no defense at his trial but gave a speech prior to his sentencing.

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.

Debs went to prison and, while there, ran for president and got more than 3 percent of the vote.

President Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921.

  • Gary F

    Oh, there was a debate last night?

  • Mike

    A good reminder of the dangers of that rhetoric. Fair point.

    Still, Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly Eugene Debs, to say the least. She’s a lot more like Woodrow Wilson, who signed the Espionage Act, or like Barack Obama, who has prosecuted more whistleblowers under that overly broad and punitive law than all previous presidents combined.

    Further, I would argue that we’d all be better off if politicians in this country saw themselves as being subject to the rule of law. Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon set a terrible precedent; it basically reinforced Nixon’s view that, if the president does it, it’s legal. That’s the logic of monarchy (or oligarchy), not a constitutional republic. Yet that’s the template politicians at the federal and, to a lesser extent, the state and local levels operate on these days.

    • Rob

      Nice observation on Ford’s pardoning of Nixon. Also, the whack legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, which is the law of the land at the federal and state level of government, stems from the monarchical concept that the king/queen can do no wrong, and hence cannot be sued by members of the public for any transgressions committed by government officials or employees.

  • MrE85

    As yes, the 1st “Red Scare.” I did a paper on this topic when I was in college. Not one of our best moments.

    • Rob

      Long live American Exceptionalism.

    • Mike

      And today, in a dramatic role reversal from decades prior, it’s the Democratic Party that’s stoking the anti-Russia hysteria. You’d think that after being the targets of those attacks for the better part of the 20th century, they might have learned something.

      • BJ

        It is still the GOP stoking that anti-Russia hysteria. from September 9th

        “Paul D. Ryan on Thursday called Russian President Vladimir Putin an “adversary” and an “aggressor” who does not share U.S. interests.”

        • Mike

          It’s bipartisan to some extent, but in the presidential race this year it’s been Hillary Clinton’s campaign that has escalated the anti-Russia rhetoric. This is obviously an attempt to divert attention from the content of the DNC’s and her emails. Last night in the debate, she made anti-Russia comments on three separate occasions, and virtually bragged that she would be belligerent toward Putin.

          Whatever else you want to say about it, that is very irresponsible rhetoric to engage in between nuclear powers. The Democrats certainly believed that when Ronald Reagan did it.

          One of the few lucid points that Trump has made in his train wreck of a campaign is that it’s in our and the world’s best interest for the US and Russia to get along.

          • Veronica

            The anti-Russia sentiment is pretty well deserved, from how they haven’t held up brokered peace deals in Syria, to the takeover of Crimea, a Russian rocket shooting down a passenger plane, and the email hacking. Clearly Russia is picking a fight, but real people, real kids, are losing their lives due to Russian actions.

          • Mike

            You must not know much about recent US history if you think that we ourselves haven’t done virtually everything that we accuse the Russians of doing.

            US politicians don’t like to tell you that most of the rebel forces in Syria are aligned with ISIS, or at least sympathize with them.

            Recently, US-backed “moderate” rebels beheaded a child.

            The US helped to overthrow an elected president in Ukraine, thus igniting the civil war there.

            The US shot down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988.

            Finally, do you really believe that the US government doesn’t hack other governments?

          • Rob

            Harken back even further to the Cuban Missile Crisis. What always gets left out of the story is that at the time, the U.S. had a nuclear cordon around the Soviet Union. We got indignant when the USSR tried to start doing the same thing to us, hence the crisis.

          • Mike

            Yes, exactly. That we had missiles in Turkey pointed right at the USSR often gets neglected in American accounts of the crisis.

            When the Russians established a client state (Cuba) 90 miles from Florida, it didn’t go over so well here.

            Fast forward to the present: when the US helps foment an uprising in Ukraine, right on Russia’s border, and which threatens their naval base in Crimea, it’s the belief of US politicians that Russia should just be OK with that.

            When the US wants to depose Assad in Syria, a longtime ally of the USSR/Russia, apparently that was supposed to be OK too.

            Our politicians of both parties are so owned by the military-industrial complex that we can’t even begin to have an honest conversation.

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Trump’s promise is not an idle one, nor is it without merit in the opinion of 1/2 the country. Lots of people find redemption through contrition while contemplating their crimes in prison; Trump’s election could be a very positive, life changing event for Hillary.

    Not even she is irredeemable, in my opinion.

    • El Norte

      >1/2 the country.

      You and the rest of the Trump supporters wish you had those kind of numbers. Trump is polling around 20% with women who make up 1/2 the population. Not to mention around 0-20% at best with minorities which are around 40% of the population.

    • Rob

      If Trump ever gets called to account criminally for his various sexual assaults, he and Hillary can be cell-mates.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        Sure. As soon as the FBI releases it’s damning investigative report on Trump, bring it on….

        Oh, *snap*.

  • Mike Worcester

    Ah yes, Woodrow Wilson. Makes you wonder how the election of 1912 would have turned out had Theodore Roosevelt not run under the Bull Moose banner? Would Taft have won re-election? Would the U.S. have intervened in WWI sooner? Would racial progress (slow as it was moving forward) not taken a step backward?

    So many “what ifs”.