anarchy archives


About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy

Public Opinion: Where Does it Stand on the Question of Amnesty for Political Prisoners? Chicago, IL: Publicity Committee, General Defense Committee, 1923.

Public Opinion

Where Does it Stand on the Question of
Amnesty of Political Prisoners?


The demand for the release of political prisoners becomes more insistent every day. The first few voices raised in behalf of amnesty could scarcely be heard above the tumult and shouting of the war. But they were brave voices and refused to be silenced by indifference, misrepresentation or arrogant disregard.

It was not primarily a question of sympathy for the unfortunate workingmen who were imprisoned by the Government in 1917. It was a question of whether or not these men had received justice under the law. If, in the heat of war passion, injustice had been done, many people believed such injustice should be corrected in the light of cool reason and sane judgment.

The first half-smothered demand for amnesty has nwo become a clarion call. It is a thing that is arousing the entire nation. The jailing of war-dissenters, at one time looked upon as a national necessity, is now considered a national disgrace. Conservative citizens, heretofore apathetic, are joining in the fight for amnesty feeling that the vindictive punishment of a minority for unpopular opinions endangers the dearly-bought right of every American to express freely the convictions of his mind.

Many things have worked together to produce this result: the bitter period of persecution that preceded the arrests, the length of time the men were held in jail awaiting trial, (in some cases over two years), the irregularity and unfairness that characterized the trials themselves and the unequal and savagely long sentences, (ranging up to twenty years) that were inflicted during the war-hysteria.

Men and women in the United States are sick of such things. They are impatient with the idea of persecution--especially persecution for opinion's sake. They want the old concept of justice to prevail that made America honored among the nations. They want to know why political prisoners were nto freed here as they were freed years ago in war-torn Europe.

It will be noted that the demand for amnesty does not come from the "sentimentalists" and "sob sisters" of the press but mainly from substantial conservative or liberal publications. Nor is this demand confined to a single group, class or district. It is general. Important editors of every shade of political, social and religious persuasion have put aside differences to unite upon this issue.

Surely the editorials on the following pages indicate a cumulative mass of public opinion that cannto comfortably be overlooked.

Publicity Department,





The following editorials--most of them excerpts--were compiled from a huge number of similar statements from the metropolitan newspapers and magazines of America. A few from the liberal, religious and labor press are included also. The editorials offered below are indicative of numerous others that do not appear.



In Leavenworth Penitentiary are political prisoners, sentenced to serve terms ranging as high as 20 years. They were charged with having conspired to hinder the United States Government in its conduct of the war against Germany. Their "conspiracy," boiled down, seems to have amounted to little more than expressing their opposition, by voice and in print, to war in general and to the late war in particular.

There is a general impression that the Espionage act, passed during the war, has been repealed. Such is not the case. It is still in effect; only it is not enforcible in peace time. But if war were declared by the United States, say, on Mexico or Haiti, it would automatically come into force again. This means that anyone expressing disapproval of such a war, even in private conversation, would become liable to 20 years' imprisonment and $20,000 fine.

Such a law is a sharp break with the tradition of American liberties. If it had been in force during the Mexican War, Abraham Lincoln would have been liable to 20 years in jail, for he expressed his disapproval of that war in no uncertain terms. If such a law had been in force in 1812 a large proportion of the blue-bloods of New England would have had to go to jail. Every member of the celebrated Hartford Convention would have been just as guilty as these members of the I.W.W. in Leavenworth Penitentiary--including Geroge Cabot, the ancestor of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, for he presided over that assembly. Our Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 would, under the Espionnage act, have had to go to jail, for he also denouced that war.

Lincoln himself got through the Civil War, a much more desperate struggle for us than this last one, without any such law as the Espionage act.

England, far more desperately beset in the late war than ourselves, passed no such panicky legislation and imposed so sentences on such war offenders as ours of more than six months. All her political prisoners were long ago released.

Why are not ours released? What has got into us? The detention of these men in jail is certainly not due to any lingering war sentiment, for most of the German spies and dynamiters were released long ago. Only a short time since, one of the most notorious of them, Captain Robert Fay, who attempted to blow up a munition ship in New York Harbor in 1916 was freed. These German spies were caught red-handed in acts of genuine conspiracy or actual violence. They are released. Our own fellow-countrymen are serving sentences of from 10 to 20 years. This incongruity is ghastly.

The war hysteria has passed. Things which looked one way in 1917 look very differently now. It is due to our self-respect as a justice-loving people to rectify a situation which does our reputation for fair dealing no credit.



Other nations, passing the war period, have released their political prisoners. Even though in the case of the United States, the prisoners were chiefly offenders against the draft laws, the Government might well be equally generous, four years after the close of the war. In the case of several of the men, guilt was merely of a constructive participation in the alleged conspiracy and plain justice pleads for commutation.



What a depressing thought it is that this great country of ours--the mightiest and most magnificent in all the world--should persist in incarcerating these so-called "political prisoners" when every other country on earth engaged in the World War released its prisoners of the sort long ago--many of them, too, far more offensive in what they did and said than any of these misguided and unfortunate "political prisoners" of our own were, or, in the very nature of things, could have been.



In America of all places! Political prisoners still languish in confinement.

General Amnesty proclamations were issued by Italy on Nov. 19, 1918, by France on Oct. 24, 1919, by Belgium on Oct. 31, 1919, and by Canada on Dec. 30, 1919. British prisoners had all been given short sentences which ended not long after the armistice.

For nearly three years the United States has been the only country too frightened or too cruel to release its political prisoners.

It must be that our Government is too cruel. If it were afraid of these men who are accused of nothing but the expression of opinions during the wartime, we surely would nto have set free those others who were convicted of dynamiting and burning. And we have turned loose all of the wreckers.

Only the critics of our course in the war remain incarcerated.

It is rather startling to think that our Government should be so vain of its war behavior, and so sensitive to remarks made years ago, that it cannot bear to restore their Constitutional rights to these much-punished men.

Perhaps, however, it is not fear and it is not cruelty that ails us, but a tertium quid. Perhaps we are just plain stupid. Just logy and cloddish.

For there are many sins we attribute to active malice which are really committed by inactive indifference and vacuity.

More people are damned by things they don't do than by things they do.

It is lack of exercise that invited disease, lack of study that makes ignorance, lack of love that destroys families, and lack of thrift that creates poverty.

In fact, the pitiable after-war condition of the world is not so much to be blamed upon what the Turks are doing as upon what America is not doing.

And very probably these political prisoners are rotting in jail simply because it is nobody's business, and we are content to sit on our porch and smoke our pipe in smug comfort rather than take the trouble to cross the street to do a humane act.

In the Parable of the Last Judgment those who were sent away into everlasting punishment, as you will find if you read the story carefully, were not those who had DONE something frightful, but those who had NOT done something thoughtful.



It is too late for us to do what we ought to have done with reference to our political prisoners. Nearly five years have passed since the signing of the armistice. We cannot undo the record. But it is not too late to finish the process by a stroke. It is not too late to abandon with respect to the remaining prisoners the unworthy policy of dolling out commutations from time to time and to adopt regarding them the larger policy which it would have better accorded with our ideals to adopt at the outset regarding all their fellows. If Senator Pepper is correct, we are depriving men of their liberty because of their mere opinions with reference to a state of affairs that no longer exists. In any event we are pursuing a policy far less liberal than the policy pursued by nations which we would emphatically refuse to admit to enjoy greater freedom than we enjoy.

It is an anomalous position for the United States to occupy. The President can end it by a word. It is his duty to say that word.



The official statement which accompanied the President's action drew a distinction between the I.W.W.'s convicted at Sacramento and the other political prisoners. The Sacramento defendants, it was said, were not convicted for mere expressions of opinion, but for acts of property destruction and for inciting others to acts of violence. With this view Senator Pepper of Pennsylvania disagrees. He has made an exhaustive study of the records of all the I.W.W. cases and has recommended to the President that all of the prisoners, including the Sacramento group, be pardoned. He agrees that there is a technical difference between the situation of the caes, due to the fact that the evidence in the Sacramento case could not be reviewed by an Appellate Court, but he insists that there is no moral distinction and that all should be treated alike. In such technical matters lay opinion is perhaps out of place, but we cannot help recalling that not long ago, the Department of Justice said about all the I.W.W. prisoners what it now says about the Sacramento group. Senator Pepper's report should move the President to have the matter sifted to the bottom and to rectify any mistakes which have been amde by the pardoning machinery in the Attorney General's office. To do less than this will be to do less than justice demands....The widespread feeling that the offenders against the Espionage Act who languish in our fenderal prisons are political prisoners and not common criminals persists and grows deeper with each passing month. Five governors, eleven college presidents and enough other prominent citizens to command attention in every section of our national life have presented a new petition to the President urging the release of these men. In it they say that "adherents of the most divergent schools of thought and politics have joined together in asking the release of all the remaining free-speech prisoners," an expression, repeated in another part of the document, with which they clearly oppose the view adopted by the President's advisers that these men are guilty of acts of moral turpitude. But the petitioners in this case commit a curious error in station as one of their motives the "belief that the United States should not stoop to the methods of Old World despotism in suppressing free speech." The fact is that all European governments, whether we regard them as democratic or despotic, have long since set free their war-time prisoners of this class... Impatience wich the course pursued is spreading to more conservative circles and there is increasing pressure of public opinion on the administration to delay no longer in meeting the issue which these political cases--all of them--present.



Persons who committed overt acts against this government are out of jail. A certain woman committed the overt act of teaching young men how to impair their eyesight in order to get exempted from the draft. She is out. Two men committed the overt act of selling their influence to obtain exemptions of young men by a certain draft board. They are out. The men who are still in jail are men who in virtually every case did nothing against the war except talk--or belong in silence to an organization which had some leaders who talked.

But these men were labor men and the organization to which they belonged was a labor organization. No shipbuilder who robbed the Shipping Board during the war is in jail. The food profiteers who paid fines for violating the Lever law are now getting their fines paid back to them by the government. The Attorney General has not yet handed a prison cell to a single one of all the numerous capitalists who have been repeatedly charged by the auditors of the War Department with having conspired to defraud the government on war-time contracts.

The capitalists who did things that were unpatriotic are out. The 'radicals' who said things that were unpatriotic are in. If the unpatriotic capitalists and the unpatriotic 'radicals' were in cells together, the government would look impartial. Today it looks partisan. Today the 'radicals' are able to say to the striking coal miners and to the striking railroad men:

"Look! The government imprisons war-time offenders who represent labor. It does nothing to war-time offenders who represent capital. Are you going to submit your grievances in this strike to any arbitration by any such government?"

This is the importance of these political prisoners who are still in jail. As war-time dangers to the invincible armies of this Republic they are a joke. As peace-time dangers to the reputation of the government for impartiality between labor and capital, they are a genuine and a serious menace. It would pay us to pay them to leave their jails and go home.



The political prisoners, who are still incarcerated and to whom no promise of early freedom has been given, at most only talked. Some of them did not even do that,--just belonged to organizations whose patriotism was questioned. These other chaps and the host of others who have already been freed after conviction of war fraud charges undoubtedly took the safer course. They used whatever crooked means that came to hand to get all they could of the money the government was spending so freely, without a qualm of conscience that the fighting men were being made the special victims of their criminal greed.

With the charges all fairly presented it would be interesting to know which crimes the American people would vote the graver.



The President signalized his departure on his transcontinental trip by an act of justice and mercy which, though long delayed, is to be commended as better late than never.


United States Proved Itself Most Intolerant and Tyrannical Government During the War


So long as this Republic lasts it will bear on its escutcheon a mark of shame for the brutality with which men who opposed the late war and had the courage to say so were treated. With all our vaunting about our equality before the law, about our American democracy, about the rights guaranteed us under our free Constitution, we proved during the war to have had the most intolerant and tyrannical government among all the nations that fought in the war on either side. Our constitutional safeguards proved to be rotten threads. They protected us in nothing against the hysteria of the people excited by the war profiteers and big business and the crookedness of public officials under the control of these aggressive profiteering minorities. We proved we were the most excitable, emotional people among the allies; that we had not yet learned, with all our political experience, tolerance of opinion. Our courts gave the most savage sentences given by any of the countries in the war against those who opposed the war. The very life of Great Britain was at stake during the war. A few miles separated her from the enemy. Yet her longest sentences for offenses which were alleged against these American political prisoners was SIX MONTHS.

In Germany the Socialist party was a powerful party and the radical Socialists were a powerful body. The leader of these Socialists denounced the war, denounced the government, denounced the Emperor and urged his followers to refuse to fight. He was given only three years, while men in America, who were in no position to do the slightest harm by even the wildest talk of which they were capable and who as a matter of fact indulged in no wild talk that had a tendency even to be harmful, were imprisoned for twenty years. Not only that, but they were imprisoned alongside of murderers and theives and highwaymen. These men against whose character not a whisper ever had been raised, are still serving their sentences.

The liberal element of this country, the intelligent element, the patriotic element, will not rest until as much of the same of these sentences as can be removed by promptly freeing these men has been removed.



Were they living today, would Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Webster be in prison for their independent thoughts questioning the recent war? Senator Borah thinks they would be.

"Liberty means the right to express oneself," remarked Borah in the course of a meeting which called upon the President to release political prisoners. "If a man thinks a war is unjust or improvident, it is his absolute right to say so."

But the Department of Justice doesn't concede that point, altho the constitution promises it. So political prisoners are still languishing in penitentiaries for their thoughts.



Every belligerent nation, save the United States, has released its political prisoners of war. It is high time that a nation that has always prided itself upon standing for freedom of belief and speech should follow in the steps of Europe.



Every other country that participated in the war has long since freed prisoners convicted of obstructing the war and the draft. In the days following the Civil War the American government released its political prisoners, and men convicted as these men were, immediately after the war.

The clamor to have these prisoners of the late war held came largely from persons who wished to make their own patriotism obvious. Patriotism like any other virtue, is most dependable when it is least advertised by its possesor.



Something very definite and important will have been lost by the American people if they persist in regarding amnesty as a matter of mercy or at best a grudging recognition that to release a few prisoners may silence an annoying clamor. Much of the hope for the future depends upon a clear recognition that since "heresy is the growing point of society" it is socially disastrous to punish it by legal penalties. All progress begins in a protest against generally accepted opinion, and the menace of the prophet or pioneer--even if in particular instances his theories do not stand the test of practice--is not comparable to the menace of the demagogue who caters to popular passion and ancient taboos. Particularly in an age and a country where schools, printing press, moving pictures, sound amplifiers are so many means for the regimentation of minds, and democracy is interpreted not as an incentive to think for oneself but as a constraint to think like one's neighbors, it is important to insist in season and out of season that a society which punishes heretics as American punishes her political prisoners is a society which is committing slow suicide.

One reason for hostility to amnesty is the fact that the critic of war is the critic of the social order. There may be peace with Germany, there is not peace within the social order, and our political prisoners are probably confined as much for fear of what they may do as for anger for what they have done. It is very hard for a dominant class to recognize that not mercy or even justice but sound social policy requires toleration of its enemies. Amnesty as an act of mercy has little social value; as an act of justice it is invaluable. To be unconcerned for the fate of our political prisoners is to invite the settlement of all questions, not by discussion but by relentless conflict between groups which will use their control of political machinery remorselessly against their opponents. It is to invite also the death of that regard for personality which is imperative if we are to escape a mechanized society and a servile state.



The act of amnesty by which President Harding released twenty-seven political prisoners serving sentence under war-time laws will be received with satisfaction tempered with indignation. What two ears ago would have been a bold and generous declaration of good will appears now as a delayed, grudging and rather cowardly measure of reparation. The President has bowed for two years to the truculence of the American Legion and the malevolence of his Attorney General. Now that public opinion under the energetic spurring of Senator Pepper has become enlisted in sufficient force on the other side, the President does what he confessed he should have done and wanted to do two years ago. Meantime the campaign to accomplish in the United States what took place automatically in other countries has occupied time energy and money of public-spirited people which would certainly have gone into other and constructive forms of public service. The New York Tribune entitles its editorial on the amnesty, An Act of Justice. If it is an act of justice today it was so two years ago. Senator Pepper's report, which the Tribune mentions with respect, was anticipated in the case of the Chicago I.W.W.'s by that of Captain Lanier, the representative of the United States Army at the trial, in an open letter to President Wilson shortly after the conviction. And finally our enthusiasm is chastened by the reflection that there are still twenty-four political prisoners at Leavenworth. The campaign must go on.



David Starr Jordan said recently: "A law....which makes it possible for men to be sentenced for mere membership in an organization is dangerous and should be removed from the statute books."

There are men in the Leavenworth Federal penitentiary who are there because they were members of an organization which was opposed to the war.

Not a single one of them was shown to have done a thing. They simply thought, and expressed their thoughts. And those thoughts happened to be opposed to the general thought upon the subject of the war.

All the European countries had similar hard-minded citizens who refused to run true to form. They, too, were imprisoned. But not a single one of such political prisoners in France, England or Germany is still in prison. They were all released within a year after the armistice.



Over and over again, in hope that the shame of it might burn, the insistent statement is made that the United States lags behind the whole world in giving amnesty to political prisoners. The enemy agents who blew up our factories and docks have been released. Suspected aliens of every degree have been released.

But Americans whose chief fault was that they held a certain economic theory are still in jail. Of all the nations joined in the war on either side, only Russia and the United States continue to use prisons for the punishment of differences of political opinion.

Men were arrested, thrown in jail, railroaded to prison under long sentences, because they had ideas about industry with which others did not agree. Men were arrested because they had ideas about wages which were inconvenient at the moment, and the easiest way to suppress the idea was to have them hauled off to jail. In no case was disloyalty proved; in many cases it was not even charged. Some of the men had not even expressed their distaste for war, a distaste shared by millions of us whom no government would dare touch.

The friends of these men and the believers in liberty everywhere are making one last effort to get American decency into action. Their fear is that a few of the more favored men may be released as a sop to public opinion and the rest forgotten. The very possibility of such an occurrence, the very possibility of such a fear under any system of Justice, is significant in the extreme.

If Justice has become subject to mass movements of opinion, it is because of the extreme possibilities for injustice in the hands of everybody, from town marshals upward, during the war. What the friends of the prisoners want is their liberty, but what we as citizens should also desire is an exposure of the methods by which these men lost their liberty.

Worst of all was the deliberate and diabolical use of the war-passion and the war-time power to satisfy private grudges. There is no doubt now that under cover of the war it was deliberately planned to use the confusion to strike down certain attempts at industrial independence; there is no doubt now that the program which began in wholesale arrests of certain classes of American workers, ended in the deflation of the currency which threw wages down and then brought unemployment.

Let the political prisoners go free.



If anybody asks us how an experienced, self-governing country like this can endure the spectacle of the way Messrs, Daugherty and Harding treat political prisoners, we simply give up. It cannot be fear. It must be either stupidity or the cheapest kind of politics. They can mumble something about the red peril's lurking under the dining-room table, and about respect for law, and say "we will take up each case on its merits about the time Hades freezes over," but an adult can scarcely listen to such meanderings. The American people, in its infinite wisdom, stands for such Tsaristic and Kaiseristic and anti-freedom acts by the John Marshall now in the attorney general's office, and by our own benign ruler in the White House, so who are we that we should expect our howling to avail?

Medieval, indeed, is the savagery with which our statesmen are keeping people in jail for thought. Nevertheless, criticism should be focused on the intellectual class in America which rests supine. As Ralph Chaplin, one of the prisoners for opinion, himself now rotting in Leavenworth Penitentiary, puts it, we should not mourn the dead, nor yet the captives,

"But rather mourn the apathetic throng--
The cowed and meek--
Who see the world's great anguish and its wrong
And dare not speak!"



We are still listening for President Harding to say about the political prisoners in Leaven worth words as bold and ringing as those that Governor Al Smith of New York spoke in pardoning Big Jim Larkin:

"I pardon James Larkin, not because of agreement with his views, but despite my disagreement with them...

"Our State rests too firmly upon the devotion of its citizens to require for its protection an imprisonment of five years for the mere expression of erroneous or even illegal political doctrine unaccompanied by an overt act."

After all, political radicalism is the cry of the outs against the ins. And it is silly as well as dangerous to silence the outs or to make martyrs of them. The best thing is to let them blow off steam.

We commend to Washington the classic example of the English policemen in Hyde Park who moved a traffic-obstructing anarchist off the sidewalk with the admonition: "You can 'ang the Kind and Queen just as well hon the grassplot hover there."

Editorial By GLENN FRAN


We should long since have granted amnesty to all political prisoners who were imprisoned during the war for the utterance of radical ideas that ran counter to the majority opinion and the war-time purposes of the Government. If Governor Smith follows his pardon of Larkin with pardons for the other political prisoners in the State of New York and succeeds in reversing the un-American and czarist policies that Mr. Lusk and his associates fathered, he will set an example which should be followed by every Governor in the United States and by the president of the United States.

The fact is that conservatives have just as much at stake as radicals have in the preservation of the complete freedom of thought and speech. I believe that America has far more to fear from the violence of repression than it has to fear from the violence of revolt. The dictatorship of the reactionary is as undesirable as the dictatorship of the radical. Forcible governmental repression of minority thought and minority utterance, as Lord Macaulay long ago suggested, takes away from the rattlesnake the rattle by which he warns you of his approach, but leaves it with the sting by which it kills you. It is of vital public importance that, as a people, we force ourselves to think clearly upon the issue of the freedom of speech, press, assembly and instruction, for this problem is coming more and more to the fore. The temporary intolerance may be on the wane, but hard upon its heels are coming new moods and movements that threaten to effect a permanent organization of bigotry on a national scale.

I believe that progress depends more upon our safeguarding that rights of heresy than upon the protection of orthodoxy. Every forward step in history, in the very nature of the case, had to begin with an attack upon the then existing order. Had effective means for preserving the status quo existed from the dawn of history, instead of our today living amid surroundings of culture and safety, we should probably be chasing one another through the forest and drinking blood from the scraped skulls of our victims, while the head of some primitive Patrick Henry afforded a delectable dish for some embryo censor.


[Home]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]