This Day In History: May 13

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On May 13, 1920, the Socialist Party nominates Eugene V. Debs as its candidate for president in the upcoming November election. There’s a slight complication, though: Debs is serving a 10-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta and isn’t due to get out until 1928.

As the New York Tribune observes, “his nomination marks the first instance in the history of the United States when the name of a person confined behind prison bars was presented to the people as a candidate for the chief magistracy of the nation.”

It was the fifth nomination for the 64-year-old, Indiana-born labor leader, who began his career as a railroad worker and made his first bid for the presidency in 1900.

In 1918, Debs had been convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, controversial laws pushed through Congress by President Woodrow Wilson to silence critics of U.S. involvement World War I.

Debs appealed his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—which, on March 10, 1920, decided to let the verdict stand. Debs attacked the justices as “begowned, bewhiskered, bepowdered old fossils who have never decided anything,” before reporting to prison in Moundsville, West Virginia, on April 13, 1920. He was assigned a convict number of 2253, later to become 9653.

By that time, the war he’d been jailed for protesting had been over for more than a year. Several months later, he was transferred to the penitentiary in Atlanta, where he received the news of his nomination. Attempting to capitalize on his incarceration, the party put out buttons with Debs’ picture and either of the two numbers he’d become known for, proclaiming “Convict 2253 for President” on some and “Convict 9653 for President” on others.

Despite his inability to hit to campaign trail, Debs won more than 900,000 votes in the 1920 election, his best showing to date. The victor, Republican Warren G. Harding, commuted his sentence in December 1921, citing Debs’ age and physical condition. Though now a free man, Debs never ran for president again and died in 1926.

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