Opinion: What we can glean from a prisoner who ran for president

Editor’s Note: Thomas Balcerski teaches history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of “Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King” (Oxford University Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Donald Trump is the first former president to be found guilty of felonies, but he isn’t the first convicted person to run for president in the US. In fact, there’s even a historical precedent of a felon running for the Oval Office from prison: Eugene V. Debs in 1920. Despite having been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition, Debs incredibly received some 914,191 votes, a higher number than when he ran as a free man in 1912.

Thomas Balcerski - Courtesy Thomas Balcerski
Thomas Balcerski - Courtesy Thomas Balcerski

The trial and prison presidential campaign of the Socialist Party candidate stand out as the closest possible comparison to the case of Trump in 2024 (Trump has vowed to appeal and his sentencing is scheduled for July 11). The experience of Debs is a reminder that being behind bars isn’t a barrier to running for office, and incarceration need not stop the outreach necessary to keep one’s campaign afloat.

Although Debs had repeatedly run afoul of the law, it was a speech delivered in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, that led to his arrest and ultimate imprisonment. Before a working-class crowd of 1,200, Debs railed against the government’s decision to enter the conflict later known as World War I: “Every solitary one of these aristocratic conspirators and would-be murderers claims to be an arch-patriot; every one of them insists that the war is being waged to make the world safe for democracy. What humbug! What rot! What false pretense!”

Also in the crowd that day were agents from the Justice Department. A federal prosecutor hired a stenographer to write down hot-button lines from the speech, which proved sufficient to arrest Debs under the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917 and the subsequent Sedition Act of 1918 that forbade “use in speech or written form any language that was disloyal to the government, the Constitution, the military, or the flag.”

Eugene Victor 'Gene' Debs - Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images
Eugene Victor 'Gene' Debs - Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images

At his trial, after the verdict had been handed down, Debs characteristically delivered a fiery speech decrying the Espionage Act as “a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions.” Not asking for mercy or immunity, he concluded: “The people are awakening.”

Perhaps so, but a jury of his peers found him guilty on three counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts and sentenced Debs to 10 years in a federal penitentiary. A later appeal to the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s verdict.

The Socialist Party never wavered in its support for its perennial standard-bearer. At its national convention held on May 13, 1920, delegates gave unanimous consent to nominate “Convict 2253.” When the number assigned to Debs changed, a new campaign button emerged: “For President, Convict No. 9653.”

Even from prison, Debs cleverly electioneered through the new medium of motion pictures. On May 29, a delegation from the Socialist Party formally presented Debs with their party’s nomination at his prison in Atlanta. Captured on film, the footage was screened at theatres across the nation.

No longer able to speak publicly, Debs issued a weekly press release to keep his candidacy front of mind with voters. “I would rather have a man think and vote against me than vote like a sheep,” he wrote in one message.

Following the election of Warren G. Harding in 1920, pressure was placed on outgoing President Woodrow Wilson to pardon Debs. But Wilson refused. Once in office, Harding commuted Debs’ sentence, declaring: “We cannot punish men in America for the exercise of their freedom in political and religious belief.”

Broken by the harsh conditions of his prison experience, Debs spent his final years largely outside of public view and died in 1926 at age 70. With the passage of time, history has looked kindly on Debs, with his imprisonment seen more as a case of “traditional democratic liberties” being undermined than a legitimate breach of the national interest.

Does this history of running from prison have any insights to offer in our unprecedented era? Certainly, there are differences at work. In our two-party system of Democrats and Republicans, Debs, running as a Socialist, faced steep odds in winning the presidency in any circumstances. By comparison, Trump is a former president and three-time candidate of a major political party. We won’t find out whether Trump faces time in jail until he is sentenced in July.

But there are intriguing similarities at play. Despite being imprisoned, Debs embraced the media of the day to communicate with voters and ensure that his candidacy was taken seriously. Trump, regardless of how any subsequent appeal may proceed, will undoubtedly do the same, as evidenced by his campaign’s claim that the candidate was a “political prisoner” immediately following the trial. Despite the guilty verdict, a post-trial Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 35% of Republican registered voters say they are even more likely to vote for Trump now (though 25% of independent voters in the poll said they are less likely to support him now).

Perhaps the greatest similarity may well be in the strategy of turning the tables and putting the justice system itself on trial. Debs maintained that the 1918 Sedition Law — passed just a month before his speech — was unjust, while Trump has decried the New York hush money trial in which he was convicted as “rigged,” claiming that the “real verdict” will come on November 5.

As has already begun, Democrats and Republicans will pivot to new lines of attack, such as labeling Trump a “convicted felon” and decrying the trial as a “purely political exercise.” Of course, it will be the American people — and not a jury or a judge — who will decide the outcome of the election, just as they did with Debs. They will choose whether the verdict at Trump’s trial undermined faith in our legal system or was justice being served.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com