Criminal Convictions and the Presidency

By: Ben Voth

On Thursday May 30, a New York court led by Judge Juan Merchan convicted a U.S. President of 34 felony counts. Trump was not the first President to be arrested — that honor belongs to Ulysses S. Grant when he was arrested in 1872 by a black police officer for speeding his horse and buggy through the streets of D.C. Trump is not the first Presidential candidate to be convicted — that honor belongs to Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs in 1918. The political prosecutions of candidate Trump bode ill for our most cherished civil right: freedom of speech. On the same day Trump was convicted, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the free speech rights of the National Rifle Association. Liberal justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly inferred the proud civil rights tradition of the United States stating: “The First Amendment prohibits government officials from wielding their power selectively to punish or suppress speech, directly or, as alleged here, through private intermediaries.” The Supreme Court consistently rules that political speech lies at the heart of the most famous American civil right of freedom of speech as noted by Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy in 2010: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Pursuing political prosecutions of candidates in order to interfere with an election is dangerous and likely to boomerang rhetorically upon those seeking their own ends in this abuse of power.

In 1918, Socialist candidate for the Presidency Eugene V. Debs made a speech near Canton, Ohio against World War I and the policies of President Woodrow Wilson:

They have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and slaughter yourselves at their command. You have never had a voice in the war. The working class who make the sacrifices, who shed the blood, have never yet had a voice in declaring war.”

The Ohio crowd responded often during his speech with enthusiastic applause. At his trial conducted by the Federal government for near-certain indictment, his attorneys waived the right to bring witnesses but instead allowed Debs to speak directly to the jury:

There is not a single falsehood in that speech. If there is a single statement in it that will not bear the light of truth, I will retract it. I will make all of the reparation in my power. But if what I said is true, and I believe it is, then whatever fate or fortune may have in store for me I shall preserve inviolate the integrity of my soul and stand by it to the end.”

Image from original article

After receiving a 10-year federal sentence for his speech he was ultimately transferred to the U.S. Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Democrat president Woodrow Wilson said of Debs:

This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”

Campaigning from his jail cell, Debs received nearly one million votes. His campaign buttons read “For President, Convict No. 9653.” After Republican president Warren Harding released him from prison by Christmas 1921, Socialists garnered less than 30,000 votes in the 1924 election against the Republican winner Calvin Coolidge. The conviction and jailing of Debs did not reduce his public appeal and arguably the political overreach of Woodrow Wilson enhanced the voting for the Socialist candidate.

In the 1950s, the United States faced a near social panic about the real threat of communist infiltration. As in the case of Debs, the political organs of the United States considered engaging in legislative acts to endanger core civil rights like those found in the First Amendment. Truman warned then with regard to pending legislation:

Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.

…if the Bill of Rights were to be broken down, all groups, even the most conservative, would be in danger from the arbitrary power of government.”

In 1996, Atlanta police detained and kidnapped the only black Republican candidate for President from the grounds of a local TV station hosting a Republican Presidential candidate debate from which Alan Keyes was excluded. Keyes compared Atlanta’s civic behavior to that of the Soviet Union. Keyes was handcuffed, driven to the top of a distant city parking garage and dropped off by Atlanta police in order to prevent him from protesting his exclusion from the presidential debate. He was never charged with a crime. The Democrat mayor of Atlanta, who personally picked up Keyes, apologized for the city’s conduct.

Federal prosecutor Jack Smith is presently prosecuting Republican President and leading Republican candidate for 2024 Donald Trump for violating the 1917 Espionage Act: “The men and women of the United States intelligence community and our Armed Forces dedicate their lives to protecting our nation and its people. Our laws that protect national defense information are critical to the safety and security of the United States, and they must be enforced. Violations of those laws put our country at risk.” Smith’s prosecution alongside the ideological projects of the prosecutors in New York, and Georgia jeopardize the core civil right of freedom of speech by allowing the government to selectively prosecute political rivals and silence speech by political opponents. The Justice Department is showing itself to be a partisan organization that views its operations of law enforcement to be subordinate to an ideological goal that is the defense of the Democrat Party and its hold upon the executive branch. The American public should not cooperate with this plain election interference and evident violation of among our most precious civil rights: freedom of speech. The prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment of U.S. Presidential candidates is not unprecedented, but it does not insure the reduction in political power or appeal to any such candidate. These encroachments are the truest threat to our democratic republic.


The above article (Criminal Convictions and the Presidency) is republished here under “Fair Use” (see disclaimer below article) with attribution to the author Ben Voth and

TLB Project recommends that you visit the American Thinker website for more great articles and information.

About the Author: Dr. Ben Voth is a professor of rhetoric and director of debate at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His is author of The Presidential Rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Calvin Coolidge: The Centennial of the Modern American Presidency. He is among the professors who rank U.S. Presidents for C-SPAN.

Image Credit: Photo (cropped) in the Featured Image (top) – by Jim Cramer from Pixabay


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