Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2018

Publication Title

Case Western Reserve Law Review


war, soldier, president, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Eugene V. Debs, socialism, Espionage Act, constitutional liberties


This is a story of excess and reparation. It is a chronicle of one President from the elite intellectual classes of the East, and another from a county seat in the heartland. Woodrow Wilson was the college president whose contribution to the art of government lay in the principle of expertise and efficiency. When he went to war, he turned the machinery of government into a comprehensive and highly effective instrument for victory. For Wilson, it followed that there could be little tolerance for those who impeded the success of American arms by their anti-war propaganda, draft resistance, or ideological dissent. Nor would there be any compromise with those who later opposed his plan for peace.

Warren G. Harding was a middling sort of person, simple in his virtues, mundane in his vices. Inadequately educated-as he always admitted-he nonetheless became a successful newspaper editor by overcoming the shared monopoly of two established dailies. His persistence brought him political success in the rough world of Ohio Republican politics. Where Wilson thought efficiency the hallmark of a successful administration, Harding believed it to be harmony. While Wilson sought to confine those who opposed his war aims, and unseat those who rejected his peace aims, Harding did not think a man should be in jail for what he said. Where Wilson oversaw the segregation of the civil service, Harding confronted Jim Crow in the Deep South.

Between the two stood Eugene V. Debs, the Marxist Socialist who could gather nearly a million votes for President but looked forward to a revolution that would unseat the capitalists from their positions of power. There was nothing that Debs stood for that either Wilson or Harding could abide. But while Wilson wanted to keep Debs in prison, Harding wanted to shake his hand.