Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Alexander Mitchell Palmer was born on 4th May, 1872. Educated at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, he was admitted to the bar in 1893.

A supporter of the Democratic Party, Palmer served in the House of Representatives (1909-15) and worked closely with Woodrow Wilson in his successful presidential campaign in 1912.

In 1919 Wilson appointed Palmer as his attorney general. Palmer had previously been associated with the progressive wing of the party and had supported women's suffrage and trade union rights. However, once in power, Palmer's views on civil rights changed dramatically.

Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. His view was reinforced by the discovery of thirty-eight bombs sent to leading politicians and the Italian anarchist who blew himself up outside Palmer's Washington home. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.

Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but Emma Goldman and 247 other people, were deported to Russia.

New-York Tribune (3rd January, 1920)
New-York Tribune (3rd January, 1920)

In January, 1920, another 6,000 were arrested and held without trial. These raids took place in several cities and became known as the Palmer Raids. A. Mitchell Palmer and John Edgar Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects, many of them members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), continued to be held without trial. When Palmer announced that the communist revolution was likely to take place on 1st May, mass panic took place. In New York, five elected Socialists were expelled from the legislature.

When the May revolution failed to materialize, attitudes towards Palmer began to change and he was criticised for disregarding people's basic civil liberties. Some of his opponents claimed that Palmer had devised this Red Scare to help him become the Democratic presidential candidate in 1920.

Palmer failed to win the nomination and although he helped Al Smith (1928) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932) in their campaigns, he was no longer an important force in the Democratic Party. Alexander Mitchell Palmer died on 11th May, 1936.

Primary Sources

(1) A. Mitchell Palmer, The Case Against the Reds (1920)

Behind, and underneath, my own determination to drive from our midst the agents of Bolshevism. I have discovered the hysterical methods of these revolutionary humans. I have been asked to what extent deportation will check radicalism in this country. Why not ask what will become of the United States Government if these alien radicals carry out the principles of the Communist Party?

In place of the United States Government we would have the horror and terrorism of Bolshevik tyranny such as the destroying Russia now. The whole purpose of communism appears to be the mass formation of the criminals of the world to overthrow the decencies of private life, to usurp property, to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex or religious rights.

These are the revolutionary tenets of the Communist Internationale. These include the IWW's, the most radical socialists, the misguided anarchists, the agitators who oppose the limitations of unionism, the moral perverts and the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism.

(2) John Dos Passos, Facing the Chair: Sacco and Vanzetti (1927)

On June 3rd 1919 a bomb exploded outside the Washington house of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In the previous months various people had received bombs through the mail, one of them blowing off the two hands of the unfortunate housemaid who undid the package. No one, and least of all the federal detectives ever seems to have discovered who committed these outrages or why they were committed. But their result was to put a scare into every public official in the country, and particularly into Attorney General Palmer.

No one knew where the lightning would strike next. The signing of peace had left the carefully stirred up hatred of the war years unsatisfied. It was easy for people who knew what they were doing to turn the terrors of government officials and the unanalyzed feeling of distrust of foreigners of the average man into a great crusade of hate against reds, radicals, dissenters of all sorts. The Department of Justice, backed by the press, frenziedly acclaimed by the man on the street, invented an immanent revolution.

(3) Jane Addams, speech in Chicago (28th November, 1919)

Hundreds of poor laboring men and women are being thrown into jails and police stations because of their political beliefs. In fact, an attempt is being made to deport an entire political party.

These men and women, who in some respects are more American in ideals than the agents of the government who are tracking them down, are thrust into cells so crowded they cannot lie down.

And what is it these radicals seek? It is the right of free speech and free thought; nothing more than is guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States, but repudiated because of the war.

It is a dangerous situation we face at the present time, with the rule of the few overcoming the voice of the many. It is doubly dangerous because we are trying to suppress something upon which our very country was founded - liberty.

The cure for the spirit of unrest in this country is conciliation and education - not hysteria. Free speech is the greatest safety valve of our United States. Let us give these people a chance to explain their beliefs and desires. Let us end this suppression and spirit of intolerance which is making of America another autocracy.