January 7, 1920, was opening day for legislation at the New York State Assembly. The atmosphere was genial and careless as the regular protocols were dispensed with. The members spent time catching up on pleasantries and asking about family members.
"The Chair directs the Sergeant-At-Arms to present before the bar of the House Samuel A. DeWitt, Samuel Orr, Louis Waldmann, Charles Solomon, and August Claessens."
The casual atmosphere of the chambers suddenly vanished.
The five members called to the "well" of the House were all members of the Socialist Party. The Republican majority had decided to reject representative democracy and the Democrats were along for the ride.
Sweet declared that they had been "elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States." Furthermore, Sweet charged that the Socialist Party was "not truly a political party", but was rather "a membership organization admitting within its ranks aliens, enemy aliens, and minors."
But the real crime, according to Sweet, was that the Socialist Party was opposed to entering WWI. Speaking out against the war was a criminal offense. It was the reason that Eugene Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison just nine months earlier.
Sweet declared that the assemblyment could be expelled "with or without a hearing".
After Sweet's resolution was read a roll call was taken. It was 140 to 6 (only one Democrat voted against). The Democrats in the Assembly hung their heads and declined to even meet the eyes of the five socialists as they were escorted out.
Socialist Victor Berger, like Debs, was indicted under the Espionage Act in 1918 for speaking out against the war. Despite being under indictment, the people of Milwaukee elected him to the House of Representatives that year.
He was convicted in early 1919 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court where it was overturned on January 31, 1921.
While the case was under appeal, Berger went to Washington to take his seat. On November 10, 1919, the House determined that Berger could not be admitted and declared the seat vacant. A special election to fill the "vacant" seat was held on December 19, 1919, and the people of Milwaukee elected Berger a second time.
On January 10, 1920, the House refused to seat him yet again, and so the seat remained vacant.
Berger would go on win the 1922 election and then get re-elected twice more by the good people of Milwaukee.
What made Sweet's actions different from the House's actions against Berger was that he was attacking the legitimacy of an entire political party. In 1918, the Socialist Party held 1,200 elected offices in the United States, including 32 state representatives and 79 mayors. They were an official legal party in every state.
At the very same time, the United States Army was at war against the Bolsheviks in Russia and losing. So a certain amount of paranoia was understandable.
However, the paranoia had quickly turned into oppression against leftists. Just one week before Sweet's political coup the second Palmer Raid had been conducted. It was excesses of these raids that eventually turned public opinion against the oppression.
Nationwide, the day saw as many as ten thousand arrests across 23 states and 33 cities -- Among those rounded up in the wide net were thirty-nine bakers in Lynn, Massachusetts attempting to organize a bakery, 800 men and women in Detroit who were then forced to sleep in a windowless hallway for five days and share one toilet, and a New Jersey man who "looked like a radical." But in this huge haul, only three pistols were confiscated, two of them .22 caliber, and in the end only 556 men and women were deported, mostly for run-of-the-mill immigration violations.The blatent illegality of the raid didn't stop the press from endorsing them. The Washington Post argued that '[t]here is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty,"
They must have been shocked and bewildered when the reaction was instead alarm, and eventually outrage. One newspaper headlines read, "A Blow at Free Government". Even the Brooklyn Standard-Union, a leading Republican newspaper, said the expulsion was "utterly wrong in principle and lamentable as a matter of policy." The New York Evening Journal compared the action to the "British King" attacking our fouding fathers and accusing the body of "treason of the majority".
Charles Hughes, former Republican candidate for president and Supreme Court Justice, publically rebuked Sweet.
The Bar Association of the City of New York volunteered to defend the socialists.
The Democrats, suddenly faced with the political consequences, put their cowardess on full display and disclaimed responsibility. Some Republicans claimed they didn't know what they were voting for.
On January 12, Democrat Charles Donohue proposed a resolution rescind the vote which expelled the socialists. It failed 71 to 33. Many Democrats were getting cold feet, while many Republicans had abstained from voting.
Sweet then announced the 13 members of the Judiciary Committee, which he hand-picked. One of those picked was Louis Cuvillier, who was quoted as saying, "if the five accused Assemblymen are found guilty, they ought not to be expelled, but taken out and shot."
The five suspended member were given a summons for the trail that would start on the 20th, but were not told of the charges against them.
"Can't you see where that would lead? If the Socialist members of the assembly are today expelled or excluded for the sole reason that their platform, their party, are not to your taste, what warrent is there that the same contention won't be made, perhaps next year, perhaps three years from now, against the Democratic Party?"During the proceedings the defense managed to get Chairman Martin to admit of the suspended assemblymen, "We are not claiming these people are criminals."
- Morris Hillquit, 1920, counsel for the defense
At which point the defense asked, "If they are not charged with crime, if they are not charged with anything else, what are we here for?"
The prosecution based its case that the defendants were part of "an alien and invisible empire" and "direct agents of Lenin and Trotsky" and not actually citizens of the United States.
Based on that assumption they put all of global socialism on trial. Everything ever written or said by any communist or anarchist anywhere in the world was used as "evidence" against the accused, and the prosecution said exactly that when the defense objected.
The prosecution witnesses included defeated political opponents of the defendents from the previous election.
The trail lasted for three months and the outcome was pre-decided, but hardly overwhelming. On March 31 the committee voted 7-6 to expel the five socialist members. It now went to the full Assembly.
The debate lasted 22 hours and had both sides accusing the other of disloyalty. Assemblyman McCue said "these five men ought to be made an example to the other traitors and violators of the law. They ought to be strung up to the nearest lamp post, with their feet dangling in the air."
Assemblyman Wells testified, "We must expel these Socialists. If we don't our children and grandchildren will be washing the blood off the doorsteps."
The votes for expulsion ranged from 104-40 for Orr to 116-28 for Solomon. In every vote a solid majority of both Republicans and Democrats voted for expulsion.
"The forces of plutocracy and reaction have temporarily triumphed."
- Assemblymen Solomon and Waldman
The five seats sat open until a special election was held on September 16, 1920. The Democrats and Republicans conspired to run Political Monopoly Candidates, known as "fusion" candidates (candidates backed by both parties), to run against the expelled Socialists.
Much to the chagrin of the majority parties, all five Socialist Party candidates won again, in convincing fashion.
Once again the five Socialist Party candidates went to Albany to take their rightful place in the Assembly. Once again they were denied.
Nonetheless, on Sept. 21, the Assembly voted again to expel Messrs. Waldman, Claessens and Solomon, this time by a vote of 90 to 45.Orr and Solomon ran again in November and won. New resolutions to expel Orr, Solomon and Henry Jager of Brooklyn (a new Socialist candidate) were defeated in January 1921.
A motion to expel Messrs. Orr and DeWitt failed, 48 to 87. But the two men resigned in solidarity with their Socialist brethren, who had been denounced as “un-American.” Their resignation was met with cheers.