Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Alexander Mitchell Palmer

Infobox US Cabinet official
name=Alexander Mitchel Palmer

title=United States Attorney General
term_start=March 5, 1919
term_end=March 4, 1921
predecessor=Thomas Watt Gregory
successor=Harry M. Daugherty
president=Woodrow Wilson
order2=Member of the
title2=U.S. House
of Representatives
Pennsylvania's 26th district
term_start2=March 4, 1909
term_end2=March 3, 1915
president2=William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
predecessor2=Jefferson Davis Brodhead
successor2=Henry Joseph Steele
birth_date=birth date|1872|5|4|mf=y
birth_place=White Haven, Pennsylvania
death_date=death date and age|1936|5|11|1872|5|4|mf=y
death_place=Washington, D.C.
party=Democratic Party
spouse=Roberta Dixon (d. 1922) [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Mrs. Alexander Mitchell Palmer |url= |quote= |publisher=Los Angeles Times |date=March 16, 1913 |accessdate=2008-04-27 ]
Margaret Fallon Burrall
profession=Statesman, lawyer
religion=Religious Society of Friends

Alexander Mitchell Palmer (May 4, 1872 - May 11, 1936) was the Attorney General of the United States from 1919 to 1921. He was nicknamed "The Fighting Quaker" and he directed the controversial Palmer Raids.

Judicial, Congressional, and party service

Palmer was appointed official stenographer of the forty-third judicial district of Pennsylvania in 1892. He studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1893 and practiced in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Palmer became director of various banks and public-service corporations and a member of the Democratic State executive committee of Pennsylvania. Palmer was elected as a Democrat to the 61st, 62nd, and 63rd Congresses (March 4, 1909 - March 3, 1915); he was not a candidate for renomination in 1914, but ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate. Palmer was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1912 and 1916, and a member of the Democratic National Committee from 1912 - 1920.

As a congressman, Palmer was a progressive reformer who had supported and fought for legislation protecting workers, especially women and children, in dangerous jobs. He was a supporter of the League of Nations. [Citation
last = Murray
first = Robert K.
author-link = Robert K. Murray
title = The Red Scare
publisher = University of Minnesota Press
year = 1955
location = Westport
isbn = 0313226733

Attorney General

President Woodrow Wilson offered Palmer the post of Secretary of War, but Palmer declined because of his belief in pacifism. Instead, he was appointed Alien Property Custodian on October 22, 1917, by Wilson, and served until March 4, 1919, when he resigned to become Attorney General of the United States.

He served as Attorney General from March 5, 1919, until March 4, 1921. One of Palmer's first acts was to release 10,000 aliens of German ancestry taken into custody during the war. Before assuming office, he had opposed some of the actions of the American Protective League, which had participated in numerous raids and surveillance activities, primarily against those who failed to register for the draft, but also against immigrants of German ancestry who were suspected of sympathies for the German Kaiser and his government. However, the APL had also directed its attention to anarchists and their sympathizers in the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), who were intensely opposed to the U.S. entry into World War I. Palmer initially ignored demands by the press and congressional leaders for federal arrests and/or deportation of radical or revolutionary activists and agitators. [Vigilante, David, "The Constitution in Crisis: The Red Scare of 1919-1920", Los Angeles: UCLA Teaching Materials: In addition to his initial skepticism, Palmer had a practical reason to oppose the use of precipitous action by the Justice Department - he hoped to be the Democratic party’s nominee for the presidency in 1920. Thus, throughout much of 1919 he resisted political pressure to take extreme measures against dissidents that might cost him votes.] The new Attorney General's lack of response was criticized by various political leaders [By early 1919, Congress was agitating for action by the Wilson administration, having already passed the 1918 Anarchist Exclusion Act specifically as a tool for use in a new war, this time, against foreign radicalism.] and former APL members, as well as journals such as the New York Times, whose editorials had characterized striking immigrants who had joined anarchist movements as "seditionaries, anarchists, plotters against the Government of the United States".

Palmer Raids

In late April 1919, "Galleanists", violent anarchist followers of Luigi Galleani mailed a booby trap bomb to Palmer's home; it was intercepted and defused. Three months after becoming Attorney General, Palmer narrowly escaped death when Carlo Valdinoci, a "Galleanist" and anarchist placed a bomb on Palmer's porch; the bomb went off and killed Valdinoci. Palmer was not at home at the time, but a woman passerby was killed in the blast.

Convinced that the menace posed by anarchists and the radical left was real, and armed with a clear mandate for action from President Wilson, [Loewe, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29] Palmer became a zealous opponent of anarchist communists, insurrectionary anarchists, and other radicals who advocated revolution and/or the violent overthrow of the Federal government of the United States. After his close calls at the hands of the "Galleanists", Palmer appears to have grouped all those identified with the radical left as responsible for the wave of violence. He stated his belief that Communism was "eating its way into the homes of the American workman," and that socialists were responsible for most of the country's social problems.

Palmer's campaign against radicalism culminated in what came to be called the Palmer Raids and the commencement of what would later be termed the First Red Scare. These were a series of police roundups, warrantless wiretaps (authorized under the Sedition Act), and mass arrests of suspected leftists and radicals, during which a total of at least 10,000 individuals were arrested. Under the 1918 Anarchist Exclusion Act, which allowed the deportation of resident aliens who were anarchists or who had advocated violence or the revolutionary overthrow of the government, 556 resident aliens were eventually deported, including prominent radical leaders such as Luigi Galleani, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman. Fearful of extremist violence and revolution, the American public widely supported the raids; outside of protests by some civil libertarian groups and the radical left, condemnation of the raids did not surface until many years later.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison would later charge that hundreds of people in New England alone had been arrested with no connection to extremism of any kind, adding:

"The raids yielded almost nothing in the way of arms or revolutionaries, but Palmer emerged [from] the episode a national hero. And what made his action the more abominable is that he was a practicing Quaker, even using the traditional 'thee' instead of 'you.'" "The Oxford History of the United States", p. 883.

Palmer had recruited a recent law school graduate to help him, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover pored over arrest records, subscription records of radical newspapers, and party membership records to compile lists of resident aliens for deportation proceedings.

Louis Freeland Post, Acting Secretary of Labor, in turn opposed many of the deportation cases. The United States Department of Labor had authority when workmen were nominated for deportation, and Post demanded evidence justifying such an action in each individual case. He was not deterred from this even when critized by the press or members of Congress. Called to testify before Congress, he stood his ground, persuading irate Congressmen in case after case that evidence was lacking.

Palmer famously predicted that Communists would attempt to overthrow the United States government on May Day 1920. He had some reason for making this statement, as the previous year's anarchist mail bombing had been timed to ensure delivery of the bombs by the Post Office on May Day 1919. The National Guard of the United States was mobilized and the entire New York City Police Department was put on 24-hour duty, but the date came and went without incident, causing some to think Palmer had "cried wolf" once too often.

On September 16 of that year, however, Wall Street was rocked by a violent blast, later known as the Wall Street bombing. The bomb was constructed using 100 pounds of dynamite and was packed with cast iron sash weights in order to increase maiming and casualties. Concealed in a horse-drawn wagon, the bomb was precisely timed to catch people leaving for their lunch break. The Wall Street bombing killed 38 people and wounded over 400, causing extensive property damage and leaving visible marks on several Wall Street buildings to this day. In spite of the deportation of Luigi Galleani pursuant to the Anarchist Act, the "Galleanist" bomb campaign would continue for another twelve years, until most of its members had been prosecuted, deported, or become inactive.

Eugene Debs Clemency Petition

Palmer was largely blamed for the negative results of the raids which came to bear his name, as well for the Wilson administration's hostility to radicals in general. However, other historians note that Palmer was willing to brook presidential displeasure on behalf of those deemed to be Wilson's opponents on the left. In 1921, Palmer asked President Wilson to pardon the convicted Socialist leader, Eugene V. Debs, ostensibly on the grounds of ill health; he suggested that the birthday of President Lincoln would be an appropriate day for the announcement, noting the latter's willingness to forgive the Confederate South. [Loewen, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29] Wilson's response was "Never!", and wrote 'Denied' across the clemency petition. [Loewen, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29: Debs's pardon would have to await the Republican administration of President Warren G. Harding.] [New York Times, "Wilson Denies Debs Pardon," February 1, 1921]

Later years

Palmer sought the nomination for President at the 1920 Democratic National Convention. but lost the nomination to James Cox. Afterwards, Palmer went into private law practice. He died on May 11, 1936. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Tribute From Cumming's. |url= |quote=Attorney General Cummings said today of A. Mitchell Palmer's death "He was a great lawyer, a distinguished public servant and an outstanding citizen. He was my friend of many years' standing and his death brings to me a deep sense of personal loss and sorrow." |publisher=New York Times |date=May 12, 1936 |accessdate=2008-04-27 ] [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Died |url=,9171,848585-2,00.html |quote=A. (for Alexander) Mitchell Palmer, 64, who as President Wilson's Attorney General organized the great 1919 Red Hunt; after an appendectomy; in Washington. D. C. It was he who put into the 1932 Democratic platform planks pledging a 25% reduction in Government expenditures, collection of War Debts. |publisher=Time (magazine) |date=1936 |accessdate=2008-06-28 ]

ee also

*Luigi Galleani
*1919 United States anarchist bombings
*Sacco and Vanzetti
*Communist Party USA


Avrich, Paul, "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background", Princeton University Press, 1991



* [ Listen to Palmer speak]


* [ The Political Graveyard]
* [ "Who Built America V.II"]

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