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A. Mitchell Palmer

Date of birth : 1872-05-04
Date of death : 1936-05-11
Birthplace : Moosehead, Pennsylvania
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-11-18

As U.S. attorney general, Alexander Mitchell Palmer was instrumental in creating the "red scare" of internal Communist subversion after World War I and was responsible for the illegal arrest of thousands of aliens.

Born in Moosehead, Pa., on May 4, 1872, A. Mitchell Palmer graduated summa cum laude in 1891 from Swarthmore College. He then read law for 2 years and became a prominent attorney in Pennsylvania. A moralist and moderate reformer, he was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Democrat in 1908 and again in 1910 and 1912. His personal charm and debating skill, together with his championship of tariff reform, woman's suffrage, and abolition of child labor gave him a considerable reputation. Yet the partisan, dogmatic, and combative qualities which ultimately compromised his career were already evident.

After declining appointment as secretary of war because of his Quaker beliefs, Palmer ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson then named him to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Claims, but he rejected the appointment because of his unwillingness to abandon active politics. In 1917 Palmer returned to government service as alien property custodian and was soon enveloped in controversy over his partisan appointments and loose construction of the law.

Appointed attorney general in March 1919, Palmer used the office to further his presidential aspirations. He perceived, among other things, that public sentiment was turning against labor, a group he had supported generously in the past. Prompted partly by J. Edgar Hoover, then a division chief in the Department of Justice, Palmer freely issued injunctions against strikers and soon charged striking miners, steelworkers, and railroad workers with promoting economic and social revolution. Meanwhile, influenced partly by the bombing of his own home, and again encouraged by Hoover, he authorized the unconstitutional dragnet arrest of thousands of suspected alien radicals. The action is generally regarded as the most flagrant violation of civil liberties up to that time. By most estimates, the bitter reaction of liberals and organized labor cost him the presidential nomination in 1920.

Palmer stayed on in Washington and practiced law. He maintained a peripheral interest in politics through the 1920s, and in 1932 he composed the more conservative sections of the Democratic platform. He died in Washington on May 11, 1936.

Stanley Coben, A. Mitchell Palmer, Politician (1963), is a full and generally convincing account of Palmer's career. It should be supplemented, for the attorney general years, by Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria (1955), and William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters (1963).


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