A. Mitchell Palmer: Red Scare Infamy
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
Alexander Mitchell Palmer was born May 4, 1872 in Moosehead, Luzerne County, Pa. The Palmer family was native to Monroe County, having descended from Obadiah Palmer, a Quaker and early settler who worked for the Stroud Family.
A. Mitchell grew up locally, graduated from Stroudsburg High School, and continued his education at Swarthmore College, where he graduated summa cum laude. After returning home to Stroudsburg, Palmer became a partner in law with Judge John B. Storm. In 1901, Judge Storm died, and Palmer took over the law practice. A. Mitchell Palmer lived at 712 Thomas Street, Stroudsburg; the home still stands today.
Locally, A. Mitchell Palmer became active in numerous civil affairs, clubs, and organizations. He introduced a bill to create a national monument in honor of John Summerfield Staples, a Stroudsburg man who served for President Lincoln in the Civil War. [See separate article]
Palmer was the chairman of the Stroudsburg National Bank and also served as the president of the Democratic Club. He bought the Stroudsburg Democrat newspaper and entered the political arena. By 1908, A. Mitchell was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1914.
Palmer began his active role in national politics with the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Md. After 26 ballots were cast, a presidential candidate still had not been chosen. Palmer was the floor leader and was approached by other politicians to serve as a “dark horse” candidate. While Palmer had dreams of becoming president of the United States, he remained loyal to Woodrow Wilson, denied the offer, and threw his support behind Wilson. Wilson went on to receive the nomination and eventually won the presidency of the United States.
For receiving his support, Wilson offered Palmer the post of Secretary of War, but because of his Quaker background, Palmer declined the position. Instead, he returned to Stroudsburg to continue in his successful law practice.
By 1917, the U.S. had entered World War I, and Wilson called upon Palmer to serve as Alien Property Custodian. Palmer’s duties included seizing U.S. businesses owned by Germans to further American industry following the War. Palmer was criticized for his actions, but Congressional investigations never uncovered any illegal activity on Palmer’s part.
In 1919, when Wilson appointed Palmer the 50th U.S. attorney general, the atmosphere in the United States was uneasy. Economic uncertainty and high American causalities after the War, along with a growing fear of Communism, terrorism and illegal aliens added to the fear that had swept a nation. Labor Unions were striking across the U.S. It is estimated that over 3,500 strikes occurred the year Palmer became Attorney General. Palmer reacted by arresting thousands of U.S. citizens and aliens with no warrants and no regard for their Constitutional rights.
These sweeping and large scale arrests were known as the “Palmer Raids” or the “Red Scare.” Many individuals from the Union of Russian Workers and the Community Labor Party were targeted. The labor strikes were believed, at the time, to be connected to the Bolshevik Revolution occurring in Russia. Palmer had appointed a young 24-year-old man to spearhead the raids, named J. Edgar Hoover.
Initially, the public welcomed the action of the attorney general, but over time, Palmer faced harsh criticism as to the manner in which these raids were conducted. From months in solitary confinement to weeks in facilities without toilets, the detainees faced inhumane conditions. The forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union complained that more than 1,500 individuals had been arrested, but that enough evidence was available only to hold 39. Along with growing discontent with the American public, the American Bar Association deemed the “Palmer Raids” unconstitutional and indicated Palmer had abused his power.
With his eye still on the office of the presidency, Palmer ran in 1920 hoping to get the Democratic nomination. His reputation tarnished, the nomination was not forthcoming and A. Mitchell Palmer’s political career ended nearly as quickly as it had begun.
When Wilson left office, Palmer officially retired from the political spotlight. He divided his time between Stroudsburg, Washington D.C. and Florida. In 1932, Palmer did assist Franklin D. Roosevelt in drafting the New Deal platform, but he never demonstrated the public political force he had once had.
A. Mitchell Palmer died of a heart attack May 11, 1936 and is buried in Laurelwood cemetery in Stroudsburg. He played a role in local, state and national politics that will not be forgotten by history.