Sacco, Vanzetti and the Right to a Fair Trial
On Aug. 23, 1927, the state of Massachusetts executed two Italian-born men convicted of killing two men in a robbery gone wrong. The two Italian immigrants were avowed anarchists and there was speculation that the men did not receive a fair trial, due to both their anarchist politics and their ethnic heritage. Protests were held throughout the world, the governor of Massachusetts ordered a commission to investigate the trial, and a future Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, took to the pages of the Atlantic to argue for their innocence.
The world of 1927, and especially the place of the United States in that world, was exciting, tumultuous, and unpredictable. World War I had been over for less than 10 years, but the ashes of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires were still smoldering. The United States had entered World War I as democracy’s arsenal, planning to put an end to the war and to unelected despotism in Europe once and for all. Woodrow Wilson’s dreams of an American-led international order were shattered by an isolationist Senate, and the victorious European Allies had few resources to follow-up their pyrrhic victory over Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans. Chauvinist nationalism and Bolshevism were ascendant in Europe.
The Great War had also interrupted nearly a century of globalization, too. Throughout the 19th century, labor crossed borders with little hindrance (capital sometimes had a tougher time crossing national borders than labor, but the financial interdependence between certain countries, like that of Germany and the United Kingdom, was deep). By 1927, trans-Atlantic migration was on the ropes. Chauvinist nationalism was not limited to central and eastern Europe. In the Americas, and especially in the United States, anti-immigrant currents swelled, which was bad news for Europeans and Asians trying to make it in the land of the free.
Part of the problem with immigration is the ideas that new peoples bring to a place that’s accustomed to old ways. In the U.S. (and the Americas more broadly), the old ways of doing things are not so old, and as a result immigration has been relatively liberal since the Columbian Exchange. During the Roaring ‘20s, European immigrants brought with them to the shores of the New World left-wing political tactics (leftist ideas were well-known) that did not mesh well with the classical liberalism of the United States. Leftists in those days were far more tolerant of using violence to accomplish their aims, and their goals were often vulgar and short-sighted, such as wanting to seize all private property and give it to the state (or to worker’s cooperatives). In addition to threatening private property rights with violence, leftists had no qualms about murdering heads of state deemed to be too reactionary. A left-anarchist murdered an American president, for example, and the Bolsheviks are well-known for breaking eggs to make omelettes. (Anarchism today is a much more peaceful ideology, thanks largely to a split between those who continue to argue for appropriating property and those who have come to embrace property rights as an important bulwark against the state.)
The anarchism of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was left-wing and violent. Very violent. The two young men were admirers of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist who advocated violence as the best way to achieve a more anarchist world. Sacco and Vanzetti, the executed, were part of an American syndicate dedicated to Galleani’s ideals. This syndicate was responsible for bombings, assassination attempts, printing and distributing bomb-making books, and even mass poisonings in the United States. The Galleanists were so violent that they sat atop a list of the federal government’s most dangerous enemies. On April 15, 1920, an armed robbery at the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Mass., went awry and two men, a guard and an accountant (“paymaster”) were killed by the robbers. Sacco and Vanzetti were accused, convicted, and sentenced to death.
Unfortunately, the two men were probably innocent. The jury foreman was an ardent anti-immigration activist, the evidence was most likely forged, and the testimonies of numerous witnesses were suspect. Partly because elites had been positioning the United States to be a prominent global player in the geopolitical arena, the trial became an international sensation, with donations for the two convicted anarchist’s legal fees flowing in from around the world, and major protests erupting in urban areas throughout the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, as well as in Sydney, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, and Rio de Janeiro. When Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, riots broke out in several major cities throughout the world (including in the United States).
On Aug. 23, 1977, 50 years after the executions took place, the governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, declared it to be Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day and stated that "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names," much to the chagrin of his conservative opponents. Today, political leaders in Massachusetts try to use the Sacco and Vanzetti execution as a gentle reminder that everybody on American soil has a right to a fair trial.