A. Mitchell Palmer

A. Mitchell Palmer Biography

Lawyer, Government Official, Judge, U.S. Representative (1872–1936)
As U.S. attorney general under Woodrow Wilson, A. Mitchell Palmer launched the Palmer Raids, resulting in the unjust arrest of thousands of U.S. aliens.


A. Mitchell Palmer was born May 4, 1872, in Moosehead, Pennsylvania. In 1901, he started a private law practice. He was elected U.S. Congressman in 1908, 1910 and 1912. Palmer became custodian of alien property in 1917. In 1919, he was appointed attorney general and launched the infamous Palmer Raids. In 1921 he returned to his law practice. Palmer died May 11, 1936, in Washington, D.C.


Early Years

A. Mitchell Palmer was born in Moosehead, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1872. Growing up as a devout Quaker, he attended local public schools. Palmer received his college preparation at the Moravian Parochial School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

As a young man, Palmer attended Swarthmore College, graduating summa cum laude in 1891. Although he went on to study law at Lafayette College and George Washington University, he did not complete his law degree. After passing the Pennsylvania bar exam in 1893, Palmer joined a small firm in Stroudsburg. In 1901, he started a private practice, and over the next few years established himself as a prominent attorney.

Congressman and Federal Judge

An active supporter of the Democratic Party, Palmer was elected U.S. Congressman in 1908. He was re-elected in 1910, and again in 1912. While in office, he proved instrumental in helping Woodrow Wilson win the 1912 presidential election.

After his three terms as a Congressman, Palmer ran for the Senate in 1914, unsuccessfully. The following year, Wilson appointed him a judge on the U.S. Court of Claims. Palmer accepted, but resigned just a few months later to resume his law practice. With the advent of World War I, Wilson invited Palmer to serve as secretary of war. Palmer declined due to his Quaker beliefs.

In 1917, Palmer became custodian of alien property under the Wilson administration. His job involved the controversial process of expropriating and selling the property of aliens.

Attorney General

In 1919 Wilson appointed Palmer to serve as the U.S. attorney general. Soon after, Palmer hired special assistant J. Edgar Hoover to help him crack down on left-wing organizations. Afraid that Communist Russians were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government, in early November of 1919 Palmer launched the infamous Palmer Raids, ordering federal agents to round up thousands of U.S. aliens and arrest them without trial.

While the majority of the aliens arrested during the Palmer Raids were later let go, nearly 250 aliens had been deported to Russia. When Palmer's prediction that Communists would invade and overthrow the U.S. government did not come to pass, he was frowned upon for violating civil liberties.

Later Life and Death

In 1920, Palmer ran for Democratic Party nomination. Accused by his opponents of using Red Scare tactics to improve his chances of election, Palmer lost the nomination. He left the office of attorney general in March of 1921 and returned to his law practice. In the years following, his political activity was limited mainly to supporting other Democratic presidential candidates, including Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Palmer died on May 11, 1936, in Washington, D.C.

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