Study Guide

Eugene V. Debs' Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act

By Eugene V. Debs

Eugene V. Debs' Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act Introduction

Normally, breaking the law isn't a good idea.

You were probably taught this nugget of wisdom the first time you tried to snatch a Snickers bar off the checkout stand display with your adorable, chubby little toddler hands. And you were probably taught this lesson repeatedly throughout your childhood: don't break windows, don't "borrow" your neighbor's bike, don't try to dye the cat green for St. Patty's day. (Maybe not that last one.)

But every once in a while, laws are implemented that were made to be broken. And we're not just feeding you John Bender's immortal wisdom that "Being bad feels pretty good."

We're talking about breaking laws for the good of humanity (like Harriet Tubman freeing slaves before emancipation), breaking laws in the name of equality (like Rosa Parks not moving to the back of a bus), or breaking obscenity laws in the name of medical advancement (like Margaret Sanger giving an illegal lecture on birth control).

Or like Eugene Debs speaking out against the draft for WWI, a war that he believed was insane. (History would back him up on this point, btw.)

Eugene V. Debs wasn't afraid to lay everything on the table. He says it loud and says it proud in this speech—he's a Socialist, he opposes World War I, and he's willing to go to jail to help prove that the war is an attack on the little guy by rich fat cats.

Debs had gained national fame as a labor leader during the Pullman Strike of 1894 and was one of the founders of the Socialist Party of the United States. But that's not all: dude ran for president on the Socialist ticket four times and from 1914 onward was a consistent critic of the war in Europe. He was a brilliant orator and traveled throughout the country making speeches on behalf of striking workers, urging for a worker's movement to combat the excesses of the capitalist class that, in the Socialist view, controlled society.

Seriously, this guy lived and breathed Socialism.

  

The Not-So-Great War

When World War I broke out in 1914, Debs led the Socialists in decrying the war, seeing it as a manifestation of the greed and imperialism of the ruling elites (a.k.a. the man) of Europe. Most of America shared this anti-war sentiment for the first year of the war; but beginning with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, American popular opinion began gradually to shift toward greater U.S. involvement in the conflict.

When in April of 1917 President Woodrow Wilson asked the Congress for a declaration of war, public opinion and government policy now demanded patriotism, loyalty, and fighting men.

American Socialists were confronted with a dilemma: now that America was fighting, should their opposition to the war continue? The Socialist leadership was super divided on this question and many of them looked to the grand old man of their party, Eugene V. Debs, to guide them.

Socialists wanted to know: how should their party respond to the nationalist spirit that was moving through the country? By the spring of 1918, with the first U.S. troops now fighting on the Western front, Debs felt it was time to present the Socialist stand, risky though this would be.

Here's why it was risky. The U.S. had passed two sweeping laws that severely curtailed free speech during wartime: the Espionage Act of 1917 and (its extension) the Sedition Act of 1918.

Both of these Congressional Acts came under intense criticism by many Americans who saw them as violations of free speech rights. Lawmakers argued that they had no desire to stifle speech and that the goal of the laws was to protect national defense secrets. The key portion of both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act was the part that stated that:

[…] no person shall willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military […] or shall willfully obstruct the recruitment or enlistment services of the United States. (Source)

Yeah. That sounds great, but it effectively means mass censorship.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For Eugene

Throughout fall and winter, while Debs was ill, he wrote several pamphlets and newspaper articles condemning the war. But the Espionage Act gave the post office the power to refuse to deliver such items and so his voice was not being heard. This led him to deliver a speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 10, 1918, that severely criticized what he called the capitalist class, the big businessmen and powerful people who led the government.

The moral of this story? Much like nobody puts Baby in a corner, nobody stifles Eugene Debs when he wants to make a point.

Debs said that the ruling class was benefiting from the war; he proclaimed that it was always the poor who fought and died in war, without having a voice in deciding to fight. It was this speech that led to his trial and arrest because the speech was seen as discouraging American men from fighting.

Debs was convicted for intending to obstruct enlistment and intending to cause disloyalty. When he was offered a chance to address the court at his sentencing (he received a ten-year prison sentence), he seized the opportunity as a chance to present his dreams for a just society to the American public.

The oration he delivered to the judge, which is sometimes called the "Bending Cross Speech," really wowed many Americans of his day—as well as later historians—because of its passion and eloquence. Way to go, Mr. Debs.

What is Eugene V. Debs' Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act About and Why Should I Care?

Ever heard of Edward Snowden?

The guy who worked for the NSA (National Security Agency) and dumped surveillance material he thought showed the U.S. was excessively spying on its citizens all over the Internet? The guy who had an Oscar-winning documentary made about him?

Or maybe you know him better as the hacker who everyone thinks is unreasonably hot?

Well, the antique-seeming Espionage Act that sent Eugene Debs to jail is still technically on the books in America, and the Obama administration used it as a tool for prosecuting Edward Snowden.

Just like public opinion was divided about Debs' supposed violation of the Espionage and Sedition Acts of WWI, U.S. opinion split over the passage and renewal of the Patriot Act in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. (The Patriot Act gave the U.S. government broad power to access phone records and is often viewed as a violation of the Fourth Amendment proscription against unlawful search and seizure.)

The clash between First Amendment freedoms and the need to protect the country's security during times of war is an ongoing theme in American history. During World War II, what Japanese-Americans might say or do was seen as such a potential threat to national security that they were interred in prison camps. During the Cold War, black lists and Congressional panels intimidated many Americans from exercising free speech if that speech seemed to approve of Communist ideology. During the Vietnam War, the Nixon Administration resorted to "dirty tricks" to try to silence war dissenters.

Again and again, war involvement has brought forth heated arguments about where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and treasonous activity.

Out of the Debs case (and others prosecuted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts) came the establishment of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU, a non-profit group that provides free legal services in cases involving alleged violations of civil rights granted by the Bill of Rights, was formed as a response to the curtailing of free speech rights in this time period.

The ACLU was instrumental in defending many Socialists and pacifists who were prosecuted under the Acts. The successful drive to obtain amnesty for Eugene Debs put the ACLU on the map. Since 1920, ACLU lawyers have worked to defend civil liberties in some of the most important free speech cases in U.S. history.

Currently, the ACLU is engaged in an effort to get clemency for Edward Snowden…much as they fought to release Debs almost one hundred years ago.

Yeah. A lot has changed since 1918—hat styles, cars, and the idea of what constitutes a healthy meal—but the friction between the right to free speech and the need for national security has remained the same.

Eugene V. Debs' Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act Resources

Websites

Debs Foundation
This website is "dedicated to keeping alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism, and social criticism epitomized by Debs." Basically, it's the last word on all things Eugene.

Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive—Marxists Internet Archive
Debs was, after all, a Socialist first and foremost, so it's no surprise that the Marxists do a bang-up job chronicling his life.

Movie or TV Productions

Eugene Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary
This is then-Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders' valentine to his hero, Debs.

Articles and Interviews

Law Hall of Fame: "Eugene Debs: A True Hero of Organized Labor Everywhere"
Lawyers love Debs, both because of his emphasis on justice and because two of his legal dust-ups led to Supreme Court cases.

Social Justice Hall of Fame
Professor Peter Dreier compiled a book of essays on the greatest 20th-century leaders in the campaign for social justice, and Debs made the cut. Read his excellent overview of Debs here.

"Interview: Labor Historian Nick Salvatore on Eugene Debs, Bernie Sanders, and Socialism in Modern American Politics"
Salvatore is the most recent biographer of Debs…and makes some great connections between our main man Debs and Bernie Sanders.

Video

"Eugene V. Debs: The Contenders"
C-SPAN did a good series on presidential also-rans in 2012. They have some rare footage of Debs after his jailing and show aspects of the Debs museum.

David Strathairn: Eugene V. Debs Court Speech
This is a segment from the Howard Zinn documentary, The People Speak.

Eugene Debs—National Museum of American Museum
This is a cute, short cartoon about Debs. It has no audio, but gets to the essence of Debs.

Audio

Mark Ruffalo Reads Canton, Ohio, Speech
This is a segment from the speech that led to Debs' arrest, read as part of a Zinn Project program.

Images

Eugene Victor Debs Campaign Wave
This is a photograph of Debs waving goodbye outside of prison.

Canton, Ohio, Campaign Speech
This is a photograph of a very impassioned Debs delivering his Canton, Ohio, speech.

Eugene Debs Pin
This is a photograph of a Debs Campaign Button from the 1920 prison campaign for the presidency.