Study Guide

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

By Eugene V. Debs

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  • Rhetoric

    Three in One: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

    Debs' "Statement to the Court" is basically a master class in balancing the elements of ethos, pathos, and logos. (A+, Eugene.)

    In his famous opening paragraph, he powerfully sets himself up as a moral and ethical person. He begins by being all humble when he says that he is "not one bit better than the meanest on earth" (1).

    And then he establishes how he's united with every downtrodden person on the planet: "...while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free" (1).

    You can't get much better than that in establishing yourself as a soulful, principled guy.

    The next section of the speech is where he really lays on the pathos. First he briefly mentions the difficulties of his own boyhood:

    At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations… (4)

    But more than his own struggles, Debs paints a powerful picture of the sufferings of the men, women, and children laborers in America. He speaks of:

    […] the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood.. (5)

    Toward the end of this section, Debs really lays the emotion on thick when he speaks of:

    […] vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep. (6)

    Oof. That's bleak.

    But now that he has his audience focused on their emotional response to the plight of the workers, Debs switches into logos, making his case for why the workers will turn to Socialism and why this system will lift them to a brighter future.

    He outlines the core beliefs of Socialists when he says,

    I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that jointly needed ought to be jointly owned—that industry…out to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all. (7)

    He emphasize the "multiplied thousands of others" who share his beliefs and are "spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order" so that "this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greatest social and economic change in history."

    Stirring stuff.

    After making the logical case for why Socialism will win out in the end, Debs switches back into a combination of pathos and ethos to conclude his remarks. He wants "no immunity" for himself, as he sees himself as at the edge of "the dawn of a better day for humanity" (13).

    He relates a parable about sailors looking to the Southern Cross constellation to guide them when seas are rough and uses this as a metaphor for where he and the Socialist movement now stand. "Let people everywhere take heart of hope," says Debs at the close, "for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning" (15).

    The implication here is that this hope for the future is what will sustain Debs (and his followers) through the dark night of prison.

  • Structure

    This is a courtroom speech given by the convicted defendant, Eugene Debs. (We like to call him Little Debs-ie, because he's as sweet as an Oatmeal Creme Pie.)

    In TV and movies, this is always a moment of high drama, as it is the (presumably) guilty person's chance to finally have a say. Usually, defendants don't take the stand in their own defense—but in Debs' case, he was the only witness in his own defense and he had gone on (and on) for two hours during his testimony in remarks that were often moving…but also very rambling.

    However, on the day of his famous speech, he had gotten a chance to make a last statement to the judge, knowing that—unless his lawyer made a successful appeal—he would soon be going to jail. Debs wanted to use this time to make a more focused and more concise statement of his beliefs and feelings about his past activities on behalf of the working class and the future of Socialism.

    We think he nailed it.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1 (Paragraphs 1-3)

    The Ethical Hook

    In this section, Debs establishes himself as a person with a high sense of morality. He strongly identifies with the downtrodden, believes the Espionage Law to be undemocratic and, on principle, opposes the whole unfair social structure of America.

    Section 2 (Paragraphs 4-6)

    The Pathos of American Society

    In this section, Debs movingly describes the pathetic, long-suffering life of American workers. His other major emphasis is on how maddening it is that a country so rich in resources allows the greed of the few to inflict so much hardship on the many.

    Debs finds it insane that many people chalk this up to God or the natural order of things, and believes that things don't have to be this way.

    Section 3 (Paragraphs 7-11)

    The Logic of Socialism

    In this section, Debs makes his case for the virtues of the Socialist point of view that having the government run major industries for society's benefit makes more sense. He predicts the ultimate triumph for his ideology, predicting that the working class will slowly awaken and organize.

    Section 4 (Paragraphs 12-14)

    A Metaphor for the Future

    As he concludes, Debs again shifts his focus to emotion and morality. He sees himself as on the side of a rising tide that favors social justice. In an extended metaphor about the constellation the Southern Cross, he offers his belief that a better day is dawning for humanity.

  • Tone

    The tone of Debs' "Statement" goes from A to Z to P (for pathos). And yet it works.

    He begins very dramatically, but keeps to broad and simple statements about the stakes of his case. He uses phrases like "my kinship with all living beings" (1), calls the Espionage Act "despotic" (4), and asserts that he is "opposed to the social system in which we live" (5).

    In the second section, the tone shifts into something much more flowery and embellished as he seeks to paint vivid pictures of the suffering workers and the cruel system that beats them down. Here he uses colorful phrases like "the remorseless grasp of Mammon," "industrial dungeons," and "monster machines" (11). He asserts that "gold is god…more important than the flesh and blood of childhood" (12).

    As he moves into his discussion of Socialism in the third section, his tone changes again. Debs becomes the teacher in this section, schooling the judge on the Socialist ideology. His tone becomes more rational, the language drier as he makes the Socialist case. "There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists," he argues, "making common cause…[that] the private property of a few…ought to be common property of all" (22-23).

    As he wraps up the "Statement," the tone changes yet again, into something that's almost rapturous. Debs offers Christian imagery for the bright new world he foresees. Here he mentions "the Almighty," "the cross bending," and "the passage of time upon the dial of the universe" (37).

    Debs seems to have had sort of an epiphany here. And so have we: we see the light about how awesome speeches should be structured.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The formal title, Statement to the Court Upon Being Convicted of Violating the Sedition Act, is just that—formal. But Debs' biographer, Ray Ginger, gave the speech a much catchier title, the "Bending Cross Speech."

    Ginger used this term because of the allegory Debs employs at the close of this famous speech. He also used the same title for his biography on Debs. The idea that the stars in the heavens—or larger forces like Socialism— are trying to guide mankind to a brighter horizon is what sustained Eugene Debs.

    When Debs spoke to Judge Westenhaven, both the court stenographer and a representative of the Socialist Party were recording his words. The speech was widely quoted and published under this official, dull heading…until Ginger's biography was published.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    The opening lines, those two sentences that make up the first paragraph, are just. so. good.

    And because of their awesomeness, they're certainly the most widely quoted words in the history of American Socialism. Right off the bat, Debs established his egalitarian ideals in a very radical way.

    Not too many people in American political life have proclaimed their solidarity with the criminal class the way Debs did by saying

    […] while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free. (2)

    Debs began by saying that he had "recognized my kinship with all living things" (1), and the famous phrases about being in the lower class and of the criminal element demonstrate that he means it when he says he feels a universal kinship with everyone.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    The very last sentence of Debs' "Statement to the Court" proclaims,

    Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning. (38)

    Here, Debs is leaning more heavily on his Christian beliefs because the idea of joy in the morning comes directly from the Bible. It is a quote from Psalms 30:5:

    For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

    He's mentioned the Almighty earlier in this section already ("the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe" (37)) but with this biblical allusion Debs is speaking much more directly about his time to come in prison and the difficulties faced by American Socialists.

    By ending on the note of joy coming soon, Debs seems to be trying to buoy himself and his followers. Sure, he is going to jail and yes, the Socialist movement in America has been splintered and derailed by the ordeal of World War I.

    But these problems won't endure—Debs and the Socialist vision will joyfully arise again.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    Dude does not mince words—most of the language, until the metaphorical conclusion, is deliberately straightforward.

    As Debs tell us at the start, he considers himself part of the lower class and is speaking to and for 'em. He has more than a little understanding of the theory of socialism…and of the horrible conditions for factory workers in this time period. But overall, Debs is more interested in emotion than theory and that makes this speech both hard-hitting and accessible (double threat).

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Ideological References

    Socialism (Throughout)

    Historical and Political References

    Espionage Law (4)

    Biblical References

    Mammon (11)
    Psalms 30:5 (38)

    References to this Text


    Debs' speech can be found in several anthologies of great speeches. These are the two most frequently referenced by students and teachers:

    American Voices: Significant Speeches in American History, 1640-1945. New York: Longman, 1989. Print.
    Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in U.S. History, William Safire, ed., 1992, W.W. Norton.

    Political References

    There have been many references to Debs' "Statement to the Court" in articles about the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders. Here are several:

    "Long Before Bernie Sanders, There was Eugene Debs," Chicago Tribune Jan. 27, 2016.
    "Before Bernie Sanders, There Was This Socialist Candidate," NPR Nov. 17, 2015.
    "Almost a Century Ago, Another Socialist Ran for President of the United States—From His Prison Cell," Huffington Post 11/23/2015.

    Literary References

    Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (essays) 2005, Bloomsbury.

    Prison Articles

    "The Fight to Save Stanley Tookie Williams," David Zirin, The Nation, Nov. 29, 2005.

    Documentary Film

    Eugene V. Debs: Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1979 Documentary Film, Smithsonian Folkways. (This is the movie Bernie Sanders made about Debs. Sanders himself reads parts of "The Statement to the Court.")

    Popular Culture: Music

    "Statement to the Court"—an orchestral piece composed by David Lang, a noted modern composer.

  • Trivia

    Eugene Debs had a pretty open affair with a woman named Mabel Curry, whom he met when she worked on his 1916 campaign. Mabel was also married, to a college professor. Their respective spouses didn't like it (what a shocker) but they put up with it. Mostly the affair consisted of passionate love letters, as he was in jail, sick, or traveling most of the time. Scandalous! (Source: Salvatore, Nick, Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist, University of Illinois Press, 1982)

    There is a town—Debs, Minnesota—and at least two beers named after Debs—Debs Red Ale and Eugene. So now you can toast Debs…with Debs. (Source)

    John Dos Passos included Debs as a historical figure in his novel, 42nd Parallel, part of his famous U.S.A. trilogy. (Source)

    Debs was named after two French enlightenment figures, Eugene Sey and Victor Hugo. We think he lived up to their legacies. (Source)

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