Study Guide

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

By Eugene V. Debs

Historical Context

Happy Adulthood, 20th Century

The year of Debs' "Statement to the Court"—1918—was a pretty massive year, all things considered. It was the year the 20th century became an adult, after all.

And—oh, yeah—it was the year that WWI, a.k.a. The Great War, a.k.a. The War to End All Wars (it held that title until, you guessed it, WWII rolled around) finally ended. After four years of bloodshed, trench warfare, zeppelins, and general global loss of innocence, the dang thing was over.

Phew.

And cue the chants of U-S-A! U-S-A! because the U.S. entering the fighting is what turned the tide in the favor of our longstanding buddies, France and Great Britain.

Yes indeedy: the fact that, with an influx of fresh American combat troops, the Allies were victorious contributed to a growing sense of national pride. The U.S. was now a major player on the world stage.

The U.S. was also cocky and full of itself, and Debs' old Socialist critique of the war already seemed somehow dated (so 1914) to the majority of Americans. But when Debs first began making his anti-war speeches in 1914, the idea that the war would last for four long years and see a significant involvement by U.S. ground troops was far from what anyone would have imagined.

Pacifism, Socialism, and Censor-ism

Socialism seemed to still be on the rise as a political philosophy in American politics in 1914, as evidenced by the success of many Socialist candidates in the 1912 elections and Debs' own record vote total in his 1912 presidential candidacy. Debs was drawing record crowds as he traveled throughout America in his Red Special rail car in the early war years (1914-1916), electrifying crowds by speaking the "lingo of moral outrage" in his criticism of the war.

As America showed signs of moving toward entering the war, the leadership of the Socialist party began to splinter. Many supported Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 election; Debs himself didn't run for President that year, making an unsuccessful run for Congress in Indiana instead.

But as the war approached in the spring of 1917, Debs decided to stick to his pacifist guns (hmm: maybe we need to rethink the phrase "pacifist guns") and resumed his anti-war speeches.

In the early months of America's entry into the war, the U.S. government was struggling to raise the number of troops it needed for the fight. It's this fact that made the Socialist anti-draft protests so threatening and that led Congress to pass the Espionage and Sedition Acts, suppressing speech and writing that could undermine the military.

(Wait—what? Isn't free speech kind of the point of this whole "America" thing? You got it—and we'll get to that in a sec.)

Debs' age and illnesses in late 1917 and into early 1918 kept him off the government's radar for a while. But in May 1918, Debs re-emerged in the public eye with his persistent message that the war was an undemocratic scheme by the capitalist class to enrich itself at the expense of the blood and toil of the working class. Soon, the newspapers in Canton, Ohio, were calling for his arrest after one of his typically passionate anti-war public addresses.

Debs left it to his legal team and the ACLU to make the case that the Espionage and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional. At his trial he was much more interested in using the national spotlight to make the case for the Socialist philosophy. The Russian Revolution was unfolding in 1917-18 and Debs had reason to feel optimistic about the forward march of Socialism.

Though he recognized that America was becoming increasingly nationalistic as the war progressed, his speeches at the trial show that Debs was committed to giving it his all to persuade Americans that Socialism was the way forward. And they also show that Debs was one insanely good orator.