Study Guide

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

By Eugene V. Debs

  • Main Idea

    Eugene V. Debs used the dramatic—emphasis on dramatic, have you read this speech?—opportunity provided by his sentencing hearing as a forum for educating the American public about his Socialist principles. With the spotlight on him as the most prominent, nationally known figure to be prosecuted for speaking out against World War I, Debs spoke eloquently about the abuses of capitalism and his vision for a better, more equitable society where Socialism would eventually triumph.

    And it's stirring stuff.

    Debs spoke poetically about the hardships of the working class (boo) and of his belief that their suffering would lead to a massive working class movement that would overturn an unjust society and replace it with an egalitarian Eden (yay).

    Though much of the speech was about the collective spirit of Socialism, Debs' personal story arc was skillfully woven into his remarks. He addressed his early work in the labor movement, denial of personal ambition, and almost mystical belief in the triumph of the Socialist movement.

    Sorry, Mr. Debs, history didn't vindicate your bet on Socialism…but will always remember the power of your speech.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Is it patriotic or anti-American to criticize the United States government during wartime?
    2. Were the Socialists accurate in saying that big business was controlling the government's decision to enter the war?
    3. Is it unjust for one person to earn hundreds of millions of dollars for doing very little while millions work hard and can barely get by?
    4. Why didn't more Americans rally to Debs' vision?

    Chew on This

    Eugene V. Debs vastly overestimated the potential for a Socialist movement in America.

    The U.S. government crushed the Socialist movement by prosecuting its leaders and raising the standard of living through a war-based economy.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    After being convicted of violating the Sedition Act at the close of WWI, Eugene Debs uses his public forum time of addressing the court to say #sorrynotsorry for being an idealistic, Socialistic, union-loving critic of the war.

    The Text

    After a stirring opening where he pledges his allegiance to the "meanest on earth"—he's talking about "mean" as in poor ("the lower class") as well as "mean" as in "nasty" ("the criminal element")—Debs remembers his boyhood and various examples of working class suffering that he witnessed as a union organizer.

    He then goes on to marvel that a country as blessed as America could allow for so much hardship for so many; this is what has led him to adopt Socialism as his political philosophy. After explaining what Socialists believe, Debs expresses his confidence that capitalism is doomed because of the growing force of the Socialist movement.

    Debs concludes with a poetic statement of how he sees hope for humanity just beyond the horizon.

    Then he drops the mic and crowdsurfs out of court.*

    *In our imagination.

    TL;DR

    Debs is going to jail and might well die there, but he's adamant that Socialism will win in the end.

      
  • Questions

    1. Debs establishes himself as a rebel in the first paragraph and an idealistic Christian at the close—how would you characterize the overall tone of this speech?
    2. Why might Debs have focused on the Socialist message rather than arguing the unconstitutional nature of the Espionage and Sedition Acts?
    3. Does Debs rely more on ethos or pathos in crafting this "Statement to the Court"? Why do you think he does this?
    4. Many who were present in the court reported that audience members were crying as Debs spoke. What about Debs' past and present made his "Statement to the Court" so poignant?
    5. In one of his newspaper columns just before his arrest for the Canton speech, Debs wrote, "I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world." Was it wise for him to be so in-your-face about his allegiance to a larger cause than patriotism?

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