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Lydia Beidel

Famous American Labor Trials

The United States vs. Eugene V. Debs

(September 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 39, 27 September 1941, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


Sentenced to ten years in the Federal penitentiary at Cleveland, Ohio, on September 14, 1918

“They are trying to send us to prison for speaking our minds. Very well, let them. I tell you that if it had not been for men and women who in the past have had the moral courage to go to prison, we would still be in the jungles.

“No, I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist ...

“I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make it necessary, even to barricades.”

– From the Speeches of Eugene V. Debs

Background of the Case

In June, 1917, the St. Louis convention of the Socialist Party of America adopted a famous declaration in which the World War was denounced as an imperialist venture and the international solidarity of the working class in opposition to the war was proclaimed. Many militants in the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World carried on agitation against the capitalist war.

Eugene Victor Debs, one of the founders of the IWW and the most prominent member of the Socialist Party, devoted himself tirelessly to the propagation of the ideas of the St. Louis Declaration. “When capitalists declare war,” he said, “it is then for us to declare war on them ... and fight every battle for the overthrow of the ruling class.”

The Canton Speech

On June 16, 1918, at the Ohio State Convention of the Socialist Party, Debs spoke in the City of Canton. He reiterated his opposition to the war, declared his solidarity with the Russian Bolsheviks, and was arrested and charged with treason under the Espionage Law of June 15, 1917. He delivered his now famous speech immediately after having visited a number of his comrades, held in jail for speaking out as he did against the mass slaughter of workers for profit. Thinking of them, he said,

“I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything I do not think. And I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than a sycophant or coward on the streets. They may put those boys in jail and some of the rest of us in jail, but they cannot put the Socialist movement in jail. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all the ages of history for standing erect and seeking to pave the way for better conditions for mankind.

“They who are animated with the unconquerable spirit of the Social Revolution, they who have the moral courage to stand erect, to assert their convictions, to stand by them, to go to jail or hell for them – they are writing their “names In this crucial hour, they are writing their names in fadeless letters in the history of mankind ...

“In all the history of the world, you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

“Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and power. The strong have always tried to rob the weak. The masters have always declared war. They never did any of the fighting; they have always sent the workers to fight for them.

“The masters alone declare war and they alone make peace. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose. You, the workers, have nothing to gain and everything to lose – especially your lives ...”

The Trial

In Cleveland on September 9, 1918, Eugene V. Debs went to trial in the court of Judge D.C. Westenhaver on a charge of treason. The case of the Federal government was based entirely upon statements made by Debs in his speech at Canton, Ohio, recorded by a government agent stationed in the crowd.

Debs delivered the plea to the jury himself.

“When great changes occur in history,” he said to the jury, “when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong. The minority are usually right. In every age there have been a few heroic souls who have been in advance of their time, who have been misunderstood, maligned, persecuted, sometimes put to death. Long after their martyrdom monuments were erected to them and garlands woven for their graves.

“I cannot take back a word I have said. I cannot repudiate a sentence I have uttered. I stand before you guilty of having made this speech. I do not know, I cannot tell, what your verdict may be, nor does it matter much, so far as I am concerned ...

“Revolutions have a habit of succeeding, when the time comes for them ... The most heroic word in all languages is Revolution.”

On September 14, he was sentenced to ten years in the Federal penitentiary. Taking advantage of his right to make a final plea to the court he said:

“Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better then the meanest of the earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

His lawyer’s immediately appealed to the Supreme Court and Debs was released on bond and allowed to await the decision of the higher court at his home in Terre-Haute, Indiana.

The Supreme Court Decision

On March 10, 1919, prosecutor Wertz telephoned. Debs at his home and informed him that the Supreme Court had upheld the decision of the lower court – with the concurrence of the liberals Holmes and Brandeis. Debs, 65 years old and suffering from heart disease, packed his bag and took the train for Cleveland, to surrender to the Federal police.

“The decision is perfectly consistent with the character of the Supreme Court as a ruling class tribunal,” he said.

“Great issues, are not decided by the courts, but by the people. I have no concern in what the coterie of begowned corporation lawyers in Washington may decide in my case. The court of final resort is the people, and that court will be heard from in due time.”

It was on April 19, 1919, five months after the World War had ended, that Debs entered Moundsville jail in West Virginia, since the Federal jails were too crowded with political prisoners to accommodate him. He was later transferred to the penitentiary at Atlanta.

Candidacy from Jail

In the elections of 1920, Debs was nominated to run as a candidate for the presidency of the United States from behind prison bars. Appealing to the working masses of the country from behind the locked doors of his cell, he polled the imposing total of 919,799 votes.

Once during his term he was offered a pardon on condition that he recant. He declined the offer and said to would wait until he could leave jail without having to violate his principles.


Two years and nine months after he had entered prison, Debs was pardoned and on December 25, 1921, he left Atlanta on his own terms, having repudiated none of his ideas and none of his words. His health was broken, but that great spirit, which set him apart as the kind of man who would “go to jail or to hell” for his revolutionary principles, was untouched and unblemished.

“I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight for the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight for the working class.”

That was Gene Debs.

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