Eugene Debs – A “Dangerous Man Calculated to Mislead the Unthinking”


I’d like to share one of my favorite stories from American history. This is the story of Eugene Debs:

Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.

On June 16, 1918, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio protesting World War I and urging resistance to the mandatory military draft. The now famous “US military draft” was implemented in WW1 because of the massive anti-war sentiment felt across the country.

Fun fact: When the public is against war, the State will move and force its people to fight under threat of imprisonment….but I digress….

Excerpt from Deb’s speech:

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth they declared war upon one another. But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.

They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But 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.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.

With these words, Debs sowed his fate. Most liberal democracies embrace the idea of free speech and freedom of expression, but Deb crossed the line. Criticism of power will not be tolerated.

On June 30, 1918, Debs was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917 and convicted, sentenced to serve ten years in prison.

The Federal Government argued that Debs was attempting to arouse mutiny and treason by preventing the drafting of soldiers into the United States Army. This type of speech was outlawed in the United States with the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917.

In his defense, Debs argued that he was entitled to the rights of free speech provided for in the first amendment of the Bill of Rights.

Debs lost the case and was sentenced on November 18, 1918 to 10 yeas in prison. He was also disenfranchised, which is just a fancy term meaning that he will no longer be a Citizen of his country. He can never vote or participate in politics ever again. Like I said before, criticism of power will not be tolerated.

Debs appealed and ended up in the US Supreme Court, Debs v. United States. The Supreme Court decided against Debs, and maintained the power of the Espionage Act. Debs’ sentence to ten years imprisonment and loss of citizenship was upheld. In his opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said the following:

The main theme of the speech was Socialism, its growth, and a prophecy of its ultimate success. With that we have nothing to do, but if a part or the manifest intent of the more general utterances was to encourage those present to obstruct the recruiting service and if in passages such encouragement was directly given, the immunity of the general theme may not be enough to protect the speech.

There followed personal experiences and illustrations of the growth of Socialism, a glorification of minorities, and a prophecy of the success of the international Socialist crusade, with the interjection that ‘you need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.’ The rest of the discourse had only the indirect though not necessarily ineffective bearing on the offences alleged that is to be found in the usual contrasts between capitalists and laboring men, sneers at the advice to cultivate war gardens, attribution to plutocrats of the high price of coal, &c., with the implication running through it all that the working men are not concerned in the war, and a final exhortation, ‘Don’t worry about the charge of treason to your masters; but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves.’ The defendant addressed the jury himself, and while contending that his speech did not warrant the charges said, ‘I have been accused of obstructing the war. I admit it. Gentlemen, I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone.’ The statement was not necessary to warrant the jury in finding that one purpose of the speech, whether incidental or not does not matter, was to oppose not only war in general but this war, and that the opposition was so expressed that its natural and intended effect would be to obstruct recruiting. If that was intended and if, in all the circumstances, that would be its probable effect, it would not be protected by reason of its being part of a general program and expressions of a general and conscientious belief.

Debs went to prison in Atlanta, GA on April 13, 1919 where he ran for President on last time in 1920 and won just under 1 millions votes (3.4%). Not bad for a guy in prison 🙂

The then President, Woodrow Wilson wrote of Debs:

While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them….This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.

When President Wilson and Congress brought the nation into the war in 1917, speech was no longer free. The Espionage Act made it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in the armed forces.

When the war was over, the “liberal” Woodrow Wilson turned down his Attorney General’s recommendation that Debs be released, even though he was sixty-five and in poor health. Debs was in prison for thirty-two months. Finally, in 1921, the Republican Warren Harding ordered him freed on Christmas Day.

Make no mistake. President Harding did not issue a pardon. A White House statement summarized the administrations view of Debs and its contempt for strong socialist leaders:

There is no question of his guilt….He was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did. He is an old man, not strong physically. He is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent.

This is not a happy story. This is a real story of a modern, liberal democracy imprisoning its citizens for speaking their mind. Debs was just one man. The U.S. imprisoned hundreds more and it continues to this day. It bears repeating: Criticism of power will not be tolerated.

To end on a good note, Debs’ story should reminds us of the powerful appeal of the socialist idea to people alienated from the political system and aware of the growing stark disparities in income and wealth-as so many Americans are today. The word itself “socialism” may still carry the distortions of recent experience in bad places usurping the name. But anyone who goes around the country, or reads carefully the public opinion surveys over the past decade, can see that huge numbers of Americans agree on what should be the fundamental elements of a decent society: guaranteed food, housing, medical care for everyone; bread and butter as better guarantees of “national security” than guns and bombs; democratic control of corporate power; equal rights for all races, genders, and sexual orientations; a recognition of the rights of immigrants as the unrecognized counterparts of our parents and grandparents; the rejection of war and violence as solutions for tyranny and injustice.

Thanks for reading,


The Canton, Ohio Speech, Anti-War Speech Full Transcript:

Actor Mark Ruffalo reads union leader Eugene Debs’ famous “Canton, Ohio” speech made on June 16, 1918. This was part of a reading of Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove) at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA on Feb. 1, 2007:

Please see Debs’ Wikipedia page for quotes from Wilson and Harding.

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