Words That Men Live By
Eugene V. Debs (1918)
CHICAGO, Ill., Sept., 1918 - Eugene V. Debs, founder of the Socialist party and nationally known labor leader, be- came the first man who had run as a candidate for the Presidency at the head of a recognized party to be sent to prison for openly violating the laws of our government.
He was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act, through his leadership of the Socialist party's obstruction of the draft as well as the whole war effort in 1917-18.
Debs actually was no stranger to prison; in 1895 he served six months - as a result of leadership of a strike in Illinois which was put down by troops sent into that State by President Cleveland. His life has been a stormy one, marked by such highlights as labor organizing work, establishment of the radical International Workmen of the World, and finally of the more conservative Socialist party .
In a speech before receiving sentence on this critical charge of which he has been found guilty, the veteran agitator said flatly: "I am opposed to the form of our present Government; and I am opposed to the social system in which we live."
For this he was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison.
If the law under which I have been convicted is a good law, then there is no reason why sentence should not be pronounced upon me. I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this law, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon it as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions.
Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to our present Government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believed in the change of both-but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means.
I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned- that industry, the basis of life, instead of being the private property of the few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all.
I have been accused, Your Honor, of being an enemy of the soldier. I hope I am laying no flattering unction to my soul when I say that I don't believe the soldier has a more sympathetic friend than I am. If I had my way there would be no soldiers. But I realize the sacrifice they are making, Your Honor. I can think of them. I can feel for them. I can sympathize with them. That is one of the reasons why I have been doing what little has been in my power to bring about a condition of affairs in this country worthy of the sacrifices they have made and that they are now making in its behalf.
Your Honor, I wish to make acknowledgment of my thanks to the counsel for the defense. They have not only defended me with exceptional legal ability, but with a personal attachment and devotion of which I am deeply sensible, and which I can never forget.
Your Honor, I ask no mercy. I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more clearly comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom.
I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come to their own.
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-tossed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing-that relief and rest are close at hand.
Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
Your Honor, I thank you, and I thank all of this court for their courtesy, for their kindness, which I shall remember always.
I am prepared to receive your sentence.
~ Postlogue ~
Eugene Debs was sent to prison to serve his sentence, and he remained in prison until pardoned by President Harding in a period when pardons were granted generally to most persons who for non-violent pacifist activities had been convicted. While still in prison, Debs stood in the 1920 elections as candidate for President, and polled more than 900,000 votes.
However, his rights of citizenship were not restored and his career and health both were broken. Soon leadership of the Socialist party passed to Norman Thomas, who over the years reshaped it into a more conservative pattern, and whose support of World War II is recorded in other pages of this volume. Debs died in 1926.Printable version