Eugene V. Debs: A Rebel With A Cause Essay, Research Paper
Congress must not interfere with freedom of religion, speech or press, assembly, and petition. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This is the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It is without question the single most important safeguard to the rights of the citizens of this country. Without this Amendment, America would not be a democracy, but a dictatorship. In speaking his mind, Eugene Debs won a great victory for the First Amendment rights for the people of the United States.
Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 5, 1855. His parents, Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Bettrich were Alsacian immigrants. Debs inherited his hunger for knowledge from his father, however his interest lied not in the “three R’s” of education. His interest lied in many places, one of which was the railroad. In 1870, at the age of fourteen, Debs left high school to work for the Vandalia Railroad against his parents will. In 1874, he quit railroading. This brief period of working in railroad was an important part of his life for the reason that it gave him a taste of the workingman’s life. Although he was not working on the railroads anymore, he did not cut off his association to the railroad. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was elected as secretary of the local lodge. His first contact with politics came in 1879 when he was elected to the city clerk’s position of Terre Haute. In 1881, he was reelected and then went on to the Indiana state legislature in 1885. Through all of this, he remained involved with the Brotherhood in which he was the secretary-treasurer. He was also selected as the assistant editor of the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine and became the editor in 1880. He helped the Brotherhood get out of a major financial crisis and was well on his way to making a reputation as a labor leader. At the age of 30, Debs married Kate Metzel. The marriage was childless and much of Debs’ time was spent away from home (Currie, 17). In June 1893, Debs became the co-founder of the first industrial union in America, the American Railway Union (ARU). The union was involved in a sympathy strike to support the employees of the George Pullman railroad company. The strike involved 100,000 workers whose refusal to work halted all railroad traffic in and out of Chicago except for U.S. Mail trains. The strike, known as “Debs Rebellion,” was ended when federal troops were sent in by President Grover Cleveland. Debs and seven others (known as the “Woodstock Eight”) were convicted of contempt of court for refusing to obey a court order to end the strike. In Debs’ six month stay in the jail at Woodstock, Illinois, he converted to Socialism (A Short Look…, 1).
Eugene Debs’ conversion to Socialism was a slow, but interesting one. His first contact with the labor movement, which is the basis of Socialism, was in the Brotherhood. Debs was in charge of organizing the firemen, brakemen, and all of the rest of the people involved in running a train. It was here that Debs learned the basics of labor organization. It was after the Pullman Strike that Debs actually made the formal conversion to Socialism. His brief stay in the Woodstock Jail may have been the most crucial period of his life. Here he received many books and pamphlets from socialists in the mail and he began to analyze the fundamentals of Socialism. It was here that he met a man by the name of Victor L. Berger who had given him a volume of Das Kapital, by Karl Marx.
Many of Debs ideas were spread through his writing of thousands of essays, editorial and pamphlets. When he first became the editor of Firemen’s Magazine, he had little experience as a writer. At first his views matched those of a conservative trade unionist who was opposed to boycotts and strikes. In the late 1880’s, he altered his stance and considered strike and boycott as an essential and legitimate tool for workers. In Firemen’s Magazine, Debs wrote many editorials to workers to educate and join unions. After leaving the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs became the editor of the Railway Times. He also began writing for the socialist weekly Appeal to Reason and the National Rip-Saw, a Socialist monthly. After 1905, Debs broadened his scope of topics to include racism, women’s voting, equal pay equal work, birth control, and, most importantly, war opposition and First Amendment Rights (Constantine “American Paradox”, 32).
Although many of Debs ideas were expressed through his writings, his main medium of communication was through his speeches. His skills as a speaker were self-taught and slowly acquired just as his skills as a writer were. His speaking style was characterized as fiery by his admirers and incendiary by his critics. His speeches attracted huge crowds mainly at major strikes and labor unrests. His presence was likely at any of these in which he would urge worker solidarity and help raise funds (Constantine “American Paradox”, 32).
Debs conversion to Socialism was based on a deep and sincere love for the working class. He viewed the capitalist system as a system in which the capitalists are the “rulers” and the workers are the “subjects.” He believed that economic equality must be achieved between the workers and the capitalist before the “subjects” are emancipated from the “rulers.” Economic equality will soon be followed by political equality, he says, and this is what the Socialist party is all about. He believed that in this party, the workers must unite and develop a political power strong enough to overcome the current capitalist system and clear the way for the industrial and social revolution (How I Became A Socialist, 3).
The basis for Debs pacifistic views also lied in his love for the working class. He felt that wars were a product of capitalism and that the lower classes suffered and died for the benefit of their masters. The great industries are owned by a small class and they are operated to profit the class. The workers of these industries create a great abundance of goods of which they can only buy back a small part. Thus, a surplus of goods is created which needs to be exported to the foreign market. Since there is only one market, conflict is inevitable so the nations arm themselves to prepare for war. The common people lose out in this deal because they are always forced to fight these wars because they feel it is their duty. The rulers have nothing to lose and everything to gain, whilst the situation is reversed in the other case (Speeches of Debs, 58). He saw no reason to support these wars. His opposition to U.S. involvement in war was one of the most significant events in his life. His hatred for war developed after his conversion to Socialism. The bulk of the anti-war statements he made were during the World War I era. He had proclaimed his stance on the war long before the U.S. made its entrance into it. He felt that being prepared for war was just a conspiracy of the ruling class. He was not concerned that his position was unpatriotic. He believed that the U.S. should work hard to put and end to the war to set an example for other countries. A number of points were commonly referred to in his speeches, such as 1.) the master class has always declared war; the subject has always fought the battles, and 2.) the working class always furnishes the corpses but never has a voice in declaring war or in making peace (Brommel, 152). Debs supported the notion of war referendum in which the power to declare war was given to the people rather than to Congress. If war was declared, those who voted for war would be enlisted before those who voted against. Debs refused to change his position even after the U.S. had entered the war, despite partial Socialist support for the war (Currie, 83). However, it needs to be noted that he was only opposed to ruling class war. If Debs was opposed to war, it would disqualify him as a revolutionist, which he certainly was (Debs…Opposition to War, 1).
“I am not a capitalist; 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 and command to fight from the ruling class, but I will not wait to be commanded to fight by the working class (The Debs Home Page).”
On June 16, 1918, Eugene Debs made a speech at Nimisilla Park in Canton, Ohio at an Ohio Socialist Party Convention. It was here that Debs made the most controversial speech of his life. The speech dealt with his views on war. In this speech, Debs praised Charles E. Ruthenberg, Alfred Wagenknecht, and Charles Baker, who were three Cleveland Socialists imprisoned because of their opposition to the war. He also commented on his anti-World War I beliefs (Radosh, 66). Surprisingly, the speech contained little new from the speeches that he made earlier in this era of his life. However, the federal government took this specific speech as a violation of the Espionage Act as amended (Constantine “American Paradox”, 33).
At the time this speech was made, there was a “Red Scare” going on the U.S. The country at this time was disheartened by the war and was looking to the “American way of life” for an answer. They looked down upon radical foreign ideas and condemned “un-American” lifestyles. The doors of immigration were also shut to stop the inflow of foreigners to the country. The name “Red Scare” comes from the fear red Russia expanding its Communistic ways into America. A tiny Communist Party was the result of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, of which Debs was an ardent supporter. This “Red Scare” created a crusade to condemn the radicals whose unpatriotic preaching angered people around the country. The entire environment of patriotism and anti-left wingism created a harsh habitat for a man like Eugene Debs to preach his ways (Bailey, 745).
The Espionage Act was an act supposedly created to defend the U.S. from foreign spies. The Espionage Act was amended on June 15, 1917 to include the Sedition Act. The act states that when the U.S. is at war, whoever says or does anything against the country or helps an enemy country will be subject to prosecution. The maximum punishment is a fine of $10,000 or twenty years in prison, or both. Eugene Debs was arrested in Cleveland on July 1, 1918 (”Debs Arrested; Sedition Charged, 1). Debs was indicted for violating the Sedition Act on ten counts of which he was found guilty for three (Currie, 46). He plead not guilty on all ten counts. The three counts, for which the maximum penalty for each is 20 years prison and a $10,000 fine, were 1.) attempt to incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces, 2.) obstructing and attempting to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service, and 3.) uttering language intended to incite, provoke, and encourage resistance to the U.S. and to promote the cause of the enemy. Debs was tried on September 14, 1918. Debs lawyers did not fight hard for his acquittal. In Debs’ address to the jury, he steadfastly stated that he had no regret in any of his actions at Canton. He stated the First Amendment and stated that if the Espionage Act stands the Constitution of the United States is dead (Radosh, 81).
Debs was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment in the Federal penitentiary at Moundsville, West Virginia. An appeal to the Supreme Court to reverse the decision was rejected on March 10, 1919 by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Radosh, 6). Two months later, Debs was transferred to the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
Eugene Debs’ was frowned upon by the majority of people in his time. His actions and words frightened them, especially with the “Red Scare” casting its shadow upon the country. He was a radical revolutionist seeking to overthrow the government of the United States. There was no doubting that, however, there is no question that the Espionage Act abridged on his First Amendment rights. Had the circumstances been different, if it was peacetime, if there was no “Red Scare”, there is no question that Eugene Debs would not have been prosecuted. In the case of Schenck v. United States, which set precedent for the Debs case, Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that were the U.S. not at war, the rights of Charles T. Schenck and other Socialists would have been protected under the First Amendment and that “the character of every act depends on the circumstances in which it is done (Clear and Present…, 6).” In an article written in Literary Digest shortly after Debs’ release from prison, the opinions of many of the leading newspapers in America were documented. In the opinion of the New York Times, ” the majority will not approve this commutation…a shallow, howling, whining minority has had its way.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch stated that “the release of Debs is a slap in the face for the mothers whose sons lie in the sacred soil of France, and for every soldier who followed the nation’s colors in the World War.” The article also states that many felt that Debs was lucky not to have faced the death penalty (Debs Free, 12).” It is unquestionable that the opinions of the American society were tainted by the overall feeling of this period. Charles T. Schneck was convicted under the Espionage Act for printing 15,000 anti-draft leaflets. It was the stated by Justice Holmes that his actions created a “clear and present danger (Clear and Present…, 6).” The actions of Eugene Debs did not create a “clear and present danger” in that all he did was sympathize with victims of the Espionage Act. It can be concluded then, as quoted by historian Paul Murphy, that “the Espionage Act of 1917, while ostensibly a measure to strike out illegal domestic interference with the war effort, was used to stamp out criticism of the war (Lee, 26).” Never before had American liberalism been suppressed to the point where the leaders of these groups were kept in prison (Radosh, 6).
Eugene Debs can be compared many people in the past who stood up against the government in protest and are now regarded great Americans. Take the Mexican war for example. This war was denounced by many great men the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. These men denounced the President. They preached that the war was a crime against humanity. Yet they were not prosecuted, and, still to this day, are honored and revered by the citizens of this country (Lee, 26). Even the great fathers of our country, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine, spoke out against the British government. Had these revolutionists not spoken out, we would not have this great democracy of America that we have today. In the same fashion, Eugene Debs was a revolutionist who, by speaking his ideas, upheld one of the great pillars of our democracy, the First Amendment. Eugene Debs did not incite any action, he preached only doctrine. And by being denied the right to do so, he was also being the denied the principle right as an American, the freedom of speech.
President Harding released Eugene Debs from prison on Christmas Day, 1921. In the summary from the White House, the president stated that there was no question of his guilt and that he “actively and purposely obstructed the draft.” The President stated that Debs was not actually pardoned but had his sentence commuted to end immediately (Harding Frees Debs…, 1). In being imprisoned from April 1919 to December 1921, Debs was elevated from being a nationally-known radical labor and Socialist agitator to a martyr for democracy (Constantine ” An American paradox,” 33).
On October 15, 1926, Eugene Victor Debs died of a massive heart attack at Chicago’s Lindlahr Sanitarium (DeBenedetti, 80). He died a guilty man, never pardoned for his crimes. He died guilty man, guilty of speaking his thoughts. He died a martyr, guilty only, of following the First Amendment.