Eugene V. Debs:

Free Speech and the Right to Dissent

Mary Breen

Junior Division, NHD 2015


“History is written by the winners” is a common historical catchphrase. Despite this wide spread opinion, Eugene Victor Debs changed history, and he was not a winner. Debs lost five presidential elections, was imprisoned,  caused newspapers he wrote for to be suppressed, and was frequently too ill to give speeches. However, he quietly -- and sometimes less quietly -- shaped the entire country’s view on free speech during wartime and especially the right to dissent. Eugene V. Debs anti-war actions during World War I and his imprisonment created more support for free speech, including the right to dissent, before, during, and after World War II.

Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 5, 1855. His parents, Daniel and Marguerite Debs, were immigrants from Alsace, France. Debs was the oldest of six children, and had to be very responsible from a young age. Although he and his family did not attend services, Debs and his father read the classics on Sunday evenings. Debs gained an understanding of Marx, Locke, Socrates, and other philosophers and their views on government and civil rights. He was especially fascinated by Socrates and his free speech situation. When Debs was fourteen, he dropped out of school and worked diligently to help support his family. However, he continued to read and study at in his free time.

In February 1875, Eugene Debs joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He worked tirelessly for the union, using his own salary to support it and recruiting many members. He became a well known speaker and writer for his work in the union. Debs was elected to several Terre Haute and Indiana offices on the Democratic ticket, and was a respected citizen in the community. In 1893, Debs organized the first industrial union in the United States. He led several successful strikes and boycotts, and was an eloquent and emotional speaker. Because of his success both as a speaker and in the unions, Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912 with “some of the most dynamic campaigning ever seen in the United States.¨ He became famous throughout the country for his steadfast support of the working people all over the world.  He continued to speak for the unions and Socialism, condemning violence and war.

On April 6th, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, which stated that anyone who should “cause or attempt to cause insubordination … or refusal of duty in the military … or shall wilfully obstruct the recruitment or enlistment services of the United States” could be punished. It even allowed the postmaster general to refuse to deliver “treasonous” mail, thereby suppressing all the anti-war, socialist publications. Many people who spoke out against the war were persecuted, legally or illegally. Thousands of Quakers, socialists, pacifists, and members of unions were arrested, deported, and some even murdered. Newspapers were harsh. The New York Times said, “The conspirators, pacifists of the malignant type who are associated with anarchistic societies are not of the nation.” In 1918, in the midst of these atrocities, the Espionage Act was amended. The revisions, known as the Sedition Act, forbade “‘disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language’ that might encourage feelings of ‘contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute’” to any aspect of the government. This hurt the socialists especially because their denunciation of the capitalist system could easily be interpreted as against the government.

The new laws infuriated Eugene Debs, since he highly valued the rights of free speech and the press. “It is extremely dangerous,” he said, “to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.” Many of his friends were imprisoned for opposing the war. Many also rejoined the Democrats or the Republicans to avoid persecution. However, while Debs knew the federal government was monitoring him, he declared, “I have never yielded to threats and intimidation in any form” and he refused to give in. He continued on his lecture tours despite his ill health. He carefully reworded his speeches so the ideas were the same ones he had been preaching his whole life, but he did not directly mention World War I.

In June 1918, on one of his lecture tours, Debs visited a prison in which several “comrades” were imprisoned for opposing the draft. Then, he spoke to a large crowd, including a government stenographer, in Canton’s Nimsilla Park. His speech was mostly standard Socialist ideas, including praising the Bolsheviks, informing listeners of the inherent flaws in the Capitalist system, and criticizing the upper class. He also praised those who opposed the war and criticized war in general although Debs never directly mentioned the World War I. However, in the beginning of his speech he said he would have to be “exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say and even more careful and more prudent as to how I say it,” referencing the Sedition Act. 

Though Debs was careful in his word choice, his speech was sent to the Federal Attorney’s office in Cleveland. Only 13 days afterward, a grand jury decided his speech violated the amended Espionage Act in ten different ways. Debs was arrested June 30, 1918 as he was about to give another speech and was bailed out the next day by socialist friends. While he was not surprised by his arrest, it shocked the rest of the country. Debs continued his speeches and campaigned to free many political prisoners. Many people knew Debs due to these speeches and earlier presidential campaigns and lecture tours and knew he was not the traitor and German agent many newspaper claimed he was.

Then, Debs was summoned to trial September 9th. The trial was covered in detail by many leading newspapers. He and his lawyers agreed not to get him released on a technicality. Instead, their argument was that the Espionage Act went against the Constitution and thus was invalid. Their weapons would be Debs’ beliefs and reputation, because everyone had heard of the respected, patriotic elderly gentleman who sometimes disagreed with the government. Unfortunately, the jury was predisposed against Debs because they were chosen from the wealthy upper class. For two days, the prosecution said that Debs used the Canton speech to ‘discourage enlistment and promote insubordination in the armed forces of the United States.’ As the trial continued, the public was almost certain that the prosecution would win. Then, Debs asked to speak. He admitted government reports of his speech were correct but denied the charges, proved his right to oppose a war he thought was unjust with examples from history, and opposed the Espionage Act as against the right of free speech. He ended respectfully, thanking the judge and jury for listening to his two hour speech. After deliberation, the jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to a prison term of ten years.

After the conviction, Debs’ lawyers appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Debs was restricted to Terre Haute and the surrounding countryside. Nonetheless, Debs continued his correspondence, but many of his books and papers were seized by Federal agents. When the war finally ended, Debs was too ill to speak about the Versailles treaty or support the Bolshevik government.

In addition, his sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who authored the opinion, said Debs ‘was rightly convicted of obstructing the recruiting service’ despite his declaration a week earlier that free speech could only be abridged in cases of ‘clear and present danger.” The public was outraged by this inconsistency.

On April 12, 1919, Debs was told to report to Cleveland for delivery to prison. More than two hundred friends gathered at the station to say goodbye. Debs served his time in two prisons, Moundsville and Atlanta, where he was given light work on account of his age (now sixty-four). Debs became very ill in prison, though his letters home remained cheerful. In 1920, Debs ran for president from the Atlanta Penitentiary. He was allowed to release only one statement to the press each week. However, his brother Theodore and other members of the Socialist Party made sure his campaign was known all over the country. He received nearly a million write-in votes to protest his imprisonment and support the right to free speech and the right to dissent.

Meanwhile, Debs refused to ask Wilson for a pardon, feeling that it would be an admission of guilt. However, many Socialists attempted to get him released. In fact, the petition to get him released was one of the largest ever. After President Wilson made a speech describing the war as ‘commercial and industrial,’ they assumed Debs would be released since that is what Debs had said two years before. Another request was based on Debs’ illness and old age. Many people also thought that, since the war was over, political prisoners should be set free so the United States could start the new era with a blank slate. Wilson regarded Debs as a traitor to America, though, and even said that Debs would never be pardoned under his administration.

On December 23, 1921, President Harding pardoned Debs and twenty-three other political prisoners. They were released on Christmas, and the warden let all the prisoners go to the windows to watch as Debs walked down the stairs, turned, and tipped his hat to them. He then went to Washington, D.C., where he met with the attorney general and the president. On the 28th, Debs arrived in Terre Haute after being in prison for two and a half years. He continued to champion Socialism and the right to free speech until his death on October 20, 1926.

Inspired by the British government’s strategy of not creating martyrs when imprisoning political prisoners and the uproar of Debs’ arrest, U.S. treated conscientious objectors during WWII with “marked advances over WWI.” Many people disagreed with the government’s imprisonment of people who were merely voicing opinions. To prevent this disturbance from happening again, the government made special provisions for conscientious objectors in the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, such as appointing special courts to deal with objector cases.

During World War II, conscientious objectors who opposed fighting were generally respected. Chief Justice Stone said, “Most of the religious objectors were neither physical or moral cowards. No falser accusation can be made.” Also, Major Walter Kellogg stated, “..they are, as a rule, sincere - cowards and shirkers they are not.” Even the general public sided with the objectors. A Mr. Thomas, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times on July 18th, 1943 said, “It would be well to remember that progress in liberty has usually come from the actions of men who to the majority have seemed unreasonable.” His words reflect those of Debs, in his address to the jury, “When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved… the minority are usually right.” Mr. Thomas’ opinion was published because of support for the right to dissent in a letter and rejection of newspapers not publishing letters containing unpopular viewpoints.

The government’s attempts to silence war objectors such as Eugene V. Debs and his trial, conviction and imprisonment created more support and awareness for rights during wartime. Today, we benefit from the effects of his work constantly. The press are free to comment on the government’s work, people can voice their own opinion in the parks, and even during wartime.


Primary Sources

Debs, Eugene V. Eugene V. Debs Speaks. Ed. Jean Y. Tussey. New York: Pathfinder Press, Inc., 1970.

A collection of Debs’ speeches, including his Canton speech and speech to the jury, with brief summaries of the circumstances of the speeches.

---. Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Ed. J. Robert Constantine. Illinois: University of Illinois, 1995.

I used this for reference on Debs’ friends, viewpoint, and opinions about events.

“Pleads for Free Press.” New York Times. September 29, 1923. Accessed March 18, 2015.

This is a record of Col. McCormick's encouragement to journalism students not to just

print popular articles and letters to the editor.

“Right to Dissent Stressed.” New York Times. June 14, 1954. Accessed March 18, 2015.

A professor spoke to the graduating class at his college and told them not to be afraid to dissent.

Norman Thomas. “Objectors Upheld.” New York Times. July 18, 1943. Accessed March 18, 2015.

A letter to the editor  of the New York Times, about the rights of conscientious objectors and their treatment.

“Fairness Urged to War Objectors.” New York Times. September 26, 1943. Accessed March 18, 2015.

Description of the conditions facing conscientious objectors and improvements on a


Secondary Sources

Freeberg, Ernest. Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent. Cambridge: Harvard College, 2008.

A focused and very detailed description of Debs’ trial and imprisonment.

Ginger, Ray. Eugene V. Debs: A Biography: The Making of an American Radical. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1962.

A very long and general biography of Debs, especially focusing on his early career as a


Hochschild, Adam. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Mariner Books, 2012.

An overview of World War I, focusing on Britain and her conscientious objectors.

“Selective Service Acts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 18, 2015.

An encyclopedia article about drafts in U.S. history.

“Dissent.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed March 18, 2015.

A definition of dissent.

“Eugene Victor Debs,” Eugene Victor Debs Foundation, accessed March 18, 2015,

A timeline containing major events and facts from Debs’ life.

Burl Noggle. Into the Twenties: the United States from Armistice to Normalcy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.

A summary of the results of World War II on the people of the US and reconstruction.

Webmaster’s Note:  Ms. Breen’s original essay contained numerous citations that are not included in the above text.  However, her references are all included in her Source citations.