In the United States of America, our history is recorded not so much for what deeds were accomplished, but rather for whom those deeds were accomplished. George Washington is remembered as a kindly and benevolent father figure with wooden teeth. Forgotten, passed over and put away is the history of George Washington advocating genocide against peaceful Native American tribes. These actions don’t fit the agenda of myth making for American school children and so are easily erased from their pages.
Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the fierce and independent back woodsmen turned statesmen, sentenced hundreds of men women and children to their deaths on the Trail of Tears; stripped of their rights primarily because of their race and because white people wanted to steal their lands. The Cherokee people were called the civilized tribe as they had adopted the ways of the whites. They farmed and wore suits and ties and their women wore petticoats and hoopskirts but they learned too late that adopting white ways in America won’t make you white.
Huey Long dragged the state of Louisiana kicking and screaming out of the eighteenth century and into the twentieth century. He ended the poll tax, cut taxes for the poor, and paved seven thousand miles of highway in a state with less than a thousand miles of paved roads. He provided free textbooks for school children. He built two free public hospitals and built the medical school at Louisiana State University. He is remembered in America’s textbooks as a demagogue — a tyrant who ran roughshod over the law. What he ran roughshod over was a good-ole boy network that divvied up the spoils of Louisiana power like a pie; good-ole boys who denied the right to vote to anyone black or white who couldn’t pay and didn’t have the foresight to register to vote a year in advance of the election.
Huey Long passed taxes on the oil companies exploiting Louisiana’s people and her mineral wealth. The number of students attending college in Louisiana doubled during Long’s administration despite the affects of the Great Depression. In America, it is not to be remembered what you do but who you do it to. Washington and Jackson were responsible for countless racist murders yet are remembered as our great leaders. Long, who went to war with corporate and corrupt special interests and did what he could do to help the poor and working poor, is remembered as little more than a thug.
Forgotten among America’s leaders is a man once called by his contemporaries “too good for this world.” Eugene Victor Debs was a prophet; had he been preaching a religious dogma, cathedrals would carry his name. Instead, Debs preached the gospel of Unionism and Socialism. He spoke with the fire of a traveling tent evangelist and his orations were compared to Abraham Lincoln. He preached with fire and America’s powerful and wealthy felt the heat of his sermons:
I told my friends of the cloth that I did not believe Christ was meek and lowly but a real living, vital agitator who went into the temple with a lash and a krout and whipped the oppressors of the poor, routed them out of the doors and spilled their blood and got silver on the floor. He told the robbed and misruled and exploited and driven people to disobey their plunderers, he denounced the profiteers, and it was for this that they nailed his quivering body to the cross and spiked it to the gates of Jerusalem, not because he told them to love one another. That was harmless doctrine. But when he touched their profits and denounced them before their people he was marked for crucifixion.
Debs said this from his prison cell in 1919 where he was serving time for making anti-war speeches. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson before him and Martin Luther King after him, Debs served time in jail. It was his college, a university of a free man, where the powerful could sentence but not silence this American giant.
Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Espionage Act for a series of antiwar speeches he gave. Under the Espionage act it was unlawful to incite active opposition to U.S. involvement in the First World War.
Eugene Victor Debs was born in 1855, the son of immigrant parents who owned a grocery store in Terre Haute, Indiana. He left school at sixteen to go to work for the railroad in the paint shop and soon worked himself up to the position of fireman. The steam locomotive was the last engine where performance was dependent on the quality of the operator and so the job of fireman should be remembered as a highly skilled position.
His railroad career ended during the depression of 1873 when he was laid off and found work in the grocery business. He then began writing for Locomotive Fireman’s Magazine in 1878 and was soon named associate editor and then the national Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman grand secretary-treasurer and editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1880. Debs had begun speaking publicly during the railroad strike of 1877, where this 22 year old man gave a well received speech at the Brotherhood’s national convention.
Throughout the 1880’s Eugene Debs made speeches advocating the moderate path in industrial relations. He encouraged worker cooperation and discouraged confrontation with government and employers. In 1881, he won the election for the office of city clerk in Terre Haute and in 1884, at age twenty nine, won a seat in the Indiana State Assembly where he served one term.
In 1886, Debs, along with other members of the railroad brotherhood, refused to support the Knights of Labor in their strike against Jay Gould’s railroad line. Labor was divided and when labor is divided labor will lose. This was also the last time that Debs would advocate the moderate path. Later that same year in a long strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Debs said, “The strike is the weapon of the oppressed, of men capable of appreciating justice and having the courage to resist wrong and contend for principle. The nation had for its cornerstone a strike, and while arrogant injustice throws down the gauntlet and challenges the right to conflict, strikes will come, come by virtue of irrevocable laws, destined to have a wider sweep and greater power as men advance in intelligence and independence.”
This strike had changed Debs; he no longer believed that cooperation was possible with management. “They are distorted, deformed, hideous mentally and morally. Their trade is treason, their breath is pollution and yet the officials of the C.B.&Q. formed a conspiracy with these professional liars, perjurers, cut-throats and murderers to overcome a strike, the result of a policy of flagrant injustice.”
Debs began moving in new circles and new ideas; he resigned from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1893 and helped to form the American Railway Union (ARU). Debs argued that organizing unions along craft lines minimized their effect. In 1894, during a strike at the Pullman Railcar company, Pullman refused to negotiate with the ARU so the union asked other labor organizations to honor their strike against Pullman and refuse to work on trains pulling their cars.
President Grover Cleveland sent in Federal troops to enforce an injunction claiming that the strike was interfering with the delivery of the US Mail. The strike collapsed and ARU leaders were charged with conspiracy and were sentenced to six-month jail terms for disregarding the injunction. When Debs completed his jail sentence he returned to society a confirmed revolutionary Socialist who no longer believed that cooperation with political or industrial leaders was in any way possible, saying:
I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets. They may put those boys in jail—and some of the rest of us in jail—but they can not 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 for seeking to pave the way to better conditions for mankind.
If it had not been for the men and women who, in the past, have had the moral courage to go to jail, we would still be in the jungles.
In 1896, Debs supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic and People’s Party candidate for President. After Bryan’s defeat Debs helped to organize a new “Social Democratic Party along similar lines of European Socialist Parties with Debs as the Parties Presidential candidate. In 1901 they merged with the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. Debs ran for the Presidency again in 1904 collecting 400,000 votes. He joined with other labor and Socialist groups to form the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905, better known as the Wobblies.
The Wobblies called for one large workers union and to seize control of industry through massive nationwide strikes. Though the Wobblies had little success for themselves they pulled the pendulum of national politics to the left. Debs resigned from the party in 1908 to run for the Presidency a third time. Through out the next decades scores of Socialist candidates were elected and Woodrow Wilson’s campaign of “New Freedom” on behalf of workers, women and consumers were only watered down Socialist reforms.
By 1916, Debs was too ill to run for national office and ran instead for Congress in Indiana. He placed second behind a Republican candidate as other Socialist candidates suffered at the polls as well. Debs would never be elected the President of these United States nor would he serve in the halls of its Congress. His dream of a Socialist Commonwealth seemed to be slipping away but it was perhaps a dream suspended rather than a dream lost.
His work and voice laid the cornerstone of the American labor movement that was still fifty years in the making. But his voice was heard; his words rivet the mind and ignite the soul. Yet this sick old man was not yet finished; he would serve time again in America’s prisons and would serve it with pride:
They tell us that we live in a great free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke. But it is not a subject for levity; it is an exceedingly serious matter.
To whom do the Wall Street Junkers in our country marry their daughters? After they have wrung their countless millions from your sweat, your agony and your life’s blood, in a time of war as in a time of peace, they invest these untold millions in the purchase of titles of broken-down aristocrats, such as princes, dukes, counts and other parasites and no-accounts. Would they be satisfied to wed their daughters to honest workingmen? To real democrats? Oh, no! They scour the markets of Europe for vampires who are titled and nothing else. And they swap their millions for the titles, so that matrimony with them becomes literally a matter of money.
These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.
Debs goes on to say:
Who appoints our federal judges? The people? In all the history of the country, the working class have never named a federal judge. There are 121 of these judges and every solitary one holds his position, his tenure, through the influence and power of corporate capital. The corporations and trusts dictate their appointment. And when they go to the bench, they go, not to serve, the people, but to serve the interests that place them and keep them where they are.
Why, the other day, by a vote of five to four—a kind of craps game—come seven, come ‘leven —they declared the child labor law unconstitutional—a law secured after twenty years of education and agitation on the part of all kinds of people. And yet, by a majority of one, the Supreme Court a body of corporation lawyers, with just one exception, wiped that law from the statute books, and this in our so-called democracy, so that we may continue to grind the flesh and blood and bones of puny little children into profits for the Junkers of Wall Street. And this in a country that boasts of fighting to make the world safe for democracy! The history of this country is being written in the blood of the childhood the industrial lords have murdered.
These are not palatable truths to them. They do not like to hear them; and what is more they do not want you to hear them. And that is why they brand us as undesirable citizens, and as disloyalists and traitors. If we were actual traitors—traitors to the people and to their welfare and progress, we would be regarded as eminently respectable citizens of the republic; we would hold high office, have princely incomes, and ride in limousines; and we would be pointed out as the elect who have succeeded in life in honorable pursuit, and worthy of emulation by the youth of the land. It is precisely because we are disloyal to the traitors that we are loyal to the people of this nation.
Further into the speech, Debs declares:
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.These are but a few excerpts from Debs’s famous “Canton speech”; the speech that earned Eugene Victor Debs a ten year prison sentence in the land of the free. The Canton Speech was given nearly a century ago by a tired, sick, old man who fought for the American people as hard as Washington, Jefferson or Lincoln ever did. Debs fought to free the American people of all sexes, races and ages from poverty and wage slavery.
The Canton speech was as prophetic as it was historic. It rings just as true today as it was on the day it was uttered almost one hundred years ago. Eugene Victor Debs was a prophet and though he did not live to see his dream realized he understood that it would someday be realized, because the excesses of Capitalism will make Socialism necessary for human survival:
I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own 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 our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…
I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.
This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.
Eugene Victor Debs (1855 – 1926)
David Glenn Cox is a staff writer for TLR and an award winning author and musician; he is the author of the novel, The Servants of Pilate.