Five Supreme Court Cases You Need To Know: Debs v. U.S. (1919)

This is the second installment of Supreme Court Cases You Need To Know. The first in the series highlighted McClesky v. Kemp. Find it here.

Debs v. United States (1919)

Eugene Debs is an excellent example of a great American patriot. He stood up for what he believed in, suffering financial penalties and imprisonment for his efforts. He knew what was right and he was not afraid to suffer the consequences of demanding that his government conform to the moral good and the principles of equality.

Here is a description of the case, Debs v. United States, from

Eugene V. Debs, a well known socialist, gave a public speech to an assembly of people in Canton, Ohio. The speech was about the growth of socialism and contained statements which were intended to interfere with recruiting and advocated insubordination, disloyalty, and mutiny in the armed forces.

Debs was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. At issue was whether the United States violated the right of freedom of speech given to Debs in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.[1]

Eugene Debs With Crowd in Chicago_preview

In fact Debs mentions the war only once in the speech. That was enough, however, for government agents, later known as FBI agents, to arrest Debs for violating the Espionage Act, a law that remains in force in 2018.

Here is the speech performed by Mark Ruffalo:


Here is a selection of his speech that describes the history of war:

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.

Debs idea that the people should vote on a war before launching into the fight is a just and proper idea. In a democracy, if the United States purports to be one, the people should give their consent before the government forces them to give their lives in a cause of war.

Debs_Canton_1918_large_850_676_(1)But this is a threat to the order of the ruling class. At the time, President Wilson had pushed through the Selective Service Act, requiring all men over the age of eighteen to report for military service when drafted. This compulsory service arguable violates the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery. Debs was right to raise this objection, as one might think, if Americans are really free to speak.

But he was not.

The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of the United States. The Court said that Debs had actually planned to discourage people from enlisting in the Armed Forces. The Court refused to grant him protection under the First Amendment freedom of speech clause, stating that Debs “used words [in his speech] with the purpose of obstructing the recruiting service.” Debs’ conviction under the Espionage Act would stand, because his speech represented a “clear and present danger” to the safety of the United States.[2]

Debs was sent to prison for ten years for speaking out against the First World War, a war that claimed over twenty million lives worldwide. The war also made more American millionaires than ever before in American history, just as Debs predicted. The president in office when he was convicted, Woodrow Wilson, had lied to the American people about the reason for the war, and ultimately refused to pardon Debs upon leaving office.

debsPerhaps Wilson was bitter that Debs had run for the presidency in 1920, campaigning from his jail cell. As amazing as it was to see someone run for the White House from behind bars, it is a greater testimony to Socialism that Debs received over on million votes in the 1916 election, while having never been seen by the public during the entire campaign.

It was his successor, Warren G. Harding, who ultimately commuted Debs’ sentence and released him in 1921. The public was so bitter after Wilson had maneuvered the country into war, that much of the next decade was a reaction against everything that Wilson had enacted from 1912-1920.

Debs continued to write and speak out after his release, but died of a lung disease he contracted while in prison.

The 1920’s was a different time in the United States. White supremacy was on the rise, and fear of the modern changes that erupted from the war were tearing the social fabric of America apart. Debs commitment to the working class never wavered, but his country had gone on without him.

As a patriot, he stands as an example of how we should all be fearless when speaking truth to power, even if it falls short of radical change and greater freedom. His example shows us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”


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[2] ibid

See also:

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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