Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1904), 337–344.


Manifestly the spirit of ‘76 still survives. The fires of liberty and noble aspirations are not yet extinguished. I greet you tonight as lovers of liberty and as despisers of despotism. I comprehend the significance of this demonstration and appreciate the honor that makes it possible for me to be your guest on such an occasion. The vindication and glorification of American principles of government, as proclaimed to the world in the Declaration of Independence, is the high purpose of this convocation.

Speaking for myself personally, I am not certain whether this is an occasion for rejoicing or lamentation. I confess to a serious doubt as to whether this day marks my deliverance from bondage to freedom or my doom from freedom to bondage. Certain it is, in the light of recent judicial proceedings, that I stand in your presence stripped of my constitutional rights as a freeman and shorn of the most sacred prerogatives of American citizenship, and what is true of myself is true of every other citizen who has the temerity to protest against corporation rule or question the absolute sway of the money power. It is not law nor the administration of law of which I complain. It is the flagrant violation of the Constitution, the total abrogation of law and the usurpation of judicial and despotic power, by virtue of which my colleagues and myself were committed to jail, against which I enter my solemn protest; and any honest analysis of the proceedings must sustain the haggard1 truth of the indictment.

In a letter recently written by the venerable Judge Trumbull that eminent jurist2 says: “The doctrine announced by the Supreme Court in the Debs case, carried to its logical conclusion, places every citizen at the mercy of any prejudiced or malicious federal judge who may think proper to imprison him.”
. . .

At this juncture I deem it proper to voice my demands for a trial by a jury of my peers. At the instigation of the railroad corporations centering here in Chicago, I was indicted for conspiracy and I insist[ed] upon being tried as to my innocence or guilt. It will be remembered that the trial last winter terminated very abruptly on account of a sick juror. It was currently reported at the time that this was merely a pretext to abandon the trial and thus defeat the vindication of a favorable verdict, which seemed inevitable, and which would have been in painfully embarrassing contrast with the sentence previously pronounced by Judge [William A.] Woods in substantially the same case.3

Whether this be true or not, I do not know. I do know, however, that I have been denied a trial,4 and here and now I demand a hearing of my case. I am charged with conspiracy to commit a crime, and if guilty I should go to the penitentiary. All I ask is a fair trial and no favor. If the counsel for the government, alias the railroads, have been correctly quoted in the press, the case against me is “not to be pressed,” as they “do not wish to appear in the light of persecuting the defendants.” I repel with scorn their professed mercy. Simple justice is the demand. I am not disposed to shrink from the fullest responsibility for my acts. I have had time for meditation and reflection and I have no hesitancy in declaring that under the same circumstances I would pursue precisely the same policy. So far as my acts are concerned, I have neither apology nor regrets. . . .

The theme tonight is personal liberty; or giving it its full height, depth and breadth – American liberty, something that Americans have been accustomed to eulogize since the foundation of the Republic, and multiplied thousands of them continue in the habit to this day because they do not recognize the truth that in the imprisonment of one man in defiance of all constitutional guarantees, the liberties of all are invaded and placed in peril. In saying this, I conjecture I have struck the keynote of alarm that has convoked this vast audience.

For the first time in the records of all the ages, the inalienable rights of man, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” were proclaimed July 4, 1776.

Strike the fetters from the slave, give him liberty and he becomes an inhabitant of a new world. He looks abroad and beholds life and joy in all things around him. His soul expands beyond all boundaries. Emancipated by the genius of Liberty, he aspires to communion with all that is noble and beautiful, feels himself allied to all the higher order of intelligences, and walks abroad, redeemed from animalism, ignorance and superstition, a new being throbbing with glorious life. . . .

. . . As Americans, we have boasted of our liberties and continue to boast of them. They were once the nation’s glory, and, if some have vanished, it may be well to remember that a remnant still remains. Out of prison, beyond the limits of Russian injunctions, out of reach of a deputy marshal’s club, above the throttling clutch of corporations and the enslaving power of plutocracy, out of range of the government’s machine guns and knowing the location of judicial traps and deadfalls, Americans may still indulge in the exaltation of liberty, though pursued through every lane and avenue of life by the baying hounds of usurped and unconstitutional power, glad if when night lets down her sable curtains, they are out of prison, though still the wage-slaves of a plutocracy which, were it in the celestial city, would wreck every avenue leading up to the throne of the Infinite by stealing the gold with which they are paved, and debauch Heaven’s supreme court to obtain a decision that the command “thou shalt not steal” is unconstitutional. . . .

. . . Above all, what is the duty of American workingmen whose liberties have been placed in peril? They are not hereditary bondsmen. Their fathers were free born – their sovereignty none denied and their children yet have the ballot. It has been called “a weapon that executes a free man’s will as lighting does the will of God.”5 It is a metaphor pregnant with life and truth. There is nothing in our government it cannot remove or amend. It can make and unmake presidents and congresses and courts. It can abolish unjust laws and consign to eternal odium and oblivion unjust judges, strip from them their robes and gowns and send them forth unclean as lepers to bear the burden of merited obloquy as Cain with the mark of a murderer. It can sweep away trusts, syndicates, corporations, monopolies, and every other abnormal development of the money power designed to abridge the liberties of workingmen and enslave them by the degradation incident to poverty and enforced idleness, as cyclones scatter the leaves of the forest. The ballot can do all this and more. It can give our civilization its crowning glory – the cooperative commonwealth. . . .

In the great Pullman Strike, the American Railway Union challenged the power of corporations in a way that had not previously been done, and the analyzation of this fact serves to expand it to proportions that the most conservative men of the nation regard with alarm. It must be borne in mind that the American Railway Union did not challenge the government. It threw down no gauntlet to courts or armies – it simply resisted the invasion of the rights of workingmen by corporations. It challenged and defied the power of corporations. Thrice armed with a just cause, the organization believed that justice would win for labor a notable victory, and the records proclaim that its confidence was not misplaced.

The corporations, left to their own resources of money, mendacity and malice, of thugs and ex-convicts, leeches and lawyers, would have been overwhelmed with defeat and the banners of organized labor would have floated triumphant in the breeze.

This the corporations saw and believed – hence the crowning act of infamy in which the federal courts and the federal armies participated, and which culminated in the defeat of labor. . . .

. . . [T]he defeat of the American Railway Union involved questions of law, Constitution and government which, all things considered, are without a parallel in court and governmental proceedings under the Constitution of the Republic. And it is this judicial and administrative usurpation of power to override the rights of states and strike down the liberties of the people that has conferred upon the incidents connected with the Pullman strike such commanding importance as to attract the attention of men of the highest attainments in constitutional law and of statesmen who, like Jefferson, view with alarm the processes by which the Republic is being wrecked and a despotism reared upon its ruins. . . .

From such reflections I turn to the practical lessons taught by this “Liberation Day” demonstration. It means that American lovers of liberty are setting in operation forces to rescue their constitutional liberties from the grasp of monopoly and its mercenary hirelings. It means that the people are aroused in view of impending perils and that agitation, organization, and unification are to be the future battle cries of men who will not part with their birthrights and, like Patrick Henry, will have the courage to exclaim: “Give me liberty or give me death!”6 I have borne with such composure as I could command the imprisonment which deprived me of my liberty. Were I a criminal; were I guilty of crimes meriting a prison cell; had I ever lifted my hand against the life or the liberty of my fellowmen; had I ever sought to filch their good name, I would not be here. I would have fled from the haunts of civilization and taken up my residence in some cave where the voice of my kindred is never heard. But I am standing here without a self-accusation of crime or criminal intent festering in my conscience, in the sunlight once more, among my fellowmen, contributing as best I can to make this “Liberation Day” from Woodstock prison a memorial day, realizing that, as Lowell sang:

He’s true to God who’s true to man; wherever wrong is done,

To the humblest and the weakest, ‘neath the all-beholding sun.

That wrong is also done to us, and they are slaves most base,

Whose love of right is for themselves and not for all their race.7

Study Questions

A. What arguments do the authors of the Strike Commission report use to justify the activities of labor unions? What union activities do they argue are illegitimate? Does the Supreme Court decision in In re Debs take a different view? Where does the court say that workingmen and unions should look for redress of their grievances? Do you think that Debs was right that he was denied his rights?

B. Are there similarities between the struggles of unions, women, and African-Americans to gain recognition and protection of their rights? What role have the courts and legislation played in each case? Why did both Eugene Debs and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Civil Rights Movement appeal to the Declaration of Independence? What is the connection between the Declaration and the rights claims made by workingmen, women, and African Americans? Could those claims be made without the Declaration?

C. Compare the attitudes about labor presented here with those in the colonial or antebellum period. What similarities or differences do they seem to reflect the same set of underlying assumptions about the role of the government in the economic relationships between labor and management?

Footnotes

  1. The word “haggard” means careworn; Debs seems to use it to mean “threadbare” or “very thin.”
  2. Trumbull was one of Debs’ attorneys.
  3. Debs refers here apparently to the contempt ruling by Woods.
  4. Debs’ attorneys argued, among other things, that he had been denied a trial on the contempt charge, a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the constitution.
  5. Debs paraphrases lines from the anti-slavery poem “A Word From a Petitioner,” (1837) by John Pierpont.
  6. Henry (1736–1799) was an outspoken leader of the Patriot cause in the Virginia House of Burgesses who allegedly ended a speech protesting the actions of Parliament against the colonies with this inflammatory remark.
  7. from James Russell Lowell, “On the Capture of Fugitive Slaves Near Washington” (1845)