Eugene Debs: “Canton, Ohio”
Eugene Debs made his famous anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I which was raging in Europe. For this speech he was arrested and convicted in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio under the war-time espionage law. He was his own attorney. His appeal to the jury and his statement to the court before sentencing are regarded as two of the great classic statements ever made in a court of law. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison. [From the debsfoundation.org.]
Film Clip Description
Actor Mark Ruffalo reads union leader Eugene Debs’ famous “Canton, Ohio” speech made on June 16, 1918. This was part of a reading of Voices of a People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove) at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA on Feb. 1, 2007. The excerpt is from Voices of a People’s History of the United States edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove. More video clips can be found at the Voices of a People’s History website and in the film The People Speak.
Text Excerpt from Speech
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.
- Eugene V. Debs Foundation: Founded in 1962 to preserve the Debs Home in Terre Haute, Indiana and keep it open as a museum for the public. The foundation also provides an annual award to an individual who has made significant contributions to society in the “Debsian” tradition.