Eugene Debs: “Canton, Ohio”

Film clip. Voices of a People’s History.
Dramatic reading of Eugene Deb’s “Canton, Ohio” speech made on June 16, 1918 by Marc Ruffalo.

  • Time Periods: World War I: 1910 - 1919, 20th Century | Themes: Labor | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Films

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]

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.

Related Resource
  • 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.
Related Materials

There are 5 comments by other visitors:

  • Maybe this concept goes to many aspects of our government, especially that branch which sent Debs to prison for his declaration.

    Response shared by Peary Beown — November 2, 2014 @ 11:38 am

  • Excellent!

    Response shared by Anonymous — November 2, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

  • “Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 919,799 write-in votes (3.4%)…”

    Response shared by Age — November 3, 2014 @ 5:44 am

  • American Hero

    Response shared by Steve — February 12, 2015 @ 1:00 am

  • Debs was the true patriot. We are taught to believe that when we go to war we are fighting and dying for our country, but we are really doing it for what President Eisenhower referred to as the Military Industrial Complex. Every time we get in another war, these guys get richer. War is extremely profitable, which is, I believe, the reason why the United States has been at war more than any other nation on the face of the earth since 1945. And many of those we kill in these wars have American-made weapons, our No. 1 export, clutched in their dead hands. War is the ultimate terrorism, yet it is quite profitable for the plutocrats who really run this country. And, thus, it continues.

    Response shared by Eric — June 30, 2015 @ 12:29 am

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