In June of 1918, Eugene Victor Debs was arrested for a speech he gave in Canton, Ohio in which he criticized the United States government for its involvement in World War I. He publicly discouraged young men from enlisting in the armed forces and was arrested for violating the Sedition Act of 1918. The Sedition Act, an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, further restricted American citizens from speaking or publishing opinions that were disloyal, profane, or abusive toward the federal government (Tussey, 281).
Debs stood trial in the fall of 1918 and knowing he would undoubtedly be found guilty on at least one of the ten counts he faced, he used his trial as a public forum to promote his socialist ideals. According to biographer Ray Ginger, “The attorney's realized that the best weapons available were the personality and philosophy of Eugene Debs” (363). On September 18, 1918, Debs addressed the court before receiving a prison sentence of ten years. His plea to socialism and contention that the Sedition Act violated the first amendment rests upon solid logical appeal. However, the political and social climate was such that his audience – which ranged from fellow Marxists packed into a tiny Cleveland court room to unsympathetic, capitalist Americans – remained unmoved by a logical appeal. Rather, it is his appeal to both ethos and pathos that allowed him to capture the attention of the American public.
[...] For example, Debs states in the beginning of speech that he has, listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution” Here, Debs is affable and good-natured, which is important because he then refers to the Espionage Act as a “despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles” Thus, it is crucial that his demeanor be of as little offense to the American public as possible while still advocating a radical viewpoint. In speaking of his effort to enact change, he says, recognize the feebleness of my efforts” and later concedes, “Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity” (12). [...]
[...] Debs continues to make persuasive appeals to pathos through his use of narratives and metaphors. Although his narrative regarding the desperation of the child laborer is hypothetical, it is nonetheless successful in stirring emotion. He speaks not just of the child, but of the men on in the factories, mills, and on the railroad, all of whom engage in a daily and unending struggle to provide for their family. He then mentions a woman, conceivably a wife, who is also working diligently in the bleakest of conditions. [...]
[...] He says, am thinking of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul” His description here is virtually impossible to turn away from, as his descriptive and blatantly frank language evokes powerful images of suffering children. This description has an additional ethical appeal, as the safety of children is generally a shared American value. [...]
[...] Knowing the diversity of his audience, Debs also secures a tighter bond with fellow Socialists and encourages them to remain motivating in fighting for a change in economic, political, and social order. In this way, his speech accomplishes the dual task of reaching out to his community of support while simultaneously enlightening his opposition to his stance. While he is gracious in appealing to the values he shares with his opposition, he is nevertheless candid about his devotion to the working class. [...]
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