Speech by Eugene V. Debs, June 16, 1918
“Comrades, Friends and Fellow-Workers:-
“For this very cordial greeting, this very hearty reception, I thank you all with the fullest appreciation of y our interest in your devotion to the cause for which I am to speak to you this afternoon. To speak for labor, to plead the cause of the men and women and children who toil, to serve the working class, has always been to me a high privi-lege, a duty of love.
“I have just returned from a visit from yonder (pointing to workhouse) where three of our most loyal com-rades are paying the penalty for their devotion to the cause of the working class. They have come to realize, as many of us have, that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the con-stitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe for the world. I realize in speaking to you this afternoon that there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be extremely careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. And I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than a sycophant or coward on the streets. They may put those boys in jail and some of the rest of us in jail, but they cannot put the Socialist movement in jail. Those prison bars separate their bodies from ours, but their souls are here this afternoon. They are simply paying the penalty that all men have paid in all of the ages of history for standing erect and seeking to pave the way for better con-ditions for mankind.
“If it had not been for the men and women who, in the past, have had the moral courage to go to jail, we would still be in the jungles.
“This assembly is exceedingly good to look upon. I wish it were possible to give you what you are giving me this afternoon. What I say here amounts to but little. What I see here is exceedingly important. You workers here in Ohio, enlisted in the greatest cause ever organized in the interests of you class, are making history today in the face of threat-ening trouble of all kinds, history that is going to be read with profound interest by the coming generation. There is but one thing that you have to be concerned about, and that is that you keep four-square with the principles of the international Socialistic movement. It is only when you begin to compromise that trouble begins. So far as I am concerned, it does not matter what others may say or think or do, as long as I am sure that I am right with myself and the cause.
“There are so many who seek refuge in the popular side of a great question. I am not of that number. As a Socialist I have long since learned how to stand alone.
“For the last month I have been traveling over the Hoosier state, and let me say that in all my connections with the Socialist movement, I have never seen such enthusiasm, such unity of movement, such a promising outlook as there is today. Notwithstanding the statement published by the capitalist press that our leaders had deserted, I wish to say for myself I never had very much faith in leaders anyway. I am willing to be charged with almost anything rather than be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, especially all the intellectual file. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. Go to the City of Washington and consult the files there and you will find that the corporation lawyers, members of congress and misrepresentatives of the masses- - all of them claim that they have risen from the ranks. I am so glad that I cannot make that claim for myself. When I rise, it will be