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Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

DEBS FEDERAL COURT TRIAL

DEBS FEDERAL COURT TRIAL

The DEBS FEDERAL COURT TRIAL (U.S. v. Eugene V. Debs) in Cleveland resulted from an antiwar speech that the Socialist leader gave in Canton, OH, on 16 June 1918. Debs was charged with violation of the Espionage Act. The trial, which took place in Judge David C. Westenhaver's court from 9-12 Sept. 1918, captured national interest. U.S. District Attorney Edward S. Wertz, assisted by Francis B. Kavanagh and JOSEPH C. BREITENSTEIN, was in charge of the government's case; Debs was represented by Seymour Stedman, William A. Cunnea, Joseph Sharts, and Morris Wolf; CHARLES RUTHENBERG was among the chief witnesses.

The trial centered around the content of Debs's Canton speech. In the speech, Debs espoused freedom of speech and the goals of international socialism, denounced war, expressed solidarity with the Bolsheviks, and praised the INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF THE WORLD. The antiwar sentiments around which the prosecution built its case were focused on one sentence: "The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought it." No witnesses were called for the defendant; rather, Debs defended his actions directly to the jury. The jury found him guilty on 3 counts: attempting to incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, and refusal of duty in the armed forces of the U.S.; obstructing and attempting to obstruct the recruiting and enlistment service; and uttering language to incite, provoke, and encourage resistance to the U.S. Judge Westenhaver sentenced Debs to 10 years' imprisonment pending an appeal to the Supreme Court, which upheld Deb's conviction. Debs was pardoned by Pres. Warren Harding in 1921.