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Address to the Court

December 8, 1917 — prior to being sentenced by Judge Martin J. Wade, Bismark, ND


I was taught in High School that law is pure logic. Abstract law may be pure logic, but the application of the law to testimony in this case seems to have gone far afield from logic.

As Your Honor knows, I am a professional woman, following the profession of delivering lectures whereby I hope to induce my hearers to study the philosophy of socialism. In the regular course of my profession and work I delivered during this year lectures all over the United States, or practically all over. I delivered this lecture in North Carolina when the draft riots were at their height; I delivered it in Globe, Ariz., to 10,000 people, two or three days following the deportations from Bisbee, and on the day when the strike vote was taken when excitement ran high and when passions were having their sway; I delivered it in San Francisco during the Mooney case; and the same thing was true in Portland, Idaho, and in the northwestern lumber regions during the great I.W.W. excitement; and at all of these lectures conditions were as tense as conditions could be. The men who were in the employ of the United States in the Department of Justice were present at my meetings. These men are trained, highly efficient and highly paid detectors of crime and criminals. In all these months when my lecture was under the scrutiny of this kind of men there was no suggestion at any time that there was anything in the lecture that was objectionable, that was treasonable, that was seditious. It was the custom at my meetings to send complimentary tickets to the district attorney and the marshal and deputy marshals of the district, in order that they might hear the lecture and attend the meeting. This plan was followed practically everywhere that I spoke. 

And then, in the course of the trip, I landed at Bowman — a little, sordid, wind-blown, sun-blistered, frost-scarred town on the plains of western Dakota. There was nothing unusual in my visit to Bowman, except the fact that it was unusual to make a town of this size. The reason I did was because there was one man whose loyalty and faithfulness and unselfish service to the cause to which I had given my life, wanted me to come, and I felt he had a right to demand my services. I arrived in the town, delivered my lecture just as I had delivered it many, many times before.   There was nothing in the audience that was unusual except the fact that it was a small audience. It was a solid, substantial, stolid type of farmer crowd. There was not the great enthusiasm that had prevailed at many of my meetings. There was nothing to stir me, or arouse me, or cause me to make a more impassioned plea than usual. In fact, the meeting at Bowman was absolutely commonplace and ordinary, and there was nothing at all in that little, sordid, wind-blown town, that commonplace audience, that should have for a moment overbalanced my reason and judgment and common sense, and have caused me to have been suddenly smitten with the hydrophobia of sedition.

But when I arrived at Bowman and had delivered my lecture, and spent the next day in resting before the continuation of the trip, I found that there were peculiar conditions existing in Bowman. They are common to the whole state of North Dakota. It is known to Your Honor and everyone who has part in this trial, that in the State of North Dakota, in the last year and a half, the greatest and most revolutionary social phenomena that has occurred since the foundation of this government has taken place. The story is one that is so well known I need spend little time on it.

Here to these wind-blown, frost-scarred plains came men hard of face and feature and muscle, who subdued this desert and made it bloom and produce the bread to feed the world; and these men toiling in the desperate struggle with adverse conditions and with nature, gradually had it forced on their minds that in some way they were not receiving a just return for the labor expended; that after their wheat was raised and garnered, in the processes of marketing, men who toiled not and suffered none of the hardships of production, were robbing them of the product of their labor; and these farmers, smarting under that chaotic condition, came to the town of Bismarck.

They felt that the politicians, the men who held the offices in this state, the men they elected to office, were not serving them, but that they were using their offices and power to assist in the robbery and exploitation of the farmers of this state. So they appealed to the legislature, and then there came that marvelous thing that had such a wonderful effect in this state–an insult, a sneer from the lips of the politicians who believed themselves firm and secure in power, and that sneer, that insult, that told the farmers to go home and slop the hogs the while the politicians ran the state, had the effect of cementing the farmers in this state into a great revolutionary organization, and that organization went out and swept the whole state, and carried out of power the men who had been in power, and put in power the men chosen by the farmers of this state. 

This had occurred in Bowman county, as it had all over the state of North Dakota. The old order had been deposed. The new order had been enforced, and naturally as always follows, the appointive offices that are called the spoils of political warfare, were taken from the adherents of the old order and given to the adherents of the new order.

I think, so far as I can judge, the fattest, juiciest, most desirable plum in Bowman county was the postoffice. This was taken from the man that had held it and given to the wife of the leader of the new order. This naturally created bitterness, hatred and venom in such marked degree as I have seen in all my experience. When I arrived in Bowman for my lecture it chanced that it was the adherents of the new order that attended, paid for the tickets, appreciated it, approved it, and applauded it, as they stated on the stand. And among the adherents of the new order that attended was the postmistress, and she did the things that the others did. And then the real thing in this case came out, and that was the contest over the postoffice. 

There was a certain hungry office seeker in Bowman. He was the principal witness for the prosecution. He made the statement on the stand that he was a farmer, but he has never tilled the soil. He has always been a political hanger-on, a camp-follower of the old political order. Separated from any political job, he became lean and hungry, and looked with a hungry eye on the postoffice.

The deposed boss of the old order was perfectly willing that the hungry office seeker might have the postoffice if only the present incumbent could be eliminated; and when the postmistress attended the lecture, and the next day invited me to her home as her guest, there grew up in the minds of the deposed boss and the hungry office seeker the hope that I might be made the lever whereby the postmistress could be separated from her job, and the hungry office seeker find an opportunity to live without labor. So telegraphic communications were established with Senator McCumber. There was no charge that I should be arrested for sedition or treason, but the demand was made by the deposed political boss appeared before the District Attorney and made the simple demand that the postmistress be removed, and he was told that this was impossible; that the postmistress had committed no crime; if anyone was the criminal it must be I; and so, on the testimony of the hungry office seeker, and a few of the adherents of the old order this indictment was returned — the indictment that does not charge me with a crime, the indictment that in no place states that I ever committed a crime; the indictment that merely says that I had an intent to commit a crime. And, Your Honor, it seems to me one of those strange, grotesque things that can only be the outgrowth of this hysteria that is sweeping over the world today, that a judge on the bench, and a jury in the box, and a prosecuting attorney, should attempt to usurp the prerogative of Gold Almighty, and look down into the heart of a human being and decide what motives slumber there. There is no charge that if my intent or my motive was criminal, that that intent or motive ever flowered, or ever was put into action — only the charge that in my heart there was an intent, and on that strange charge of an intent so securely buried in a human heart that no result and no effect came from it, I went to trial.

I am not going to spend any of your valuable time rehearsing the trial, except to say that to my mind it is absolutely impossible that under any legal rule or thought a human being can be tried for a thing that he never did, and that there is no charge that he ever did, but only that he might have an intention of doing. 

But, Your Honor, all through this trial, all through the questions of the district attorney, all through his appeal to the jury, as the ever-recurring motive in this little drama of life, there ran the charge of a crime, a crime of which I was accused. And this crime is not a new one. It is as old as the human race. It is not peculiar to me. It is universal as life itself.

This crime that was charged by interference in the trial was the same charge that was brought against the first slave rebellion, against the first serf revolt. It was the charge that was brought against Moses and Spartacus, Watt Tyler and Cromwell, George Washington and Patrick Henry, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and it was the same crime that was charged against Jesus of Nazareth when he stood at the judgment bar of Pontius Pilate.

The crime is this: “She stirred up the people.” And, Your Honor, if by inference I can be charged with that crime, and tried for it, then, Your Honor, at this point I plead guilty of that crime, if that is a crime. For twenty years I have done nothing but stir up the people. As a high school girl, in the first flush of youth, I did my best to stir up the people against the corruption and debasement and debauchery and damnation that came with the liquor traffic of the United States. As a young woman I did all in my power to stir up the people to revolt against the damnation of the vice interests in this country, the interest that debased six hundred thousand women and used them to further political interests of existing political powers. I did all in my power to stir up the people, the working class of the United States to demand more of the wealth of this country. I did my best to stir them up to demand shorter hours and better pay and better conditions; and the one great motive and object of my life has been the ambition to stir up the people of the United States to demand life, and life more abundant.

And, Your Honor, if this be the crime for which I was tried in this court, then, Your Honor, I am guilty of that crime. But, having made this statement, and realizing now that the time has come when you are about to pass judgment on me, it seems to me at this time it is meet that we should consider the things that are involved.

There is no doubt that in this hour of travail, and sorrow, and bloodshed and misery that marks the labor that is ushering in a new order, there is but one thing that should occupy our minds, and that is this: What, at this time, at this hour of our country’s peril and travail, will be the greatest good to the greatest number of people? And this, I believe, Your Honor, is the question that you are to decide. You are to decide whether at this hour it will be better for the people of the United States that I shall be convicted, not of a crime charged in the indictment, but convicted of having an intent in my heart that never found expression, and on conviction of having an intent in which I never gave action, I shall be sentenced to prison. Will this be a matter of the greatest good to the greatest number? If Your Honor believes, as the District Attorney repeated so frequently and so forcefully, that I am a dangerous woman, strong and powerful, with the ability to sway men’s minds, and lead them to do my bidding, if you believe that that is true, and you believe the fact that I had a wrongful intent in my heart to which I never gave life or action, and that because of that intent that never matured into a crime, it is better that I should go to prison, then it is your duty to place me there. It is your duty to place me where in this hour of stress and trial and travail I cannot injure my country, or interfere with the conduct of this war. But in the discussion of that point we must consider also this fact, that the big thing, that the vital thing, the all-important thing at this moment is that we should have a nation united. And at this time, taking all of the things that exist into consideration — the fact that passions run high, that hysteria has seized the world, that all of us have more or less abnormal mental processes brought about by this great world tragedy — you must consider well whether my conviction is going to have a tendency to united the people of this country or to disunite them. And in dealing with them, you cannot avoid dealing with the prejudices that have crept into this trial. At this point I want to mention one fact, a fact that has been brought to my mind, to my hearing, and that is this: That from some source of information that I do not know, you have been informed that I was connected with a certain publication whose name I never heard, and whose existence I was not aware of, that was published in your home state. This publication was violently anti-religious, and violently rabid, and it was said —

THE COURT: I never heard of that before.

MRS O’HARE: Very well, I will pass on. We must still consider the question of the prejudices that still exist, and that do exist, and we must take into consideration the effect that the verdict is going to have on the people. And, Your Honor, I want to call this thing to your mind, that the man or the nation whose cause is just is thrice armed; and if the cause of this nation is just in this great war, then it is necessary in order to impress the people of the righteousness and justice of the cause, to convict and sentence a woman on the charge of having an intent but never committing a crime? This you must consider. And you must consider also the danger of arousing hatreds and prejudice and suspicion. Your Honor, there are 100,000 people, and more, in the United States, who know me personally. They have listened to my voice, looked into my face, and they have worked side by side with me in every great reform movement of the last twenty years. My life has been an open book to them. They know what it has been. They know that from my earliest girlhood down to this time I have given all that I am, all that I have — my girlhood, my young womanhood, my wifehood, even my motherhood, for I have carried my unborn children out into this struggle for better conditions for the working class. And, Your Honor, at this time, no judge on earth, and no jury on earth, and no ten thousand judges, or ten thousand juries, can ever convince these hundred thousand people who know me and have worked with me, and these millions who have read my writings, that I am a criminal, or that I have ever given anything to my country except my most unselfish devotion and service. You cannot convince the mass of people who know me that I am dangerous to the United States government!

Ah! They are willing to admit I am dangerous to some things in the United States, and I thank God that I am. I am dangerous to the invisible government of the United States; I am dangerous to the special privileges of the United States; I am dangerous to the white slaver and to the saloonkeeper, and I thank God that at this hour I am dangerous to the war profiteers of this country who rob the people on the one hand, and rob and debase the government on the other; and then with their pockets and wallets stuffed with the filthy, bloodstained profits of war, wrap the sacred folds of the Stars and Stripes about them and shout their blatant hypocrisy to the world.

You can convince the people that I am dangerous to these men; but no jury and no judge can convince them that I am a dangerous woman to the best interests of the United States. And at this hour will my conviction, will my incarceration behind the bars of a prison have the tendency to cement and hold together the great mass of people in this nation, or will it have the tendency to create hatred and bitterness, and arouse suspicion, and make these people who know me, and who cannot be brought to doubt me, feel that this whole case is nothing but an attempt on the part of the war profiteers to eliminate and get out of the way a woman that is dangerous to them? 

Your Honor, I do not believe that this is true. I do not believe it is true of the District Attorney. I do not believe at this time that this case is anything but one of those weary, grotesque, fantastic things that have grown out of the war hysteria. But I say that the great mass of the people of the United States are going to have that thing burned into their souls if I go to prison. And you have learned in North Dakota what happens when the working classes have these things burned into their souls.

So now, Your Honor, I am not asking for clemency. I am not asking for mercy. I would scorn to do such a thing. To ask for clemency or for mercy would be an admission of some sense of guilt on my part, and there is absolutely none, and I will not and do not ask for mercy. All I am asking you to consider is the greatest good to the greatest number. What can we do to make this nation united? What are the dangers of arousing hatred and suspicion, and passion and prejudice in these critical times? I am asking you, Your Honor, judging from my appearance in the court room, judging from all that I have said, judging from all that you have read and that I have written — and I have provided you everything that it was within my power to provide — judging from these things, Your Honor, will I be more dangerous outside, following the work I have been doing for the last six months — and my work for the last six months is this: I represent the so-called Minority Wing of the Socialist Party. We are counseling patience, counseling broadmindedness and tolerance. I have gone about at a great sacrifice to myself, and endless weariness, into every corner of the United States, and have said to the Socialists everywhere, “This is not a time for bitterness, this is not a time for passion or prejudice; this is a time for calm, careful, clear thinking. This is a time when we must wait, as the mother waits for the pangs of travail. We cannot stop the coming of this new order that is about to be born any more than the mother can stop the coming of the new life whose time is full. And so we must be patient, and tolerant, and long-suffering, and levelheaded, during this time. We must give this nation the opportunity to prove its statement that this war shall be the last of wars, that this war is being fought in order that wars may end. I do not know whether that is true or not, Your Honor. I cannot look down into the motives of men’s hearts in Washington, as the Judge and Jury looked down into the motives of my heart and read them. I do not know, I say, whether the motives of these men is that this war shall end war. But I say this: I want this shall be the supreme test of war; I want everything on the face of God’s earth to work together to make this the supreme test, to decide this now and for everlasting; that it shall go on at this time, when the bloodshed and suffering is on, until it is decided forever, and not be put aside until some other time. So I want you to decide the question whether, in the months to come, these struggling months that are coming, to demand the service of every intelligent, loyal citizen of the United States, I can serve my country best in prison, or whether I an serve the people that believe in me, and have faith in me, and asking for their patience, and their tolerance, and their assistance to settle this question once and for all. I ask you to decide this question for yourself. Your Honor, and if you decided that I can serve my country better in prison that anywhere else, I am satisfied. It may be true, Your Honor that “God works in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.”It may be that down in the dark, noisome, loathsome hells we call prisons, under our modern prison system, there may be a larger work for me to do than out on the lecture platform. It may be that down there are the things I have sought for all my life. All my life has been devoted to taking light into dark places, to ministering to sick souls, to lifting up degraded humanity, and God knows down there in the prisons, perhaps more than any other place on earth, there is need for that kind of work. So if, as it was necessary that Jesus should come down and live among men in order that he might serve them, it is necessary for me to become a convict among criminals in order that I may serve my country there, then I am perfectly willing to perform my service there. I will do it without a quiver.  I will face the prison. I will face the things that go with prison life just as calmly and as serenely as I faced court and judge and jury, and I will do the things that it seems necessary for me to do.

And understand this, Your Honor, if you, this afternoon, decide that I am to serve a prison term, I want you to know, and I want the district attorney to know, and I want these men who sat on the jury to know that I will go out of this court room to meet whatever you mete out to me with no bitterness in my heart, with no hate in my soul, but with nothing but the greatest feeling of comradeship and friendship and appreciation for what you men have done, because I believe that you have done the thing that you thought was your duty to do. And so, if it must be that I go to prison, I do not want a man who sat on the jury, I do not want the District Attorney, I do not want Your Honor to go out of this room having any feeling that perhaps in some way you have committed a wrong, that you have injured me, for, Your Honor, you cannot injure me. There is only one human being on earth that can injure me, and that is myself. And as long as I am right with my God and right with my soul, you cannot, if you would, injure me. You can send me to prison, but, thank God, you cannot send a great principle to prison. You can shut me behind a cell door, but, thank God, you cannot put principle in a cell and turn the key on it. You can degrade my body; you can put it in stripes, you can make me go down and live with the lowest and most degraded and contaminated on earth, and still you cannot injure me, for greater men and women have done this. If the Son of God can come down and partake with publicans and sinners, and confer with harlots and thieves and murderers, and be uncontaminated, then, if I have His spirit, I can do the same thing. So I want you to understand that whatever your decision will be I know you are making it solely on the basis of the best interest of our country at this time, and not with any intentions to injure me.

And now, there is just one other thing I want to touch, and I am done. Your Honor, the war is on now. It is a great world tragedy. This thing that has shaken us all to the very center of our being, that has warped our judgments and inflamed our passions, and made us different creatures than we ever were before — possibly for our good — this war must end. Peace must come. And when the war ends and peace comes, then will come the trial of the human race. It is no test of humanity to successfully wage a war. It does not take brains, or courage, or manhood to destroy. An idiot can destroy in a moment what it took a lifetime to create. Mere brute force can take a life only God can give. So the test is not going to be the war. It is going to b the rebuilding of civilization after the war is over. When the war is done and peace comes, the graves must be smoothed, the grape vines and wheat planted, the cities must be rebuilt, the ways of peace and justice and righteousness must be established. And after peace comes, Your Honor, and after the war is done, then there is just one other thing that you can consider. Will I, in that hour of reconstruction, can I and will I serve my country best in prison? Will that reconstruction go on better, wiser, for my elimination? Or is it possible that when that hour comes, and the maimed, and the broken, and the heartsick, and the soul-oppressed soldier comes home — in that hour when the widow must be comforted, and the sonless mother must be supported, and the orphan must be cared for — is it not possible that in that hour, in that day of stress and trial and heartache and misery that I, who have had twenty years of apprenticeship, twenty years of everlasting study and struggle to fit myself to deal with the downtrodden and the oppressed and the heartbroken, and soulsick, and wary — is it not possible that in that hour I can serve my country better at liberty to write and speak and do my work, than I can serve it incarcerated in a prison cell?

Now, Your Honor, I am only bringing these things to your attention, I am only asking you before you pass sentence to decide on these things, and remember there is but one thing now that I am asking for; and that is the greatest good to the greatest number, a nation united, that we burn into the souls and conscience of this country that this nation is so well armed by her righteousness that she need not persecute any human being — all I am asking you to consider is the danger of arousing hatreds and passions and suspicion. This is all.

So, now, Your Honor, I am ready to accept judgment, knowing full well that no matter what becomes of me, no matter what becomes of you, or what your action may be, that this great world tragedy is achieving the thing to which I have given my life, and that is it is bringing in the great co-operative United States of the world built on cooperation instead of competition; a world where greed, and vice, and avarice have been replaced by brotherhood, and justice and humanity. And Your Honor, since all my life has been given to that ideal of bringing about that new order, and sharing in that time, if this war is to do that thing, then, Your Honor, I can feel at this time that I can retire, perhaps, and rest.

So now, Your Honor, if you decide at this hour that in the service of your country, in the service of the people of this country, I should be sent to prison, then I go, knowing that the onward march of progress will still keep on, and eventually my aim, my goal, and my ideal will be achieved. And knowing this, Your honor, I can face the court. I can face prison, I can face any sentence that you can give, serene and calm and unafraid.

Your  Honor, I await the sentence that you see fit to pass upon me.



Source: Social Revolution (February, 1918), 6-7.


Also: “Speech Delivered in Court by Kate Richards O’Hare before Being Sentenced by Judge Wade,” Kate O’Hare, Selected Writings and Speeches, Ed. Philip S. Foner, Sally M. Miller, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 1982, pp. 170-181.