Eugene V. Debs
Overview
 
Eugene Victor Debs was an American union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 leader, one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...

 (IWW), and several times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America
Socialist Party of America
The Socialist Party of America was a multi-tendency democratic-socialist political party in the United States, formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party which had split from the main organization...

 for President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 living in the United States.

In the early part of his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

.
Quotations

The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough. Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization. The time has come to regenerate society — we are on the eve of universal change.

Open letter to the American Railway Union, Chicago Railway Times (1 January 1897)

Of course, Socialism is violently denounced by the capitalist press and by all the brood of subsidized contributors to magazine literature, but this only confirms the view that the advance of Socialism is very properly recognized by the capitalist class as the one cloud upon the horizon which portends an end to the system in which they have waxed fat, insolent and despotic through the exploitation of their countless wage-working slaves.

Encyclopedia
Eugene Victor Debs was an American union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 leader, one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...

 (IWW), and several times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America
Socialist Party of America
The Socialist Party of America was a multi-tendency democratic-socialist political party in the United States, formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party which had split from the main organization...

 for President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 living in the United States.

In the early part of his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

. He was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly
Indiana General Assembly
The Indiana General Assembly is the state legislature, or legislative branch, of the state of Indiana. It is a bicameral legislature that consists of a lower house, the Indiana House of Representatives, and an upper house, the Indiana Senate...

 in 1884. After working with several smaller unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was one of the railroad unions of the 19th century.-History:The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was founded on December 1, 1873 in Port Jervis, New York by Joshua A. Leach and 10 other Erie Railroad firemen...

, Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union
American Railway Union
The American Railway Union , was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States. It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V...

 (ARU), the nation's first industrial union. When the ARU struck the Pullman Palace Car Company over pay cuts, President Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland
Stephen Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. Cleveland is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms and therefore is the only individual to be counted twice in the numbering of the presidents...

 used the United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

 to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was later imprisoned for failing to obey an injunction against the strike.

Debs educated himself about socialism in prison and emerged to launch his career as the nation's most prominent socialist in the first decades of the 20th century. He ran as the Socialist Party's candidate for the presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the last time from his prison cell.

Noted for his oratory, it was a speech denouncing American participation in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 that led to his second arrest in 1918. He was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917
Espionage Act of 1917
The Espionage Act of 1917 is a United States federal law passed on June 15, 1917, shortly after the U.S. entry into World War I. It has been amended numerous times over the years. It was originally found in Title 50 of the U.S. Code but is now found under Title 18, Crime...

 and sentenced to a term of 10 years. President Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States . A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential self-made newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate , as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio and as a U.S. Senator...

 commuted
Commutation of sentence
Commutation of sentence involves the reduction of legal penalties, especially in terms of imprisonment. Unlike a pardon, a commutation does not nullify the conviction and is often conditional. Clemency is a similar term, meaning the lessening of the penalty of the crime without forgiving the crime...

 his sentence in December 1921. Debs died in 1926 not long after being admitted to a sanatorium
Sanatorium
A sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term illness, most typically associated with treatment of tuberculosis before antibiotics...

.

Early life

Eugene Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana
Terre Haute, Indiana
Terre Haute is a city and the county seat of Vigo County, Indiana, United States, near the state's western border with Illinois. As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 60,785 and its metropolitan area had a population of 170,943. The city is the county seat of Vigo County and...

, to Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Bettrich Debs, who both immigrated to the United States from Colmar
Colmar
Colmar is a commune in the Haut-Rhin department in Alsace in north-eastern France.It is the capital of the department. Colmar is also the seat of the highest jurisdiction in Alsace, the appellate court....

, Alsace
Alsace
Alsace is the fifth-smallest of the 27 regions of France in land area , and the smallest in metropolitan France. It is also the seventh-most densely populated region in France and third most densely populated region in metropolitan France, with ca. 220 inhabitants per km²...

, France. His father, who was born to a prosperous family in France, owned a textile mill and meat market. Eugene Victor Debs was named after the French authors Eugene Sue
Eugène Sue
Joseph Marie Eugène Sue was a French novelist.He was born in Paris, the son of a distinguished surgeon in Napoleon's army, and is said to have had the Empress Joséphine for godmother. Sue himself acted as surgeon both in the Spanish campaign undertaken by France in 1823 and at the Battle of Navarino...

 and Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo
Victor-Marie Hugo was a Frenchpoet, playwright, novelist, essayist, visual artist, statesman, human rights activist and exponent of the Romantic movement in France....

.

Debs attended public school, dropping out of high school at age 14. He took a job in the Vandalia railroad car shops, first working as a painter and a car cleaner. In December 1871 he left the railroad yards for work on the railways as a locomotive fireman for the same company. He continued to work in this capacity until July 1875, when he left to work at a wholesale grocery house, where he remained for the next four years. He attended a local business school during the night.

Debs joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was one of the railroad unions of the 19th century.-History:The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was founded on December 1, 1873 in Port Jervis, New York by Joshua A. Leach and 10 other Erie Railroad firemen...

 (BLF) in February 1875 and became active in this fraternal benefit organization, being sent as a delegate by the Terre Haute lodge to the organization's national convention in 1877. Debs was elected associate editor of the BLF's monthly organ, Firemen's Magazine, in 1878 and appointed Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the BLF and editor of the magazine in July 1880. He remained in this capacity as a BLF functionary until January 1893 and as the magazine's editor until September 1894.

At the same time, he became a prominent figure in the community. He served two terms as Terre Haute's city clerk from September 1879 to September 1883. In the fall of 1884 he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly
Indiana General Assembly
The Indiana General Assembly is the state legislature, or legislative branch, of the state of Indiana. It is a bicameral legislature that consists of a lower house, the Indiana House of Representatives, and an upper house, the Indiana Senate...

 as a Democrat
Democratic Party (United States)
The Democratic Party is one of two major contemporary political parties in the United States, along with the Republican Party. The party's socially liberal and progressive platform is largely considered center-left in the U.S. political spectrum. The party has the lengthiest record of continuous...

, serving for one term.

The railroad brotherhoods were comparatively conservative organizations, focused on providing fellowship and services rather than on collective bargaining. Debs gradually became convinced of the need for a more unified and confrontational approach. After stepping down as Brotherhood Grand Secretary in 1893, he organized one of the first industrial unions in the United States, the American Railway Union
American Railway Union
The American Railway Union , was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States. It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V...

 (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894, winning most of its demands.

Eugene Debs married Kate Metzel on June 9, 1885. The couple had no children. Their home
Eugene V. Debs Home
The Eugene V. Debs House, on the campus of Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a home of union leader Eugene V. Debs. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966....

 still stands in Terre Haute, within Indiana State University
Indiana State University
Indiana State University is a public university located in Terre Haute, Indiana, United States.The Princeton Review has named Indiana State as one of the "Best in the Midwest" seven years running, and the College of Education's Graduate Program was recently named as a 'Top 100' by U.S...

.

Pullman Strike

In 1894 Debs became involved in the Pullman Strike
Pullman Strike
The Pullman Strike was a nationwide conflict between labor unions and railroads that occurred in the United States in 1894. The conflict began in the town of Pullman, Illinois on May 11 when approximately 3,000 employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company began a wildcat strike in response to recent...

, which grew out of a compensation dispute started by the workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The Pullman Company, citing falling revenue after the economic Panic of 1893
Panic of 1893
The Panic of 1893 was a serious economic depression in the United States that began in 1893. Similar to the Panic of 1873, this panic was marked by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing which set off a series of bank failures...

, had cut the wages of its employees by 28%. The workers, many of whom were already members of the American Railway Union
American Railway Union
The American Railway Union , was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States. It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V...

, appealed for support to the union at its convention in Chicago, Illinois. Debs tried to persuade the Union members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the Union, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them, including cars containing U.S. Mail. After A.R.U. Board Director Martin J. Elliot extended the strike to St. Louis, doubling its size to 80.000 workers, Debs relented and decided to take part in the strike, which was now endorsed by almost all members of the ARU in the immediate area of Chicago. On July 9, 1894, a New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

editorial called Debs "a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race." Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs' eventual leadership, the strike came to be known as "Debs' Rebellion".

The U.S. federal government
Federal government of the United States
The federal government of the United States is the national government of the constitutional republic of fifty states that is the United States of America. The federal government comprises three distinct branches of government: a legislative, an executive and a judiciary. These branches and...

 intervened, obtaining an injunction
Injunction
An injunction is an equitable remedy in the form of a court order that requires a party to do or refrain from doing certain acts. A party that fails to comply with an injunction faces criminal or civil penalties and may have to pay damages or accept sanctions...

 against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the U.S. Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland
Stephen Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. Cleveland is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms and therefore is the only individual to be counted twice in the numbering of the presidents...

 sent the United States Army
United States Army
The United States Army is the main branch of the United States Armed Forces responsible for land-based military operations. It is the largest and oldest established branch of the U.S. military, and is one of seven U.S. uniformed services...

 to enforce the injunction. The entrance of the Army was enough to break the strike; 13 strikers were killed, and thousands were blacklisted. An estimated $80-million worth of property was damaged, and Debs was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the injunction and sent to federal prison.

Debs was represented by Clarence Darrow
Clarence Darrow
Clarence Seward Darrow was an American lawyer and leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union, best known for defending teenage thrill killers Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murdering 14-year-old Robert "Bobby" Franks and defending John T...

, hitherto a corporate lawyer
Corporate lawyer
A corporate lawyer is a lawyer who specializes in corporations law.As of 2004, there were 67,000 corporate lawyers in the United States, working on average for 50 hours per week, with a mean starting salary of USD64,000, rising to USD93,700 after 5 years and USD139,000 after 10–15 years.The...

 for the railroad company, who "switched sides" to represent Debs. Darrow, a leading American lawyer and civil libertarian, had resigned his corporate position in order to represent Debs, making a substantial financial sacrifice in order to do so. A Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 case decision, In re Debs
In re Debs
In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 , was a United States Supreme Court decision handed down concerning Eugene V. Debs and labor unions. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, had been involved in the Pullman Strike earlier in 1894 and challenged the federal injunction ordering the strikers back to...

, later upheld the right of the federal government to issue the injunction.

Socialist leader

At the time of his arrest for mail obstruction, Debs was not yet a socialist. While serving his three month term in the jail at Woodstock, Illinois
Woodstock, Illinois
Woodstock is a far northwest suburb of Chicago in McHenry County, Illinois. The population was 20,151 at the 2000 census. The 2010 Census shows 24,770 residents. It is the county seat of McHenry County...

, Debs and his ARU comrades received a steady stream of letters, books, and pamphlets in the mail from socialists around the country.

Debs recalled several years later:


"...I began to read and think and dissect the anatomy of the system in which workingmen, however organized, could be shattered and battered and splintered at a single stroke. The writings of Bellamy
Edward Bellamy
Edward Bellamy was an American author and socialist, most famous for his utopian novel, Looking Backward, set in the year 2000. He was a very influential writer during the Gilded Age of United States history.-Early life:...

 and Blatchford
Robert Blatchford
Robert Peel Glanville Blatchford was a socialist campaigner, journalist and author in the United Kingdom. He was a prominent atheist and opponent of eugenics. He was also an English patriot...

 early appealed to me. The Cooperative Commonwealth of Gronlund
Laurence Gronlund
Laurence Gronlund was an American lawyer and socialist.-Biography:Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, he graduated from the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Law in 1865, and moved to the United States in 1867...

 also impressed me, but the writings of Kautsky
Karl Kautsky
Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-German philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as among the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the coming of World War I in 1914 and was called by some the "Pope of...

 were so clear and conclusive that I readily grasped, not merely his argument, but also caught the spirit of his socialist utterance — and I thank him and all who helped me out of darkness into light."


Additionally, Debs was visited in jail by Milwaukee socialist newspaper editor Victor L. Berger
Victor L. Berger
Victor Luitpold Berger was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and an important and influential Socialist journalist who helped establish the so-called Sewer Socialist movement. The first Socialist elected to the U.S...

, who, in Debs' words, "came to Woodstock, as if a providential instrument, and delivered the first impassioned message of Socialism I had ever heard." Debs emerged from jail at the end of his sentence a changed man. He would spend the final three decades of his life proselytizing for the socialist cause.

After Debs' release from prison in 1895, he started his Socialist political career. Debs persuaded the American Railway Union
American Railway Union
The American Railway Union , was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States. It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V...

 membership to join with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth to found the Social Democracy of America
Social Democracy of America
The Social Democracy of America , later known as the Co-operative Brotherhood, was a short lived party in the United States that sought to combine the planting of an intentional community with political action in order to create a socialist society...

. Debs, along with Elliott, were the first federal office candidates for the fledgling Socialist party, running (unsuccessfully) for US president and Congress in 1900. Along with his running mate Job Harriman
Job Harriman
Job Harriman was an ordained minister who later became an agnostic and a socialist. In 1900 he ran for Vice President of the United States along with Eugene Debs on the ticket of the Socialist Party of America. He later twice ran for mayor of Los Angeles, drawing considerable attention and support...

, Debs received 87,945 votes—0.6% of the popular vote—and no electoral votes.

Split to found the Social Democratic Party

One year later this group split and Debs went with the majority faction to found the Social Democratic Party of the United States
Social Democratic Party (United States)
The Social Democratic Party of America was a short-lived political party in the United States, established in 1898. The group was formed out of elements of the Social Democracy of America , and was a predecessor to the Socialist Party of America, established in 1901.-Forerunners:Following the...

, also called the Social Democratic Party. Debs was elected chairman of the Executive Board of the National Council, the board which governed the party. Although the party did not have a sole figure that governed its actions, Debs' position as chairman and his notoriety gave him the status of party figurehead. He was the Socialist Party of America
Socialist Party of America
The Socialist Party of America was a multi-tendency democratic-socialist political party in the United States, formed in 1901 by a merger between the three-year-old Social Democratic Party of America and disaffected elements of the Socialist Labor Party which had split from the main organization...

 candidate for president in 1904
United States presidential election, 1904
The United States presidential election of 1904 held on November 8, 1904, resulted in the election to a full term for President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had succeeded to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley. The Republican Party unanimously nominated him for president at...

, 1908
United States presidential election, 1908
The United States presidential election of 1908 was held on November 3, 1908. Popular incumbent President Theodore Roosevelt, honoring a promise not to seek a third term, persuaded the Republican Party to nominate William Howard Taft, his close friend and Secretary of War, to become his successor...

, 1912
United States presidential election, 1912
The United States presidential election of 1912 was a rare four-way contest. Incumbent President William Howard Taft was renominated by the Republican Party with the support of its conservative wing. After former President Theodore Roosevelt failed to receive the Republican nomination, he called...

, and 1920
United States presidential election, 1920
The United States presidential election of 1920 was dominated by the aftermath of World War I and a hostile response to certain policies of Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic president. The wartime economic boom had collapsed. Politicians were arguing over peace treaties and the question of America's...

 (the final time from prison).

In his showing in the 1904 election, Debs received 402,810 votes, which was 2.98% of the popular vote. Debs received no electoral votes, and, with vice presidential candidate Benjamin Hanford
Benjamin Hanford
Benjamin Hanford was an American politician during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He made two unsuccessful runs for the post of Vice President of the United States, as Eugene Debs' running mate as a candidate of the Social Democratic Party, in 1904 and 1908.-Early life:Benjamin Hanford...

, ultimately finished third overall. In the 1908 election, Debs again ran on the same ticket as Benjamin Hanford. While receiving a slightly higher number of votes in the popular vote, 420,852, he received 2.83% of the popular vote. Again Debs received no electoral votes. Debs received 5.99% of the popular vote (a total of 901,551 votes) in 1912, while his total of 913,693 votes in the 1920 campaign remains the all-time high for a Socialist Party candidate. Running alongside Emil Seidel
Emil Seidel
Emil Seidel was the mayor of Milwaukee from 1910 to 1912. He was the first Socialist mayor of a major city in the United States, and ran as the Vice Presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America in the 1912 presidential election....

, Debs again received no electoral votes.

Although he received some success as a third-party
Third party (United States)
The term third party is used in the United States for any and all political parties in the United States other than one of the two major parties . The term can also refer to independent politicians not affiliated with any party at all and to write-in candidates.The United States has had a...

 candidate, Debs was largely dismissive of the electoral process; he distrusted the political bargains that Victor Berger and other "Sewer Socialists
Sewer Socialism
Sewer Socialism was a term, originally more or less pejorative, for the American socialist movement that centered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and existed from around 1892 to 1960...

" had made in winning local offices. He put much more value on organizing workers into unions, favoring unions that brought together all workers in a given industry over those organized by the craft skills workers practiced. Debs saw the working class as the one class to organize, educate, and emancipate itself by itself.

Founding the IWW

After his work with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was one of the railroad unions of the 19th century.-History:The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen was founded on December 1, 1873 in Port Jervis, New York by Joshua A. Leach and 10 other Erie Railroad firemen...

 and the American Railway Union
American Railway Union
The American Railway Union , was the largest labor union of its time, and one of the first industrial unions in the United States. It was founded on June 20, 1893, by railway workers gathered in Chicago, Illinois, and under the leadership of Eugene V...

, Debs' next major work in organizing a labor union came during the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World
Industrial Workers of the World
The Industrial Workers of the World is an international union. At its peak in 1923, the organization claimed some 100,000 members in good standing, and could marshal the support of perhaps 300,000 workers. Its membership declined dramatically after a 1924 split brought on by internal conflict...

 (IWW). On June 27, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois, Debs and other influential union leaders including Big Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners
Western Federation of Miners
The Western Federation of Miners was a radical labor union that gained a reputation for militancy in the mines of the western United States and British Columbia. Its efforts to organize both hard rock miners and smelter workers brought it into sharp conflicts – and often pitched battles...

, and Daniel De León
Daniel De Leon
Daniel DeLeon was an American socialist newspaper editor, politician, Marxist theoretician, and trade union organizer. He is regarded as the forefather of the idea of revolutionary industrial unionism and was the leading figure in the Socialist Labor Party of America from 1890 until the time of...

, leader of the Socialist Labor Party
Socialist Labor Party of America
The Socialist Labor Party of America , established in 1876 as the Workingmen's Party, is the oldest socialist political party in the United States and the second oldest socialist party in the world. Originally known as the Workingmen's Party of America, the party changed its name in 1877 and has...

, held what Haywood called the "Continental Congress of the working class". Haywood stated: "We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class...", and for Debs: "We are here to perform a task so great that it appeals to our best thought, our united energies, and will enlist our most loyal support; a task in the presence of which weak men might falter and despair, but from which it is impossible to shrink without betraying the working class."

Socialists split with the IWW

Although the IWW was built on the basis of uniting workers of industry, a rift began between the union and the Socialist Party. It started when the electoral wing of the Socialist Party, led by Victor Berger
Victor L. Berger
Victor Luitpold Berger was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America and an important and influential Socialist journalist who helped establish the so-called Sewer Socialist movement. The first Socialist elected to the U.S...

 and Morris Hillquit
Morris Hillquit
Morris Hillquit was a founder and leader of the Socialist Party of America and prominent labor lawyer in New York City's Lower East Side during the early 20th century.-Early years:...

, became irritated with speeches by Haywood. In December 1911, Haywood told a Lower East Side audience at New York's Cooper Union that parliamentary Socialists were "step-at-a-time people whose every step is just a little shorter than the preceding step." It was better, Haywood said, to "elect the superintendent of some branch of industry, than to elect some congressman to the United States Congress." In response, Hillquit attacked the IWW as "purely anarchistic..."

The Cooper Union speech was the beginning of a split between Bill Haywood and the Socialist Party, leading to the split between the factions of the IWW, one faction loyal to the Socialist Party, and the other to Haywood. The rift presented a problem for Debs, who was influential in both the IWW and the Socialist Party. The final straw between Haywood and the Socialist Party came during the Lawrence textile strike
Lawrence textile strike
The Lawrence Textile Strike was a strike of immigrant workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912 led by the Industrial Workers of the World. Prompted by one mill owner's decision to lower wages when a new law shortening the workweek went into effect in January, the strike spread rapidly through the...

 when, disgusted with the decision of the elected officials in Lawrence, Massachusetts
Lawrence, Massachusetts
Lawrence is a city in Essex County, Massachusetts, United States on the Merrimack River. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the city had a total population of 76,377. Surrounding communities include Methuen to the north, Andover to the southwest, and North Andover to the southeast. It and Salem are...

, to send police who subsequently used their clubs on children, Haywood publicly declared that "I will not vote again" until such a circumstance was rectified. Haywood was purged from the National Executive Committee by passage of an amendment that focused on the direct action
Direct action
Direct action is activity undertaken by individuals, groups, or governments to achieve political, economic, or social goals outside of normal social/political channels. This can include nonviolent and violent activities which target persons, groups, or property deemed offensive to the direct action...

 and sabotage
Sabotage
Sabotage is a deliberate action aimed at weakening another entity through subversion, obstruction, disruption, or destruction. In a workplace setting, sabotage is the conscious withdrawal of efficiency generally directed at causing some change in workplace conditions. One who engages in sabotage is...

 tactics advocated by the IWW. Debs was probably the only person who could have saved Haywood's seat.

In 1906, when Haywood had been on trial for his life in Idaho, Debs had described him as "the Lincoln of Labor" and called for Haywood to run against Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States . He is noted for his exuberant personality, range of interests and achievements, and his leadership of the Progressive Movement, as well as his "cowboy" persona and robust masculinity...

 for president of the United States., but times had changed and Debs, facing a split in the Party, chose to echo Hillquit's words, accusing the IWW of representing anarchy. Debs thereafter stated that he had opposed the amendment, but that once it was adopted it should be obeyed. Debs remained friendly to Haywood and the IWW after the expulsion, despite their perceived differences over IWW tactics.
Prior to Haywood's dismissal, the Socialist Party membership had reached an all-time high of 135,000. One year later, four months after Haywood was recalled, the membership dropped to 80,000. The reformists in the Socialist Party attributed the decline to the departure of the "Haywood element", and predicted that the party would recover. It did not; in the election of 1912 many of the Socialists who had been elected to public office lost their seats.

Leadership style

Debs was noted by many to be a charismatic speaker who sometimes called on the vocabulary of Christianity and much of the oratorical style of evangelism—even though he was generally disdainful of organized religion. As Heywood Broun
Heywood Broun
Heywood Campbell Broun, Jr. was an American journalist. He worked as a sportswriter, newspaper columnist, and editor in New York City. He founded the American Newspaper Guild, now known as The Newspaper Guild. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he is best remembered for his writing on social issues and...

 noted in his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow Socialist: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself."

Although sometimes called "King Debs", Debs himself was not wholly comfortable with his standing as a leader. As he told an audience in Detroit in 1906:

Arrest and imprisonment

Debs' speeches against the Wilson administration and the war earned the undying enmity of President Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

, who later called Debs a "traitor to his country." On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio
Canton, Ohio
Canton is the county seat of Stark County in northeastern Ohio, approximately south of Akron and south of Cleveland.The City of Caton is the largest incorporated area within the Canton-Massillon Metropolitan Statistical Area...

, urging resistance to the military draft of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. He was arrested on June 30 and charged with 10 counts of sedition. His trial defense called no witnesses, asking instead that Debs be allowed to address the court in his defense. That unusual request was granted, and Debs spoke for 2 hours. He was found guilty on September 12. At his sentencing hearing on September 14, he again addressed the court, and his speech has become a classic. Heywood Broun, a liberal journalist and not a Debs partisan, said it was "one of the most beautiful and moving passage in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anyone told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it."

He said in part:
Debs was sentenced on November 18, 1918 to ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life. Debs presented what has been called his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:
Debs appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In its ruling on Debs v. United States
Debs v. United States
Debs v. United States, , was a United States Supreme Court decision that upheld the Espionage Act of 1917.Eugene V. Debs was an American labor and political leader and five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for the American Presidency...

, the court examined several statements Debs had made regarding World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 and socialism
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

. While Debs had carefully guarded his speeches in an attempt to comply with the Espionage Act, the Court found he still had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and military recruitment. Among other things, the Court cited Debs' praise for those imprisoned for obstructing the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932...

 stated in his opinion that little attention was needed since Debs' case was essentially the same as that of Schenck v. United States
Schenck v. United States
Schenck v. United States, , was a United States Supreme Court decision that upheld the Espionage Act of 1917 and concluded that a defendant did not have a First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during World War I. Ultimately, the case established the "clear and present...

, in which the Court had upheld a similar conviction.
Debs went to prison on April 13, 1919. In protest of his jailing, Charles Ruthenberg
Charles Ruthenberg
Charles Emil Ruthenberg was an American Marxist politician and a founder and long-time head of the Communist Party USA .-Biography:Charles Emil Ruthenberg was born July 9, 1882 in Cleveland, Ohio...

 led a parade of unionists
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

, socialists
Socialism
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

, anarchists
Anarchism
Anarchism is generally defined as the political philosophy which holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority in the conduct of human relations...

 and communists
Communism
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

 to march on May 1 (May Day
May Day
May Day on May 1 is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures....

) 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland, Ohio
Cleveland is a city in the U.S. state of Ohio and is the county seat of Cuyahoga County, the most populous county in the state. The city is located in northeastern Ohio on the southern shore of Lake Erie, approximately west of the Pennsylvania border...

. The event quickly broke into the violent May Day Riots of 1919
May Day Riots of 1919
The May Day Riots of 1919 were a series of violent demonstrations that occurred throughout Cleveland, Ohio on May 1 , 1919. The riots began when Socialist leader, Charles Ruthenberg organized a May Day parade of local trade unionists, socialists, communists, and anarchists to protest the jailing...

. Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta, Georgia
Atlanta is the capital and most populous city in the U.S. state of Georgia. According to the 2010 census, Atlanta's population is 420,003. Atlanta is the cultural and economic center of the Atlanta metropolitan area, which is home to 5,268,860 people and is the ninth largest metropolitan area in...

, at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 write-in votes (3.4%), slightly less than he had won in 1912, when he received 6%, the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. His time in prison also inspired Debs to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and appeared in his only book, Walls and Bars, with several added chapters. It was published posthumously.

In March 1919 President Wilson asked Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer
Alexander Mitchell Palmer
Alexander Mitchell Palmer was Attorney General of the United States from 1919 to 1921. He was nicknamed The Fighting Quaker and he directed the controversial Palmer Raids.-Congressional career:...

 for his opinion on clemency for Debs, but offered his own: "I doubt the wisdom and public effect of such an action." Palmer generally favored releasing people convicted under the wartime security acts, but when he consulted with Debs' prosecutors—even those with records as defenders of civil liberties—assured him that Debs' conviction was correct and his sentence appropriate. The President and his Attorney General both believed that public opinion opposed clemency and that releasing Debs could strengthen Wilson's opponents in the debate over the ratification of the peace treaty. Palmer proposed clemency in August and October 1920 without success.

At one point Wilson wrote: "While the flower of American youth was pouring out its blood to vindicate the cause of civilization, this man, Debs, stood behind the lines sniping, attacking, and denouncing them....This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration." In January 1921, Palmer, citing Debs' deteriorating health, proposed to President Wilson that Debs receive a presidential pardon freeing him on February 12, Lincoln's birthday. President Wilson returned the paperwork after writing "Denied" across it.

On December 23, 1921, President Harding
Warren G. Harding
Warren Gamaliel Harding was the 29th President of the United States . A Republican from Ohio, Harding was an influential self-made newspaper publisher. He served in the Ohio Senate , as the 28th Lieutenant Governor of Ohio and as a U.S. Senator...

 commuted Debs' sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day. He did not issue a pardon. A White House statement summarized the administration's view of Debs' case: "There is no question of his guilt....He was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did. He is an old man, not strong physically. He is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent."

Last years

When Debs was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with "a roar of cheers" and a crowd of 50,000 greeted his return to Terre Haute to the accompaniment of band music. En route home, Debs was warmly received at the White House by Harding, who greeted him by saying: "Well, I've heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally." In 1924, Debs was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize
Nobel Peace Prize
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the five Nobel Prizes bequeathed by the Swedish industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel.-Background:According to Nobel's will, the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who...

 by the Finnish
Finland
Finland , officially the Republic of Finland, is a Nordic country situated in the Fennoscandian region of Northern Europe. It is bordered by Sweden in the west, Norway in the north and Russia in the east, while Estonia lies to its south across the Gulf of Finland.Around 5.4 million people reside...

 Socialist Karl H. Wiik
Karl H. Wiik
Karl Harald Wiik was a Swedish-speaking Finnish Social Democratic leader. He was a Member of the Finnish Parliament from 1911 to 1918, from 1922 to 1929, from 1933 to 1941 and from 1944 to his death. An influential member of the Party's left wing, he was imprisoned for a time after the Finnish...

 on the grounds that "Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism." In the fall of 1926, Debs was admitted to Lindlahr
Henry lindlahr
Henry Lindlahr was the author of one of the cornerstone texts of American naturopathic medicine, Nature Cure, which includes topics about disease suppression versus elimination, hydrotherapy, and the importance of fresh air and sun bathing....

 Sanitarium
Sanatorium
A sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term illness, most typically associated with treatment of tuberculosis before antibiotics...

 in Elmhurst, Illinois
Elmhurst, Illinois
Elmhurst is a suburb of Chicago in DuPage and Cook Counties, Illinois. The population is 46,013 as of the 2008 US Census population estimate.-History:...

. He died there of heart failure on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70. His body was cremated
Cremation
Cremation is the process of reducing bodies to basic chemical compounds such as gasses and bone fragments. This is accomplished through high-temperature burning, vaporization and oxidation....

 and buried in Highland Lawn Cemetery
Highland Lawn Cemetery
Highland Lawn Cemetery is a city-owned cemetery in Terre Haute, Indiana. Opened in 1884, the cemetery includes .The cemetery features a Richardsonian Romanesque chapel built by architect Jesse A. Vrydaugh in 1893 for a cost of $10,000. In the 1980s, the chapel underwent renovation which was...

.

Legacy

Eugene Debs helped motivate the American Left
American Left
The American Left consists of individuals and groups, including socialists, communists and anarchists, that have sought fundamental change in the economic, political and cultural institutions of the United States. Although left-wing ideologies came to the United States in the 19th century, there...

 as a measure of political opposition to corporations and World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. American socialists, communists, and anarchists honor his compassion for the labor movement and motivation to have the average working man build socialism without large state involvement. Several books have been written about his life as an inspirational American socialist. On May 22, 1962, Debs' home
Eugene V. Debs Home
The Eugene V. Debs House, on the campus of Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a home of union leader Eugene V. Debs. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966....

 was purchased by the Eugene V. Debs Foundation for $9,500 and the work of making it into a Debs memorial was begun. In 1965 it was made an official historic site of the state of Indiana, and in 1966 it was made an official National Historic Landmark
National Historic Landmark
A National Historic Landmark is a building, site, structure, object, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance...

 of the National Parks system of the Department of Interior of the United States. The preservation of the museum is monitored regularly by the National Park Service
National Park Service
The National Park Service is the U.S. federal agency that manages all national parks, many national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations...

. In 1990, the U.S. Department of Labor named Debs a member of its Labor Hall of Fame.

The former New York radio station WEVD (now ESPN radio) was named in his honor.

While Debs did not leave a collection of papers to a university library, the pamphlet collection that he and his brother amassed now resides at Indiana State University
Indiana State University
Indiana State University is a public university located in Terre Haute, Indiana, United States.The Princeton Review has named Indiana State as one of the "Best in the Midwest" seven years running, and the College of Education's Graduate Program was recently named as a 'Top 100' by U.S...

 in Terre Haute. Scholar Bernard Brommel, author of a 1978 biography of Debs, has also donated his biographical research materials to the Newberry Library
Newberry Library
The Newberry Library is a privately endowed, independent research library for the humanities and social sciences in Chicago, Illinois. Although it is private, non-circulating library, the Newberry Library is free and open to the public...

 in Chicago, where they are open to researchers.

Works

  • Walls and Bars: Prisons and Prison Life In The "Land Of The Free." Chicago: Socialist Party, 1927.

Further reading

  • Bernard J. Brommel, Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., 1978.
  • Dave Burns, "The Soul of Socialism: Christianity, Civilization, and Citizenship in the Thought of Eugene Debs" in Labor, vol. 5, no. 2 (2008), pp. 83-116.
  • Peter Carlson, Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
  • McAlister Coleman, Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid. New York: Greenberg, 1930.
  • J. Robert Constantine (ed.), Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • J. Robert Constantine (ed.), Letters of Eugene V. Debs. In Three Volumes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
    University of Illinois Press
    The University of Illinois Press , is a major American university press and part of the University of Illinois system. Founded in 1918, the press publishes some 120 new books each year, plus 33 scholarly journals, and several electronic projects...

    , 1990.
  • J. Robert Constantine and Gail Malmgreen (eds.) The Papers of Eugene V. Debs, 1834-1945: A Guide to the Microfilm Edition. Microfilming Corporation of America, 1983.
  • Eugene V. Debs, Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. Girard, KS: Appeal to Reason, 1908.
  • Ray Ginger
    Ray Ginger
    Raymond Sydney Ginger was an American historian, author, and biographer of wide-ranging scholarship whose special focus was on labor history, economic history, and the epoch often called the Gilded Age...

    , The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. Rutgers University Press
    Rutgers University Press
    Rutgers University Press is a nonprofit academic publishing house, operating in Piscataway, New Jersey under the auspices of Rutgers University.-History:...

    : 1949.
  • Ronald Radosh (ed.), Great Lives Observed: Debs. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
  • Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Reprinted by University of Illinois Press, 1984.
  • Irving Stone
    Irving Stone
    Irving Stone was an American writer known for his biographical novels of famous historical personalities, including Lust for Life, a biographical novel about the life of Vincent van Gogh, and The Agony and the Ecstasy, a biographical novel about Michelangelo.-Biography:In...

    . Adversary in the House. Doubleday: 1947.

External links

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