Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Victor Debs

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, Eugene Victor Debs was a homegrown socialist at a time when most people in the United States reviled socialism as a European import. Debs ran five times for president, winning his largest vote total when he campaigned in 1920 from an Atlanta prison cell. A central figure in two railroad unions, Debs led an 1894–95 strike against Chicago's Pullman Car Company and later spoke out against U.S. participation in World War I.

Debs, the son of Alsatian immigrants, dropped out of school at 14 to help support his family. By 1870 he was a railroad fireman, and in 1875 he helped organize a Terre Haute lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, a national craft union founded in New York in 1873. A skilled and forceful writer, Debs was soon editing the union's national magazine. He would continue as editor even after he resigned from the brotherhood in 1891.

Meanwhile, Debs was also active in local politics. As a Democrat he served two terms as Terre Haute city clerk and was elected in 1885 to the Indiana general assembly. He was a supporter of women's suffrage, inviting controversial suffragist Susan B. Anthony to speak in Terre Haute and, as city clerk, declining to fine prostitutes as long as their customers went free.

In 1893 Debs organized the new American Railway Union (ARU). Unlike the brotherhood, the ARU would be less a fraternity than a mass worker organization, making it an important departure from Samuel Gompers's craft-based American Federation of Labor (AFL). With the U.S. economy sinking into depression, Debs in April 1894 engineered a successful strike against the Great Northern Railway. The union's 18-day stoppage ended with an ARU victory and a membership upsurge.

A month later Debs and his new union found themselves in a much more difficult situation. George Pullman, a Chicago entrepreneur who had made a fortune building luxurious private train cars for elite travelers, had also built a beautiful but paternalistic workers' town just outside the city. The sagging economy caused Pullman to slash wages, but rents and prices at Town of Pullman company stores stayed the same while laid-off workers lost their homes as well as their jobs.

Reluctantly, Debs mounted a boycott on behalf of striking Pullman workers. It was crushed by federal troops because other unions, notably the AFL, withheld their support. When Debs and the ARU defied a back-to-work injunction, lawyer Clarence Darrow, later famous for the Scopes trial, defended them, but Debs was jailed for six months in 1895.

The Pullman strike ended Debs's formal union leadership but made him a national figure and five-time presidential candidate who campaigned as a Socialist in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Whistle-stopping across the United States in a "Red Special Train," Debs attracted enthusiastic crowds, but his third party garnered few votes. He achieved a 6 percent vote share in the 1912 election; in 1920, as "Federal Prisoner 9653," Debs won almost 914,000 votes.

In June 1918 in Canton, Ohio, Justice Department agents listened as Debs spoke against the war, blaming Wall Street's "master class." Convicted under Woodrow Wilson's wartime Espionage Act, Debs was sentenced to 10 years. His health failing, Debs was released in December 1921 by President Warren G. Harding. One of Debs's final acts was to donate his prison release money to the Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Fund.