Eugene Debs was one of the most important figures in American labor history. He is most often remembered for being a proponent of socialism, but long before his time as the leader of the Socialist Party in the United States, Debs worked as a crusader for American workers. He was born to Alsatian immigrants and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs left school at the age of fourteen to work for an Indiana railroad. As a young railway worker, he learned to appreciate the hardships that laborers endured on their jobs, leading him to pursue an active voice for workers’ rights at a very young age.
Most of Debs’s early labor activity involved the railroad. He quickly gained recognition through his involvement with the Terre Haute lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was elected the organization’s secretary in 1875. Rising quickly through the ranks, he was recognized as the national secretary of the brotherhood by 1881. Initially, Debs held conservative views when it came to labor questions. For example, he argued against his group participating in the national railroad strikes of 1877.
It was at this time that Debs also gained an interest in participating in government. He first entered political service by running for city clerk of Terre Haute in 1879, and by 1885 he had enough support to win a seat in the Indiana State Assembly. Debs drew support from workers and business leaders in his hometown.
One of the qualities that allowed Eugene Debs to remain at the forefront of labor organization in the United States was his ability to change his ideals over time. When he first became involved in labor, he believed that small craft unions were more important than national organizations such as the Knights of Labor. For example, Debs refused to allow his members to participate in 1885 strikes against railroads brought by the Knights of Labor. Within a few years, however, Debs changed his views after seeing the inability of small labor organizations to deal with business managers effectively. Debs also began to speak out against the powers of corporate leaders in the United States, claiming that corporations hindered the majority of Americans from receiving a fair wage. By 1893, Debs had resigned as secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and he began to organize a new labor organization, the American Railway Union (ARU).
Debs formed the American Railway Union in a politically charged atmosphere. Many members of the ARU came from the disgruntled ranks of the Pullman Palace Car Company. George Pullman angered labor leaders by his treatment of those that worked for his company. Pullman lowered wages, laid off workers, and raised prices at his company stores; his employees had no say in the matter. Pullman refused to listen to Debs’s pleas for arbitration, so Debs led the American Railway Union into action. In June 1894, the union refused to handle Pullman cars and soon tied up most of the railroad traffic in the Midwest.
In response, the railroads brought in strikebreakers and developed a scheme to involve the federal government in the strike. Railroad leaders ordered the strikebreakers to attach Pullman cars to mail cars so that interfering with delivery of the mail would bring in the government. The U.S. attorney general as well as President Grover Cleveland used the power of the federal government to bring injunctions against labor leaders and enforce the timely delivery of the mails. The federal courts also brought cases against many of the labor activists, including Debs. On July 13, 1894, a federal district court sentenced Debs to six months in jail for violating a federal injunction. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in the case of in re Debs (1895), in which the court claimed the sentence was just in protecting the interests of national sovereignty, where the government had the duty to protect interstate commerce and the delivery of the mails.
While in prison, Debs studied socialism and believed it could save the American worker. By 1897, he was putting together a socialist movement in the United States. Debs found success by building a coalition that embraced all viewpoints in the socialist sphere, ranging from moderate reformers to loyal Marxists. He soon organized the Social Democratic Party, mainly from holdovers from the American Railway Union. Debs ran for President in 1900 and received over four thousand votes. From this modest beginning, Debs became the leading spokesman for the Socialist Party in the United States. By the election of 1912, in a four-way race for the presidency with Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, Debs received 6 percent of the vote, or almost nine hundred thousand votes.
Even though he never achieved the presidency, Debs tirelessly campaigned for workers’ rights. He traveled the country participating in strikes and defending workers in industrial disputes. Debs also reached out to workers through print media when he became the associate editor of the Socialist publication, Appeal to Reason, in 1907.
Perhaps the greatest example of Debs’s fiery rhetoric was leveled at the U.S. government for its participation in World War I. Debs declared that he was against all wars except for the one that would result in a worldwide socialist revolution. He urged American men not to serve in the military and spoke out against the war all over the country. For his remarks, Debs was prosecuted under the Alien and Sedition Act passed during the Wilson administration. He was eventually arrested and given a twenty-year prison sentence for encouraging resistance to the draft; he served three years in a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. While a prisoner in Atlanta, Debs made his final run for the presidency in 1920, polling over a million votes. On Christmas Day, 1921, the Republican president, Warren G. Harding, commuted Debs’s sentence to time served and he was released. Debs spent the final years of his life in Terre Haute trying to recover his health from the time he spent in prison. He is remembered for tirelessly promoting the rights of all people and pushing for government reforms.
CHRISTOPHER R. TINGLE
References and Further Reading