In Re Debs: 1895

views updated May 23 2018

In Re Debs: 1895

Defendant: Eugene V. Debs
Crimes Charged: Contempt of court and conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Clarence Darrow, S. Gregory, and Lyman Trumbull
Chief Prosecutors: John C. Black, T. M. Milchrist, and Edwin Walker
Judges: Peter Grosscup and William A. Woods
Place: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: January 26-February 12, 1895
Verdict: Guilty of contempt, no verdict on conspiracy
Sentence: 6 Months imprisonment for contempt of court (a pretrial conviction)

SIGNIFICANCE: In one of the most egregious cases of the courts siding with industry against labor, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the American Railway Union to stop a strike against the Pullman Company and sentenced the strike's leader, Eugene Debs, to six months in jail for violating the injunction. The government then put Debs on trial for conspiracy but dropped the case in mid-trial. The Supreme Court upheld Debs' sentence for contempt of court in a rtlajor confirmation of federal judges' power to enforce their orders.

In the late 19th century, as heavy industry grew and railroads spread across the country, commercial centers like Chicago and other cities mushroomed. With this industrial growth, however, came growing abuses. Ownership of industry was concentrated in a handful of wealthy men, while the factory workers and others who made industrialization possible were not protected by the government. Companies were able to get away with paying workers low wages for long hours. Further, most companies did not give workers benefits such as sick leave or disability pay. To make matters worse, there were many "company towns" where workers rented their houses and bought food from stores all owned by the very company that employed them.

The city of Chicago, where the famous Haymarket Riot occurred, was home to one of the most flagrant abusers of industrial power. George M. Pullman's Pullman Palace Car Company manufactured the world-famous railroad cars. The company operated its own company town just outside of Chicago. Not surprisingly, it was named Pullman, Illinois.

The company charged workers higher than average rents to live in company-owned housing while paying substandard hourly wages. Further, in 1893 the company responded to an economic depression by cutting wages 25 percent. In the winter of 1893, conditions were grim in Pullman, Illinois.

The "Debs Rebellion"

Eugene Debs was born in 1855 to a blue-collar Midwestern family. He began his career as a lowly railroad worker. However, he soon discovered that his real gift was in politics, and he rose quickly in the budding union movement. By 1893 Debs was president of the American Railway Union. Although the ARU was primarily a railroad-track workers union, in the spring of 1894 many Pullman employees joined. On May 11, 1894, the smoldering discontent in Pullman ignited and all 3,300 workers went on strike. Although it is likely that the strike was a spontaneous local event not called by the ARU, Debs quickly went to Pullman and assumed leadership of the strike. Because the ARU represented workers in nearly every railroad system in the United States, and the railroads threw their support behind Pullman, the strike soon became a nationwide railway work stoppage. The resulting paralysis of the American rail network was dubbed the "Debs Rebellion."

President Grover Cleveland was alarmed by the strike and sided with Pullman and the railroads. His attorney general, Richard Olney, went to federal judges Peter Grosscup and William A. Woods to ask for a court order stopping the strike. Ironically, one of Olney's arguments in asking for the injunction was that the ARU strike violated the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The Sherman Act was intended to break up large corporate monopolies and gave federal judges broad powers to issue orders stopping actions they deemed harmful to interstate commerce. At Olney's suggestion, Grosscup and Woods twisted the act's meaning and on July 2, 1894 used their power to order Debs and the other ARU leaders to abandon the strike. The order even made answering a telegram from the strikers a violation of the terms of the injunction.

Furious, Debs and the ARU leadership resolved to ignore the injunction. Because violating a court order constitutes contempt of court, Judge Woods had Debs hauled into court and sentenced him to six months in jail. Contempt of court is the traditional means by which judges enforce their authority, requiring no trial or jury. The government also charged Debs with conspiracy to block the federal mail: the ARU's nationwide railroad work stoppage had halted a Rock Island Railroad train carrying mail for the post office. In the meantime, thefederal government's actions were not limited to the legal system. President Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to crush the strike.

Debs Tried for Conspiracy

Unlike the contempt charge, the government had to try Debs for conspiracy before a jury. The ARU retained the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, who was assisted by S. Gregory and former Illinois Supreme Court Judge Lyman Trumbull. The prosecutors were John C. Black, T. M. Milchrist, and Edwin Walker.

When the trial opened January 26, 1895, from the start Darrow made it clear to the jury that the issue at trial was not Debs' guilt but the government's desire to crush the union movement. Referring to an executive committee of the railroads called the General Managers' Association, Darrow said:

This is an historic case which will count much for liberty or against liberty. Conspiracy, from the days of tyranny in England down to the day the General Managers' Association used it as a club, has been the favorite weapon of every tyrant. It is an effort to punish the crime of thought.

Darrow cleverly decided to subpoena George Pullman and the members of the General Managers' Association to testify at the trial. While the real opposition to the "Debs Rebellion" was being served with legal process, the prosecutors grilled Debs. They hoped to provoke him into a socialist tirade against American industry and thus alienate the jury. Prosecutor Walker asked Debs how he defined the word "strike." Debs, however, merely responded in a detached manner:

A strike is a stoppage of work at a given time by men acting in concert in order to redress some real or imaginary grievance.

Walker: Mr. Debs, will you define the meaning of the word "scab"?

A scab in labor unions means the same as a traitor to his country. It means a man who betrays his fellow men by taking their places when they go on strike for a principle. It does not apply to non-union men who refuse to quit work.

After Debs' testimony, events took a surprising turn. Judge Grosscup, probably influenced by George Pullman and the General Managers' Association, who were reluctant to testify in open court, stated on the day after Debs's testimony that:

Owing to the sickness of a juror and the certificate of his physician that he will not be able to get out for two or three days, I think it will be necessary to adjourn the further taking of testimony in this case.

Grosscup then adjourned the case. In a remarkable turn of events, the trial never reconvened. In effect, the government dropped the conspiracy charge. It has never been conclusively determined whether this decision was the result of Pullman's influence or the weakness of the government's case.

Darrow and Debs' other lawyers appealed the still-valid contempt conviction. However, on May 27, 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their pleas and refused to overturn Woods' decision. Debs served his six-month sentence in Illinois' Woodstock Prison with other ARU leaders jailed for contempt. In Re Debs has been cited many times since to demonstrate the sweeping powers of federal judges to punish those who violate court orders.

Debs' Political Career Continued

Although his strike was crushed, Debs left prison with his political reputation intact. He became the leading spokesman for the American left, and was the presidential candidate for the American Socialist Party in every election (except 1916) from 1900 to 1920. He lost every election.

When the United States entered World War I, Debs was outraged. He criticized President Woodrow Wilson in the harshest terms, and in U.S. v. Debs was charged with treason. For the most part, the charges against Debs were the result of his support of the International Workers of the World, known as the "Wobblies." This time, however, a court found Debs guilty. Debs' appeals to the Supreme Court were unsuccessful. While in prison, Debs ran for the fifth and final time as the Socialist Party's candidate for president. Again, he was unsuccessful in his bid to become the nation's chief executive.

Stung by Debs' criticism, President Wilson refused to pardon him. Among Debs' choicer comments about Wilson were such gems as:

No man in public life in American history ever retired so thoroughly discredited, so scathingly rebuked, so overwhelmingly impeached and repudiated as Woodrow Wilson.

Warren G. Harding, who won the 1920 presidential election, was more charitable. Harding pardoned Debs in December 1921 and even invited him to the White House on Christmas Day. But Debs found that the Socialist Party had lost its political force. He spent his final years with his wife in quiet retirement and died in 1926.

Stephen G. Christianson

Suggestions for Further Reading

Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949.

McHugh, Clare. "Why Has Socialism Never Caught on in the U.S.?" Scholastic Update (September 1986): 12.

Noble, Iris. Labor's Advocate. New York: Julian Messner, 1966.

Selvin, David F. Eugene Debs. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1966.

In Re Debs

views updated May 21 2018


IN RE DEBS, 158 U.S. 564 (1895). Influenced by his attorney general, Richard Olney, and convinced that the Pullman strike of June–July 1894 was interfering with interstate commerce and the delivery of mails, President Grover Cleveland ordered troops into Chicago. Although

the Sherman Antitrust Act had proved of little value in controlling monopoly and Olney himself considered it useless, he asked and secured from the U.S. court in Chicago an injunction based on this act and on the law prohibiting obstruction of the mails. Described as the "omnibus injunction" because of its wide sweep, it forbade Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, and other officers "from in any way or manner interfering with, hindering, obstructing or stopping" the business of the railroads entering Chicago. Arrested for alleged violation of the injunction on 10 July, Debs and other leaders were found guilty, 14 December, of contempt and sentenced to jail, the sentences varying from three to six months (United States v. Debs, 64 Federal Reporter 724). Carried to the Supreme Court on a writ of habeas corpus, the sentence was upheld, on 27 May 1895, on the government's constitutional authority over inter-state commerce and the mails. While the circuit court had based the injunction specifically on the Sherman Act, Justice David J. Brewer of the Supreme Court rested its decision on "broader grounds." Injunctions had traditionally been used to protect individuals in civil or criminal matters; with the Debs injunction, the Court dramatically expanded its reach into the preservation of national sovereignty and social order.


Cooper, Jerry M. The Army and Civil Disorder: Federal Military Intervention in Labor Disputes, 1877–1900. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Eggert, Gerald C. Railroad Labor Disputes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

———. Steelmasters and Labor Reform, 1886–1923. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.

H. U.Faulkner

Eric J.Marser

See alsoHabeas Corpus, Writ of ; Injunctions, Labor ; Pullman Strike ; Railroads ; Strikes .

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