Debs, Eugene V.
Eugene V. Debs
BORN: November 5, 1855 • Terre Haute, Indiana
DIED: October 20, 1926 • Elmhurst, Illinois
American political party leader; union leader
Eugene V. Debs headed the American Socialist Party for more than thirty years. He was instrumental in helping it achieve some impressive results in national elections early in the twentieth century. A longtime labor union leader, Debs emerged as America's most prominent socialist, a title that remained attached to his name eighty years after his death. He ran as his party's presidential candidate five times between 1900 and 1920. The votes cast for him helped bring some of his more radical ideas about economic justice into the political mainstream in the United States.
"What is socialism? Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men."
Working on the railroad
Eugene V. Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana. The town, located on the Wabash River, was home to French Canadian fur trappers in its earliest days. Coal mining and the railroads had brought growth and prosperity to the area by the time Debs was born. His parents, Jean and Marguerite, were originally from the city of Colmar in the Alsace region of France, near the German border. Jean Debs was the son of a wealthy textile manufacturer, but had been disinherited from the family fortune when he married Marguerite, who was a worker in the textile factory.
In Terre Haute, Marguerite ran a grocery store out of the first floor of their home. Jean had received an excellent education as a young man, even studying in Paris, France, for a time, and passed on his love of literature to Eugene and his younger brother Theodore. As the family store prospered, Eugene was able to attend a local academy, the Old Seminary School, but transferred into the public-school system in 1867. He was eager to begin working, however, and left school at the age of fourteen to take a job in one of the railroad shops. It was a large garage where railroad cars were repaired or refurbished. His first job was cleaning the grease off freight cars, but he eventually moved up to a letter-painting job. In 1871 he was promoted to locomotive fireman with the company. This job actually put him on the train, tending the engine-car furnace that powered the steam locomotives.
Debs became regretful that he left school so early, so he enrolled in classes at a local business college. He was reportedly quite upset when his high school class graduated without him in 1873. An economic downturn occurred that same year, which was triggered by the failure of some prominent East Coast banks. As a result, the railroads cut back on their routes and laid off thousands of employees. Debs went to St. Louis, Missouri, to find work and was shocked to see how the poor lived in cities outside Terre Haute. It was the closest experience to a situation he had previously only read about in books, such as the novel Les Miserables (1862), one of his favorite stories, by French writer Victor Hugo (1802–1885). Eventually Debs returned to Terre Haute and found a job as a clerk in the offices of a food wholesaler. Though he was no longer a fireman, he was able to join the city's Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Though the group was called a union, it was more of a charitable association. It did not involve itself in the struggle for better working conditions or higher wages, but instead provided group insurance rates for its members.
Since his earliest years, Debs had been an easygoing, well-liked student, and his early success in social settings carried over into his roles as co-worker and then Brotherhood member. He thought the organization could do more to help its members get through periods of layoffs like the 1873 economic downturn. From his own experience as a fireman, he also knew the job was a hard and dangerous one—sometimes even deadly—and he thought there should be rules established to ensure each fireman's safety on the job. He quickly rose to a leadership position, and in 1878 was made associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine. That same year, he ran for and won the job of Terre Haute city clerk as a Democratic candidate. Reelected in 1881, he was also made secretary-treasurer of the Brotherhood, which had doubled in size thanks to his organizing efforts.
From politician to union leader
Debs ran for and won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1884, but his two years there turned him against legislative politics and its behind-the-scenes compromises. In 1885 he wed Kate Metzel, the daughter of a prominent couple in Terre Haute. Though Debs lived most of his life in that city, his work kept him away from home for long periods of time. The couple never had children.
As a young man, Debs believed that workers and their bosses essentially had the same goals: prosperity for themselves, for their companies, and for their communities. But as he grew older, he saw the brutal treatment employees suffered because of the tremendous push to increase profits. The labor movement was just beginning to emerge as a significant force during the 1880s, and Debs was shocked at how quickly company management moved to fire, blacklist, or even physically harm workers who demanded fair wages and a reduction in hours to an eight-hour day. Blacklisting occurred when someone was tagged as a troublemaker, which made finding another job virtually impossible.
Debs believed that a larger union would be a major step for American workers, and the railroad was a good place to start. His idea was for a union that included all the employees in the railroad industry. At the time, the unions were small brotherhoods like the Firemen, who jealously guarded their job classifications. An umbrella group made up of all workers, he argued, would be a more effective way to bargain with management for better wages and working conditions. After some struggle, Debs finally succeeded in forming the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1893 and served as its first president. Another economic downturn in 1893 sent crowds of new members to its ranks.
The U.S. economy had expanded since the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), and the population and workforce had grown immensely along with it. The country was prosperous and a world leader in several industries, but workers were considered expendable, or easily replaced. Workers who organized to bargain for job security, safety, and a decent wage could be fired immediately and put on a "blacklist" that circulated among managers in a town. Companies hired thugs to harass strikers who were picketing. When major labor strikes turned violent, union leaders could even face murder charges if anyone was killed on the picket line.
Arrested and jailed
Debs rose to national prominence in the spring of 1894. In May, workers of the Pullman Company outside Chicago, Illinois, went on strike. They built the railway sleeping cars that were attached to most passenger trains, which served as the most common form of long-distance travel at that time. But Pullman workers lived in a company town, which meant that the company built and owned everything in the town, including the houses, stores, bank, library, and the like. Workers were required to live in the town, called Pullman, and had their rent, grocery bills, and even
César Chávez and "La Causa"
César Chávez was the leader of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) for several decades. His union represented the thousands of migrant laborers who toiled in U.S. agricultural fields. Legal recognition of the union marked an important turning point in the history of the American labor movement.
Chávez was born in 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, one of five children in his family. His parents had come to Arizona from Mexico some twenty years earlier and owned a ranch in Yuma. But financial hardships caused by the Great Depression (1929–41) caused many farmers and ranchers to lose their properties when they could not repay bank loans. The Chávez family was one of them. They moved to California to look for jobs as field hands.
The family soon found that being migrant workers, or part of a group of manual laborers who moved from one site to another to pick crops for cash, meant exceptionally difficult work for extremely low wages. Often they earned just a dollar a day and were forced to live in camps or in their cars. Sometimes they would work for weeks, but were cheated out of their pay at the end of the season by dishonest bosses. By the time Chávez quit school around age thirteen, he had attended more than thirty different schools. Like other migrant-worker families, the Chávezes suffered many hardships, including discrimination. Some stores even posted signs that read "Whites Only."
Around the time Chávez left school to work full time in the fields, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began assembling migrant laborers. Chávez's father and uncle joined, although it was dangerous to be associated with organized labor at that time. Some union leaders were harassed and even physically attacked.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1939–45), Chávez returned to the grape vineyards near Fresno, California. In 1951 he joined the staff of the Community Services Organization (CSO), a social-services agency that served the Hispanic American community, and eventually became its director in 1958.
In 1962 he began his own organization, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). In 1965, when grape-pickers from another labor group went on strike, Chávez and his NFWA locals joined in. The strike received heavy media coverage and became known as "La causa" ("The Cause"). The phrase would later be applied to the larger movement that sought to improve the lives of migrant workers.
The grape-growers eventually gave in and agreed to negotiate with the unions. Soon Chávez's NFWA merged with another group to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). One of its first successes was signing labor contracts with two major California wine producers. In the meantime, strikes against other grape growers continued. A table grape boycott was initiated by Chávez, who asked Americans to stop buying supermarket grapes until they could be sure the men and women who picked those grapes worked reasonable hours for a fair wage. The boycott was well-publicized. National sales of table grapes dropped 12 percent.
Chávez's union won this fight, though it took several years. The battle was helped by high-ranking Catholic bishops in California, some of whom had worked with the largely Mexican American, migrant worker population and knew how poor the families were. Chávez was a devout Roman Catholic and attended religious services daily. His faith and commitment to social justice helped him lead the union through many difficulties during the 1970s and 1980s. Chávez called for another boycott in the mid-1980s to draw attention to the use of pesticides (chemicals that are used to kill insects) by grape growers. He died on April 23, 1993, in Arizona. Married since the late 1940s, he was the father of eight children.
library-use fees subtracted from their paychecks. The situation worked well enough in good economic times, but when wages dropped and hours lengthened, while rents remained the same, families suffered tremendous hardships.
When the Pullman workers went on strike, the ARU did not join them, but Debs authorized a boycott strategy. Under the terms of the boycott, ARU members refused to handle Pullman railroad cars anywhere in the nation. Since the Pullman cars were on almost every train, they had to be detached in order for the trains to be kept moving. The boycott meant a massive slowdown of all rail traffic across the nation.
Debs was in Chicago during the intense weeks of the strike. It was a time when tensions ran so high that some people worried that another civil war might break out. This time, they feared, the workers might rise up against the owners. Debs was working long hours to help settle the Pullman strike peacefully, but in early July the U.S. government authorized the use of federal troops to end the strike. The reason given for such a drastic measure was that the U.S. mail was being delayed, and the federal government could legally step in when that was the case. Labor historians, however, note that few mail cars and routes were actually affected by the strike. Violence broke out when the federal troops arrived.
Debs was arrested for violating an injunction, or court order, that required the strikers to return to work. He was held in the Cook County jail. A sympathetic sheriff allowed him to bring in a fox terrier to scare away the rats that lived in the filthy jail cells, but the dog was terrified at the size of the pests and had to be removed, whimpering and shaking. A week later, Debs was out, too, having been released on bail, and began to prepare for his trial. His attorney was Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), and though the case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Debs and the other union leaders spent six months in jail.
"Christianity in action"
The Pullman strike broke the ARU, which disbanded. Debs was inspired to return to politics. This time, however, he was convinced that the mainstream Democratic and Republican parties could not help the average American worker. Only socialism promised a better future, he believed. Socialism is a political philosophy that directs citizens to form a cooperative government that works toward serving the good of the entire population. In this kind of economic plan, the immense profits earned by businesses, which were the result of the physical labor of workers and not from the cleverness of a handful of managers, would be shared more equally. "What is socialism?" Debs asked in 1897 when he announced the formation of his new group, Social Democracy in America. "Merely Christianity in action," he answered, according to the book Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. "It recognizes the equality in men."
A year later, Debs's group became the Social Democratic Party. In the 1900 national elections, he was its presidential candidate and won 97,000 votes. A year later, his group reorganized and renamed itself the Socialist Party of America. In 1904 convention delegates again nominated Debs as the front-runner for the White House, and the party won an astounding 400,000 votes, more than four times the 1900 tally.
Debs's brand of socialism caught on at a time when America was enjoying a tremendous population growth. Its cities were dominated by factories, whose workers were mostly new arrivals from various European countries. Some of these immigrants were already familiar with the concept of socialism, which had roots in central Europe and imperial Russia. By 1908, when Debs ran a third time as his party's presidential candidate, he told audiences that voting for either of the two main parties would change nothing in America. All it would do, he argued, was keep the current system in place, and that was a system that did nothing to help the worker, but everything to profit the leaders of big business and their political buddies.
Debs's 1908 presidential campaign crisscrossed the nation on a train that was known as the "Red Special." The party did not gain much ground over the previous election in 1904, but made a powerful comeback in 1912. In that year, 897,011 votes were cast for Debs and his vice-presidential candidate, Emil Seidel (1864–1947) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the first socialist ever to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city. Debs and Seidel won 6 percent of the total popular vote cast. It was a stunning showing by third-party candidates, one that had not been repeated by any socialist party candidates as of the early twenty-first century.
Arrested and jailed again
The 1912 election was the high point for Debs and the American Socialist Party. The organization began to fall out of favor with the public during the first few years of World War I (1914–18), a conflict in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies. The war began in Europe in 1914 but the United States delayed joining the fight until 1917. The tide turned against the American Socialist Party due, in part, to its strong opposition to U.S. involvement in the conflict on any level. In his speeches and writings, Debs argued that American participation overseas would cost thousands of innocent lives, but that business interests stood to earn immense profits.
In 1916 Debs rejected the nomination for president at the socialist party convention. The current president, Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), won the White House again that year. A few months after beginning his second term in office, Wilson approved the deployment of the first U.S. troops in the war. Public opinion was still so divided over U.S. involvement that Wilson urged the U.S. Congress to pass the Espionage Act of 1917 shortly afterward. The law made it a crime, punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to twenty years in jail, for a person to deliver written or spoken opinions of the war that might interfere with the operation or success of the U.S. troops. The act also forbid the expression of ideas that might discourage enlistment in the armed forces.
On June 16, 1918, Debs gave a speech before the state branch of the American Socialist Party in Canton, Ohio. As detailed in Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, Debs said: "Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder…. And that is war, in a nutshell. The master class [the leadership] has always declared the wars; the subject class [the common worker] has always fought the battles." A government agent was in the Canton audience, and wrote down every word of the speech. Debs was indicted, formally accused of the crime, by a federal grand jury under the terms of the Espionage Act and arrested. He was charged with sedition, or participating in an illegal action that could provoke resistance to the lawful authority, and one in which the disruption or overthrow of the government was possible.
Debs was convicted but appealed his case on the grounds that the Espionage Act was unconstitutional and violated Americans' right to freedom of speech, which was guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At his sentencing hearing, he told the judge that he did not fear prison, and his words became one of his most famous speeches. "Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth," he said, according to the SoJust.net: A Document History of Social Justice Web site. "I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
New era for American labor
On April 12, 1919, Debs entered a federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. He was sixty-four years old and spent two-and-a-half years there. He made his final bid for president while imprisoned, and he and the socialists won nearly a million votes in the 1920 presidential election. President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23) pardoned him two days before Christmas 1921. On the day of Debs's release, the warden let every inmate out of his cell, an extraordinary act, so that the two thousand prisoners could gather in the main building and say their farewells to Debs. Once again, he had been immensely well liked by his fellow prisoners as well as his jailers. But the ordeal had ruined his health and he died on October 20, 1926, in the Lindlahr Sanitarium of Elmhurst, Illinois.
Historians note that the 1912 presidential election was a turning point in the history of American social reform. The current president, Republican William Howard Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13), was challenged by former president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09) and his newly formed Progressive Party. This was viewed as a struggle between big business (the Republicans) and anti-business (the Progressives). The Democratic Party candidate was Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, who edged out both Taft and Roosevelt to win the White House.
While Debs and his party came in fourth place in the vote tally, it was the highest percentage of the popular vote ever won by a socialist candidate up until that time in U.S. election history. By the early part of the twenty-first century, this record still stood. Upon taking office, Wilson approved of many of the ideas put forth by Debs and Roosevelt, and he took several measures that brought an end to the long, regulation-free status that corporations in America had enjoyed up until then. One of the most important pieces of legislation during Wilson's first term was the Clayton Anti-Trust Act. It revised the operating rules for U.S. corporations that conducted business across state lines, but one paragraph exempted labor unions from being punished for interfering with interstate commerce.
For More Information
Carey, Charles W., Jr. Eugene V. Debs: Outspoken Labor Leader and Socialist. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.
Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Edwards, Owen. "Broad Shoulders." Smithsonian (October 2005): p. 29.
Huberman, Leo. "The Debs Way." Monthly Review (October 2003): p. 38.
Jones, Arthur. "Millions Reaped What Cesar Chavez Sowed." National Catholic Reporter (May 7, 1993): p. 5.
Zinn, Howard. "Eugene V. Debs and the Idea of Socialism." Progressive (January 1999): p. 16.
"An American Hero." The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation. http://www.cesarechavezfoundation.org/cesarechavez.html (accessed on June 26, 2006).
Debs, Eugene Victor. "Statement to the Court" (September 18, 1918). SoJust.net: A Document History of Social Justice. http://www.sojust.net/speeches/eugene_debs_sedition.html (accessed on June 26, 2006).
Eugene V. Debs Foundation. http://www.eugenevdebs.com/ (accessed on June 26, 2006)
Debs, Eugene Victor
Born November 5, 1855 (Terre Haute, Indiana)
Died October 20, 1926 (Elmhurst, Illinois)
By the late nineteenth century the industrial workforce in the United States had grown very large. Factory workers labored long hours at dull, repetitive, often dangerous jobs, yet many did not make enough money to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families. The fear of losing their jobs prevented most people from speaking out against the unfair working conditions in the country's big industries, and there were few organizations or reformers willing to help. Labor leader Eugene Victor Debs was one man who devoted his life to providing a strong voice for the workers. He struggled tirelessly for twenty years to promote the labor union movement, which sought to protect the common interests of workers, particularly with respect to wages and working conditions. Debs believed that if they united, laborers could have more control over the workplace. When he felt the labor movement had failed, he attempted to lead an independent political party that would support American workers. Although in the early years of his fight for reform he was viewed as a radical and even a criminal by many Americans, by the end of his life Debs was almost universally
"While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
known as someone who had selflessly committed himself to helping others.
Childhood in Terre Haute
Debs's parents, Daniel and Marguerite Debs, emigrated from Alsace, France, in 1849. Daniel's parents were wealthy mill owners in Alsace, and when Daniel announced his intention to marry Marguerite, one of the workers in the family mills, his parents refused to give him any financial support. Daniel and Marguerite arrived in New York City with little money and were quickly married. They spent the next five years moving about the country looking for work. When Eugene was born in 1855, they were penniless and living in Terre Haute, Indiana. However, their fortune soon changed for the better when Marguerite began operating a store out of the front room of the family home. The business prospered, providing modest comfort for the family. Though not rich, the Debs were a happy family that grew to include ten children.
Debs was taught at home by his father before entering school. He was a good student who loved classic French literature. He quit at age fourteen to take a job as a painter in the local railroad yards, although he did continue to attend night classes at a local business school when possible. In 1870 Debs became a fireman (the person who feeds the coal into the fire to fuel the engine) for the railroad. Three years later he lost his job due to a severe economic downturn. In search of work, he traveled to St. Louis, Missouri. The extreme poverty of the city's working class made a strong impression on him and was one of the factors that led him to become an advocate for the rights of the nation's laborers.
Early union work
Back in Terre Haute a year later, Debs obtained a job as a billing clerk for a grocery firm, but he maintained a strong association with railway workers. In 1874 he attended the first meeting of a local division of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), a benevolent association (a society formed to aid others) that sought to supply health insurance to its members. Debs was elected secretary. He began to devote all his extra time to the cause of labor organizations, traveling around the country to support strikes and encourage railway workers to join their respective unions. He also edited the BLF's magazine and acquired a following among the workers for his well-spoken defense of their rights.
In 1885 Debs married Kate Metzel. It was a loving union that was to last until Debs's death. That same year he was nominated as the Democratic candidate for the Indiana House of Representatives, a position he won easily. Debs always voted according to his convictions and beliefs. He supported bills calling for women's suffrage (the right to vote) and an end to racial discrimination (treating groups of people differently due to the color of their skin or other racial characteristics). He also introduced a bill to hold the railways responsible for job-related injuries. By the end of his term, however, Debs knew that he did not want a career in politics. He had learned that most political actions were achieved by buying or trading favors and making deals with one's opponents. It was not in his nature to compromise on the principles he believed in or to enter into the kind of political maneuvering necessary to pass legislation.
Establishing the American Railway Union
Debs was also losing faith in the BLF. He had come to the conclusion that, in order to have more power to negotiate with employers, railway workers should be organized in one big union rather than spread out in various organizations according to different jobs. Whether fireman, conductor, or engineer, railway workers needed to unite and support each other to obtain better pay and working conditions from the railroad owners. Debs announced his retirement from the BLF in 1891, and in 1893 he formed the American Railway Union (ARU), which was open to any and all railway workers. As soon as it was created the ARU began to grow at an unexpectedly fast pace. In the first twenty days of organizing, thirty-four locals (branches) were established and two hundred to four hundred men signed up daily. The men were attracted to the principle behind the ARU and the cheap membership fees, which allowed many to join who previously could not afford it. There is little doubt, however, that a major reason for the success of the ARU was the importance and reputation among workers of the ARU president—Eugene Debs.
The Pullman strike
The ARU had existed less than a year when it became involved in one of the major union conflicts of the times, the Pullman workers' strike. Pullman, Illinois, was an unusual factory town. Between 1861 and 1865, George Pullman (1831–1897) had created a thriving industry with his line of luxury sleeper and dining cars for trains. In the 1880s he decided to build a technologically advanced factory about fifteen miles outside of Chicago. Next to the factory he built the town of Pullman for the factory workers to live in. Pullman envisioned his town as a model of efficiency and good health in which workers and their families could lead comfortable, safe lives. Workers began moving into the row house rentals in 1884, but life in Pullman was not the ideal that George Pullman had promoted, since he allowed the residents of his town almost no say in the running of their community. For most, however, it was still better than living among the filth and crime in the poor neighborhoods of the large cities. Then, in 1893, an economic downturn hit the U.S. economy, causing a drop in orders of Pullman cars. The company fired more than half the workers in Pullman and cut the wages of the remaining workers by more than 25 percent. The company did not, however, reduce the high rent on the laborers' houses or lessen charges in other facilities of the town. The workers could not afford to feed themselves and continue to pay their rent. On May 11, 1894, the Pullman employees went on strike.
The recently formed ARU executive board took a vote and decided in favor of supporting the Pullman workers' strike. Debs believed in the Pullman cause, but he was worried about involving the ARU in a major strike. The union did not yet have sufficient financial reserves to fund a long conflict. Also, most of the members and their leaders were new to the union movement and thus lacked the experience necessary to sustain a prolonged strike. Nonetheless, once the decision was made, Debs devoted all his skill to the cause. He helped organize a boycott (an organized refusal to deal with a company in order to protest policy or force action) in which all ARU members would refuse to work on any trains carrying Pullman cars. Since most trains had at least one Pullman car, the boycott would effectively halt the railroads. The response to the boycott was overwhelming. By the fourth day, 125,000 men were off the job, and twenty railroad lines had been stopped. Debs insisted there was to be no violence, no stopping of trains, and no destruction of railway property. For the first two weeks, the strike was orderly and nonviolent.
Railway owners sided with the Pullman Company, hoping they could take advantage of the strike to destroy the ARU, which threatened to become too powerful for their comfort. All twenty-six railroad companies were represented against the unions by the powerful General Managers' Association (GMA). The GMA took several well-planned actions, including urging the federal government to attach mail cars to trains carrying Pullman cars. This allowed President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1893–97) to call out the U.S. Army by arguing that the strike was interfering with the federal mail system. When troops marched into ARU headquarters in Chicago on July 4, rioting began. The conflict turned violent and resulted in thirteen deaths. Resistance spread outward from Chicago, and minor battles between strikers and federal troops and state militia broke out in twenty-six states from Maine to California. Thirty-four people were killed.
Despite having strong initial misgivings about the workers' movement, Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946) of the Chicago Record was one of the few journalists who ended up supporting Debs and the Pullman strikers.
Baker had become a reporter and editor for the newspaper when he left his graduate studies in 1892. His work introduced him to the miserable scenes in Chicago's soup kitchens and charity wards, and he witnessed daily the thousands of homeless, starving men crowding the city streets. Conditions in Chicago became even more desperate in 1893 when an economic slump left millions unemployed. At first Baker felt contempt for the poor, wondering why they didn't help themselves and do something about their poverty. Once he decided to help a needy young man find work, however, he was surprised to find that, even with every possible effort being made, there was not a job to be found.
In the winter of 1893–94, groups of unemployed workers across the country organized to march on Washington, D.C., to try to persuade the federal government to provide them with economic relief. These groups, or "armies," as they were called, ranged in size from several dozen to a few thousand men. Baker was assigned to go with Coxey's Army, a group of about one hundred men led by Jacob Sechler Coxey (1854–1951), a successful manufacturer and a reformer who worked to help the unemployed. Coxey's Army left Massillon, Ohio, on March 25, 1894, hoping to attract one hundred thousand supporters on the way to Washington. When Baker set out with the army, he was highly skeptical of the group's method of seeking reform. But after marching with them into the nation's capital he got to know the men and their stories and became convinced of the worthiness of their cause. In Washington, the leaders of the march were arrested and the rest were stopped by police. Though Coxey's Army failed in its mission, it received nationwide publicity for its cause, and Baker was one of the chief journalists responsible for that.
Soon after Baker returned to Chicago from the march, the Pullman strike began. Baker held conflicted views about the strike. He knew that the workers were barely able to survive on the wages they were receiving from their employers and had no power to negotiate. But, like many Americans, he watched the strikers as they began to riot and worried that they posed a threat to the law and order of the nation. Then, on July 8, 1894, Baker observed an angry mob trying to turn over a Pullman car in Indiana. A train full of soldiers pulled into the station and they began randomly firing their guns into the crowd. In horror, Baker saw people drop as bullets pierced them. Baker's sympathies were drawn to the strikers and their cause after that. He wrote many stories about their suffering and their heroic battle to win a decent life for their hard work. His stories were so effective that his readers began to send in contributions to help the strikers, which he distributed. During this time Baker came to greatly admire Eugene Debs, referring to the Pullman strike as Debs' rebellion.
Baker had, without meaning to, established himself as a muckraker. The muckrakers were a group of journalists who sought to expose dishonesty in business and government. In 1898 he went to work for McClure's Magazine along with fellow muckrakers Ida Tarbell (1857–1944; see entry), Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), and Frank Norris (1870–1902). The foursome wrote about conditions in industry and took up many reform issues. By 1906 they became unhappy with McClure's and took over another journal, American Magazine.
During the 1910s Baker became the first prominent journalist to focus on America's racial divisions. He wrote philosophical essays under the pen name of David Grayson that were collected in nine popular books. Baker also spent fourteen years researching and writing a biography of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21). He died in 1946.
Debs realized that the ARU could not win against the railroads. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the various railroad brotherhoods refused to help. Samuel Gompers (1850–1924), the head of the AFL, spoke against the Pullman Company but acknowledged that since the federal government had taken the side of the railroads there was no hope of winning a general strike. The public as a whole had little sympathy for the striking workers, particularly since the country was still recovering from the economic slump. No one wanted to see the rail business halted. Newspapers attacked the strikers, calling them criminals and traitors and demanding their arrest. On the other hand, those who bothered to learn the reasons behind the strikers' protests, notably the Chicago newspapers, farmers in the West, and workers' organizations worldwide, often sided with the Pullman laborers.
Finally the government secured an injunction (court order or formal command) against the strike leaders that forbade them from organizing and leading the strike. Debs and the other leaders ignored it and were arrested on July 17. With Debs in jail, the Pullman strike quickly collapsed. After the strike the ARU disbanded and the employees at Pullman were persuaded to sign pledges that they would never form or participate in another union.
Turn to socialism
Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for his part in the strike. Debs had been a fairly well-known public figure, at least among union circles, prior to the Pullman strike. His articles appeared frequently in widely read union papers and he was a skilled speaker who often drew huge crowds. Even people who disagreed with his ideas often enjoyed listening to him. His imprisonment after the Pullman strike elevated Debs to the position of national celebrity. From that point on he was recognized as a prominent labor leader throughout the country.
Reflecting on the events that had led to his imprisonment, he concluded that the nation's two-party political system was failing U.S. workers. Debs had long supported the Democratic Party and had even campaigned on behalf of President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908; served 1885–89, 1893–97). During the ARU boycott, however, Cleveland had sided with the railroads and had sent armed troops to battle the strikers. Debs decided that the working class needed its own party since both of the mainstream ones were allied with the employers, and he turned toward socialism, an economic system in which production and distribution of goods was owned collectively by all the workers and there was no private property or social classes. His reasoning was reflected in a later speech, "The Issue," given on May 23, 1908:
As long as a relatively few men own the railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, own the oil fields and the gas fields and the steel mills and the sugar refineries and the leather tanneries—own, in short, the sources and means of life—they will corrupt our politics, they will enslave the working class, they will impoverish and debase society, they will do all things that are needful to perpetuate [cause to continue indefinitely] their power as the economic masters and the political rulers of the people. Not until these
great agencies are owned and operated by the people can the people hope for any material improvement in their social condition.
After his release from prison, Debs helped create the Social Democratic Party (later the Socialist Party) in 1898. The party's missions included a strong commitment to the country's working people. Debs advocated the development of industrial unions, the formation of a socialist economic system, and opposition to capitalism (an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of goods and free market competition). These ideals affected the way he reacted to events over the next twenty-five years.
Running for president—five times
As America's most prominent socialist, Debs was nominated as the party's candidate for president in the elections of 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1900 and 1904 he led the Socialists to a fourfold increase in national voting strength, raising the number of votes the party received from about ninety-seven thousand to more than four hundred thousand. In 1912 Debs won 897,011 votes, 6 percent of the total and a major triumph for an independent party. Between campaigns Debs was a tireless speaker and organizer for the party, and he traveled the nation defending workers in their strikes and industrial disputes.
Debs fought his last presidential campaign from within the walls of the federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was serving a ten-year sentence for speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). Such an action had not previously been a crime, but in 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it illegal to make false reports that might aid an enemy, to incite rebellion within the armed forces, or to obstruct military recruitment. Debs believed that the working people were being forced to die in a war that would only benefit the capitalist class. In a speech on June 16, 1918, to the Socialist Party in Canton, Ohio, Debs stated: "… the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably do both." Thirteen days later a federal grand jury indicted (formally charged) Debs for violation of the Espionage Act. His conviction for obstructing recruitment and inciting rebellion was upheld by a unanimous Supreme Court decision. On April 12, 1919, at sixty-four years of age, Debs was sent to prison. Two years later, as the war memories faded and another president took office, Debs was released by order of President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23). During his captivity he had won almost a million votes in his 1920 presidential campaign. He was also greatly admired among the prisoners, who gathered to say farewell when he was released.
Debs returned to Terre Haute exhausted and ill. Two and a half years in prison had gravely affected his health. Debs was also confronted with bitter conflicts within the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party brought together people with sharply differing views and goals as one party—farmers, immigrants, laborers, idealists and intellectuals, and the unemployed—and its history was characterized by internal fighting among interest groups and inconsistent policies. In 1920 continuous fighting in the party had resulted in a split into three separate organizations. Debs stood by his party, hoping he could once again unite all its elements. His failing health prevented him from accomplishing this goal. Debs died on October 20, 1926.
For More Information
Debs, Eugene. "The Issue." Speech, May 23, 1908. In Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. Edited by Eugene Debs and Bruce Rogers. Girard, KS: The Appeal to Reason, 1908.
Debs, Eugene. "Statement to the Court." Speech, 1918. In American Voices: Significant Speeches in American History, 1640–1945. Edited by James Andrews and David Zarefsky. New York: Longman, 1989.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., ed. Writings and Speeches of Eugene Debs. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.
Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.
Zinn, Howard. "Eugene Debs and the Idea of Socialism." Progressive Magazine, January 1999. This article can also be found online at http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Heroes/EugeneDebsSocialism.html (accessed on July 7, 2005).
Official Site of the Eugene Debs Foundation. http://www.eugenevdebs.com/ (accessed on July 7,2005).
Debs, Eugene Victor
DEBS, EUGENE VICTOR
Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926) was a pioneer labor organizer and five-time Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Presidency. Debs advocated abolition of child labor, the right of women to vote, unemployment compensation, and a graduated income tax. His proposals were radical in the early twentieth century, but later became standard public policy for both major political parties.
Born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs left home at age 14 to work in a railroad shop, where he was paid 50 cents a day for scraping grease and paint from locomotives. He later became a locomotive fireman, and in 1875 Debs helped organize a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. An active union member, he became editor of the association's Firemen's Magazine in 1878 and was elected national secretary and treasurer of the union in 1880. He also served as city clerk of Terre Haute from 1879 to 1883 and as a member of the Indiana legislature in 1885.
Early in his career Debs gained recognition as an effective labor organizer. In addition to organizing numerous locals for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen he was an organizer for other railroad-related labor organizations. They included the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and the Order of Railway Telegraphers. Since these organizations failed to join together in their dealings with management, Debs found a union that would include all railroad workers, the American Railway Union in 1893. He later became its president. Against Debs's advice the new union participated in the Pullman Strike of 1894 in sympathy with Pullman Palace Car workers. One of the most famous strikes in U.S. labor history, it nearly paralyzed commerce in the western half of the nation before it was finally halted by a federal injunction. For his involvement in the strike, Debs was jailed for six months in 1895 in Woodstock, Illinois.
Debs spent much of his prison time reading and was deeply impressed by the works of Karl Marx. He became convinced that no single union could protect the rights of workers. In the presidential election of 1896 he campaigned for the Democratic-Populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, but a year later Debs announced his conversion to socialism.
For the next 30 years Debs was the leading spokesmen for democratic socialism to millions of U.S. citizens. He helped form the Socialist Party of America in 1898 and was its presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Debs attracted huge crowds during his energetic campaigns throughout the country; he was an exceptionally effective public speaker, winning wide support through his personal warmth, integrity, and sincerity. His speeches also raised much-needed funds for the Socialist Party. Though he failed to win a large percentage of the vote on election day, the number of people who voted for him was substantial, ranging from 96,000 in 1900 to 915,000 in 1920.
Debs's writings and speeches spread his ideas far beyond the confines of a relatively minor political party. In 1912 he ran for president against future president Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), former president Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), and incumbent president William Howard Taft (1909–1913). At the time Debs found that both Wilson and Roosevelt were advocating many of the ideas he had introduced in earlier campaigns. In a spontaneous speech after he won the Socialist Party nomination in 1912 he eloquently expressed his underlying philosophy: "When we are in partnership and have stopped clutching each other's throats, when we have stopped enslaving each other, we will stand together, hands clasped, and be friends. We will be brothers and sisters, and we will begin the march to the grandest civilization the human race has ever known." Although he again lost the election, Debs considered the campaign a moral victory.
Instead of running for the presidency in 1916, Debs waged an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. In 1920 he ran for president as a Socialist candidate for the last time. He campaigned from a prison cell where he was serving a 10-year sentence for sedition under the 1917 Espionage Act. His case became a rallying point for those who believed he should be freed as a matter of freedom of speech. He was released from prison by order of President Warren Harding (1921–1923) in 1921, but he never regained his citizenship, which was taken away from him at the time of his sedition conviction. It was restored in 1976, forty years after his death.
Following his release from prison, Debs spent the remaining five years trying to improve his impaired health and attempting to reconstitute the Socialist Party. Yet, in spite of the large and enthusiastic crowds that flocked to hear him, the 1920s was an era of capitalist domination and the Socialist Party was in decline. Although many of his followers had joined the Communist Party, Debs refused to do so because he opposed the Soviet system and its suppression of free speech.
In his final years he concentrated on prison reform, since he had firsthand experience about prison conditions. He also became interested in the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists accused of murder. This case involved heightened public attention towards labor and political radicals. In the summer of 1926 Debs returned to a sanitarium where he had spent extended periods in 1922 and 1924. He died in Elmhurst, Illinois, on October 20, 1926.
Constantine, J. Robert, ed. Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Constantine, J. Robert. "Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox." Monthly Labor Review, August, 1991.
Debs, Eugene V. Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.
Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1949.
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
debs advocated abolition of child labor, the right of women to vote, unemployment compensation, and a graduated income tax. his proposals were radical in the early twentieth century, but later became standard public policy for both major political parties.
Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Victor Debs
Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926), a leading American union organizer and, after 1896, a prominent Socialist, ran five times as the Socialist party nominee for president.
Eugene V. Debs was born on Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind., where his French immigrant parents, after considerable hardship, had settled. Debs began work in the town's railroad shops at the age of 15, soon becoming a locomotive fireman. Thrown out of work by the depression of the 1870s, he left Terre Haute briefly to find a railroad job but soon returned to work as a clerk in a wholesale grocery company. Even though he was no longer a fireman, he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1874 and rose rapidly in the union. In 1878 he became an associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine. Two years later he was appointed editor of the magazine and secretary-treasurer of the brotherhood.
Debs also pursued a political career in the early 1880s. A popular and earnest young man, he was elected city clerk of Terre Haute as a Democrat in 1879 and reelected in 1881. Soon after his second term ended in January 1884, he was elected to the Indiana Legislature, serving one term.
Changing Concept of Unionism
During the 1880s Debs remained a craft unionist, devoted to "orthodox" ideals of work, thrift, and respectable unionism. With the Firemen's Brotherhood as his base, he sought to develop cooperation among the various railroad brotherhoods. A weak federation was achieved in 1889, but it soon collapsed due to internal rivalries. Tired and discouraged, Debs resigned his positions in the Firemen's Brotherhood in 1892, only to be reelected over his protest.
Debs's new project was an industrial union, one which would unite all railroad men, whatever their specific craft, in one union. By mid-1893, the American Railway Union (ARU) was established, with Debs as its first president. Labor discontent and the severe national depression beginning in 1893 swelled the union's ranks. The ARU won a major strike against the Great Northern Railroad early in the spring of 1894. Nevertheless, when the Pullman Company works near Chicago were struck in May, Debs was reluctant to endorse a sympathetic strike of all railroad men. His union took a militant stance, however, refusing to move Pullman railroad cars nationally. By July, Debs felt the boycott was succeeding, but a sweeping legal injunction against the union leadership and the use of Federal troops broke the strike. Debs was sentenced to 6 months in jail for contempt of court, and his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Conversion to Socialism
Having moved from craft to industrial unionism, Debs now converted to socialism. Convinced that capitalism and competition inevitably led to class strife, Debs argued that the profit system should be replaced by a cooperative commonwealth. Although he advocated radical change, he rejected revolutionary violence and chose to bring his case to the public through political means. He participated in the establishment of the Social Democratic party in 1898 and its successor, the Socialist Party of America, in 1901.
Debs was the Socialist candidate for president five times. His role was that of a spokesman for radical reform rather than that of a party theorist. A unifying agent, he tried to remain aloof from the persistent factional struggle between the evolutionary Socialists and the party's more revolutionary western wing. As the party's presidential candidate in 1900 and 1904, he led the Socialists to a fourfold increase in national voting strength, from about 97,000 to more than 400,000 votes. While the party's vote did not increase significantly in 1908, Debs drew attention to the Socialist case by a dramatic national tour in the "Red Special," a campaign train. The year 1912 proved to be the high point for Debs and his party. He won 897,011 votes, 6 percent of the total.
Imprisonment for Sedition
When World War I began in 1914, the party met with hard times. The Socialists were the only party to oppose economic assistance to the Allies and the preparedness movement. Debs, while refusing the Socialist nomination for president in 1916, endorsed the party view that President Woodrow Wilson's neutrality policies would lead to war. In 1917 America's entrance into war resulted in widespread antagonism toward the Socialists. When Debs spoke out in 1918 against the war and Federal harassment of Socialists, he was arrested and convicted of sedition under the wartime Espionage Act. He ran for the last time as the Socialist presidential candidate while in prison, receiving nearly a million votes, more actual votes (but a smaller percentage of the total) than in 1912.
On Christmas Day 1921, President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs, but Debs could do little to restore life to the Socialist party, battered by the war years and split over the Russian Revolution. Debs had welcomed the Revolution; yet he became very critical of the dictatorial aspects of the Soviet regime, refusing to ally himself with the American Communist party. Debs died on Oct. 20, 1926, having won wide respect as a resourceful evangelist for a more humane, cooperative society.
The most recent edition of Debs's writings is Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs, with an introduction by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1948). There are two excellent studies of Debs's career: Ray Ginger, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949), and H. Wayne Morgan, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1962). McAlister Coleman, Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid (1930), is the best of the older biographies. Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (1952), and David A. Shannon, The Socialist Party of America (1955), are invaluable sources on the Socialist party. □
Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)
Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926)
Early Life. Eugene V. Debs was born in 1855 and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, where his parents settled after emigrating from Alsace. He left school at age fifteen to work for the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad. In 1875, some years after becoming a locomotive fireman for the railroad, Debs helped to organize a lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He was appointed secretary, beginning a rise through the various offices of the brotherhood that Debs combined with several local and state government positions as well as a job clerking for a wholesale grocery house.
Union. Debs’s significance as a labor organizer stands in sharp contrast to his contemporary Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). While Gompers worked with skilled trade workers, Debs advocated united efforts by the skilled and unskilled and tied unionizing efforts to a comprehensive political agenda. In June 1893 Debs formed the American Railway Union and became its first president. American Railway, one of the new “industriai unions” open to both skilled and unskilled workers (though not to blacks) gained national prominence within the year when it won an important victory over the Great Northern Railroad; membership quickly swelled to more than 150,000. But the union’s fortunes fell just as quickly, after Debs staked them on support for workers in the Pullman Strike (1894), coordinating a national boycott of trains pulling Pullman cars. For a time the ARU managed to paralyze rail traffic, earning notoriety for “King Debs.” However, the AFL refused to join Debs’s calls for a national sympathy strike, and the Pullman strike collapsed.
Socialism. In the aftermath Debs, who was indicted and jailed for his role in the strike, became both famous and infamous as a national labor hero. He made contact with prominent socialist spokesmen and joined the Populist political movement, backing the presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1896. As his political and economic philosophies evolved he began to espouse what he termed a “Cooperative Commonwealth,” to be colonized by the unemployed in some western state. In 1897, as populism fell apart, Debs turned to outright socialism, declaring “The issue is Socialism versus Capitalism. I am for Socialism because I am for humanity.” Following Debs’s lead, the American Railway Union, by then much diminished, transformed itself into the Social Democracy of America. In 1900 Debs served as the Social Democratic Party’s first presidential candidate. In 1905, after a second presidential candidacy, Debs helped to found the Industriai Workers of the World (IWW), though he later broke with the organization. During World War I Debs was jailed for opposing American intervention. He died in 1926, still espousing his socialist beliefs.
Eugene V. Debs, Walls and Bars (Chicago: Socialist Party, 1927);
Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982).
Debs, Eugene V.
In 1917, Debs led the socialist opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, which he condemned as an imperialist war fought for the interests of the trusts. Arrested for an antiwar, antidraft speech at Canton, Ohio, on 15 June 1918, Debs began serving a ten‐year sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in April 1919. Still in prison, he received nearly 1 million votes as the Socialist Party's presidential candidate in 1920, and was pardoned by President Harding on Christmas Day, 1921. He remained a committed socialist.
Debs's attitude toward war was best expressed in this widely quoted statement: “I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world‐wide war of the social revolution.”
[See also Peace and Antiwar Movements.]
Ray Ginger , The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs, 1949.
Nick Salvatore , Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, 1982.
Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)
Debs, Eugene V. (1855-1926)
Eugene Victor Debs, labor leader and five-time Socialist candidate for President, was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. Working on the railroads since he was 14, Debs founded the American Railway Union in 1893. The following year, the union was destroyed and Debs served six months in jail after a failed strike against the Pullman company in Chicago. Subsequently, Debs joined the Socialist Party of America and was their presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, and in 1912 when he received about 6 percent of votes cast. Opposing United States entry into World War I, Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition in 1918. In 1920, from his prison cell in Atlanta, Georgia, Debs ran for the presidency again gaining about 3.5 percent of the vote. A year later President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence and Debs spent his last years in relative obscurity until his death on October 20, 1926. Debs is remembered as the most viable Socialist candidate for the nation's highest office and as a champion of workers' rights.
—John F. Lyons
Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana, University of Illinois, 1982.