Eugene V. Debs Biography
Eugene V. Debs, Indiana statesman, radical and socialist ran for president 5 times. His last candidacy while he was in prison for violating the Espionage Act by speaking against the War during WWI.
In 1920 a man in a jail cell in Atlanta, Georgia ran for the office of President of the United States and received about 3.5% of the vote. That man was Eugene V. Debs.
Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), a Terre Haute, IN native, ran for the office of United States president five times on the socialist ticket. The son of immigrant parents, Debs began working at age 14, scraping and painting railroad cars in the Terre Haute railyards for a daily wage of fifty cents. He worked in the railroad industry from 1869 to 1874 achieving a position as a locomotive fireman. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen made him an officer in the local lodge in 1875. Debs worked ceaselessly to build this organization and by 1880 was elected to Brotherhood's national office of secretary treasurer, also serving as editor of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine.
Debs' political career began as a Democrat. He served as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1880 to 1884 and was elected to the Indiana Legislature for the 1885-1887 term. Debs was increasingly drawn into the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen's growing militant efforts to improve labor conditions for the various craft-based brotherhoods. Soon Debs' activities with the Democratic Party faded as he shifted his efforts to promoting collective bargaining for tradesmen. However, his efforts to promote bargaining across trade groups met with little success.
In 1893 Debs founded the American Railway Union, which was open to all railway workers. The American Railway Union in its day was the largest union in America. This union effectively negotiated labor issues until its involvement in a sympathy strike against the George Pullman Company. This strike was very bitter. An estimated 100,000 workers joined the strike, blocking Chicago to railroad traffic almost completely. A court order to end the strike was issued, but Debs and seven other American Railway Union leaders ignored it. This strike, also known as the "Debs Rebellion," ended only when President Grover Cleveland resorted to federal troops. Despite representation by Clarence Darrow, Debs was convicted of contempt of court for ignoring the order. He served his first prison term of six months in the Woodstock, IL jail. Debs and the seven union leaders who defied the court order became known as the "Woodstock Eight." While in prison, Debs joined the socialist cause.
The Social Democrat Party held its first convention in Indianapolis, IN in 1900 and placed Debs on the ballot as its candidate for president. Debs remained the party's candidate for president for the next three elections. In his second bid for president Debs' support increased by more than 300,000 votes. In the 1908 election, Debs travelled coast to coast speaking directly to the people from his "Red Special" train, but his voter support rose by less than 18,000 votes. The Socialist party achieved its greatest success in 1912 when Debs received approximately 6 percent of the vote.
The next election came as the nation began to stir sentiments to go to war. Debs declined the presidential nomination and ran for congress instead. He began to speak out against the war in Europe, a stance he maintained even when America joined the Allies in 1917. Debs made a speech in Canton, OH on June 16, 1918 that compared the business men of Wall Street to the Kaiser's junkers and spoke against the war and the common man's position in war. He said, "... 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."
Just prior to giving this speech, Debs visited three members of his movement serving prison sentences for violating the Espionage Act by speaking against the war. A month later Debs was arrested in Cleveland and charged with violating the same act and this very speech was used against him. The prosecution held that Debs' speech discouraged military enlistment and promoted insubordination in the ranks. Debs, speaking in his own defense, argued the validity of the Espionage Act in light of his right to free speech. On Sept 14, 1918 Debs was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act. The conviction was unsuccessfully appealed and in April of 1918 Debs entered the West Virginia prison system and became Convict Number 9653. Two months later, Debs was transferred to the Atlanta federal prison.
In 1920 the Socialist Party again ran Eugene V. Debs for president. Debs captured over 900,000 votes, his greatest number ever, however, this increased number only yielded around 3.5% of the vote. On Christmas day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time spent and Debs returned to his family in Terre Haute. Despite ill health due to prison and a life of hardship, Debs continued to write and speak for socialist causes like improving prison conditions. In his lifetime Debs supported such "radical" causes as women's suffrage, eight hour work days, sick leave, and social security, and spoke against child labor and racial distinctions.
On October 20th, 1926, Debs died at Lindlahr Sanitarium outside of Chicago. His body was quietly returned to Terre Haute and buried in the family plot. The family kept the grave a secret as his wife feared grave robbers. The grave is in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, IN. A book of Debs writings, entitled Walls and Bars was published posthumously in 1927.
Debs has been noted as Indiana's "most effective protestant." In prison, guards and prisoners characterized Debs as a man who touched people with his friendliness and concern for their welfare. Debs' philosophy is best expressed in his famous quote:
"While there is a lower class, I am in it;
While there is a criminal element, I am of it;
While there is a soul in prison, I am not free!"