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co-founder of the American Railway Union and 5-time Socialist candidate for President
Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. He was educated in local public schools, but quit school at the age of 14 to help support his family. His began his working career as a paint scraper for the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad, and, in 1870, became a locomotive fireman. In 1874, at his mother's insistence, he gave up his fireman job and went to work in a wholesale grocery firm.
In 1875, Debs became a charter member and secretary of the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), even though he no longer worked in the railroad industry. By 1878 he had become an assistant editor of the BLF's national magazine; he served as national secretary and treasury of the BLF from 1880 to 1891, when he retired as secretary but agreed to stay on as magazine editor.
Early Political Career
Debs began his political career in 1879, when he was elected to the first of two terms as Terre Haute City Clerk. During his tenure in this position, he shocked citizens by refusing to assess fines on prostitutes since the police never arrested the pimps or the businessmen clients. In 1885, Debs was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly, where he served one term.
American Railway Union
One of Debs's principal problems with the BLF had been its policy of treating each individual railroad job as a separate craft and, therefore, a wholly separate union. Debs believed that anything less than a comprehensive union of all railroad workers was completely ineffective, since a company targeted by a strike by one small segment of the union could simply replace the strikers with non-union workers and break the strike. It was the failure of the BLF to listen to his reasoning that led to his leaving that organization.
In 1893, Debs helped form the American Railway Union (ARU), membership into which was open to any railroad worker regardless of specific job. That same year, the ARU organized a strike against the Great Northern Railroad, and Debs's assertion that a comprehensive union was stronger than a specific-job union proved correct, as the railroad agreed to virtually every union demand; the strike was over in eighteen days.
In 1894, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company went on strike to protest wage and hour cuts. Although Debs hoped a resolution could be negotiated, Pullman refused to come to the bargaining table. In response, the ARU ordered all of its members to refuse to move Pullman cars on any train until the company agreed to negotiate. Before long the nation's rail network was at a virtual stalemate. In response to the ARU, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to break the strike, on the pretense that it was interferring with movement of the U.S. mail. When Debs and other ARU leaders refused to back down, they were arrested for failing to comply with a federal court injunction; they subsequently spent six months in the McHenry County Jail, in Woodstock, Illinois.
Debs spent his time in jail learning about Socialism, and by the time he got out he was a devout convert. In 1900, Debs agreed to be the Social Democratic Party's (SDP) candidate for President. He was soundly defeated by William McKinley, 7,219,530 votes to 96,978.
Constant divisions within the SDP led Debs to leave that party in 1904, after which he helped found the Socialist Party of America (SPA). He was the SPA's candidate for President that same year, running on a campaign platform that included woman suffrage, restrictions on child labor, and workers' rights to organize unions. The SPA became the nation's third largest party that year, and by the time the elections were over it held over 1,000 elective offices in 33 states and 160 cities; Debs, however, once again failed in his presidential bid.
Debs ran again for President in 1908. This time he embarked on a whirlwind, cross-country, whistle-stop tour, using a special train dubbed the Red Special Train, along with the "Red Special Band." Although he spoke before thousands upon thousands of voters and was well received almost everywhere he stopped, he again failed in his presidential bid. The campaign did, however, manage to bring a lot of issues before the public that would likely have been completely overlooked, including women's rights and numerous labor issues. His 1912 presidential campaign was equally popular, as well as equally unsuccessful.
left: the Red Special Train
In 1916, Debs took a break from the presidential campaign trail and decided instead to run for a seat in Congress. His campaign placed special emphasis on keeping America neutral in World War I. Although he shared a view with a great number of his potential constituents, he lost the election.
In June of 1918, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio, in which he severely criticized the United States for getting involved in Europe's war. He was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted for violating the Sedition and Espionage Acts, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Prison, the SPA nominated him as its candidate for the 1920 presidential election. Although he was serving a federal sentence that was scheduled to run through his potential term in office, Debs managed to garner almost one million votes, or about 3.5 percent of the total votes cast.
On Christmas Day of 1921, Debs's prison sentence was commuted by President Warren G. Harding and he was released. Thousands of well-wishers greeted Debs when he returned to Terre Haute on December 28.
By July of 1922, years of campaigning and confinement had begun to take their toll on Debs's mental and physical health, and he committed himself to the Lindlahr Sanitorium in Elmhurst, Illinois, in order to regain his strength. He died there on October 20, 1926.
This page was last updated on March 05, 2017.