100 Years Ago Today: Eugene V. Debs, Martyr for Socialism

Herald Democrat, April 2, 1919

The first time I read the name, Eugene V. Debs, I thought it was a famous trial that I’d never heard of, and I started wondering, ‘who is this Mr./Mrs. Eugene and what was their beef against Debs?’ I think I need to read more books.

Eugene Victor Debs (1855-1926), whose middle name is a nod to author/activist Victor Hugo, is probably best known at the moment as one of Bernie Sanders’ heroes, but historically he’s remembered for his role in the Pullman Strike and, more broadly, for introducing the Socialist Party to voters in the United States. Debs believed that Socialism was inherently an American idea, and not just an eastern European novelty.

Debs, Eugene V.
A very young Eugene Debs

Gene Debs believed so deeply in the Socialist platform that he ran for U.S. President five times under the Socialist Party ticket: in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In his final campaign, he received 913,693 votes, or 6% of the popular vote, and he was in prison at the time. Of course, he was also despised and feared by many powerful people and institutions in the country, as evidenced by today’s editorial tirade against the man who had recently been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sedition.

Socialist Party: Eugene V. Debs and Ben Hanford
1904 U.S. Presidential campaign poster

Debs’ career arc smacks of that old political moniker, a renegade. At 14 he dropped out of high school and started working on the railroads. He was a fireman, which sounds super sexy but actually was a terrible job. It was dangerous work carved out for the very young and the very small.

A fireman shovels coal from the tender car, which sits just behind the engine, into the engine’s firebox, which was so blazing hot that a fireman was sometimes mummified in gauze and then soaked down in water so they could withstand the flames. Coincidentally, Vladimir Lenin was a fireman (aka stoker) on his secret return trip to Russia in 1917 to lead the Russian Revolution.

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A fireman loads coal into the firebox

By 1875 Debs had seen enough manual labor, so he joined the growing labor movement in the U.S. when he organized a chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and a few years later became the editor of their monthly publication, Firemen’s Magazine. In 1880 he became the national secretary and treasurer of the Brotherhood. Around the same time, he was elected City Clerk of his hometown, Terre Haute, Indiana, and he also served on the Indiana legislature.

In 1893, with his star ascending, Debs became President of the American Railway Union (ARU), which was one of the first industrial unions, meaning that any railway worker, regardless of craft or service, could join. Early the next year, the nascent ARU organized a strike against the Great Northern Railway, who had been cutting employee wages for months in response to the great panic of 1893. The strike lasted 18 weeks and resulted in an ARU victory when the wage cuts were rolled back. Reports of the ARU’s success led to union recruitment in the neighborhood of 2,000 workers a day.

ARU symbol in 1894

This victory immediately bolstered railroad workers at the Pullman Palace Car company, many of whom lived in the supposedly utopian town of Pullman, Illinois, south of Chicago. The town of Pullman was designed, owned, and run by George Pullman himself, who cut workers two checks on payday: one for rent, and one for salary. Workers were forced to sign the rent check immediately back to him.

Town of Pullman on Lake Calumet

When Pullman cut wages in 1894 and did not reduce rent or other expenses in town, the workers went on a wildcat strike, which is a strike not authorized by the union. Pullman workers were sure the ARU would support them since 35% of the strikers were members. Debs and the ARU decided they would organize a boycott against the Pullman company, telling their workers not to add, remove, or work on any Pullman cars.

I found that the wages and expenses of the employees were so adjusted that every dollar the employees earned found its way back into the Pullman coffers.

Eugene V. Debs, speaking about wage gouging in the town of Pullman, Illinois

The boycott saw immediate results. Dozens of railroad lines were tied up, hundreds of thousands of workers were either fired or walked off their jobs in sympathy, and the boycott spread across the country. But the boycott also had a violent edge to it, despite Gene Debs’ numerous attempts to keep it peaceful, and ultimately this violence caused the demise of not only the Pullman Strike but the entire ARU as well.

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Railroad cars burned by strikers in Pullman Strike

Amidst the summer heat of Chicago in 1894, tensions were rising between ARU strikers, state militia units under Illinois Governor Altgeld, and federal troops sent by President Cleveland. The strike had disrupted mail service, and angry strikers had destroyed mail service rail cars (as well as hundreds of other rail cars), and because the mail was operated by the federal government, the President felt compelled to act. As a result, Debs and the ARU were issued an injunction from the government that prohibited them from “compelling or inducing” railroad employees “to refuse or fail to perform any of their duties.” At this time a New York Times editorial piece from called Eugene Debs, “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.”

Strikers were furious about the presence of military strike breakers, and on July 7th, the violence came to a head as National Guardsmen, after being assaulted by a group of strikers, shot into the assembled group, killing 30 people and injuring others. After this show of military force against the union, Debs tried to call off the strike, but the General Managers’ Association, who represented railroad ownership, doubled down on hiring nonunion members, only taking back strikers if they agreed to never rejoin the union. Railroads began operating regularly, the strike broke down completely on July 20, 1894, and with it the ARU.

The National Guard opens fire on protesters on July 7, 1894

Just days after the strike ended, President Cleveland made Labor Day a national holiday. Some say he did this in order to give some recognition to the labor movement’s sacrifices during the Pullman Strike.

Debs was tried and found guilty of breaking the government’s injunction, despite the arguments and appeals of his gifted lawyer, Clarence Darrow, who would later become famous for his part in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison.

While in prison, Debs found inspiration for the next phase of his life by reading the works of Marx and Engels, especially Das Kapital. When he was released from prison he formed the Social Democratic Party out of the ashes of the ARU, but divisions in the party led him to seek out members of previous Socialist factions in the U.S. and create the Socialist Party of America in 1901. Over the next few years he would also help to form the International Workers of the World aka the IWW, aka the Wobblies, although the Socialist Party would eventually split with the IWW.

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Debs on a campaign button cosigned by the IWW

The next twenty years of Debs’ life were spent either on the campaign trail as the Socialist Party’s candidate for President, or at public speaking events spreading the word about Socialism. Debs is said to have been an incredibly engaging, passionate speaker, although no known recordings of his voice exist today.

When the U.S. entered WWI in 1917, Eugene Debs spoke out against the war, urging people to resist the draft, for as Finnish Socialist, Karl H. Wiik, said when he nominated Debs for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1924: “Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism.”

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These anti-war speeches made Debs an enemy of President Woodrow Wilson who called him “a traitor to his country,” and once he had Wilson’s attention, it wasn’t long before Debs was arrested for violating the Sedition Act of 1918, which along with the Espionage Act from the previous year, “made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces’ prosecution of the war effort or to promote the success of the country’s enemies.”

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Debs’ Mug Shot in 1918

Debs’ last public speech before his arrest was made in Canton, Ohio in 1918, but he was given one last chance to speak, and that was at his trial where the defense called no witnesses, instead handing the floor over to Debs, where for two hours he delivered what has been called by one journalist, “one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language.”

Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.

Eugene V. Debs, 1918, on trial for violating the Sedition Act

He was then sentenced to 10 years in prison, but he appealed the conviction over the course of five months, and finally on April 13, 1919, he was found guilty and imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.

After serving two years behind bars, and now in failing health, President Warren G. Harding was persuaded to pardon Debs, who walked free on Christmas Day, 1921. Debs made it to the White House after all, on an invitation from President Harding.

Eugene V. Debs died on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.

Debs leaving the White House in 1921 after his sentence was commuted

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