Eugene V. Debs

Eugene V. Debs

Eugene Victor Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the International Labor Union and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as candidate for President of the United States as a member of the Socialist Democratic Party in 1900, and later as a member of the Socialist Party of America in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920.cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Eugene V. Debs |url=,9171,722648,00.html |quote=As it must to all men, Death came last week to Eugene Victor Debs, Socialist. |publisher=Time (magazine) |date= November 1, 1926 |accessdate=2007-08-21 ] Through his presidential candidacies as well as his work with labor movements, Debs would eventually become one of the best known Socialists in the United States.

In the early portions of his political career, Debs was a member of the Democratic Party of the United States. It was during this time that he was elected as a member of the Indiana General Assembly, which signaled the beginning of his career as a politician. After working with several smaller unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union, the nation's first industrial union. As a member of the ARU, Debs was involved and later imprisoned for his part in the famed Pullman Strike, when workers struck the Pullman Palace Car Company over a pay-cut. The effects of the strike resulted in President Grover Cleveland calling in members of the United States Army into Chicago, Illinois, which led to Debs' arrest.

Debs' political views turned to Socialism after he read the works of Karl Marx. Debs grew to be one of the most influential and known Socialists, the notoriety helping Debs to garner five nominations for President. During the latter part of his life, Debs was imprisoned once more after being arrested and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 during the First Red Scare. He was later pardoned by President of the United States Warren G. Harding, and died not long after being admitted to a sanitarium.

Early life

Eugene Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana to parents Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Bettrich Debs, who both immigrated to the United States from Colmar, Alsace, France. His father Jean Daniel, who was born to a prosperous family in France, owned a textile mill and meat market. Eugene Debs was named after the French authors Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.cite web| url=| title=The Socialist Worker| accessdate=2007-07-19| author=Bill Roberts|] Debs dropped out of high school at age of 14 to work as a painter in railroad yards. At the age of 17, Debs left home to work on the railroads, and later, in 1870, Debs became a boilerman. During his time as a boilerman, he attended a local business school during the night.cite web |url= |title=Eugene Victor Debs 1855-1926 |accessdate=2008-07-22 |last= |first= |coauthors= |date= |work= |publisher=] He returned home in 1874 to work as a grocery clerk. The next year he became a founding member and secretary of a new lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He rose quickly in the Brotherhood, becoming first an assistant editor for their magazine and then the editor and Grand Secretary in 1880. At the same time, he became a prominent figure in the community; in 1884 he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat, serving for one term.

The railroad brotherhoods were comparatively conservative unions, more focused on providing fellowship and services than in collective bargaining. Debs gradually became convinced of the need for a more unified and confrontational approach. After stepping down as Brotherhood Grand Secretary in 1893, he organized one of the first industrial unions in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894, winning most of its demands. Eugene Debs married Kate Metzel on June 9, 1885. The couple had no children.

Pullman Strike

Debs became involved in the Pullman Strike in 1894, which grew out of a compensation dispute by the workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. The Pullman Company, due to falling revenue caused by the economic Panic of 1893, had cut the wages of its employees by 28 percent. The workers, many of whom were already members of the American Railway Union, appealed to the Union at its convention in Chicago, Illinois for support. Debs attempted to persuade the ARU members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the ARU, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them, including cars containing U.S. mail. [cite web |url=
title=Eugene V. Debs Papers, 1881–1940
publisher=Indiana Historical Society
] Debs, though, finally decided to take part in the strike, which was endorsed by almost all members of the ARU in the immediate area of Chicago. Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs' eventual leadership, the strike became to be known as "Debs' Rebellion".

The federal government did, in fact, intervene, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the railways by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland then sent in the United States Army on the grounds that the strike was hindering the delivery of the mail. The entrance of members of the Army was enough to break the strike, which ended with thirteen strikers killed, and led to a blacklisting of thousands of workers who had taken part in the strike. An estimated $80 million worth of property was damaged, and Debs was found guilty of interfering with the mail and sent to prison. A Supreme Court case decision, "In re Debs", later upheld the right of the federal government to issue the injunction.

ocialist leader

At the time of his arrest for mail obstruction, Debs was not a Socialist. However, while jailed in Woodstock, Illinois, he read the works of Karl Marx, whose ideological stances widely influenced Socialism. [ [ Eugene V. Debs and the U.S. socialist tradition], retrieved July 21, 2008] After Debs' release from prison in 1895, he started his Socialist political career. Already famous as his work as a union leader with the American Railway Union, Debs continued to gain popularity when he helped to found the Socialist Democratic Party of the United States, also called the Social Democratic Party. Debs was elected Chairman of the Executive Board of the National Council, the board with governed the party. Although the party did not have a sole figure that governed its actions, Debs' position as chairman and his notoriety gave him the status of party figurehead. [ [ The Social Democracy of America Party History] Marxist History, retrieved July 29, 2008] Debs' popularity with the party led to his nomination as a candidate for President of the United States in 1900 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. Along with his running mate Job Harriman, Debs received 87,945 votes—0.6 percent of the popular vote—and no electoral votes. [cite web |url= |title=1900 Presidential General Election Results |accessdate=2008-07-22 |last= |first= |coauthors= |date= |work= |publisher=] He was later the Socialist Party of America candidate for President in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the final time from prison. In his showing in the 1904 election, Debs received 402,810 votes, which was 2.98 percent of the popular vote. Debs received no electoral votes, and, with vice presidential candidate Benjamin Hanford, ultimately finished third overall. [ [ 1904 Presidential General Election Results] , retrieved July 21, 2008] In the 1908 election, Debs again ran on the same ticket as Benjamin Hanford. While receiving a slightly higher number of votes in the popular vote, 420,852, he received 2.83 percent of the popular vote. Once again, Debs received no electoral votes. [ [ 1908 Presidential General Election Results] , retrieved July 22, 2008] As of 2008, Debs' 1912 showing, in which he received 5.99 percent of the popular vote (a total of 901,551 votes), remains the all-time high for a Socialist Party candidate. [cite book |title=1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country |last=Chace |first=James |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2005 |publisher=Simon & Schuster |location= |isbn=0743273559] Running alongside Emil Seidel, Debs again received no electoral votes. [ [ 1912 Presidential General Election Results] , retrieved July 22, 2008]

Although he received some success as a third party candidate, Debs was largely dismissive of the electoral process; he distrusted the political bargains that Victor Berger and other "Sewer Socialists" had made in winning local offices. He put much more value on organizing workers into unions, favoring unions which brought together all workers in a given industry rather than unions organized by the craft skills workers practiced. Debs saw the working class as the one class to organize, educate, and emancipate itself by itself. [ [ Eugene Victor Debs (1855- 1926)] Democracy and Socialism, retrieved July 21, 2008]

Founding the IWW

After his work with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the American Railway Union, Debs' next major work with organizing a labor union came during the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World. On June 27, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois, Debs and other influential union leaders such as Big Bill Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners, and Daniel De León, leader of the Socialist Labor Party, held what Haywood called the "Continental Congress of the working class". Haywood stated: "We are here to confederate the workers of this country into a working class movement that shall have for its purpose the emancipation of the working class...", [The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, 1929, by William D. Haywood, pp. 181.] and for Debs: "We are here to perform a task so great that it appeals to our best thought, our united energies, and will enlist our most loyal support; a task in the presence of which weak men might falter and despair, but from which it is impossible to shrink without betraying the working class." [ [ Eugene V. Debs Speech at the Founding of the IWW] Documents for the Study of American History, retrieved July 29, 2008]

ocialists split with the IWW

Although the IWW was built on the basis of uniting workers of industry, a rift began between the union and the Socialist Party. The split began when the electoral wing of the Socialist Party led by Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit became irritated with speeches by Haywood.Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 156. In December 1911, Haywood told a Lower East Side audience at New York's Cooper Union that parliamentary Socialists were "step-at-a-time people whose every step is just a little shorter than the preceding step." It was better, Haywood said, to "elect the superintendent of some branch of industry, than to elect some congressman to the United States Congress.""Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 157. In response, Hillquit attacked the IWW as "purely anarchistic..."Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 159.

The Cooper Union speech was the beginning of a split between Bill Haywood and the Socialist Party, leading to the split between the factions of the IWW, one with members loyal to the Socialist Party, and the other with members loyal to Haywood.Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 159. The rift presented a problem for Debs, who was influential both in the IWW as well as the Socialist Party. The final straw between Haywood and the Socialist Party came during the Lawrence textile strike when, disgusted with the decision of the elected officials in Lawrence, Massachusetts to send police who subsequently used their clubs on children, Haywood publicly declared that "I will not vote again" until such a circumstance was rectified."Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 183. Haywood was purged from the National Executive Committee by passage of an amendment that focused on the direct action and sabotage tactics advocated by the IWW."Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 200. Eugene Debs was probably the one person who might have saved Haywood's seat.Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 199. While in 1906, when Haywood had been on trial for his life in Idaho, Debs had described him as "the Lincoln of Labor," and called for Haywood to run against Theodore Roosevelt for president of the United States, ["Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 109.] times had changed and Debs, facing a split in the Party, chose to echo Hillquit's words, accusing the IWW of representing anarchy.Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, William Dudley Haywood, 1929, page 279. Debs thereafter stated that he had opposed the amendment, but once it was adopted, it should be obeyed."Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 199. Debs remained friendly to Haywood and the IWW after the expulsion, in spite of their perceived differences over IWW tactics.Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, William Dudley Haywood, 1929, page 279.Prior to Haywood's dismissal, the Socialist Party membership had reached an all-time high of 135,000. One year later, four months after Haywood was recalled, the membership dropped to 80,000. The reformists in the Socialist Party attributed the decline to the departure of the "Haywood element," and predicted that the party would recover. However, the Socialist Party's historical high point of membership had already been reached. In the election of 1913, many of the Socialists who had been elected to public office lost their seats."Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood", Peter Carlson, 1983, pages 199.

Leadership style

Debs was noted by many to be a charismatic speaker who sometimes called on the vocabulary of Christianity and much of the oratorical style of evangelism—even though he was generally disdainful of organized religion. [cite book |title=Eugene V. Debs:Citizen and Socialist |last=Salvatore |first=Nick |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1982 |publisher=Illini Books |location= |isbn=] As Heywood Broun noted in his eulogy for Debs, quoting a fellow Socialist: "That old man with the burning eyes actually believes that there can be such a thing as the brotherhood of man. And that's not the funniest part of it. As long as he's around I believe it myself." [ [ Jesus and Eugene Debs] Jim McGuiggan, retrieved July 21, 2008]

Although sometimes called "King Debs", [cite web| url=| title="King" Debs| date=July 14, 1894| work=Harper's Weekly| accessdate=2006-04-21| ] Debs himself was not wholly comfortable with his standing as a leader. As he told an audience in Utah in 1910:

Later life and death

On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio in opposition to World War I urging resistance to the military drafts of World War I. During the Palmer Raids, part of the First Red Scare in which people who were suspected of being radical leftists were arrested under fear that they would cause anarchism, Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. [ The Red Scare of 1917-20] Virginia Western Community College, retrieved July 29, 2008] The period was characterized by supporters of communism and socialism being arrested and detained under suspicion of sedition. Deb's speeches against the Wilson administration and the war earned the undying emnity of President Woodrow Wilson, who later called Debs a "traitor to his country." [Loewen, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29]

Debs was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life. Debs presented what has been called his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:

Debs appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court. In its ruling on "Debs v. United States", the court examined several statements Debs had made regarding World War I. While Debs had carefully guarded his speeches in an attempt to comply with the Espionage Act, the Court found he still had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and recruitment for the war. Among other things, the Court cited Debs's praise for those imprisoned for obstructing the draft. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated in his opinion that little attention was needed since Debs' case was essentially the same as that of "Schenck v. United States", in which the Court had upheld a similar conviction. [ [ Eugene V. Debs and the Idea of Socialism] "The Progressive", retrieved July 21, 2008]

Debs went to prison on April 13, 1919. In protest of his jailing, Charles Ruthenberg led a parade of unionists, socialists, anarchists and communists to march on May 1 (May Day) 1919, in Cleveland, Ohio. The event quickly broke into the violent May Day Riots of 1919. Debs ran for president in the 1920 election while in prison in Atlanta, Georgia, at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. He received 913,664 write-in votes (3.4 percent), the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. and slightly more than he had won in 1912, when he obtained six percent of the vote. This stint in prison also inspired Debs to write a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system, which appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and was collected into his only book, "Walls and Bars", with several added chapters. However, Debs died before the book's completion, and it was published posthumously.

Learning of Deb's ill health, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer prepared a clemency petition on Debs's behalf for a presidential pardon in order to free Debs from prison. [Loewen, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), paper p. 29] Upon being given the petition, President Wilson replied "Never!" and wrote 'Denied' across it. [Loewen, James W., "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", Touchstone Books (1995), p. 29]

On December 25, 1921, Republican President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs' sentence to time served; Debs was released from prison and was warmly greeted by President Harding at the White House: "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally." In 1924, Eugene Debs was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Finnish Communist Karl H. Wiik on the ground that "Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism." [cite web| url=| title=The Nomination Database for the Nobel Prize in Peace, 1901-1955| accessdate=2006-04-21| author=Nobel Foundation| ] In the fall of 1926, Debs was admitted to a sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois. He died on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70 in Elmhurst. [cite news |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Eugene V. Debs Dies After Long Illness. |url= |quote=Socialist Leader Succumbs to Heart Ailments After Month in Illinois Sanitarium. Once Leader of Rail Union. He Led Pullman Strike In 1895. Served Nearly Three Years In Prison for Opposing War. |publisher=New York Times |date=October 21, 1926 |accessdate=2008-05-17 ]


Further reading

* Debs, Eugene. "Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches". 544 pages. University Press of the Pacific. July 1, 2002. ISBN 1-4102-0154-6.
* Debs, Eugene. "Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs". Edited by J. Robert Constantine. 312 pages. University of Illinois Press. June 1, 1995. ISBN 0-252-06324-4.
* Debs, Eugene. "Walls & Bars: Prisons & Prison Life In The "Land Of The Free". 264 pages. Charles H. Kerr Publishers Company; 1st edition, 1983 edition ISBN 0-88286-010-0. 2000 edition ISBN 0-88286-248-0.
* Debs, Eugene V. "The papers of Eugene V. Debs, 1834-1945: A guide to the microfilm edition". 163 pages. Microfilming Corporation of America, 1983. ISBN 0-667-00699-0.
* Ginger, Ray. "The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs". Rutgers University Press: 1949. (Reprinted by Thomas Jefferson University Press: 1992. The reprint edition has numerous historic photographs and an introduction by J. Robert Constantine.)
* Radosh, Ronald (ed). "Great Lives Observed: Debs". Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1971. ISBN 0-131-97681-8.
* Salvatore, Nick. "Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist". Reprinted by University of Illinois Press, 1984. ISBN 0-252-01148-1.
* Stone, Irving. "Adversary in the House". Doubleday: 1947. ISBN 0-385-04003-2.
* Young, Marguerite. "Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs". Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: 1999. ISBN 0-679-42757-0.
* Vonnegut, Kurt. "Hocus Pocus". 336 Pages. Berkely Trade: 1991. ISBN 0-425-13021-5.

External links

* [ Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive] on the Marxists Internet Archive
* [ Eugene V. Debs Foundation]
* [ Eugene Debs Page] from the Antiauthoritarian Encyclopedia
* [ Eugene Debs on the IWW Memorial Page]
* [ Socialist Party USA]
* [ Other photos of Debs]

NAME=Debs, Eugene Victor
SHORT DESCRIPTION=U.S. labor and political leader
DATE OF BIRTH=November 5, 1855
PLACE OF BIRTH=Terre Haute, Indiana, United States
DATE OF DEATH=October 20, 1926
PLACE OF DEATH=Elmhurst, Illinois, United States

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  • Eugene Victor Debs — Eugene Debs (1912) Eugene Victor Debs (* 5. November 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana; † 20. Oktober 1926 in Elmhurst[1]) war ein US amerikanischer Sozialist, der in der Arbeiterbewegung aktiv war u …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • Eugene Victor Debs — Eugene V. Debs en 1912 Eugene Victor Debs (né le 5 novembre 1855 et décédé le 20 octobre 1926) est un homme politique américain, syndicaliste et socialiste, un des fondateurs du syndicat des Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, Les travailleurs… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Eugene V. Debs — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda Eugene V. Debs dando un discurso antibelicista en Canton, Ohio, el 16 de junio de 1918 Eugene Victor Debs (1855 1926) fue uno de los del promotores del movimiento obrero en los Estados Unidos, lideró la formación del …   Wikipedia Español

  • Eugene V Debs — [Eugene V Debs] (Eugene Victor Debs 1855–1926) a US ↑socialist politician and trade union leader. In 1893 he established the American Railway Union. He helped organize the Social Democratic Party of America in 1897 and was its candidate for US… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Eugene V. Debs — noun United States labor organizer who ran for President as a socialist (1855 1926) • Syn: ↑Debs, ↑Eugene Victor Debs • Instance Hypernyms: ↑organizer, ↑organiser, ↑labor organizer …   Useful english dictionary

  • Eugene Victor Debs — noun United States labor organizer who ran for President as a socialist (1855 1926) • Syn: ↑Debs, ↑Eugene V. Debs • Instance Hypernyms: ↑organizer, ↑organiser, ↑labor organizer …   Useful english dictionary

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