Biography of Eugene V. Debs: Socialist and Labor Leader

Eugene V. Debs Campaigns in 1908
Eugene V. Debs Campaigns in 1908. PhotoQuest / Getty Images

Eugene V. Debs (November 5, 1855 to October 20, 1926) was an influential organizer and leader of the American labor movement, democratic socialist political activist, and a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). As the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, Debs ran five times for President of the United States, once while in jail for violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Through his forceful oratory, presidential campaigns, and advocacy for workers’ rights, he became one of the highest-profile socialists in America’s history.

Fast Facts: Eugene V. Debs

  • Full Name: Eugene Victor Debs 
  • Known for: Organizer and leader of the American labor movement and democratic socialist political activist 
  • Born: November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana
  • Died: October 20, 1926, (heart failure) at age 70 in Elmhurst, Illinois 
  • Parents: Jean Daniel Debs and Marguerite Mari (Bettrich) Debs
  • Education: Terre Haute public schools. Dropped out of high school at age 14
  • Key Accomplishments: Founded the American Railway Union (ARU), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the American Socialist Party.
  • Wife: Kate Metzel, married on June 9, 1885
  • Children: None

Early Life and Education

Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father, Jean Daniel Debs, owned a prosperous textile mill and meat market. His mother, Marguerite Mari (Bettrich) Debs, had immigrated to the United States from France.

Debs attended Terre Haute Public schools but dropped out of high school at age 14 to go to work as a painter in the local railroad yards, working his way up to railroad fireman (a steam locomotive boiler operator) in 1870.

Marriage and Family Life

Debs married Kate Metzel on June 9, 1885. While they had no children, Debs was a strong advocate of legislative restrictions on child labor. Today, their Terre Haute home is preserved on the campus of Indiana State University.

Early Union Involvement and Entry Into Politics

At his mother’s insistence, Debs left his railroad fireman job in September 1874 and went to work as a billing clerk at Hulman & Cox, a local wholesale grocery firm. In February 1875, he became a charter member of Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF), using his salary from Hulman & Cox to help promote the fledgling labor union. In 1880, the BLF members repaid Debs by electing him Grand Secretary and Treasurer. 

Even as a rising star in the labor movement, Debs was becoming a prominent figure in the community. As president of Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute, he attracted several influential people to town, including women’s suffrage champion Susan B. Anthony. 

Deb’s political career began in September 1879 when he was elected to two terms as Terre Haute city clerk. In the fall of 1884, he was elected as a representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat, serving one term.  

Evolving Views on Labor Activism

The early railroad unions, including Debs’ Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, were generally conservative, focusing more on fellowship than on workers’ rights and collective bargaining. During the early 1880s, Debs opposed strikes, expressing the view that “labor and capital are friends.” In 1951, historian David A. Shannon wrote, “Debs’ [desire] was one of peace and co-operation between labor and capital, but he expected management to treat labor with respect, honor and social equality.”

However, as the railroads grew to be some of America’s most powerful companies, Debs became convinced that the unions should adopt a more unified and confrontational approach in dealing with management. His involvement in the Burlington Railroad Strike of 1888, a major defeat for labor, solidified Debs’ growingly activist views. 

Debs Organizes the American Railway Union

In 1893, Debs left his post at the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen to organize the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the first industrial labor unions in the United States specifically open to unskilled workers from different crafts. In early 1894, with Debs as its first president and his fellow railway labor organizer George W. Howard as first vice president, the rapidly growing ARU led the successful strike and boycott of the Great Northern Railway, winning most of labor’s demands. 

The Pullman Strike

In the summer of 1894, Debs became involved in the great Pullman Strike—a vicious, widespread railroad strike and boycott that virtually halted all train traffic in the Midwestern states of the U.S. for over three months. Blaming the financial panic of 1893, rail coach maker Pullman Palace Car Company cut the wages of its workers by 28 percent. In response, about 3,000 Pullman employees, all members of Debs’ ARU, walked off their jobs. At the same time, the ARU organized a nationwide boycott of Pullman cars to support the strike. By July, almost all train traffic to states west of Detroit had been stopped because of the boycott. 

In the early stages of the strike, Debs had urged his ARU members to abandon the boycott due to the risk to the union. However, the members ignored his warnings, refusing to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them—including cars carrying U.S. Mail. Eventually, Debs added his support to the boycott, prompting the New York Times to call him “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.” 

Pullman Railway Strike
Pullman Railway Strike. Kean Collection / Getty Images

Claiming a need to keep the mail running, President Grover Cleveland, whom Debs had supported, obtained a court injunction against the strike and boycott. When the rail workers first ignored the injunction, President Cleveland deployed the U.S. Army to enforce it. While the Army succeeded in breaking the strike, 30 striking workers were killed in the process. For his involvement in the strike as leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted on federal charges of obstructing the U.S. mail and served six months in prison.

Debs Leaves Jail a Socialist Party Leader 

While in jail for mail obstruction, Debs—a longtime Democrat—read about the theories of socialism related to workers’ rights. Six months later, he left prison a devout supporter of the international socialist movement. After being released from prison in 1895, he would spend the last 30 years of his life advocating for the socialist movement. 

Never one to do anything half-way, Debs founded the Social Democracy of America, the Social Democratic Party of America, and finally the Socialist Party of America. As one of the first candidates of the Socialist Party for a federal office, Debs ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States in 1900, receiving only 0.6% (87,945 votes) of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes. Debs would go on to run unsuccessfully in the 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 elections, the last time from prison.

Founding the IWW

Debs would resume his role as an organized labor leader on June 27, 1905, in Chicago, Illinois, when, along with “Big Bill” Haywood, leader of the Western Federation of Miners and Daniel De León, leader of the Socialist Labor Party, he convened what Haywood called the “Continental Congress of the working class.” The result of the meeting was the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). “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...” said Haywood, with Debs adding, “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.”

Back to Jail

As a devoted isolationist, Debs vocally opposed President Woodrow Wilson and the participation of the United States in World War I. In a passionate speech in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918, Debs urged young American men to resist registering for the WWI military draft. Called a “traitor to his country” by President Wilson, Debs was arrested and charged with 10 counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, making it a crime to in any way to interfere with the U.S. armed forces’ prosecution of the war or to promote the success of the nation’s enemies. 

In a highly-publicized trial, in which his lawyers offered little defense, Debs was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison on September 12, 1918. In addition, his right to vote was denied for life. 

At his sentencing hearing, Debs delivered what historians consider his best-remembered statement: “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. 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.”

Debs entered the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on April 13, 1919. On May 1, a protest parade of unionists, socialists, anarchists, and communists in Cleveland, Ohio, turned into the violent May Day Riots of 1919.  

Prisoner and Presidential Candidate

From his Atlanta jail cell, Debs ran for president in the 1920 election. The constitutional requirements for serving as president do not exclude convicted felons. He did surprisingly well for a prisoner, winning 3.4% (919,799 votes) of the popular vote, slightly less than he had won in 1912 when he received 6%, the highest number of votes ever won by a Socialist Party presidential candidate. 

While in jail, Debs wrote several columns critical of the U.S. prison system that would be published after his death in his only full-length book, “Walls and Bars: Prisons and Prison Life in the Land of the Free.”

After President Wilson twice refused to grant Debs a presidential pardon, President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence to time served on December 23, 1921. Debs was released from prison on Christmas day, 1921.

Last Years and Legacy

Debs remained active in the Socialist movement following his release from prison until late 1926, when his failing health forced him to enter the Lindlahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois. After suffering heart failure, he died there at the age of 70 on October 20, 1926. His remains are buried at Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.

Today, Debs’ work for the labor movement, along with his opposition to war and massive corporations are revered by American socialists. In 1979, independent socialist politician Bernie Sanders referred to Debs as “probably the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had.” 

Notable Quotes

Renowned as a powerful and persuasive public speaker, Debs left behind many memorable quotes. A few of these include:

  • “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves.”
  • “The end of class struggles and class rule, of master and slave, or ignorance and vice, of poverty and shame, of cruelty and crime -- the birth of freedom, the dawn of Brotherhood, the beginning of MAN. That is the demand.”
  • “Yes, I am my brother's keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe myself.”
  • “The strike is the weapon of the oppressed, of men capable of appreciating justice and having the courage to resist wrong and contend for principle. The nation had for its cornerstone a strike …”

Sources

  • Schulte, Elizabeth. “Socialism According to Eugene V. Debs.” July 9, 2015. SocialistWorker.org
  • “Debs Biography.” The Debs Foundation
  • Shannon, David A. (1951). “Eugene V. Debs: Conservative Labor Editor.” Indiana Magazine of History
  • Lindsey, Almont (1964). “The Pullman strike: the story of a unique experiment and of a great labor.” University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226483832.
  • “Eugene V. Debs.” Kansas heritage.org
  • “Socialism According to Eugene V. Debs.” SocialistWorker.org
  • Greenberg, David (September 2015). “Can Bernie Keep Socialism Alive?.” politico.com