Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855 to prosperous immigrant parents from Alsace, France. He attended public schools, dropping out at 14 to take a job on the Vandalia Railroad cleaning grease from freight engines for .50 cents a day.
In December 1871, when a drunken locomotive fireman failed to report for work, Debs was pressed into service as a night fireman. He decided to remain a fireman on the run between Terre Haute and Indianapolis, earning more than a dollar a night for the next three and half years.
In 1875 he joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen; it was the beginning of a life time of labor and union activism. In 1893, Debs organized one of the first industrial unions in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU), for unskilled workers. The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894, winning most of its demands.
He went on to lead the Pullman Strike. Pullman had cut the average wages of workers by 28%. Some eighty thousand workers went out on strike. On July 9, 1894, a New York Times editorial called Debs “a lawbreaker at large, an enemy of the human race.”[ Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs’ leadership, the strike came to be known as “Debs’ Rebellion”.
The U.S. federal government intervened, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the U.S. Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland sent the United States Army to enforce the injunction. The entrance of the Army was enough to break the strike. Overall, 30 strikers were killed , 13 of them in Chicago, and thousands were blacklisted.
Debs served 6 months in prison. He came out a Socialist and went on to found the Socialist Party of America. He ran for President as a 3rd party candidate four times.
During the First World War Debs’ speeches against the war earned the enmity of President Woodrow Wilson, who later called Debs a “traitor to his country.” On June 16, 1918, Debs made a speech in Canton, Ohio, urging resistance to the military draft. He was arrested on June 30 and charged with ten counts of sedition.
His trial defense called no witnesses, asking that Debs be allowed to address the court in his defense. That unusual request was granted, and Debs spoke for two hours. He was found guilty on September 12. At his sentencing hearing on September 14, he again addressed the court, and his speech has become a classic. Heywood Broun, a liberal journalist and not a Debs partisan, said it was “one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language. He was for that one afternoon touched with inspiration. If anyone told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it.”
Debs said in part:
- “Your honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the form of our present government; that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in the change of both but by perfectly peaceable and orderly means….
- I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children who, in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years, are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul….
- 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.
- When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the Southern Cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches the Southern Cross begins to bend, and the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of Time upon the dial of the universe; and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the look-out knows that the midnight is passing – that relief and rest are close at hand.
- Let the people take heart and hope everywhere, for the cross is bending, midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.”
Debs was sentenced on November 18, 1918, to ten years in prison. He was also disenfranchised for life. Debs presented what has been called his best-remembered statement at his sentencing hearing:
“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 went to prison in April 1919. The Supreme Court would not overturn his conviction and sentence. Woodrow Wilson in his pique denied him a pardon twice notwithstanding his own Attorney General, the notorious Mitchell Palmer (he of the Palmer raids) recommended clemency after the war.
In 1920 Eugene V. Debs ran for President of the United States for the fourth and last time – from prison. He received 919,799 votes (about 5% of the vote) – the most of any Socialist candidate in the history of this country.
It would take Warren G. Harding to release Debs from prison. His health was deteriorating. Harding commuted his sentence to time served but did not pardon him.
When Debs arrived home in Terre Haute over 50,000 workers greeted him as a conquering hero, complete with marching bands. Harding invited him to the White House as his guest.
In 1924 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – by the Finns – for his unstinting opposition to the war.
He died on October 20, 1926.