Debs, Eugene Victor (1855-1926)


Popular labor union activist, founder of the Social Democratic Party, and 1919 presidential candidate.

Born November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to French immigrant parents, Eugene Debs had nine siblings. He attended a local school until he turned 14, when he went to work on the railroad, eventually becoming a locomotive fireman. He left the railroad four years later to work as a grocery clerk. Debs stayed active in railroad, however, first by joining and participating in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and then as editor of the Firemen’s Magazine. Debs married Katherine Mezel in 1885 and served briefly in the Indiana legislature.

Debs remains most remembered for his work with labor unions. In 1893 he helped to form an industrial labor society called the American Railway Union (ARU), and he was the organization’s first president. The ARU gained national exposure during the Pullman strike of 1894, which turned into a walkout of all ARU members who served the Great Northern Railway out of Chicago. When all railroad employees went out on strike, the courts—under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act—convicted Debs and others for obstructing the mail. Debs served six months in jail, during which time he read and studied, emerging from his jail term a socialist. He then organized the Social Democratic Party of America from what little remained of the ARU; the union had lost many members after the government issued an injunction against it.

Debs made several runs for president as the Socialist Party candidate. He also wrote for and edited socialist publications. On June 16,1918, during a speech at a socialist convention in Canton, Ohio, he encouraged listeners to oppose the war by any means. Charged with sedition and indicted for violating the Espionage Act, Debs received a 10-year sentence on twocounts of disobeying an injunction issued by the federal government that ordered workers to return to their jobs or be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In 1919 Debs, while still a prisoner, received the nomination for president by the Socialist Party; he received 919,799 votes. President Warren G. Harding paroled Debs in 1922, but the Atlanta penitentiary had taken a toll on his health. Debs returned home to Indiana and continued to write. His syndicated column on prison life was compiled and published as a topic, Walls and Bars, in 1927. Debs died October 20, 1926, at a sanitarium; more than 10,000 people attended his funeral.

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