Did you know…Eugene Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) ? Continuing series on socialism in America
Debs was one of the founders of the 19th-century labor movement and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States.
Debs was from a wealthy immigrant family from France. His father owned a textile mill and a meat market. Debs grew bored with the school in Terre Haute, Indiana, and dropped out at age 14. He worked on the railroad, then a grocery wholesale business. While on the railroad, he joined Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen union, and eventually became the editor for their magazine. This exposure led Debs to try politics – he was elected city clerk, and then to the state assembly.
Initially, during the early 1880s, Debs’ writing stressed themes of self-upliftment: temperance, hard work, and honesty. Debs also held the view that “labor and capital are friends” and opposed strikes as a means of settling differences. This changed in some unsuccessful dealings with railway management – Debs became convinced of the tyranny of management over workers, and the effectiveness of strikes as a negotiating tool. He founded the American Railway Union to further these ideas, and successfully led a strike against the Great Northern railway in April 1894.
Debs gained national prominence (or vilification?) for his role in the Pullman strike of 1894. It’s difficult for us to imagine now, but in 1894, the railroad was the chief method of moving goods and people over long distances – today our interstate road system and air freight have helped railroads take a back seat. But in 1894, there were no semis winging down the highway – it was ships, rail, or freight wagon drawn by animals. The railroads were some of the largest employers in the country. In 1893, two of the largest US employers, Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company( rope company) collapsed. Unemployment soared to over 20%. Banks, railroads, and steel mills especially fell into bankruptcy. Over fifteen thousand businesses closed during the Panic of 1893. There was no unemployment insurance to collect – that started in 1935. Thousands of families suddenly had no income.
The Pullman company, in order to prevent total collapse, cut workers wages by 28%. Though initially opposed to the idea of a strike, Debs came around when the membership of the ARU voted for it. He became passionate in its defense. The disruption in the country was severe enough for federal intervention with troops to break the strike, and Debs was jailed for interfering with the US mail.
While in jail, he read Marx and other socialist thinkers, emerging fully converted to socialism. He founded the American Socialist Party, and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He was the Socialist Party of America candidate for President in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920 (the final time from prison). In a case that went to the Supreme Court, Debs vs. the United States, Debs was charged with sedition for his statements urging draft resistance. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that the case barely was worth looking at since the Court had ruled previously in Schenck v. the United States. Democrat Woodrow Wilson called Debs a traitor to his country. Despite his incarceration, Debs polled his highest vote in 1920, largely due to his support of the vote for women – it was the first presidential election in which women could vote. Interestingly, the Socialist party wanted to amend the Constitution to negate Marbury vs. Madison that gave the Supreme Court the right of constitutional review. Debs got just over 3% of the popular vote, but no electoral votes. The Socialist platform also wanted to ditch the electoral college, the Senate, the President’s role as commander in chief, and institute government ownership and control of railroads, telegraphs and telephones, express service, steamboat lines and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large-scale industries, as well as grain elevators, stockyards, storage warehouses and other distributing agencies. – 1916 Socialist Platform The platform also pushes various environmental measures, and “That all laws and appropriations for the increase of the military and naval forces of the United States shall be immediately repealed.”
Debs got nearly 1 million votes, of 16,144,093. Coolidge won, FDR lost of the major candidates.
Debs health deteriorated in prison. On December 23, 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day. He did not issue a pardon. A White House statement summarized the administration’s view of Debs’ case:
“There is no question of his guilt…He was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did. He is an old man, not strong physically. He is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent.”
In late 1926, he was admitted to Lindlahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois. He died there of heart failure on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70.
Several books have been written about Debs’ life as an inspirational American socialist. In 1979, Bernie Sanders produced a documentary about Debs which was released as a film and an audio LP record as an audio-visual teaching aid. In the documentary, he described Debs as “probably the most effective and popular leader that the American working class has ever had”. Sanders hung a portrait of Debs in City Hall in Burlington, Vermont when he served as mayor of the city in the 1980s and has a plaque dedicated to Debs in his Congressional office.