Eugene V. Debs

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Eugene V. Debs

Born November 5, 1855
Terre Haute, Indiana
Died October 20, 1926
Elmhurst, Illinois
Spouse Kate Metzel

Eugene Victor "Gene" Debs (November 5, 1855 - October 20, 1926) was an American labor leader, Socialist politician and candidate for president in five elections 1900-1920; his strongest showing was in 1912. He led the Pullman Strike in 1894 and was imprisoned for disobeying a federal court order to desist. He was imprisoned again in World War I for encouraging men to avoid the draft, and ran for president in 1920 from his prison cell. Debs was a consensus figure in the deeply split socialist movement, moderating the radicals of the IWW and inspiring the "gas and water" socialists concerned with municipal reform. His tireless campaigning and passionate oratory made audiences had a quasi-religious tone that emphasized guilt feelings. Not an original thinker, Debs believed capitalism, with all its works, was evil, and Socialism, with all its promises, a true panacea. He briefly belonged to the IWW, which called for a violent overthrow of capitalism, but drew back from such an extreme position.

Early life and career

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, November 5, 1855, where he lived all his life. He was eldest of ten children of French immigrants Jean Daniel and Marguerite Marie Betterich Debs[1] from Alsace, France. He worked as a locomotive fireman 1870-74, then quit permanently. In 1875 he helped form a lodge of the brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and in 1880 he was made national secretary and treasurer of the brotherhood, as well as editor of its magazine. From 1879 to 1883 Debs also served as city clerk of Terre Haute, and in 1884 he was elected for a term in the Indiana state legislature as a Democrat.

In 1885 he married Kate Metzel.[2] The couple did not have any children.

Pullman Strike, 1894

For a more detailed treatment, see Pullman Strike.

A persistent critic of the organization of labor by crafts (such as locomotive firemen), Debs in 1893 left his old union and created the American Railway Union to include all workers, even those belonging to other unions. Established unions denounced it as "dual unionism," but with the severe Depression of 1893 underway, workers were angry and wanted an aggressive union. Its main success came in April 1894 when it won a strike against the Great Northern Railroad. When the Pullman factory strike erupted in Chicago in late spring 1894, the ARU organized the workers, but Pullman refused to negotiate with them. The ARU then ordered its members to refuse passage to trains using Pullman cars, even though the ARU had no grievances against the railroads. The result was a nationwide strike that shut down nearly all local and long-distance traffic west of Detroit; violence broke out in many cities. President Grover Cleveland intervened and obtained a court order to end the strike (because it was disrupting the mails). Debs and the ARU refused to obey. Debs was held in contempt of court for violating the federal injunction and served six months in jail. The strike and the ARU collapsed.

Debs for President poster, 1904

Socialist Party leader

Long interested in socialism in the abstract, Debs read up on the subject while in prison, and in 1897 he transformed the remnants of the ARU into the Social Democratic Party of America, later called the Socialist Party of America. He never again engaged in union work. He served as associate editor of the Socialist weekly, the Appeal to Reason, (based in the coal mining town of Girard, Kansas) and for years was a highly successful lecturer on behalf of socialism. In 1905, he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, but soon quit because of its extreme radicalism and proclivity to violence. The Socialist Party was splintered and Debs was one of the few leaders with an appeal to the intellectuals, the "gas-and-water" activists (who accepted capitalism but wanted cities to own the water and gas systems), the immigrant Germans and Jews, the militant coal miners, the ex-Populists from Kansas and Oklahoma, and the radicals who wanted to peacefully destroy capitalism.


Debs ran for president of the United States on the Socialist Party ticket five times, 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1908 he toured both west and east in his own campaign train, the "Red Special." Debs' speeches aimed to provide but an education in Socialist views; he spoke to some 300,000 westerners and saw his vote in Colorado double. In 1908 he polled 420,000 votes (2.8%) and doubled that in 1912 to he polled 902,000 votes, 6.0% of the total cast.

In 1912 the more conservative "gas and water" socialists (who did not want to destroy capitalism) adopted a platform calling for cooperative organization of prisons, a national bureau of health, abolition of the Senate and the presidential veto, and a long list of progressive reforms. They nominated Debs, who saw his mission as keeping the disparate units together in the hope that someday a common goal would be found for all socialists.

There was little money—his campaign cost only $66,000, mostly for 3.5 million leaflets and travel to rallies organized by local groups. Debs criss-crossed the country, His biggest event was a speech to 15,000 in New York City. The crowd sang the "Marseillaise," and "International" as Emil Seidel, the vice-presidential candidate, boasted, "Only a year ago workingmen were throwing decayed vegetables and rotten eggs at us but now all is changed....Eggs are too high. There is a great giant growing up in this country that will someday take over the affairs of this nation. He is a little giant now but he is growing fast. The name of this little giant is socialism." Debs said that only the socialists represented labor; he condemned "Injunction Bill Taft"; ridiculed Roosevelt as "a charlatan, mountebank, and fraud, and his Progressive promises and pledges as the mouthings of a low and utterly unprincipled self seeker and demagogue." Debs insisted that the Democrats, Progressives and Republicans alike were financed by the trusts. Party newspapers spread the word.[3]

Friend of workers?

After the collapse of the ARU in 1894, Debs was no longer a labor leader. He had contacts with a few leftists leaders of a few unions. By contrast British and European socialist parties were strongly integrated with actual labor unions.

Corbin (1978) argues that Debs' favorable image as a friend of the workingman is undeserved, for his attitudes and actions concerning local affiliates and rank-and-file members actually hurt the development of the Socialist Party of America. This was especially critical in the West Virginia coal strike of 1912-14. Not only did the national office of the SPA ignore the strike for a year, but when Debs finally intervened with an investigating committee, he urged coal miners to accept a questionable compromise. He also exonerated Governor Hatfield of charges of having abused his power, even though a Congressional committee reached the opposite conclusion. By ignoring the wishes of the miners and by betraying local Socialist affiliates, Debs did considerable damage to Socialist solidarity in West Virginia's coal fields, according to Corbin.

Jailed for antiwar speech in 1918

When the U.S. entered World War I Debs supported the manifesto of the St. Louis convention of the Socialist party (April 1917), denouncing the war and counseling party members to oppose it by all means in their power. At the Socialist state convention in Canton, Ohio, June 16, 1918, he delivered a speech in which he bitterly assailed the Wilson administration for its prosecution of Socialists charged with sedition. He was indicted by a federal grand jury for a violation of the Sedition Act, and on Sept. 14, after a four-days trial, was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. The U.S. Supreme Court on Mar. 10, 1919, upheld the verdict, and Debs went to federal prison. In 1920 his vote for president again exceeded 900,000, but was only 3.4% of the total as women did not respond well to his appeals from his cell in Atlanta. At Christmas 1921 he was released by President Warren Harding. Debs then campaigned against prison conditions. He died in Elmhurst, Illinois, October 20, 1926.

Religious issues

Religion posed a difficult problem for the socialist movement in America. In Europe socialists led the fight against established religion. In America, most of the industrial workers were Catholics, and the Catholic Church strongly opposed socialism and Debs. Indeed, the Catholic Church was the foremost enemy of socialism in America. Debs, however, was admired by some Protestant leaders (especially his successor Norman Thomas). Debs had a handful of followers in the Social Gospel movement, but most of the activists opposed socialism.

Personally Debs was a deist with little interest in theology or piety. He attacked organized churches, saying, "I do not know of any crime that the oppressors and their hirelings have not proven by the Bible."[4] Debs employed religious symbolism effectively and his revivalistic style primarily appealed to his Protestant admirers. Debs condemned the use of religion as an instrument of class oppression, while admiring Jesus as a model agitator and identifying with His sense of martyrdom and role as Saviour.[5]

Legacy and ideas

Debs is best known for tireless campaigning and passionate oratory that made audiences feel guilty for not being more radical; he did not originate any new ideas or policies. Debs believed capitalism, with all its works, was evil, and Socialism, with all its promises, a true panacea.

Birth of Socialism in America

Debs, SPA co-founder Frederic Heath, and other SPA members wrote that with the book Looking Backward under the guise of "nationalism", socialism was fostered in the United States.

The first national convention of the Social Democracy of America pays tribute to the memory of Edward Bellamy, first to popularize the ideas of Socialism among his countrymen and last to be forgotten by them.[6]

In Modern Culture

Bernie Sanders created a documentary about Debs in 1979.[7]

See also

Basic bibliography

  • Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs--The Election that Changed the Country (2005), popular history excerts and text search
  • Ginger, Ray. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs. (1949)
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. Eugene V. Debs (1962) by leading scholar; online edition
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. (1984), the standard scholarly biography

Advanced scholarly sources


  • Almont, Lindsey. The Pullman Strike (1942)
  • Almont, Lindsey. "Paternalism and the Pullman Strike." The American Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jan., 1939), pp. 272–289 online at JSTOR
  • Burwood, Stephen. "Debsian Socialism Through a Transnational Lens." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2003 2(3): 253-282. Issn: 1537-7814 Fulltext: in History Cooperative. Shows Debsian rhetoric was similar to rhetoric of European socialists.
  • Corbin, David A. "Betrayal in the West Virginia Coal Fields: Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Party of America, 1912-1914." Journal of American History 1978 64(4): 987-1009. Issn: 0021-8723 in Jstor
  • Dorn, Jacob H. "'In Spiritual Communion': Eugene V. Debs and the Socialist Christians." Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2003 2(3): 303-325. Issn: 1537-7814 full text in History Cooperative
  • Ginger, Roy. The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs (1949), a solid, favorable biography
  • Gould, Lewis L. Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern American Politics (2008) by a leading scholar excerpt and text search
  • Kipnis, Ira. The American Socialist Movement 1897-1912 (1952) online edition
  • Lee, Ronald and Andrews, James R. "A Story of Rhetorical-ideological Transformation: Eugene V. Debs as Liberal Hero." Quarterly Journal of Speech 1991 77(1): 20-37. Issn: 0033-5630
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. "The Utopia of Eugene V. Debs." American Quarterly 1959 11(2): 120-135. in Jstor
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. Eugene V. Debs (1962) by leading scholar; online edition
  • Morgan, H. Wayne. Eugene v. Debs: Socialist for President (1973) online edition
  • Pietrusza, David 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents New york: Carroll & Graf, 2007
  • Quint; Howard H. The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement (1964) online edition
  • Papke, David Ray. The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America. U. Press of Kansas, 1999. 118 pp.
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (2007), the standard scholarly biography online at ACLS e-books

Primary sources

  • Debs, Eugene. Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches. 544 pages. (1908) complete text online
  • Debs, Eugene. Gentle Rebel: Letters of Eugene V. Debs. Edited by J. Robert Constantine. (1995) 312 pages.


  1. Debs: His Life, Writings and Speeches: With a Department of Appreciations
  2. Hard Right Turn: The History and the Assassination of the American Left
  3. Chace (2005)
  4. Debs (1908) p 487
  5. See Dorn (2003)
  6. (1900) Social democracy red book. Debs publishing Company, 64–65. 
  7. A documentary that Bernie Sanders made about a socialist politician 36 years ago says a lot about his politics today