Eugene V. Debs (1855 – 1926) – Labor Leader, Socialist and Presidential Candidate


Eugene V. Debs. Early Labor Leader, 1897

Eugene V. Debs. Early Labor Leader, 1897.
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a25146

Introduction: Eugene V. Debs was born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana as Eugene Victor Debs. His parents were poor Alsatian immigrants and they operated a grocery store. Though his parents encouraged an intellectual spirit, at the age of fourteen Debs left high school to become a paint scraper for the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad. Debs found his calling amongst the rail-workers, which was to be the champion of industrial workers everywhere in the United States.  After returning to Terre Haute, because his family was worried about his safety while working for the railroad. He started working as a warehouse worker for a friend of his father. It was while he was working in the warehouse that Debs and a group of his friends founded the Occidental Literary Club. His participation in this club was to prove fundamental to his development as a labor leader. This was because Eugene Debs had many popular speakers at the club, including Wendell Phillips and Susan B. Anthony. It was his exposure to these types of speakers that contributed to Debs’ increasing literary skills, which enabled him to become an effective member in the Vigo Lodge of the Locomotive Firemen a local branch of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF).

Early Career: Even though Deb’s was not a railroad employee he had joined the BLF because of his increasing interest in labor issues. He started serving as a labor organizer and secretary for the brotherhood. Then in 1876 he became active in the BLF national conventions as well as writing articles for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine. Debs worked as editor of the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, before being elected national secretary of Brotherhood of Locomotive Fireman in 1880. By 1881, he was national secretary of the brotherhood, increasingly its spokesman on labor issues, and its most tireless organizer. During the 1880s Debs’s ideas began to change. At first a firm proponent of organization of workers by their separate crafts, he resisted the industrial organization implicit in the efforts of the Knights of Labor and ordered his members to report to work during the Knights’ 1885 strike against the southwestern railroads. But his year-long involvement (1888-1889) in the strike against the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad altered these views. He now thought craft organization divisive, a hindrance to working people’s efforts to secure fair wages and working conditions. And concentrated corporate power, he argued, had a debilitating effect on the political rights and economic opportunity of the majority of Americans. In addition to this, between the years of 1879 and 1886 Debs served two terms as the Terre Haute City Clerk, and in 1884 was elected to the lower house of Indiana General Assembly. He married Kate Metzel June 9, 1885.  By 1893 he had resigned his position as secretary of the brotherhood and begun organizing an industrial union of railroad workers, the American Railway Union (ARU).

Leadership Roles: Under his leadership the ARU won an important strike on the Great Northern Railway in 1894. Debs was arrested first upon a charge of conspiracy to murder, but the charge was never pressed. In July 1894 Debs and the other officers of the union were arrested on the charge of violating an injunction. Despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, he was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison.

Edtior’s Note: Eugene Debs’s introduction to socialism began during his imprisonment in the Woodstock, Illinois, jail, where he was visited by the American Socialist editor Victor Berger and given Marx’s “Das Kapital” and other Socialist works to read. In 1898, along with Victor Berger and Ella Reeve Bloor, Debs organized the Social Democratic Party of America and, as its candidate for president (1900), he received 96,116 votes. In an attempt to unify the socialist movement, in 1901 the Social Democratic Party merged with Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. These organizations were also instrumental in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) a few years later.

The 1894 Pullman Strike: The years leading up to the turn of the twentieth century brought America unprecedented prosperity — but for relatively few people, men like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr., controlled the new wealth. For the nation’s working class, and leaders like Eugene Debs, it was a time to be angry. From steel fabrication to mining,  American industries saw major protests as workers tried to secure 8-hour workdays, living wages, and other fundamental improvements. The Pullman Strike of 1894 was the first national strike in United States history.

The strike went peacefully, but after several weeks the Pullman management had not changed its position and the strikers were desperate for help. During the strike, the American Railway Union had convened in Chicago because it was the rail center of the United States. The recently formed ARU had 465 local unions and claimed a membership of 150,000 workers. Since the Pullman workers were an affiliated union on strike in Chicago, the ARU offered to send arbitrators for the Pullman cause. The Pullman workers refused this aid. Even so the ARU under the leadership of Eugene Debs decided to stop handling Pullman cars on June 26, if the Pullman Union would not agree to arbitration. The stage was set for the largest strike in the nation’s history.

On June 26, the ARU switchmen started to refuse to switch trains with Pullman cars. In response, the General Managers Association began to fire the switchmen for not handling the cars. The strike and boycott rapidly expanded, paralyzing the Chicago rail yards and most of the twenty-four rail lines in the city. Before coming to an end, it involved over 150,000 persons and twenty-seven states and territories and would paralyze the nations railway system. The entire rail labor force of the nation would walk away from their jobs. In supporting the industrialist/capital side of this strike President Grover Cleveland, for the first time in the Nation’s history, would send in federal troops, who would fire on and kill United States Citizens, against the wishes of the states. The federal courts of the nation would outlaw striking by the passing of the Omnibus indictment.

On July 2 a federal injunction was issued against the leaders of the ARU. This Omnibus Indictment prevented ARU leaders from “…compelling or inducing by threats, intimidation, persuasion, force or violence, railway employees to refuse or fail to perform duties…” (U.S. Strike Commission Report pp. 179). This injunction was based on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Interstate Commerce Act and was issued by federal judges Peter S. Grosscup and William A. Woods under the direction of Attorney General Richard Olney. The injunction prevented the ARU leadership from communicating with their subordinates and chaos began to reign. This blow to unionized labor would not be struck down until the passing of the Wagner act in 1935.

Presidential Candidate Eugene V. Debs

Presidential Candidate Eugene V. Debs
Photo: Public Domain

The Presidential Candidate: Debs found his greatest success as a socialist in the 1912 Election, when he campaigned against Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson, incumbent President William Howard Taft, and former President Theodore Roosevelt. Debs received almost a million votes – six percent of the ballots cast. After four consecutive losing presidential campaigns, in 1916 Debs decided to run for an Indiana Congressional seat. He campaigned on a pacifist platform of American neutrality in the First World War, and was elected. After making a speech in Canton, Ohio, on 16th June, 1918, criticizing the Espionage Act, Debs was arrested and sentenced to ten years in Atlanta Penitentiary. He was still in prison when as the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, he received 919,799 votes in 1920. His program included proposals

Candidate's Campaign Pin

Candidate’s Campaign Pin
Photo: Kansas Heritage

for improved labour conditions, housing and welfare legislation and an increase in the number of people who could vote in elections. President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs in December, 1921.Once the United States entered the war, Debs was arrested for violating the Espionage Act after making what the district attorney of Canton, Ohio called an anti-war speech in 1918. Debs in fact only mentioned the war once, but under this repressive new law, was sentenced to ten years in a federal penitentiary. Nominated for a fifth time as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1920, Debs campaigned from his jail cell and garnered over a million votes. Despite repeated pleas from Debs’ supporters, President Wilson refused to release Debs from prison. President Harding finally ordered him set free on Christmas Day 1921.

Eugene V. Debs died on October 20, 1926 in Elmhurst, Illinois. His legacy is best summed up in his own words: “Yes, I am my brother’s keeper,” he wrote. “I am under a moral obligation to him that is inspired, not by maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe myself.”



Kansas Heritage: www. (Accessed: 8/15/2015)

Industrial Workers of the World: (Accessed: 8/14/2015))

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2015). Eugene V. Debs (1855 – 1926) – Labor leader, socialist and presidential candidate. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from


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