Ask your oldest relatives about Eugene V. Debs and they may remember their parents’ respect for the 5-time Socialist candidate for the U.S. Presidency—from 1900 to 1920.
I attended Indiana State University in the 1960s where Debs’ home remains a historical site at the east edge of campus. In Terre Haute, 50 years after his death, people still spoke respectfully about Debs as a compassionate man whose family sheltered young women who were pregnant out-of-wedlock and left homeless by their families.
The turn of the previous century saw a different America. In urban areas, the lower class far exceeded the middle class in size. There was child labor. Large businesses controlled local and state government. Police could be called upon to reinforce company thugs.
Today we hear: you don’t get paid what you deserve, you get paid what you negotiate—and you can’t negotiate. But in the late 1800s, unions were stronger than they are now. Debs helped found the American Railway Union (ARU) and led their wildcat strike when wages were drastically cut in 1894. President Cleveland ordered the Army to break the strike and Debs was jailed for six months for disobeying a court order to stop the strike.
Debs read political theory while in jail and emerged determined to work harder to improve worker’s rights, helping found Social Democracy of America and the subsequent Socialist parties in America. Debs joined other labor leaders in 1905 to found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Debs then ran for U.S. President. In the 1904 election, he gained just under 3 percent of the popular vote and slightly less in 1908. He won 6 percent in 1912 and even more in 1920. However, Debs never received one electoral vote; he considered the electoral system rigged to favor the corporate establishment.
But what left an enduring impression upon American minds was Debs’ great ability as an orator. Without microphones, Debs could spellbind a large crowd with his passionate voice. “...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.” Great oratory is not heard today because it takes more time than we allot to speakers. But his passion still rises from the pages of “Eugene V. Debs Speaks” edited by Jean Tussey, and “Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist” by Nick Salvatore.
His elegance and his politics shine in the following excerpt: “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....”
Debs last run for President was from prison. It was the effectiveness of Debs’ oratory that caused his arrest on June 30, 1918; a lesser speaker would have gone free. World War I had arrived and Debs advocated resisting the military draft. He was arrested for sedition and labeled a “traitor” by President Wilson. He spoke in his own defense in what has been considered the most brilliant and moving of speeches. Nevertheless, he was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to ten years in prison.
1920 election badges carried his picture and read: “For President: Convict No. 9653” and he received the greatest number of votes of any Socialist in American history. How war fever subverts out First Amendment is carefully analyzed in Ernest Freeberg’s “Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent” by Harvard University Press.
Debs’ sentence was eventually commuted and he was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary in December of 1921. He was nominated for (but did not receive) the Nobel Peace Prize in 1924.
Today there are aging American’s who bear “Eugene” or “Debs” in their first or middle names as a testament to the affection many American citizens of the early 20th Century felt for this man.