Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs

Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana, USA
Death 20 Oct 1926 (aged 70)
Elmhurst, DuPage County, Illinois, USA
Burial Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana, USA
Plot Section 3
Memorial ID 268 · View Source
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Union Labor Leader, Political Activist, Socialist Presidential Candidate. A charismatic speaker, he is remembered as one of the best-known socialists living in the US. He was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for US President. His parents emigrated from France where his father came from a prosperous family that owned a textile mill and a meat market. He attended public schools, dropping out of high school when he was 14. He took a job in the Vandalia railroad car shops, working as a painter and a car cleaner. In December 1871 he left the railroad yards for work on the railways as a locomotive fireman for the same company. In July 1875 he began working at a wholesale grocery house where he remained for the next four years, and attended a local business school at night. In 1877 he served as a delegate of the Terre Haute lodge to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) national convention. In 1878 he was elected associate editor of the BLF's monthly Firemen's Magazine and two years later he was appointed Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the BLF and editor of the magazine in July 1880. He worked as a BLF functionary until January 1893 and as the magazine's editor until September 1894. He served two terms as Terre Haute, Indiana's city clerk from September 1879 to September 1883 and in the fall of 1884 he was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly as a senator, serving for one term. In 1893 he organized one of the first industrial unions in the US, the American Railway Union (ARU), for unskilled workers and in April 1894 the ARU successfully struck the Great Northern Railway and won most of its demands. That same year he became involved in the Pullman Strike, which grew out of a compensation dispute started by the workers who constructed the train cars made by the Pullman Palace Car Company. He initially tried to persuade the Union members who worked on the railways that the boycott was too risky, given the hostility of both the railways and the federal government, the weakness of the Union, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. However, after the strike was extended to St. Louis, Missouri, doubling its size to 80,000 workers, he relented and decided to take part in the strike, which was now endorsed by almost all members of the ARU in the immediate area of Chicago. Strikers fought by establishing boycotts of Pullman train cars, and with Debs' eventual leadership, the strike came to be known as "Debs' Rebellion." The US government intervened, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the US Mail, carried on Pullman cars, by refusing to show up for work. President Grover Cleveland sent the US Army to enforce the injunction and it was enough to break the strike but 13 strikers were killed, and thousands were blacklisted, along with estimated $80-million worth of property damaged. He was found guilty of contempt of court for violating the injunction and sent to federal prison. While serving his six-month sentence at Woodstock, Illinois he began to lean his political views towards socialism and after his release in 1895, he began his Socialist political career. He persuaded the ARU membership to join with the Brotherhood of the Cooperative Commonwealth to found the Social Democracy of America and in 1900 he, along with running mate Job Harriman, were the first federal office candidates for the fledgling Socialist party, running (unsuccessfully) for the US presidency, receiving less than 88,000 votes. The following year, the Social Democracy of America split and he went with the majority faction to found the Social Democratic Party of the United States, also called the Social Democratic Party. He was the Socialist Party of America candidate for president in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In the 1904 election, he received 402,810 votes and with vice presidential candidate Benjamin Hanford, ultimately finished third overall. In June 1905 he and other influential union leaders held what was called the "Continental Congress of the working class" and formed the Industrial Workers of the World. In the 1908 presidential election, he again ran on the same ticket as Hanford and received 420,852 votes. Four years later, running with Emil Seidel, he received 901,551 popular votes. While he received some success as a third-party candidate, he never received any electoral votes and was largely dismissive of the electoral process. He distrusted the political bargains that Victor Berger and other "Sewer Socialists" had made in winning local offices. He put much more value on organizing workers into unions, favoring unions that brought together all workers in a given industry over those organized by the craft skills workers practiced. His speeches against the President Woodrow Wilson's administration and the US entry into World War I earned the enmity of Wilson, who later called Debs a "traitor to his country." On June 16, 1918 he made a speech in Canton, Ohio, urging resistance to the military draft of World War I. He was arrested two weeks later and charged with ten counts of sedition. He was found guilty three months later and sentenced to 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life. He appealed his conviction to the US Supreme Court but it was upheld. In the 1920 election he ran for US president while in prison at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia and received 919,799 write-in votes, the highest number of votes for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the US. During his time in prison, he wrote a series of columns deeply critical of the prison system that appeared in sanitized form in the Bell Syndicate and were published in his only book, "Walls and Bars" (published posthumously in 1927). In December 1921, President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence to time served, effective Christmas Day, but did not issue a pardon. In 1924 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Finnish Socialist Karl H. Wiik. He died of heart failure at the age of 70. The Eugene V. Debs Inter-Cooperative House at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan was named in his honor. The original manuscript of his book "Walls and Bars," with handwritten amendments, presumably by him, is held in the Thomas J. Morgan Papers in the Special Collections department of the University of Chicago Library in Chicago, Illinois.

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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  • Maintained by: Find a Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find a Grave Memorial 268
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Eugene Victor Debs (5 Nov 1855–20 Oct 1926), Find a Grave Memorial no. 268, citing Highland Lawn Cemetery, Terre Haute, Vigo County, Indiana, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .