Eugene V. Debs

Debs, Eugene Victor

Eugene Victor Debs, 1855–1926, American Socialist leader, b. Terre Haute, Ind. Leaving high school to work in the railroad shops in Terre Haute, he became a railroad fireman (1871) and organized (1875) a local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1880 he became national secretary and treasurer of the brotherhood, and in 1884 he was elected to the Indiana legislature. He resigned (1892) from the brotherhood and launched (1893), instead of a trade union, an industrial union to include all railroad workers, the American Railway Union, of which he became president. After a successful strike against the Great Northern RR, the American Railway Union participated (1894) in the Pullman strike by refusing to service Pullman cars. An injunction, however, was served against the strikers and federal troops, sent to Illinois by President Cleveland over the protest of Illinois governor John P. Altgeld, broke the strike. Debs and others were convicted of violating the injunction and sentenced to a six-month jail term.

While in prison, Debs read widely, including socialist works, and he later became a Socialist. In 1898, he helped form the Social Democratic party (renamed the Socialist party in 1901; again renamed Social Democratic in 1972) and was its presidential candidate in 1900, with 96,000 votes nationally, and in 1904, with 402,000 votes. He became editor of the Socialist weekly Appeal to Reason and lectured widely. After 1900, he grew more bitter in his attacks on trade unionism and more vehement in advocating the organization of labor by industries. He helped to found (1905) the Industrial Workers of the World, but soon withdrew from the movement. Debs was again the Socialist candidate for president in 1908 and 1912.

During World War I, the Socialist party refused to take part in the government war effort and in 1918 Debs, a leading pacifist, was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for publicly denouncing the government's prosecution of persons charged with sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917. Although still in a federal penitentiary, he was Socialist candidate for President in 1920 and gathered nearly 920,000 votes. He was released (1921) by order of President Harding. But his health was broken, and he accomplished little in his last years, although he was widely revered as a martyr for his principles.

See studies by H. W. Morgan (1962, repr. 1973), H. W. Currie (1976), N. Salvatore (1982), A. M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. (1989), M. Young (ed. by C. Ruas, 1999), and E. Freeberg (2008).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Eugene V. Debs: Selected full-text books and articles

Eugene V. Debs, a Man Unafraid By McAlister Coleman Greenberg, 1930
Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs By Eugene V. Debs Hermitage Press, 1948
American Radicals Some Problems and Personalities By Harvey Goldberg Monthly Review Press, 1957
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "The Achievement of Debs"
On the Left in America: Memoirs of the Scandinavian-American Labor Movement By Henry Bengston; Kermit B. Westerberg; Michael Brook Southern Illinois University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 26 "The Debs Trial" and Chap 27 "The Liberals and the Debs Decision"
Prophets of the Left: American Socialist Thought in the Twentieth Century By Robert Hyfler Greenwood Press, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "Socialism in the Working Class: Debs and the Wobblies"
History of the Labor Movement in the United States By Philip S. Foner International Publishers, vol.4, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Birth of the I. W. W."
Brotherly Tomorrows: Movements for a Cooperative Society in America, 1820-1920 By Edward K. Spann Columbia University Press, 1989
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Eugene V. Debs begins on p. 235
The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 By Ira Kipnis Columbia University Press, 1952
Librarian’s tip: Includes discussion of Eugene V. Debs in multiple chapters
Wobbly, the Rough-And-Tumble Story of an American Radical By Ralph Chaplin University of Chicago Press, 1948
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 29 "Eugene Victor Debs Visits Our Garden. Funeral at Terre Haute "
American Orators of the Twentieth Century: Critical Studies and Sources By Bernard K. Duffy; Halford R. Ryan Greenwood Press, 1987
Librarian’s tip: "Eugene V. Debs. Labor Spokesman and Socialist Presidential Candidate" begins on p. 95
The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement By Howard H. Quint Bobbs-Merrill, 1964
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IX "The Communitarians' Last Stand"
Labor and Farmer Parties in the United States, 1828-1928 By Nathan Fine Rand School of Social Science, 1928
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "Socialist Unity"
Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox By Constantine, J. Robert Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 114, No. 8, August 1991
Eugene V. Debs and the Idea of Socialism By Zinn, Howard The Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 1, January 1999
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