Debs, Eugene Victor

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

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).

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