Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox

By Constantine, J. Robert | Monthly Labor Review, August 1991 | Go to article overview

Eugene V. Debs: An American Paradox


Constantine, J. Robert, Monthly Labor Review


Abolition of child labor, equal pay for equal work for women, and pensions for both men and women were among 'radical' causes supported by Debs during the early 20th century J. Robert Constantine is professor emeritus of history at Indiana State University. This article is drawn from Letter.9 of Eugene V. Debs (Champaign, IL, University of Illinois Press, 1990), which he edited.

Eugene Victor Debs played an important role in popularizing ideas and ideals which were denounced as radical, even "unAmerican," in the early part of the 20th century. These ideas later were considered orthodox and are now viewed as traditional. His career marked an honorable chapter in the history of American dissent, a history significantly enhanced by Debs' willingness to pay a heavy price for holding unpopular views.

Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 5, 1855. His parents had emigrated from Alsace, France, in 1849 and settled in Terre Haute soon thereafter. Debs left school when he was 14 years old and took a job in the Terre Haute railroad shop, which paid him 50 cents a day for scraping grease and paint off locomotives. In 187 1, he became a locomotive fireman. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875, and soon began serving as an organizer and recording secretary for the union. He was elected associate editor of the Firemen's Magazine at the national convention held in 1878. In 1880, he was elected as the national secretary-treasurer of the union and editor of the Firemen's Magazine.

Union Official

Debs served as city clerk of Terre Haute from 1879 to 1883. He was elected to the Indiana legislature in 1885. His public service appeared not to have interfered with his dedication to the interests of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and during the 1880's, he gained recognition as an effective union organizer and labor journalist. In addition to organizing numerous Firemen's locals, Debs also organized locals for the Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, the Switchmen's Mutual Aid Association, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and the Order of Railway Telegraphers. He also assisted in the organization of carpenters' and painters' locals in Terre Haute and in other Indiana cities and responded to calls for help in organizing miners' locals.

Frustrated by the failure of the railroad brotherhoods to maintain solidarity in their dealings with management, especially during strikes, Debs resigned as secretary-treasurer in 1892. In 1893, he founded and became president of the American Railway Union.

Throughout its brief, dramatic career, the American Railway Union attracted thousands of members. It won a notable victory in an 18-day strike against James J. Hill's Great Northern Railroad in April 1894. A few months later, the new union (against Debs' advice), but in sympathy with striking Pullman Palace Car workers, voted to launch a boycott of Pullman cars on all of the railroads served by the union. The resulting Pullman Strike of 1894, possibly the most famous strike in American labor history, paralyzed much of the commerce in the western half of the Nation before being broken by an alliance of railroad management and the full legal and military power of the Federal Government.

In the aftermath of the Pullman Strike, Debs was imprisoned for 6 months at the Woodstock, Illinois, jail for violating the "blanket" injunction handed down by the Federal court in Chicago against the American Railway Union leadership. While in prison, Debs became convinced that no union could protect the interests of workers in the prevailing economic and political system, and, in January 1897, he announced his conversion to socialism.

Political candidate

During the next 30 years, Debs carried a message of democratic socialism to millions of Americans, arguing that unbridled capitalism was destroying democracy at home and leading to war abroad. He insisted that only through industrial unionism in the economic realm and socialism in the political realm, could workers' interests be protected. …

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