Eugene Victor Debs (November 5, 1855 - October 20, 1926) was an American labor and political leader and five time Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States.
Rise to Prominence
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He became a prominent American labor leader, beginning with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in 1875. In 1893 he organized the first industrial union in the United States, the American Railway Union (ARU). The Union successfully struck the Great Northern Railway in April 1894.
Trouble with the Law
He was jailed later that year as part of the Pullman Strike, which grew out of the strike by the workers who made Pullman's cars. Debs tried to persuade the ARU 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 ARU, and the possibility that other unions would break the strike. The membership ignored his warnings and refused to handle Pullman cars or any other railroad cars attached to them.
The federal government did, in fact, intervene, obtaining an injunction against the strike on the theory that the strikers had obstructed the railways by refusing to show up for work, then sending in the United States Army on the ground that the strike was hindering the delivery of the mail. That intervention only provoked a violent reaction from strikers in what had been a relatively peaceful strike to that point. The strike was broken and the ARU destroyed.
Run for Presidency
The experience radicalized Debs still further. He was a candidate for President of the United States in 1900 as a member of the Social Democratic Party. He was later the Socialist Party of America candidate for President in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920, the final time from prison.
On June 16, 1918 he made an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, protesting World War I, and was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917. He was sentenced to serve 10 years in prison and disenfranchised for life. While in prison in Atlanta, he ran for President. On December 25, 1921 President Warren G. Harding released Debs from prison, commuting his sentence to time served.
In the 1920 election, while in jail, he received 913,664 votes, the most ever for a Socialist Party presidential candidate in the U.S. He was also a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World during this period.