Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. He left home at age 14 to work on the railroad and became involved in the nascent efforts to organize labor unions. Before his 20th birthday he helped create a local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, rising to become a national officer within five years. By the time he was 30, he was serving in the Indiana legislature.
Debs was a labor organizer, but he was not anarchist. He had been shocked by Chicago’s Haymarket Riots of 1886. Though he was the son of Alsatian immigrants, he still indulged in nativist rhetoric, insisting that the incoming tide of Eastern European Jews and Southern European Catholics in the late 19th century threatened Protestant white Americans. Like a modern-day cable news talking head, he warned that “Italy has millions to spare, and they are coming.”
By the 1890s, the growing power of corporations and the threat he believed they posed to workers led Debs to oppose all attempts to divide workers against themselves based on ethnicity. Class, not religion, was his fault line. He led the American Railway Union in a successful strike for higher wages against the Great Northern Railway in April 1894.
Debs gained greater renown — and vilification — in 1895 when he was sentenced to 6 months in jail for his role in leading the Chicago Pullman Palace Car Co. strike, which severely disrupted rail traffic in the Midwest during the summer of 1894. That strike was historic: it marked the first time that the federal government resorted to an injunction to break the strike.
Sitting in jail for his 40th birthday, Debs read Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital,” and though he never embraced Marxian socialism, he grew to loathe competitive capitalism. Lincoln, not Lenin, remained his hero. But the railsplitter’s America was gone, replaced by an economic system that Debs felt would have been unrecognizable to the Founders.
Debs emerged from jail more defiant than ever. An inspiring speaker, he energized a crowd of more than 100,000 in Chicago, denouncing capitalism and advocating for “the Spirit of ‘76″ and a system that allowed every worker “the opportunity to advance to the fullest limits of his abilities.” He was not a revolutionary, calling instead for workers to seize power through the ballot and reclaim the country that was rightfully theirs.
In 1897 he proclaimed himself a socialist and founded the Socialist Party of America, injecting European-style class conflict into American politics.
Debs ran for president at the head of his party in 1900, receiving 96,000 votes; the total grew to 400,000 four years later. He ran again in 1908 and 1912, receiving 6 percent of the vote.
With the U.S. entry into World War I, the federal government’s need for increased industrial production clashed headlong with the goals of Debs and organized labor. In the flurry of wartime patriotism, Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, designed to punish acts deemed disloyal, dangerous and disruptive of the war effort. “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs declared. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.” Flouting the law, Debs encouraged young American men not to fight: “The master class has always declared the wars, the subject class has always fought the battles.”
Federal authorities pounced. Prosecutor Edwin Wertz announced that “No man, even though four times the candidate of his party for the highest office, can violate the basic law of this land.” Debs was charged with violating the Espionage Act and convicted of sedition in 1918 — and disfranchised for life. He was sentenced to three concurrent 10-year sentences. (Ironically, the same Act was used to charge Donald Trump in his handling of classified documents.)
Whether First Amendment martyr or wartime traitor, Eugene Debs found himself running as the Socialist candidate for president in 1920 from the Atlanta federal prison. He told his supporters, who handed out photos of the candidate in convict denim along with campaign buttons for “Prisoner 9653,” “I enter the prison doors a flaming revolutionist, my head erect, my spirit untamed and my soul unconquerable.”
Despite the obvious impediments to his campaign and doubts about his eligibility, Debs received 915,000 votes for president — 3.5 percent — the highest total the party ever won.
President Warren Harding finally released Debs — but did not pardon him — on Christmas Day 1921 and promptly invited him to the White House, where Debs’s charm was on full display. Fifty thousand supporters greeted him on his return to Indiana. But it was a pyrrhic victory, as prison nearly broke him. His health was ruined.
Debs died five years later, in 1926, at age 70, his dream and his cause in ruins. To this point, Eugene Debs remains the only presidential candidate to seek the office while imprisoned after a federal conviction.
Stan Deaton, Ph.D., is senior historian and the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.