Eugene V. Debs Political Activist in 1879 and 1894 Activities

Eugene V. Debs was a prominent and active Socialist and one of the American Railway Union (ARU) founders. He was politically active in 1879 and 1894.

He is best known for his presidential campaigns as a member of various socialist parties: he ran five times for President as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Social Democracy of America (SDA), and the Socialist Party of America (SPA); once as the candidate of SPA’s radical wing, the Industrial Workers of the World; and once on an independent ticket.

He was also noted for his anti-war speeches and activities. In 1918, he was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to prison, where he ran for President an eighth time in 1921.

Background: 1879-1894

In his early years, Debs was not inclined politically. Still, when his railroad brotherhood became involved in the great national upheaval of the Pullman Strike, which shook America in 1894, he organized and led it with such effect that Eugene V. Debs suddenly became a power in the affairs of his country. He never afterward surrendered this mighty weapon which had been placed in his hands by a tremendous popular vote, a splendid tribute to a man who had not sought or desired it. This made him one of the most dangerous enemies of privilege and greed that thundered from a soapbox orator’s platform or wielded a pen of any Socialist in America. He was also a member of the United Mine Workers of America, and he organized the American Railway Union (ARU).

Eugene V. Debs Political Activist in 1879 and 1894 Activities

As a new convert to socialism, he immediately began mastering its details, attending conventions and speeches, studying its history and present program, reading everything that fell into his hands treating upon subjects allied to his adopted cause; mastering its economics; voting for it without hesitation or delay; preaching it with tongue and pen; filling every office within reach; teaching in public schools when possible; joining unions where practicable until he became known as an agitator who neither spared friend nor foe.

Eugene V. Debs Political Activist in 1879 and 1894 Activities

Debs was always a strong advocate of the industrial union as opposed to the craft union point of view held by Samuel Gompers, and broke with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1898 when they endorsed William McKinley’s reelection campaign; at that time, he also became a member of the newly formed Socialist Party of America (SPA). He ran for United States Congress from his native state Indiana in 1900 and 1902 but lost both times. In 1904 he was elected President of ARU.

In June 1905, wages were cut for railroad workers, which sparked a national strike across multiple railroads on July 1, 1905. The impact quickly shut down much of the nation’s freight and passenger traffic west of Detroit, Michigan. Railway managers requested assistance from the federal government. President Theodore Roosevelt obtained an injunction forcing the strikers to leave the company property and deployed United States Army soldiers to make sure it was enforced. Violence broke out across the country in response to this action by President Roosevelt.

Political TrainOn July 10, 1905, Debs went to meet with leaders of other rail unions. They agreed that they would not give in to any railroad company demands until all striking workers were reinstated. Within a few days, there were 350,000 strikers on strike across 27 states. Between 400 thousand and 500 thousand people clogged city streets nationwide in peaceful demonstrations. Strikers’ wives and children marched with them, carrying signs asking for the 40-hour workweek.

As this strike was on railroads, it gave Debs a chance to show his organizational skills. He had helped organize ARU in 1893. By taking command of ARU, he increased union membership from 20,000 to 150,000 members during the strike. A vital issue in the life or death of both unions was whether they could gain new members as strikers were replaced by workers willing to scab.

After arbitration between railroad companies and their employees failed, President Roosevelt sought legislation allowing him to appoint a board to draft a plan for settling all railway disputes. On August 3, 1905, Congress passed the law that would become known as “the Magna Carta of the labor movement,” the Erdman Act.

On December 20, 1905, Debs was arrested in Canton, Ohio, for violating an injunction against ARU by continuing to picket freight trains. However, he was released on bail pending his conviction in early 1906 to the Supreme Court of Ohio. On April 13, 1906, after losing this appeal, Debs traveled to Woodstock Jail in Woodstock, Illinois, to begin serving a 6-month sentence. At that time, Woodstock Jail was used as a “detention” center for political prisoners.

Debs immediately became a celebrity within the third-party politics community due to his frank admission that he had broken the law and accepted punishment thoughtfully and willingly. Most Socialist Party members had been expecting a long, drawn-out legal battle to keep Debs free.

Debs ran for President in 1900 as the candidate of the Social Democratic Party and received 0.6% of the popular vote. In December 1904, he was personally asked by ARU members attending an executive council meeting if he would run again for President with their endorsement. He agreed, and later ARU unanimously endorsed that same day.

The campaign platform put forth by Debs centered on a call for social ownership of productive resources, which included support from organized labor and other progressive elements into a political coalition called “the new democracy.” Although this was not a socialist party, it provided common ground outside the traditional Republican-Democrat divide to discuss how America might have a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Socialist Party leaders, having witnessed the political power gained by Gompers and his group’s repudiation of socialism, had previously petitioned Democratic President William Jennings Bryan to intervene. Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan failed to win the presidency in 1900 or 1908. Still, he was nominated on all three occasions due to strong support from Democrats who viewed him as representing their viewpoint by opposing imperialism, supporting labor rights, and promoting agricultural interests. For this reason, he earned the respect of organized labor. By shifting the discussion away from class warfare, Debs made it easier for groups like ARU, who intended to keep both major parties at arm’s length for fear that either might make unacceptable compromises with Gompers’ supporters.

Debs’s name was placed in nomination by Gompers, who gained the presidential endorsement of the Socialist Party for the first time. During Debs’s time in prison, a sincere effort was made to get out the vote. As a result, the Socialist Party increased its popular vote over 1904 by 40%.

Socialist candidates did not do well in Connecticut’s larger cities, but many small towns elected socialists to local office. However, there were exceptions, such as mayoral races in Schenectady and Rochester, where Democratic candidates won despite a robust Socialist presence.

The election of 1908 led to one of “the most interesting third party experiments” when Eugene V. Debs formed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). They believed that working people would not win by forming one big union but would be more successful by organizing a group of one big marriage divided into various industrial departments.