Beloved by many contemporaries as a man "too good for this world" who would give the clothes off his back to anyone in need, "Gene" Debs was a prominent leader of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) in his youth. Later he helped found the American Railway Union (1894), the Socialist Party of America (1901) and the Industrial Workers of the World (1905). The best-known apostle of industrial unionism in the early years of the 20th century, Debs ran for president of the United States on the Socialist Party ticket five times between 1900 and 1920, winning millions of votes. Although none of his dreams were realized during his lifetime, Debs inspired millions to believe in "the emancipation of the working class and the brotherhood of all mankind," and he helped spur the rise of industrial unionism and the adoption of progressive social and economic reforms.
Debs was born on Nov. 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Ind., the son of Marguerite Bettrich and Jean Daniel Debs, Alsatian immigrants and retail grocers. At 16, he left school to work as a paint scraper in the Terre Haute railroad yards and quickly rose to a job as a locomotive fireman. Laid off during the depression of 1873, Debs eventually found another job as a clerk in the grocery business and never worked for the railroad again the rest of his life. But he did retain a close attachment to railroad work and railroad workers. When the BLF organized a local lodge in Terre Haute in 1875, Debs signed up as a charter member and was elected recording secretary.
Following the great railroad strike of 1877—the first truly national strike in U.S. history—the 22-year-old Debs gave a well-received speech at the Brotherhood's annual convention, defending the union from charges that it sought to encourage strikes or lawlessness. The only local BLF officer in the Terre Haute lodge re-elected after the strike, Debs was named associate editor of Locomotive Fireman's Magazine in 1878 and then the national BLF's grand secretary-treasurer and editor-in-chief of the magazine in 1880.
For most of the 1880s, Debs continued to preach the virtues of industrial cooperation and to discourage confrontations with either employers or the government. He began a successful political career, winning election in 1879 and 1881 as the city clerk of Terre Haute, and served one term in the Indiana State Assembly in 1884. One year later, he married Katherine Metzel, the daughter of prosperous German immigrants who owned a local drugstore. (The couple would have no children.) In 1886, Debs also joined other railroad brotherhood officials in refusing to support the Knights of Labor strike against Jay Gould's railroad line, and he let the organization of the AFL and its national general strike for the eight-hour-day pass without comment in his magazine.
His ideas began to change in 1886, however, during a yearlong strike against the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The strike led Debs to question whether large corporations could be truly committed to either industrial cooperation or popular democracy. He also began to believe that organizing unions along trade or craft lines rather than on an industrial basis made it more difficult for workers to join together in common struggle against the growing power of the corporations.
Debs acted upon his new convictions with resolve, resigning his $4,000 a year post as grand secretary-treasurer of the BLF in 1893 after organizing the American Railway Union (ARU), an industrial union open to all railroad workers regardless of craft or skill. He also resigned his position as editor of Locomotive Fireman's Magazine. In 1894, workers struck George Pullman's paternalistic railroad sleeping car manufacturing company and the Pullman Company refused to negotiate with the ARU. Union officials called for a national boycott of Pullman cars, asking the other railroad unions to honor the boycott by refusing to work on trains pulling the cars. Despite widespread support, when the railroads convinced President Grover Cleveland to send in federal troops to enforce an injunction against interfering with the U.S. mail, the boycott and the strike collapsed. ARU leaders, including Debs, were arrested on conspiracy charges and were sentenced to six-month jail terms for disregarding the injunction.
The violent repression of the ARU strike and Debs' reflections upon it in jail marked the final turn in his evolution from industrial cooperationist to revolutionary socialist. Debs supported William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic and People's Party candidate for president in 1896, but after Bryan's defeat, Debs helped organize a new "Social Democratic Party," modeled on similar organizations in Europe. Running for president himself in 1900, Debs received 96,000 votes and in 1901 merged his party with supporters of the reformist wing of the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America. Debs ran again for president in 1904, polling 400,000 votes. He also joined with other union militants and radicals to organize the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905. The "Wobblies," as they were known, called on all workers to join "one big union" and seize direct control of industry through mass strikes.
Debs resigned from the IWW in 1908 and ran for president a third time, doing no better than in 1904. In the 1910 and 1912 elections, however, scores of Socialists were victorious in state and local contests, and in 1912 Debs polled nearly 1 million votes for president. But the Democratic administration of Woodrow Wilson quickly stole the Socialists' thunder, enacting a broad program of "New Freedom" reforms on behalf of workers, women and consumers.
Too sick to run a national campaign in 1916, Debs ran for Congress in his home district, finishing a distant second to the victorious Republican. Other Socialist candidates suffered similar defeats elsewhere, and Debs' dream of a socialist commonwealth, like his earlier dreams of an industrial union for all railroad workers and one big union for all workers, proved illusory.
In 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany and its allies. In response to vituperative opposition, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it unlawful to incite active opposition to U.S. involvement in the conflict. Federal agents arrested scores of Socialists, Wobblies and other dissidents who dared to speak out. Rising from his sick bed, Debs delivered a series of antiwar speeches; he was arrested, charged with impeding the war effort, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
In the eyes of many, it was one of his finest moments. "Years ago," he famously declared, "I recognized my kinship with all living beings and made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." A candidate for president for the fifth and final time in 1920, federal prisoner #9653 received once again nearly a million votes.
On Christmas Day 1921, President Warren G. Harding, a Republican, freed Debs and 23 other prisoners of conscience. Debs' socialist movement was now dead, the victim of government repression and internal factional fighting between opponents and supporters of the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. But the socialist ideal lived on, inspiring a new generation of social reformers in the 1930s who, under the banner of the New Deal, enacted most of the programs and policies called for in the Socialist Party platform of 1912. It was not the socialist commonwealth, but it was a genuine achievement—one for which Debs and his followers legitimately could claim some credit.