Debs, Eugene V.

Debs, Eugene V. (Victor)

(1855–1926) labor leader, political activist; born in Terre Haute, Ind. At age 15 he went to work on the railroads. After serving as secretary of his local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (1875–80), he became the union's national secretary and editor of its magazine (1880–92). He served in the Indiana legislature (1886–88). Championing the cause of industrial unionism, he organized the American Railway Union in 1892, and led the boycott of all Pullman cars during the great strike of 1894; for defying the government's injunction he was jailed for six months. Converting to socialism while in jail, he helped found the Social Democratic Party in 1897, which merged in 1901 with another group to form the Socialist Party (SP). In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World, which he eventually disavowed because of its use of violence. He ran for the U.S. presidency in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912 as the SP's candidate, winning over 900,000 votes, 6% of the total cast, in the 1912 election. During these years he supported himself by lecturing and writing. In 1918 he spoke out against the trials being conducted under the 1917 Espionage Act, under which individuals opposed to America participating in the world war were being charged with sedition; he himself was then tried for sedition and sentenced to ten years in jail. While there in 1920, he again ran for president on the Socialist ticket; he received his largest vote ever. Public protest persuaded President Harding to release him in 1921, but Debs never ceased working for the cause of Socialism.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.