Eugene V. Debs Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Perhaps America’s best-known socialist, Debs offered a strong critique of American capitalism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His role as a strike leader–most notably during the Pullman Strike of 1894–and as a five-time candidate for president gained him both notoriety and a sizeable political following.

Although Eugene V. Debs was considered bright in school, his formal education ended in 1870, when, at the age of fourteen, he entered the employment of the Indianapolis Railway Company in Terre Haute, Indiana, first as a shop laborer and then as a locomotive fireman. This early experience fueled his interests in the rights of the working class and the embryonic labor movement. In 1875, Debs began serving as secretary of the local branch of the newly formed Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, and by 1880, he had become the secretary-treasurer of the national union as well as the editor of its publication, the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine.Debs, Eugene V.

As the 1880’s progressed, labor strife throughout the country grew in response to the ruthless labor practices of the Gilded Age. In response, Debs became increasingly involved in the effort to bring about the federation of the major railroad unions. When this was finally accomplished in 1893 with the formation of the American Railway UnionAmerican Railway Union (ARU), Debs was chosen as the union’s president. In April of 1894, under Debs’s leadership, the ARU was successful in forcing James Jerome Hill, James JeromeHill and the Great Northern Railroad to submit to arbitration in a major labor dispute.

Eugene V. Debs.

(Library of Congress)

Mere months later, the union suffered a major defeat in the Pullman StrikePullman Strike of 1894, arguably the most significant effort of organized labor during the period. In the aftermath of this event, Debs was sentenced in Illinois to a six-month jail term for contempt. After supporting William Jennings Bryan in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1896, Debs announced, on January 1, 1897, his conversion to socialism, seeing it as the best vehicle for achieving the types of economic reforms he felt the country required.

For the rest of his life, Debs fought for the socialist cause, becoming the country’s best-known socialist leader. He ran five times for president as a socialist, in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Debs made his greatest impact in the 1912 presidential race, when he won 6 percent of the popular vote with a vote tally of 897,011. He was also one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor organization, in 1905, and he wrote extensively for the socialist publications Appeal to Reason and the National Rip-Saw.

Further Reading
  • Chace, James. 1912–Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft, and Debs: The Election That Changed the Country. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • Papke, David Ray. The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.
  • Salvatore, Nick. Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

AFL-CIO

Gilded Age

Samuel Gompers

Industrial Workers of the World

Labor history

Labor strikes

Pullman Strike

Railroad strike of 1877

Railroads

Supreme Court and labor law

Categories: History