Indiana at 200 (78): Eugene Debs
by Andrea Neal
“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose, especially their lives.”
With those words — and a few more like them — Hoosier socialist Eugene Debs gave federal agents cause to arrest him for violating the Espionage Act in 1918.
The law, passed early in World War I, was meant to silence war protesters. It made it a crime to convey information “with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies.”
On the basis of his remarks at an anti-war rally in Canton, Ohio, Debs was tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Debs unsuccessfully argued that the law violated his First Amendment right to free expression.
It was not the first time Debs drew national attention – nor would it be the last.
A lifelong Terre Haute resident, Eugene Victor Debs was a labor organizer and five-time presidential candidate on the Socialist ticket. He played “a major role in popularizing socialism in America,” wrote historian Clifton J. Phillips in Indiana in Transition, 1880-1920.
Born in 1855, Debs inherited his affinity for the poor and working class from his immigrant parents. At age 14, Debs dropped out of high school to work, first as a sign painter in the rail yards and next as a fireman on the Terre Haute & Indianapolis Railroad. His observations of working conditions inspired him to become involved in labor organizing. In 1893 he founded the American Railway Union.
During its first year the union called for a strike against the Great Northern Railway Company, which had been cutting wages. Within 18 days, the company gave in to almost all Debs’ demands. The success prompted workers to join the union by the thousands.
In 1895, the Pullman Company, maker of sleeper and luxury rail cars, cut its labor force from 5,500 to 3,300 and reduced wages by 25 percent. When the Pullman workers struck, the railway union called on members to refuse to operate trains that used Pullman cars. This disrupted rail traffic nationwide.
A federal court issued an injunction declaring the boycott illegal, and President Cleveland summoned troops to assist in crushing the strike. Debs was arrested and imprisoned for six months for violating the injunction.
While in jail, Debs concluded that labor needed a louder voice in the political system to push for change. By 1897, he declared himself a socialist, advocating government ownership of the means of production.
In March 1900, the Social Democratic Party held its first national convention in Indianapolis and tabbed Debs as its presidential candidate. He ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, the last while in Atlanta Prison on the espionage charge. Campaigning mostly by writing letters, Convict No. 9653 pulled in over 900,000 votes.
President Harding commuted his sentence on Christmas Day 1921 in recognition the law had been wrongly used to muffle him. Debs returned home to Terre Haute where 50,000 citizens greeted him. He died in 1926.
The house where he spent much of his adulthood is now the Eugene V. Debs Home Museum containing many original pieces, personal effects and historic photos. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the museum is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday.
Directions: The Eugene V. Debs Foundation office and museum are at 451 N. 8th St