Debs grew up in the small midwestern city of Terre Haute, Indiana, where his parents, Alsatian immigrants, operated a grocery store. In 1875 he was elected secretary of the Terre Haute lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. His intelligence and commitment, coupled with his conservative outlook (he argued against participation in the nationwide railroad strikes of 1877), attracted the attention of the brotherhood’s leaders. By 1881, he was national secretary of the brotherhood, increasingly its spokesman on labor issues, and its most tireless organizer. Simultaneously, Debs entered politics as a Democratic candidate for city clerk in 1879. First elected over Republican and Greenback-Labor party candidates, Debs was overwhelmingly reelected in 1881. Four years later, he was elected to the Indiana State Assembly with broad support from the wards of Terre Haute’s workers and businessmen.
During the 1880s Debs’s ideas began to change. At first a firm proponent of organization of workers by their separate crafts, he resisted the industrial organization implicit in the efforts of the Knights of Labor and ordered his members to report to work during the Knights’ 1885 strike against the southwestern railroads. But his year-long involvement (1888-1889) in the strike against the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad altered these views. He now thought craft organization divisive, a hindrance to working people’s efforts to secure fair wages and working conditions. And concentrated corporate power, he argued, had a debilitating effect on the political rights and economic opportunity of the majority of Americans. By 1893 he had resigned his position as secretary of the brotherhood and begun organizing an industrial union of railroad workers, the American Railway Union (aru).
The aru’s 1894 strike against the Pullman Company of Chicago marked a second turning point in Debs’s thinking. The unified power of railroad management working intimately with federal authorities broke the strike. Federal troops occupied Chicago, federal injunctions prevented communication between aru locals, and federal judges sentenced Debs and other activists to jail terms. Debs emerged from this experience with two convictions. He questioned the ultimate ability of trade unions to combat successfully capital’s economic power and, after the 1896 elections, looked upon socialism as the answer to working people’s problems.
Between 1900 and 1920 Debs was the Socialist party’s standard-bearer in five presidential elections. In 1912, in a four-way race with Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft, he received 6 percent of the vote-his highest total ever. Between campaigns, Debs was a tireless speaker and organizer for the party, and he traveled the nation defending workers in their strikes and industrial disputes. Although many workers enthusiastically applauded Debs’s vision, relatively few endorsed his political program. He conducted his last campaign for president as prisoner 9653 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary while serving ten years for his opposition to World War I. He received nearly a million votes. As the American Socialist party fragmented in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, Debs remained with the party he had led for so many years. Upon his death he was buried in Terre Haute, his home throughout his life.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.