From Ohio History Central
Socialist Party members gather for the Socialist Convention and Eugene V. Debs picnic in Canton, Ohio, 1918.
During the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, Eugene V. Debs was a leading advocate for socialism in the United States of America.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. He began working in a railroad yard at the age of fourteen years, working his way up to fireman on a locomotive. Debs was originally a member of the Democratic Party. He became involved in local and state politics in the 1880s, first serving as city clerk of Terre Haute from 1880 to 1884 and then as a representative to the Indiana legislature from 1885 to 1887. Over time, Debs moved away from the Democratic Party as he became more interested in helping workers gain more rights through unionization.
In 1893, Debs organized the American Railway Union. Unlike many unions of this era, the American Railway Union was not limited to skilled workers. Anyone who worked on the railroads was allowed to join. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison after encouraging the union to go on strike against the Pullman Company. President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to end the strike. It was at this time that Debs became a socialist.
When the Social Democrat Party formed in Indianapolis in 1900, its members nominated Debs as their presidential candidate. Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1912, Debs obtained approximately six percent of the total popular vote. In 1920, he received approximately 900,000 popular votes, about 3.5% of the total votes cast.
Debs was outspoken in his opposition to American involvement in World War I. He made numerous speeches on the topic, including in Ohio. A speech that Debs made in Canton, Ohio, resulted in his imprisonment. In this speech, Debs criticized the war by discussing how workers were the ones who always made the greatest sacrifices in times of war. He described how wealthy American businessmen were profiting from the war while the working class suffered. The government charged him with violating the Espionage Act, which prohibited Americans from interfering with military service or otherwise obstructing the United States' war effort. Debs was found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison, although President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence on December 25, 1921. When Debs ran for president in 1920, he was still in prison.
After leaving prison, Debs suffered from poor health. He continued to promote socialist causes for the rest of his life. Debs died near Chicago, Illinois, on October 20, 1926.