Eugene Debs: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Ashley Kannan

Ashley has taught history, literature, and political science and has a Master's Degree in Education

Have you ever felt that your hard work isn't recognized or that you've been taken advantage of by those with more power than you? If so, Eugene Debs is your kind of person. Read on to see how someone lives their life so others can have fairness in theirs.

Early Life

As America made the transition from farms to factories in 1855, Eugene Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs was born to poor immigrant parents who encouraged intellectual advancement in their son. Seeing his own parents work as shopkeepers, Debs experienced the plight of those who toil for a living. He recognized the value of hard work as well as the lack of compensation for it.

Over time, this plight impacted Debs's outlook on the construction of the world. When labor unrest took hold in different parts of the nation, such as in Buffalo in 1877, Debs understood that the capitalist class had created fathomless depths of degradation in American society. As a result, Debs recognized his calling to support the working class. His marriage to Kate Metzel in 1885 represented both his love for another person, as well as his own sense of tolerance, as Metzel did not support her husband's passionate cause for workers' rights.

Being Active for the Cause

Debs' commitment to the working class was evident with his forming of the American Railway Union in 1893. Debs stated that the need to 'unify railroad employees and to eliminate the aristocracy of labor… and organize them so all will be on an equality' became his primary motivation. The American Railway Union embodied one of the first steps in a lifetime committed to labor activism.

He embraced this role when he led the American Railway Union in support of workers in the Pullman Strike in 1894. Debs was arrested for violating an injunction, which President Cleveland issued, that forbade any strike-related activity in Pullman. When arrested, Debs affirmed his stance. He showed no regrets when he said to the court that tried him for contempt that 'if it were not for resistance to degrading conditions, the tendency of our whole civilization would be downward.'

Such passion reflects how Debs believed in the cause of workers. He never hesitated in finding new ways to assist workers in finding a collective voice. He continued his advocacy for the working class in American society with his founding of the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) . As industrialization was rapidly growing, Debs found that his audience of exploited workers grew with it.

Debs continued his advocacy with a political embrace of Socialist ideas that fueled his zealous support of labor causes. In 1900, Debs took this Socialist position into the political realm. He ran for President of the United States on behalf of the Socialist party. While he lost that year, Debs ran again and became the party's nominee for president in the subsequent four elections. While Debs was never a firm believer in the institution of politics, he saw his greatest electoral success in 1912, as he gained nearly six percent of the popular vote.

Debs giving a speech in Canton, Ohio 1916

Debs and World War I

Debs was rigorous in his challenges to authority. One of the most demonstrative examples of this was when he protested growing American involvement in World War I . In defiance of President Wilson's Espionage Act , Debs spoke out against the war, citing that he was 'opposed to the form of our present government.' Debs was imprisoned for ten years. President Wilson refused to pardon Debs or commute his sentence, labeling the fighter for social justice as a 'traitor to his country.'

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