Eugene V. Debs

On this date in 1855, labor leader, reformer and socialist Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Ind. He was not baptized by his formerly Catholic mother. The family living room contained busts of Voltaire and Rousseau. When a teacher gave Debs a bible as an academic award, inscribing it, "Read and obey," Debs later called, "I never did either." (New York Call interviews with David Karsner). He dropped out of high school at age 14 to work. By 1870 he had become a fireman on the railroad, attending evening classes at a business college. His labor activism began in 1875. As president of the Occidental Literary Club of Terre Haute, Debs brought "the Great Agnostic" Col. Robert Ingersoll, whom he always revered despite political differences, Susan B. Anthony and other famous speakers to town. He was elected state representative to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat in 1884, while continuing his labor activities. As editor of the Locomotive Fireman's journal for many years, Debs routinely attacked the church, promoted women's and racial equality, and promoted justice for the poor. "If I were hungry and friendless today, I would rather take my chances with a saloon-keeper than with the average preacher," Debs once said (cited in Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid, 1930, by McAlister Coleman). He saved his strongest denunciations for the Roman Catholic Church, for being an anti-democratic, anti-family, authoritarian "political machine."

In June 1893, Debs organized the first industrial union in the United States, the American Railway Union in Chicago, which held a successful 18-day strike against Great Northern Railway the next year. Debs and leaders of the union were arrested during the Pullman Boycott and Strike of 1894, and were sent to jail for contempt of court for 6 months in 1895. An inspired campaigner, Debs ran for president as a candidate of the Socialist Party in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920, employing the "Red Special" train to visit America during his 1908 campaign. The irreligious Debs was beloved by many. He was associate editor from 1907-1912 of the Appeal to Reason, a popular weekly published by freethinker E. Haldeman-Julius in Girard, Kansas. In 1918, Debs delivered his famed anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, in protest of WWI, and was arrested and convicted in federal court under the wartime espionage law. His appeals to the jury and to the court before sentencing went into legal history. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was disenfranchised for life, losing citizenship. While in prison, he was nominated to run for president and conducted his last campaign, winning nearly a million votes. His opponent, Warren G. Harding, commuted Debs' sentence and released him on Dec. 25, 1921. Debs was welcomed by 1,000 fellow Terre Hauteans upon his return. His health broken by his imprisonment, he died at a sanitarium. The Terre Haute home he built with his wife in 1890 is today a National Historic Landmark of the National Parks Department and a museum. D. 1926.

“I left that church with rich and royal hatred of the priest as a person, and a loathing for the church as an institution, and I vowed that I would never go inside a church again.”
-- Eugene V. Debs, describing his teenage reaction to a hellfire lecture by a priest. Cited in Talks with Debs in Terre Haute by David Karsner
“ . . . the press and the pulpit have in every age and every nation been on the side of the exploiting class and the ruling class.”

 

—Eugene V. Debs, cited by Herbert M. Morais and William Cahn, Gene Debs: The Story of a Fighting American (1948)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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