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Debs, Eugene (1855–1926)

Stacy Warner Maddern


Few individuals have ever conformed to the tradition of American radicalism quite like Eugene V. Debs. Both politician and agitator, Debs led the Socialist Party in America from its inception in 1901 to his death in 1926. From 1900 to 1920 he conducted five presidential campaigns as the socialist candidate, polling nearly 6 percent of the national vote in 1912. Born in 1855 at Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs dropped out of high school at age 14 and became a painter for the railways. By 1870 he was working as a fireman on the railroad and attending night classes at a local business college. It was on the railroads that Debs would first be exposed to organized labor as a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an organization that would later name him “grand secretary” in 1875. In 1893 Debs helped found the American Railway Union (ARU), organizing all ranks of railroad workers together. Organized in Chicago, the ARU was the first industrial union in the United States, and Debs' experience with the group helped lead him to cooperative socialism. It also led him to jail for the first time as a result of the 1894 Pullman Strike. Reacting to a 28 percent wage decrease, 4,000 Pullman Palace Car Company workers took to a wildcat strike throughout Illinois on May 11, shutting down the railways west of Chicago. Many of these workers were members of the ARU, who under Debs wanted a peaceful, ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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