Eugene V. Debs, the Five-Time Socialist Candidate for President Who Once Campaigned From Prison

Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
APIC/Getty Images

By 1920, the name Eugene Debs represented different things to different groups. For some, he was a visionary union leader and politician who rose to the national stage to unite American workers under the banner of socialism. To others, he was a dangerous traitor who sought to discredit the nation’s war effort and undo the tremendous progress the country’s economy had made in the beginning of the 20th century. And to the employees at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he was inmate number 9653.

The first two viewpoints depend solely on a person's political leanings, but the third was an indisputable fact. Debs was indeed an imprisoned man—who also happened to be running for President of the United States from his cell.

Who was Eugene Debs?

Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Marguerite Bettrich and Jean Daniel Debs, two immigrants from Alsace, France. They came to the U.S. in 1849 and worked in the grocery business. At age 14, Eugene took a job as a paint scraper at Vandalia Railroad, where he earned just $.50 a day. He soon moved up to become a railroad fireman, shoveling piles of coal into the locomotive’s firebox for more than $1 each night [PDF]. This was at a time when workers toiled for 16 hours a day, six days a week. 

In 1875, Debs was elected secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was an editor for the organization’s monthly magazine. Seeing the dangers firemen faced firsthand, Debs said his brotherhood would fight to “provide for the widows and orphans who are daily left penniless and at the mercy of public charity by the death of a brother.” His growing interest in social and economic issues also led to a two-term stint as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1879 to 1883, and a term serving as a Democrat in the Indiana General Assembly in 1884.

On June 20, 1893, Debs's ambitions grew when he founded the American Railway Union (ARU) to protect all workers throughout the railroad industry, not just firemen. The union was soon one of the country’s largest, with 125 local chapters nationwide; at one point, enrollments hit 2000 a day.

The Pullman Strikes: Eugene Debs's First Arrest

For a brief moment, the American Railway Union was the most powerful labor union in the country.Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In May 1894, after suffering a series of salary cuts, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked off the job. In response, Debs and the ARU organized a massive sympathy boycott of any trains and railroads using Pullman cars, and by June, 125,000 ARU workers had joined the cause. A nation that thrived on cross-country train commerce was now being stopped in its tracks.

The workers' defiance soon turned to anger. After Debs made a speech to workers on June 29 in Blue Island, Illinois, some in the crowd broke off and began a riot. By day's end, buildings had been burned to the ground and a locomotive with a mail train attached to it lay topped over.

With the U.S. mail system affected by the strike, and vital rail service crippled, President Grover Cleveland now considered the unruliness to be a federal matter. In early July, Attorney General Richard Olney issued an injunction against Debs and other ARU leaders that forbid them from communicating with their union members. The press at the time turned on Debs, too, claiming the strike he organized around the Pullman situation was a power grab. One political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune portrayed “Dictator Debs” as a cigar-chomping would-be king who liked to rest his feet on the U.S. Constitution [PDF].

President Cleveland deployed troops to Chicago to quell the ongoing demonstrations, but on July 7, the conflicts turned violent. Members of the National Guard killed anywhere from four to 30 strikers in the clash. Debs, who was no longer legally allowed to communicate with his members, could do nothing to calm tensions.

That same month, Debs was arrested and charged with contempt of court and conspiracy to interfere with U.S. mail, and spent six months behind bars. The ARU crumbled soon after, and while many Pullman workers were eventually rehired, they had to agree in writing to never form a union.

The four-time presidential candidate

Behind bars, Debs read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and converted to socialism. In 1897, two years after leaving prison, he established the Social Democratic Party of America.

Under this banner, Debs made his first run for president in 1900 on a platform revolving around workers’ equality and better wages. William McKinley won the race with a total of 7,207,923 votes, while Debs garnered just 86,935. Still, it was a start.

Debs ran again in 1904, this time as a member of the next political party he helped establish: the Socialist Party of America. His totals jumped to around 402,000 votes; in 1908, he returned with 420,000 votes, losing to Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, respectively.

Debs's peak came in the election of 1912—one of the great wild cards in U.S. history. It featured the incumbent, Taft, running against Democrat Woodrow Wilson; former president Roosevelt, who was running as a member of the Progressive Party; and Debs, running again as a Socialist on a platform that put an emphasis on workers, women's suffrage, and ending child labor.

Debs fell short once again, but his total ballooned to more than 900,000 votes—6 percent of the popular vote. It's still the highest percentage of the vote a Socialist candidate has ever received in a presidential election, and it’s more than double the amount he earned in 1908. It would be another eight years before his fifth and final presidential campaign—arguably one of the strangest the country has seen.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts: Eugene Debs's Second Arrest

Eugene Debs was known as a prolific orator, with speeches clocking in at over two hours long.Keystone/Getty Images

By 1914, Debs was expressing his ardent opposition to America’s seemingly inevitable involvement in World War I in a series of anti-war editorials in the National Rip-Saw, where he stuck to one main message: “Capitalist nations not only exploit their workers, but ruthlessly invade, plunder, and ravage one another. The profit system is responsible for it all.”

Written words gave way to public rallies. Debs traveled across the Northeast to speak to his base of frustrated workers looking for a unifying voice against war. During one memorable stop in Boston, he asked a packed crowd of workers: “Must we send the workers of one country against those of another because a citizen has been torpedoed on the high seas, while we do nothing about the 600,000 workingmen that are crushed each year needlessly under our industrial machinery?”

Socialist opposition to the military action had little real effect. On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war against Germany. Just a few months later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which targeted “disloyal” citizens who attempted to interfere with military progress during the war. This was followed by the complementary Sedition Act of 1918, giving federal authorities the power to punish anyone using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” toward the Constitution, the military, or the country.

Debs knew the risks he was taking with his anti-war crusade, but he continued throughout the Midwest, culminating in a speech at a Socialist Party gathering in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. For two hours, the impassioned orator made his case, criticizing everything from the war to the Sedition Act to the military draft.

“The master class has always declared the wars,” the 62-year-old told the crowd. “The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

Days later, Debs was arrested while heading to another party event in Cleveland. The jury found him guilty on three counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts. On September 18, 1918, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A convicted man's campaign

A look at Eugene Debs's 1920 presidential campaign, where he ran for office from prison.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even prison couldn’t quiet Debs. In fact, by 1920, he was again nominated to be the Socialist Party's candidate for president, his fifth run overall. While he was accustomed to campaigning by train and speaking in front of thousands, in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Debs was allowed [PDF] to give one political statement every week, which was then handed over to news wires. Supporters did the campaigning for him on the ground, making posters featuring the slogan “From Atlanta Prison to the White House, 1920” and campaign buttons that showed Debs in a prison jumpsuit with the words “For President: Convict No. 9653” splashed across them. It wasn't so much a campaign as it was a protest against what many thought was Debs's unconstitutional imprisonment.

Amazingly, Debs still captured 3.4 percent of the popular vote, meaning more than 910,000 people chose a socialist in prison over Warren G. Harding or his opponent, James M. Cox.

By December 1921, with the war over, President Harding pardoned Debs and invited him to the White House. “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally,” Harding said upon meeting him. Indeed, Debs had left prison almost as a mythic figure to his followers—50,000 of whom lined up to watch his train pull in upon his return to Terra Haute.

Though the meeting with Harding was as close as he ever got to the White House, Debs proved he didn't need to win an election to make his voice heard.

A New Ruth Bader Ginsburg Bobblehead Is Available for Pre-Order

The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum

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The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a devout champion for feminism and civil rights, and her influence stretched from the halls of the Supreme Court to the forefront of popular culture, where she affectionately became known as the Notorious RBG. Though there are plenty of public tributes planned for Ginsburg in the wake of her passing, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum has a new RBG bobblehead ($25) available for pre-order so you can honor her in your own home.

There are two versions of the bobblehead available, one of Ginsburg smiling and another with a more serious expression. Not only do the bobbleheads feature her in her Supreme Court black robe, but eagle-eyed fans will see she is wearing one for her iconic coded collars and her classic earrings.

RBG is far from the only American icon bobblehead that the Hall of Fame store has produced in such minute detail. They also have bobbleheads of Abraham Lincoln ($30), Theodore Roosevelt ($30), Alexander Hamilton ($30), and dozens of others.

For more information on the RBG bobblehead, head here. Shipments will hopefully be sent out by December 2020 while supplies last.

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10 Little Facts About Louisa May Alcott

Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on November 29, 1832, Louisa May Alcott led a fascinating life. Besides enchanting millions of readers with her novel Little Women, she worked as a Civil War nurse, fought against slavery, and registered women to vote. Here are 10 facts about the celebrated author.

1. Louisa May Alcott had many famous friends.

Louisa's parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott, raised their four daughters in a politically active household in Massachusetts. As a child, Alcott briefly lived with her family in a failed Transcendentalist commune, helped her parents hide slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, and had discussions about women’s rights with Margaret Fuller.

Throughout her life, she socialized with her father’s friends, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although her family was always poor, Alcott had access to valuable learning experiences. She read books in Emerson’s library and learned about botany at Walden Pond with Thoreau, later writing a poem called "Thoreau’s Flute" for her friend. She also socialized with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage activist Julia Ward Howe.

2. Louisa May Alcott's first nom de plume was Flora Fairfield.

As a teenager, Alcott worked a variety of teaching and servant jobs to earn money for her family. She first became a published writer at 19 years old, when a women’s magazine printed one of her poems. For reasons that are unclear, Alcott used a pen name—Flora Fairfield—rather than her real name, perhaps because she felt that she was still developing as a writer. But in 1854 at age 22, Alcott used her own name for the first time. She published Flower Fables, a collection of fairy tales she had written six years earlier for Emerson’s daughter, Ellen.

3. Louisa May Alcott secretly wrote pulp fiction.

Before writing Little Women, Alcott wrote Gothic pulp fiction under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. Continuing her amusing penchant for alliteration, she wrote books and plays called Perilous Play and Pauline’s Passion and Punishment to make easy money. These sensational, melodramatic works are strikingly different than the more wholesome, righteous vibe she captured in Little Women, and she didn’t advertise her former writing as her own after Little Women became popular.

4. Louisa May Alcott wrote about her experience as a Civil War nurse.

In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Alcott sewed Union uniforms in Concord and, the next year, enlisted as an army nurse. In a Washington, D.C. hotel-turned-hospital, she comforted dying soldiers and helped doctors perform amputations. During this time, she wrote about her experiences in her journal and in letters to her family. In 1863, she published Hospital Sketches, a fictionalized account, based on her letters, of her stressful yet meaningful experiences as a wartime nurse. The book became massively popular and was reprinted in 1869 with more material.

5. Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning.

After a month and a half of nursing in D.C., Alcott caught typhoid fever and pneumonia. She received the standard treatment at the time—a toxic mercury compound called calomel. (Calomel was used in medicines through the 19th century.) Because of this exposure to mercury, Alcott suffered from symptoms of mercury poisoning for the rest of her life. She had a weakened immune system, vertigo, and had episodes of hallucinations. To combat the pain caused by the mercury poisoning (as well as a possible autoimmune disorder, such as lupus, that could have been triggered by it), she took opium. Alcott died of a stroke in 1888, at 55 years old.

6. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women to help her father.

In 1867, Thomas Niles, an editor at a publishing house, asked Alcott if she wanted to write a novel for girls. Although she tried to get excited about the project, she thought she wouldn’t have much to write about girls because she was a tomboy. The next year, Alcott’s father was trying to convince Niles to publish his manuscript about philosophy. He told Niles that his daughter could write a book of fairy stories, but Niles still wanted a novel about girls. Niles told Alcott’s father that if he could get his daughter to write a (non-fairy) novel for girls, he would publish his philosophy manuscript. So to make her father happy and help his writing career, Alcott wrote about her adolescence growing up with her three sisters. Published in September 1868, the first part of Little Women was a huge success. The second part was published in 1869, and Alcott went on to write sequels such as Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886).

7. Louisa May Alcott was an early suffragette.

In the 1870s, Alcott wrote for a women’s rights periodical and went door-to-door in Massachusetts to encourage women to vote. In 1879, the state passed a law that would allow women to vote in local elections on anything involving education and children—Alcott registered immediately, becoming the first woman registered in Concord to vote. Although met with resistance, she, along with 19 other women, cast ballots in an 1880 town meeting. The Nineteenth Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, decades after Alcott died.

8. Louisa May Alcott pretended to be her own servant to trick her fans.

After the success of Little Women, fans who connected with the book traveled to Concord to see where Alcott grew up. One month, Alcott had a hundred strangers knock on the door of Orchard House, her family’s home, hoping to see her. Because she didn’t like the attention, she sometimes pretended to be a servant when she answered the front door, hoping to trick fans into leaving.

9. Louisa May Alcott never had children, but she cared for her niece.

Although Alcott never married or had biological children, she took care of her orphaned niece. In 1879, Alcott’s youngest sister May died a month after giving birth to her daughter. As she was dying, May told her husband to send the baby, whom she had named Louisa in honor of Alcott, to her older sister. Nicknamed Lulu, the girl spent her childhood with Alcott, who wrote her stories and seemed a good fit for her high-spiritedness. Lulu was just 8 when Alcott died, at which point she went to live with her father in Switzerland.

10. Fans can visit Louisa May Alcott's home in Concord, Massachusetts.

At 399 Lexington Road in Concord, Massachusetts, tourists can visit Orchard House, the Alcott family home from 1858 to 1877. Orchard House is a designated National Historic Landmark, and visitors can take a guided tour to see where Alcott wrote and set Little Women . Visitors can also get a look at Alcott’s writing desk and the family’s original furniture and paintings.