Mama and Papa Debs welcomed this bouncing baby boy into their Terre Haute, Indiana, home. The Debs parental units were French immigrants who named their little bundle of joy after two French authors: Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. Oh, so that's what the V. is for. (Source)
No word on whether toddler Debs made impassioned speeches about the injustice of having to eat dinner before desert. (But we really hope he did.)
…to work in the local railroad yard. No, Debs wasn't a rebel without a cause who decided he was (literally) too cool for school. He was a hardworking dude who moved from cleaning grease from freight engines—yum—to being a railroad fireman in just two years.
He begins working for the local branch of the railroad union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, as secretary. (It's kind of like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but more train-centric.)
Little Debs-ie defends the railroad unions against charges of instigating violence during the first national railroad strike. This speech marks him for real union leadership…and he becomes editor of the national union's magazine.
Debs is dissatisfied by mainstream politics (oh, there's a shocker) and comes away feeling that the labor movement was the best place for him to achieve reforms for the working class.
This large organization brings together all the different railroad craft unions. This follows years of local strikes against several different railroad companies, which had failed and been brutally put down by local, state, and federal forces.
To quote Network, the railroad workers were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
The Pullman Company (which made railroad cars, but did not make Bill Pullman) laid off workers and cut wages…without lowering rent in the company-owned houses or prices for groceries at the company store where workers were required to shop.
Not cool, Pullman.
Workers from Pullman asked the ARU for support. Debs and the ARU called for a national boycott (or a "sympathy strike") of Pullman cars. The ARU's 150,000 members refused to work on trains pulling the cars, striking not for themselves but to help the Pullman workers win their strike.
President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops to break up the strike. ARU leaders, including Debs, were arrested on conspiracy charges. Debs was sentenced to six months in jail.
Debs became convinced that America needed a new political party, one made up of workers and their unions. Milwaukee's Socialist leader, Victor Berger, visited Debs in jail and brought him a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital.
Debs read it carefully and began to consider the potential of socialism as an economic system and political movement.
This first party was modeled on similar growing political parties in Europe—Socialism was sweeping the continent.
Our boy Debs then ran for president on the party's ticket in 1900 and received 88,000 votes. In 1901 the Social Democrats merged with some members of the Socialist Labor Party to form the Socialist Party of America.
This time Debs received 400,000 votes. Yeah. Four years later, he got 450% more votes. Not too shabby, Debs.
No; IWW isn't a turn-of-the-century way of writing "eew." The IWW stands for the Industrial Workers of the World. (Fun fact: they were also known as the Wobblies, which makes them sound a little drunk.)
The Wobblies shared a belief in organizing all workers into "one big union" and in "direct action," including seizing direct control of industry through mass strikes.
Debs believed in political activism within the system, whereas the Wobblies only favored direct action through strikes. He runs for president again on the Socialist Party of America ticket…this time with no momentous gain in votes.
This time he gains almost a million votes. Nice going, Debs.
After Socialist candidates and Socialist programs made significant gains in the 1910 elections, Debs traveled all over the country for this campaign, charging money for his speeches to finance his travels. His growing national reputation as a speaker contributed to this electoral success.
Debs immediately began speaking out against the war, characterizing it as being an excuse for the business class to profit and continue its exploitation of the workers under the guise of nationalism.
He called the war "the perfect expression of capitalism" and made speeches with titles like, "Never Be a Soldier." Nearing sixty years of age, Debs began to experience failing health.
Woodrow Wilson wins re-election on a platform emphasizing that he "kept us out of the war." But the Wilson administration shows signs that it will be less and less tolerant of dissent. Debs sticks to his strong pacifistic speeches.
The key events that led President Wilson to ask for this declaration were: 1) Germany's announcement of renewed unrestricted submarine warfare and 2) the revelation of the Zimmerman telegram showing German conspiracy with Mexico against the U.S.
Fun fact: our entry into WWI is the reason that hotdogs stopped being called by the uber-Deutsch name "Frankfurters." (Source)
This law sparks controversy over its implied limitation on criticism of the war. Debs and the Socialists now will risk jail time if they violate the provisions of this law.
Only 3,500 men voluntarily enlisted so the government instituted a draft. 10% of eligible men failed to register and 60% of those who did enlist applied for exemptions. That's not a great turn-out.
The Socialists began organizing massive anti-draft protests. Widespread arrest of dissenters began, especially members of the IWW. Debs spent the summer and then the fall and winter in sanatoriums due to health issues. He wrote many anti-draft pamphlets, which the U.S. postmaster refused to deliver under the Espionage Laws.
This law provided for even harsher measures to protect the U.S. military from criticism of the war. Despite some reservations, Debs decided this was the time for his voice to be heard again on the issue of U.S. participation in the war and the draft.
Though he said that he intended to be prudent and not touch on very controversial themes because of the Espionage Laws and Sedition Act, Debs gave a doozey of a speech, saying,
[…] that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who makes the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely sheds their blood and furnishes the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace. Yours [you workers] is not to reason why, yours is but to do and die. (Source)
Hmm. Bad job being "prudent" there, Debs.
He agreed, as a provision of his bail, to make no more speeches. His defense team decided to focus on the unconstitutionality of the Espionage Act as his principle defense.
The atmosphere was tense; just days before there had been a bombing at the trial of some IWW leaders. Draft sweeps were underway across the country and U.S. soldiers were contributing to some major victories on the Western Front.
The national press was riveted by the prosecution of this "grand old man of Socialism" (source).
Debs testified in his own defense for two hours, comparing himself to Jesus, Socrates, the Founding Fathers, abolitionists, and more. He was convicted on three counts, each of which could bring him twenty years in jail.
Also known as the "Bending Cross" speech, Debs asked for no immunity and received a ten-year sentence as well as an opportunity to make a statement.
…but prosecution of dissenters under the Espionage and Sedition Acts continued despite the ending of the war.
Debs' campaign posters said, "For President, Convict #9653." He received almost one million votes.
Say what you will, but that takes some guts.
The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) led a successful three-year campaign to obtain amnesty for Debs. He was set free on Christmas Day to the cheers of all his prison mates.
After suffering a heart attack at age 71, Debs joined the great Socialist Party in the Sky. The Socialist Party (here on Earth) was in serious decline by the mid-1920s, having fewer than 10,000 members.