Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute Indiana which undoubtedly played an important role in Debs upbringing. Terre Haute was ripe with religious fundamentalism from its founding. Religion permeated everyday life throughout Terre Haute (Morgan 1). Nick Salvatore, in his book about Eugene Victor Debs, Eugene Victor Debs Citizen and Socialist, writes that, “In newspaper editorials, political speeches, civic dedications and Sunday sermons they assured the kingdom of God had already arrived and that their town was destined to become the center of the Kingdoms Midwest development. It is striking how the ideals of the Terre Haute community based in religious fundamentalism and a strong industrial economy provided a seemingly Marxist critique of a capitalist system in the 1860’s well before Marxist ideas had widely spread to America. Terre Haute’s social construct was unique in that there was the undeniable American value of individual achievement stressed but here the role of community was necessary to achieve this. In Terre Haute it was believed that for individual prosperity the progress of the community as a whole was necessary.
Salvatore explains this best writing, “The individual was firmly wedded to his community by both the bonds of daily life and by the expectations of future success. The ideas of individualism, self-interest and community appeared to meld. ” This seemingly socialist ideology that man relies on himself and his brethren for progress and success was critical to Debs’ formation of his values and ideologies. Even the Superintendent of Terre Haute schools offered this, “If we shall limit the education of the masses and trust the education of the few for directive power and skill we must expect to be ruled by monopolies, demagogues and partisans. Throughout his life Debs constantly fell back on his Terre Hautian upbringing to reinforce his political values which separated him from the Milwaukee and northeastern socialists (Morgan 1-2). It is important to understand that Debs’ always had a passionate involvement with railroad workers and would always use his experience with them as a model and inspiration for advancing his later socialist ideals. Debs began his involvement with the labor movement when he took a job as a railroad firemen in Missouri in 1870.
He moved back to Terre Haute at the urging of his family and quickly joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen or BLF, which was the railroad firemen’s’ union in 1875. He would be associated with this union for the next 18 years. By 1875 he had built a reputation as an outstanding citizen and was named the secretary of the Vigo County BLF, this would be his entry into the field of labor organization. During this time he was closely associated with the railroad workers and saw their consistent oppression by their capitalist employers.
Despite this he was dedicated to maintaining a union comprised of sober outstanding laborers who could best serve their employers. By 1879 he was elected grand secretary of the BLF and editor of the magazine. In this role he gained crucial experience in labor organizing on a larger scale and elevated his status as a effective leader in the labor movement. During this time he saw consistent wage cuts forced on these upstanding citizens and workers which began to galvanize the idea within him that the corporations were not interested in the quality of labor of their employees.
Instead they were interested in only creating a profit for themselves at any cost and reducing the value of a man to his work (Coleman 29-30). Debs had not yet believed in or subscribed to socialist values at this time and as a rising figure in Terre Haute he was elected as city clerk in 1879 on the democratic ticket for two consecutive terms (Coleman 54). He liked being closely associated with local politics and his community in this position. In 1884 he was elected as a state representative again on the democratic ticket.
Debs quickly formed a distaste for politics on this level as progressive action was radically quelled by red tape and “politicking”. He was still active as grand secretary of the BLF at this time and engaged in the national debate regarding the need for a larger all encompassing railway union in place of smaller ones to advance the needs of railway workers. He believed a larger national union would be much more effective in this role. Salvatore argues that at this time Debs’ even began to form the idea of a all encompassing union for all laborers nationwide at this time.
He retired from his role in the BLF in 1891 and organized the first national industrial union in the United States in 1893, the American Railway union or ARU. He rose to the national spotlight as the leader of the ARU when they struck on the great northern railway in 1894 and had all of their demands unconditionally granted after 18 days. This was the first large scale union victory in American history and emphasized Debs’ ability as a Labor leader. In 1894 Debs was confronted with his most daunting situation to date.
He presided over the infamous Pullman strike in Chicago in 1895. This proved to be the most important event in Debs’ life regarding the formation of his ideologies. This was the first strike in America which was not authorized by the laborers local unions. The employees being both members of their local unions and Debs’ ARU showed their allegiance to the ARU and struck with Debs’ approval. The workers refused to operate any trains with Pullman cars on them except for those containing federal mail cars, fearing federal intervention.
In spite of this federal troops were sent to intervene and break up the strike with a coercive show of force which resulted in 34 deaths. To Debs’ this act was a clear example of the alliance of the government with the oppressive capitalists. Debs was later jailed for interrupting federal mail service and was released in 1895. To this point Debs held lofty ideals regarding the U. S. government. He firmly believed in ideals set forth in the declaration of independence and Constitution and the role of the government in protecting the freedom and well being of Americans.
The Pullman strike shattered this lofty vision he held for America. He entered prison a progressive labor leader and during his term he read Marx’s works and left as he states himself a, “radicalized citizen and hardened socialist” (Morgan 7-10). It is after this time that Debs began his association with the Socialist party. He was already a national figure due to his involvement with the national labor movement and quickly became very popular in the Socialist Party. He became so popular due to his idea that Christianity was intrinsically linked to Socialist values.
He believed capitalism encouraged villainous and morally bereft men to prosper and only a true socialist society would liberate and encourage morally upstanding citizens. Debs said himself, “to call such persons (capitalists) men is to obliterate from the face of the earth those standards by which Christ measured men. A MAN will not rob directly or indirectly through capitalist means. A MAN will estimate other men by character rather than cash or coat, by head rather than hat. This flew in the face of what many peoples ideas of socialism was, that of a society in which religion is discouraged not a system which in fact relies on the core values of Jesus’ teachings. Debs became the Socialist party Presidential candidate in 1900, 1904, 1908, and 1912. His reputation for having a fiery oratory passion made him extremely popular on the campaign trail and it was not uncommon for there to be 300-500 new memberships to the party taken out after one of his speeches during the campaign. He presided over the largest increases in votes for the Socialist party in its’ history.
Each time he ran for President vote totals for the party doubled and in 1908 tripled from the previous election. Debs did not receive the presidential nomination from the party in 1916 due to health problems that had plagued him his entire life. The U. S. involvement in World War I spurred great protest from the Socialist party and provided an immense opportunity for advancement of the Socialist Party. Across the country immigrants and laborers who were seen as dissenters for not embracing war and doing such things as buying liberty bonds were routinely brutalized and in many cases lynched.
Seizing on this opportunity Debs began giving anti-war speeches across the country in 1918 to come to his comrades defense. The most famous of which was in Canton, Ohio. This particular speech earned him a ten year jail sentence after being convicted under a new vague espionage law. In the tradition of political prisoners he did not contest the charges and was sent to prison. Debs surprisingly earned the nomination from the Socialist Party as its’ presidential candidate. He became the first convicted felon in U. S. history to run for President.
He ran a successful campaign from behind bars and remarkably earned 919,000 or 6% of the votes nationwide. After this Debs retired from political candidacy due to his increasing age and health problems but he remained an active Socialist until his demise on October 20, 1926 due to a massive heart attack (Salvatore). In the book Eugene Victor Debs: Citizen and Socialist Salvatore provides a stunningly detailed account of Debs journey from Terre Haute Railroad worker to the national stage as a Socialist Presidential candidate.
Salvatore presents Debs not as the infallible leader of the Socialist party but instead as a common man flawed as the rest of us are. He highlights Debs ideological inconsistencies throughout his career as well as his vices including drinking and the occasional visit to the local brothel. This presentation of Debs provides a balanced view of Debs and leads the reader to believe there is very little bias given in this account of Debs life. Salvatore stresses Debs importance to the Labor movement in America aside from his political involvement with the Socialist party for which he is known for the most part.
Salvatore uses two thirds of this 350 page text to describe Debs achievements outside of the Socialist context. Salvatore is very successful at proving to the reader exactly how important Debs early activities in the Labor movement were to constructing the man who would later gain great renown for leading the Socialist Party. Salvatore clearly shows how Debs flew in the face of the common conception of a man being liberal and his youth and later hardening and becoming conservative with age.
Debs starts out as a conservative figure within the union and throughout his life becomes progressively more liberal and radicalized. This process continues even after Debs becomes associated with the Socialists. He is even recognized as being leftist within the Socialist Party in his later years and continued this progression until his demise. The importance of Debs early association with Labor and his consistent progressive radicalization become Salvatore’s main arguments throughout the book and he does an extremely good job at clarifying his arguments through a use of extreme detail and primary source documents.
Salvatores’ book definitely gave the best insight into American history which was I did not possess before reading it. I always had the idea in my head that the Socialist movement of the early 20th century was not very radical. This book radically changed my views on this point. After reading it I now see exactly how revolutionary the ideas were that Debs was promoting at this time. This book also conveyed to me the extreme importance of the unions and Labor movement in politics during this time period.
Unions definitely played a primary role and I learned how politicians must court the labor unions very carefully in order to gain their massive amount of very crucial votes. Salvatore did an excellent job at conveying exactly how important unions were at this time in American history. Given Debs important role in unions at the time in this book his role in American History is emphasized and clearly conveyed. Until reading this I had not realized exactly how important Debs was as a figure in American history both as a Socialist leader and Labor leader.