Eugene Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855, the son of poor Alsatian immigrants. In his early years, Debs dropped out of high school to become a locomotive paint-scraper. Later, in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, Debs found his calling to raise his voice in the defense of the common man.
He was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World and organized many major protests for workers trying to secure 8-hour workdays, living wages, and other fundamental improvements. Debs was jailed for six months for contempt of court after leading the American Railway Union in a confrontation with federal troops. When he was released, Debs became a featured speaker for the Socialist Party, and chosen as their nominee, he eventually ran for president in 1900. Unfortunately, he lost but continued to be the party’s candidate in several succeeding elections. Debs had great success in the 1912 Election when he opposed Woodrow Wilson who was a Democrat. Debs received almost a million votes which was six percent of the casted ballots. In 1916 Debs decided to run for an Indiana Congressional seat after losing four consecutive presidential campaigns.
He was elected when he campaigned for American neutrality in the World War I on a pacifist platform. Once the United States entered the war, Debs made an anti-war speech in 1918 and was arrested for violating the Espionage Act. In fact, Debs only mentioned the war once, but under President Wilson’s new repressive law, he was sentenced to ten years in federal prison. Debs campaigned from his jail cell and garnered over a million votes after he was nominated for a fifth time as the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1920. Despite continuing pleas from Debs’ supporters, President Wilson refused to release him from prison, but on Christmas Day in 1921, President Harding ordered for Debs to be set free.
Debs died in 1926, leaving a legacy as an American union leader. “When great changes occur in history, when great principles are involved, as a rule the majority are wrong,” he stated in a speech held in Cleveland, Ohio. Debs became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States through his work with labor movements as well as his presidential candidacies.