Eugene Victor "Gene" Debs was born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. As a young man he worked in the railroad industry, first as a painter and car cleaner. In December 1871 he left the railroad yards for work on the railways as a locomotive fireman. In July 1875, he left to work at a wholesale grocery house, where he remained for the next four years, attending a local business school at night. Debs had joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) in February 1875 and became active in this fraternal benefit organization. He rose through the ranks of the union and in 1880 he was appointed Grand Secretary and Treasurer of the BLF.
At the same time, he became a prominent figure in the community. He served two terms as Terre Haute's city clerk from September 1879 to September 1883. In the fall of 1884, he was elected to the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat, serving for one term. Debs was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation's first industrial unions. After workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894, Debs signed many into the union. He called for a boycott of the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman Strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states. To keep the mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison.
Debs read the works of Karl Marx and learned about socialism in prison, emerging to launch his career as the nation's most prominent Socialist in the first decades of the 20th century. Debs was noted for his oratory, and his speech denouncing American participation in World War I led to his second arrest in 1918. He was convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917 and sentenced to a term of 10 years. President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence in December 1921.
Debs had a significant following in each of his elections. In his showing in the 1904 election, Debs received 402,810 votes, which was 2.98% of the popular vote. Debs received no electoral votes and finished third overall. In the 1908 election, Debs received a slightly higher number of votes in the popular vote, 420,852, but as lesser percentage (2.83%) of the popular vote. Again Debs received no electoral votes. In 1912, Debs received 5.99% of the popular vote (a total of 901,551 votes). It was in 1920, when Debs was an inmate in an Atlanta federal prison, that Debs received his greatest number of votes, 913,693. He never won a single electoral vote in any of the elections, but was a very popular inmate, loved both by inmates and prison staff. According to historian David Pietrusza, Debs was a very kind man who organized a number of programs for the health and welfare of the other inmates. Pietrusza describes Debs in saint-like terms. The Warden appreciated how Debs was able to pacify and help the other inmates. He gratefully accommodated Debs' campaigning from his prison cell. When Debs was released from the Atlanta Penitentiary, the other prisoners sent him off with "a roar of cheers" and a crowd of 50,000 greeted his return to Terre Haute to the accompaniment of band music.
President Warren G. Harding commuted Debs sentence to one of time served so that Debs could be released in time for Christmas of 1921. Harding did not issue a pardon. The White House released a statement saying this about Debs' case:
"There is no question of his guilt....He was by no means as rabid and outspoken in his expressions as many others, and but for his prominence and the resulting far-reaching effect of his words, very probably might not have received the sentence he did. He is an old man, not strong physically. He is a man of much personal charm and impressive personality, which qualifications make him a dangerous man calculated to mislead the unthinking and affording excuse for those with criminal intent."
On the way home to Terre Haute, Debs was warmly received at the White House by President Harding, who greeted him by saying: "Well, I've heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally."
In 1924, Debs was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Finnish Socialist Karl H. Wiik on the grounds that "Debs started to work actively for peace during World War I, mainly because he considered the war to be in the interest of capitalism." But by the time of his release, Debs' health was not so good. In the fall of 1926, Debs was admitted to Lindlahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois where he died of heart failure on October 20, 1926, at the age of 70. A recent biography written about Debs in 2008 is Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War and the Right to Dissent by Ernest Freeberg.
Advocates of the right to free speech owe much to Eugene Victor Debs.