August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
In the decades before the First World War he was the most dynamic, persuasive, and at the same time the most lovable figure that American Socialism had produced. He hated capitalism but could hate no man. Hoosier-born, he combined in his gangling person a rural nativist populism and the class-conscious zeal of the urban foreign-born worker. Now that the American Socialist movement, shattered by World War I and disintegrated by the Russian Revolution, has faded and the other Socialist leaders of that eia are forgotten or all but forgotten, Eugene Debs remains a vital memory. His Indiana friend James Whitcomb Riley wrote of him:
On the platform, with his gymnastic delivery, he was the very Billy Sunday of Socialism, carrying his audience along as much by his personality as by what he said. Once, facing a crowd of hostile Poles in Chicago, he completely captivated them by his presence, his voice, and the animation of his gestures, even though most of them could not understand his words. He was a man it was impossible to dislike. When, after his leadership in the great Pullman strike of 1894, he was sent to the McHenry County Jail for six months for violating a court injunction, he formed a friendship with the sheriff and his family that lasted the rest of his life. Twenty-five years later he was sentenced to ten years in prison under Wilson’s Espionage Act for an antiwar speech he made at Canton, Ohio, in the summer of 1918. The first few months he spent in the West Virginia State Prison at Moundsville. When he was transferred to the fcdei al penitentiary at Atlanta, the Moundsville warden wrote to the Atlanta warden: “I never in my life met a kinder man. He is forever thinking of others, trying to serve them, and never thinking of himself.” At Atlanta he charmed eveiyone he came in contact with, prisoners and guards alike. “While there is a lower class, I am in it,” he had written earlier. “While there is a criminal class, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” He took pains to seek out the dregs among the prisoners, to encourage them by letting them know that he cared about them. Prisoners of all sorts came to him for advice. Whenever the men were allowed outside their cells, Debs always formed the center of a group, radiating warmth and fellowship. The warden came to feel deeply obligated to him for his tremendous influence in calming and often rehabilitating other prisoners. During his penitentiary term the Socialists in 1920 nominated him for the fifth time as their Presidential candidate, and over nine hundred thousand Americans voted for him. President Wilson, always relentless against anyone who opposed him, refused even to consider reducing Debs’s sentence. It took the easygoing Harding, after his inaugural in March, 1920, to release the Socialist leader as soon as it seemed politically piopitious. Three weeks after the inauguration Debs was allowed to go on the train to Washington alone and unguarded for a three-hour interview with Harding’s Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. Thai scaiied and cynical politician was, against all his instincts, captivated by his visitor. “He spent a large part of the day in my office,” Daugheity later confided to Clarence Danuw, “and I never met a man I liked better.”
On December 23 the White House announced that Debs and twenty-three other political prisoners would be released on Christmas Day. He could not go directly to his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, however, for Harding had asked him to call at the White House in passing. As he walked through the penitential y gates for the last time twenty-three hundred convicts crowded against the prison’s front wall—the warden having in his honor suspended the usual rules—to wave and checi him on his way. Just outside the gates Debs turned to face them, the tears running down his cheeks.
Free after two years and eight months, he ai rived at the White House to find the genial Harding his most genial self. “Well,” said the President, bounding out of his chair to shake hands, “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that 1 am now very glad to meet you personally.” What the two men discussed in their private interview they nevei said. But afterward Debs told the waiting reporters: “Mr. Harding appears to me to be a kind gentleman, one whom I believe possesses humane impulses. We understood each other perfectly.”
When Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute in 1855, that roistering frontier town on the Wabash River had a population of six thousand. His bookish father, Daniel, an Alsatian millowner’s son, had named his own son after his two literary heroes, Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo. Daniel had left Alsace in 1848 for what he considered the freer life of America, but bad luck had dogged him from the outset. On the seventy-one-day voyage over he was fleeced of all his money by an American con man and arrived in New York penniless. Supporting himself by odd jobs, he nevertheless managed to save enough to send for his fiancee, Daisy Bettrich, one of his father’s mill hands, whom he would have married in Alsace if his classconscious family had not been so opposed. Marriage in New York did not change his luck. He found no permanent work, and Daisy’s first child, a daughter, died a few days after birth. In their sadness and isolation the young couple struck out for the West, ending up in Terre Haute, where they heard there was a French colony. All their small possessions were accidentally shipped down the river to New Orleans and lost for good.
In Terre Haute, Daniel worked fourteen hours a day in the fetid dampness of a packinghouse until his health gave out. Then he drifted from one casual job to another. Daisy gave birth to a second daughter, who did not live long enough to be named. But when life seemed at its lowest ebb for the Debses, the tide slowly shifted. Two more daughters were born, and both lived. The determined and practical-minded Daisy took forty dollars that she had somehow managed to save, bought a stock of groceries, and opened a store in the front room of their little frame house. The Debses were well liked, and against Daniel’s’ gloomy predictions the store soon brought them a modest living.
The two Debs daughters had been baptized, but by the time Eugene Victor was born, the Protestant Daniel and the Catholic Daisy had drifted away from the church. Daniel became a freethinker. Whenever he could save a little money, he ordered books, filling his shelves with the French and German classics and even buying small busts of Rousseau and Voltaire for the mantel. At home the parents spoke French and German, and the children picked up a smattering of both languages.
Eugene was five when the Civil War broke out. Almost his first memories were of marching men, of troop trains moving slowly through the town. More garish were his memories of the frontier town itself on a Saturday night, the flaring lights of Wabash Street just west of the canal, with its saloons and gambling joints and sporting houses. But he found the most permanent fascination of his boyhood in the railroads: trains and the men who ran them.
School with its prosaic, didactic curriculum bored the growing boy. High school bored him still more. In 1870, when he was fourteen, thin, angular, and six feet tall, he quit. Gravitating to the railroad, he found his first job with the Vandalia line, cleaning grease from the trucks of freight engines at fifty cents a day. At the end of the long workday his hands would be raw and his knuckles bleeding from the potash he used to loosen the grease. The youngest and least in the roundhouse, he had to take orders from everyone. Railroading soon lost much of its glamour for the weary boy. Yet he stayed on, proud at least to bring home his pay on a Saturday night. The grocery business continued to prosper. Daniel moved to a larger house. There were five children in the family now.
Gene’s shop torment ended when he was sent with a crew to paint switches on the seventy-mile stretch of track between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. He soon showed himself deft at painting. Later he was assigned to paint stripes on car bodies, then to lettering locomotives. In his spare time he made signs for his friends. Always he showed a friendly readiness to do small favors for anyone, without any thought of ulterior reward. Children loved him. He made kites for them and brought them pocketfuls of candy from his father’s store.
In December, 1871, when a drunken fireman failed to show up for work, the gangling boy was pressed into service as a night fireman. There he remained, on the run between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. “As a locomotive fireman,” Debs wrote in reminiscent bitterness, “I learned of the hardships of the rail in snow, sleet and hail, of the ceaseless danger that lurks along the iron highway, the uncertainty of employment, scant wages and altogether trying lot of the workingman, so that from my very boyhood I was made to feel the wrongs of labor. …” That feeling actually came later. For the present he was contentedly earning more than a dollar a night. With the extra money he went to business college every afternoon but found himself too drugged from lack of sleep to learn much. The scantiness of his education now began to trouble him, and he tried with only modest success to study at home. On the day his former high-school class graduated in 1873, he crept to his attic bed and cried.
The panic of that same year threw him out of a job, along with thousands of others. Since there was nothing for him in Terre Haute, he rode a freight to Evansville, where he found the prospects as bleak as at home. He moved on to St. Louis, and he was lucky enough to be hired as a fireman. But in St. Louis, for the first time in his life, he encountered large-scale urban misery: unemployed derelicts, homeless, wandering families, others living in shacks by the Mississippi, a world of desolation he had known before only in the pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables . What he as an individual could do about such conditions he did not know, but he burned with unfocused indignation.
Railroading was then a very hazardous trade, with accidents frequent and most of the lines callously indifferent to even elementary safety measures. Late in 1874, after one of Gene’s friends slipped under a locomotive and was killed, his mother begged him to come home. At her insistence he gave up railroading and returned to Terre Haute to become a billing clerk with the wholesale grocers Hulman & Cox, the largest firm in the Midwest. Yet for all its hardships and dangers, railroad life continued to fascinate him. The wholesale grocery business did not. “There are too many things in business that I cannot tolerate,” he wrote. “Business means grabbing for yourself.” Evenings he used to like to walk down the tracks and watch the engines back and switch. Often he would drop in at one of the bars near the station to pass an hour or two with the trainmen. On one such evening he learned that Joshua Leach, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, as he was entitled with Masonic grandeur, was coming to Terre Haute to organize a lodge. The idea of fraternal unity in a common cause, a railroad cause, appealed vastly and at once to the young billing clerk. He attended the meeting and at the end pushed forward and asked to join the newly founded Vigo Lodge. Leach—whose organizing efforts over two years had met only scanty success—concealed his surprise and asked the eager young man if he felt he could do his duty on being admitted. With no real idea as to what his duty might be Debs answered, “Yes sir!”
In his enthusiasm Debs soon took over as secretary of Vigo Lodge No. 16. It was a job no one else would take. The brotherhood itself was a weak benevolent organization concerned chiefly with group insurance plans at a time when the real issues for the railroad workers were pay, safety measures, and hours. Membership in the new lodge declined. Sometimes the young secretary would be the only one present at the fortnightly meeting. Undiscouraged, he turned to other town affairs, helping to found the Occidental Literary Club, a weekly debating society to which he invited such well-known speakers as Robert G. Ingersoll, Wendell Phillips, the women’s-rights crusader Susan B. Anthony, and the then almost unknown rhymester James Whitcomb Riley. Everybody in Terre Haute had come to know and like the lanky, friendly Gene Debs by this time. In 1879, as a Democrat, he was elected city clerk. Two years later, in spite of a general Republican comeback, he was re-elected.
In 1880, with the firemen’s brotherhood almost bankrupt, the grand master persuaded the reluctant Debs to become secretary-treasurer of the moribund organization and editor of its paper, The Magazine . To accommodate Debs union headquarters were moved to Terre Haute. The young secretary’s determination and abounding effort soon brought an astonishing reversal in the brotherhood’s fortunes. When he took over, assisted by his younger brother Theodore, he found himself working eighteen hours a day on the firemen’s problems. Suddenly the organization was alive. New members flooded in. The sprightly Magazine circulated far beyond the membership.
This success, however, hardly foreshadowed Debs’s later career. Wrapped up as he was in his benevolent-association union, he did not think of himself as a socialist. The railroad brotherhoods were nonstriking unions, and in those early years Debs found even Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor too radical. The closed shop he considered an infringement on liberty, and he could even refei to the rapacious William H. Vanderbilt as “the great railroad president.” In 1884, thinking he could help his union as a lawmaker, he ran successfully as a Democratic candidate for the state legislature. But after he saw a railroad safety bill that he had sponsored buried in the upper house, he lost faith in the two-party parliamentary system, with its inevitable jobbery; he did not run again.
With his customary drive and enthusiasm he now went on to organize the neglected brakemen, a task he iound challenging but physically and financially exhausting. Coming back to Ferre Haute from week-long travels for the new Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, often with scanty results, he turned for consolation and encouragement to his sister’s solemnly handsome friend Kate Metzel, stepdaughter of the town’s most prominent druggist. Debs’s social life had been confined more to saloons than to the dances and polite evenings of the increasingly prim upper-class Terre Haute, and until he met Kate, he had paid little attention to women. But she, drawn to him from the beginning, listened to him gravely, as women do when they are in love, her interest in him masking her basic lack of interest in his concerns. What she herself cared about most deeply was material success: elegance, a large house, membership in Terre Haute’s emergent society. Why she chose him she probably later wondered herself. They were married a few months before his thirtieth birthday in a formal wedding at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, of which Kate was a devout member. After a brief honeymoon they returned to housekeeping rooms. Kate found herself much alone in her rented quarters while her husband travelled from state to state drumming up membership for his union. Whatever his salary might be, money had a way of slipping through his fingers. Railroad men in their need habitually turned to him. Once when he learned that a fireman could not be promoted for lack of a good watch, he gave the man his own. At least once he gave away his overcoat. His wife never suffered actual want, but such casualness, such a hit-or-miss life, was not what she had dreamed of in her girlhood. She loved her husband and would continue to love him; she could not give her heart to his activities. On the death of an aunt she inherited enough money to build her dream house, a towered and gabled affair of her own design on an upper-class street.
The panic year 1893 marked Debs’s break with his conservative past. Up until then he could still write that “we indulge in none of the current vagaries about a conflict between capital and labor.” But after Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket bombing he edged toward a more militant stance. The bombing was basic for him. There, in Haymarket Square during a prolonged strike for an eight-hour day, a police captain advanced with a squad of bluecoats as a local anarchist was addressing a small but orderly crowd and ordered the meeting dispersed. When the police closed in, some unknown person threw a bomb. Seven policemen died. In the aftermath eight anarchists and union leaders were arrested and tried, and four of them were hanged for the crime—although only two of the convicted men had even been near the square. The outraged Debs, like many other labor leaders, came to regard the executed men as martyrs to the cause of industrial freedom. Following Haymarket, after Henry Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company had brutally broken the Homestead steelworkers’ strike in 1892 and after federal troops had at about the same time put down a silver miners’ strike in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Debs turned permanently to the radical left. During the depression of 1893 he denounced capitalists furiously in his Magazine , comparing them to tentacled devilfish dragging the workers down to degradation.
Such grim times, with over three million unemployed walking the streets, made Debs increasingly unhappy with the self-centered unionism of the railroad brotherhoods, who could not even be counted on to support one another in a strike. Engineers and conductors, the aristocrats of labor, held themselves aloof. Carmen, firemen, switchmen, raided each other’s membership at will. Debs now set out to organize an American railway union that would take in all railroad employees from engineer to engine wiper.
Even Debs was astonished at the immediate and overwhelming response to his union. Within three weeks thirty-four locals had been organized. Not only the unskilled and the unorganized joined, but many carmen, firemen, and even some of the engineers and conductors transferred their lodges in toto , braving the surly resentment of the brotherhood officers. The new union’s first test of strength came when it launched a strike against James Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The autocratic Hill, who regarded unionism as an infringement on his God-given right to do as he pleased, had already cut wages twice on his line in that depression year. When, from his office in St. Paul, he announced a third cut, Debs called the strike. Within days the Great Northern was brought to a standstill. Seeking a solution to the impasse, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce asked Debs to state his case. Generally Debs spoke in the florid McKinley-baroque manner of his day, but this time, facing a group of essentially hostile businessmen, he muted his rhetoric to tell them simply and directly what it was like to be a section hand or a brakeman, what it meant to raise a family on a dollar a day. So persuasive was he that he completely won over his audience. A delegation of chamber leaders visited Hill and told him he would have to arbitrate. The arbitrators granted the union almost all its demands. It was a handsome victory for Debs. When his train left St. Paul, after Hill had signed the agreement, the section men stood along the tracks at attention, bare-headed, shovels in hand.
On the heels of his victory over Hill, Debs found himself in an even more formidable confrontation with George M. Pullman, the president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, maker of dining and chair cars as well as the celebrated sleepers. Just outside Chicago, Pullman had built what he considered a model town. So it appeared, in green contrast to the industrial grime of Chicago, with neat brick homes, shaded streets, grassy yards, and even an artificial lake beside which the Pullman band gave summer concerts. But it was Pullman’s town—houses, schools, churches, the luxurious new library, even the cemetery. With the onset of the depression Pullman discharged over a third of his workers and cut the wages of the others by up to half while refusing to lower rents at all. During the bleak and bitter winter of 1893-94 destitution spread along Pullman’s well-planned streets. Many of the tenants all but starved even as the company’s dividends increased. Children lacked shoes to wear to school; some stayed in bed all day to keep warm in the heatless houses.
Because of a few miles of track operated by the Pullman company its workers were eligible for the American Railway Union. In the late spring of 1894 they rushed to join. Their first act was to call a strike, even before Debs had put in an appearance. Debs arrived in Pullman knowing little about conditions there. He was appalled at what he discovered. Yet he was at the same time cautious. His victory over Hill was the only success any union had scored that year. Strike after strike had been broken. Labor was in retreat. Debs knew he could expect little help from the railroad brotherhoods. Rather than risk defeat he preferred to arbitrate. But Pullman refused to sit down at any discussion table. “Nothing to arbitrate” was his stock reply. Pushed along by the indignation of the American Railway Union members and the Pullman workers, Debs finally proposed that switchmen refuse to switch Pullman cars onto trains. At the same time he warned against violence. In response to this the General Managers’ Association, representing the twenty-four railroads running out of Chicago, announced that switchmen who balked at switching Pullman cars would be discharged.
Nevertheless, the boycott began on June 26, 1894, spreading quickly to twenty-seven states and territories in the most extensive strike the country had yet known. More than a hundred thousand men walked out; twenty railroads were shut down. United States Attorney General Richard Olney, a former railroad lawyer and member of the General Managers’ Association, then obtained an injunction against the union and the strikers that was one of the most sweeping and drastic ever issued. Workers who quit interstate jobs were to be considered criminals. Union leaders were forbidden to take part in or even to talk about the boycott.
For Debs to obey the injunction would be for him to lose the strike by default and probably destroy his union. To disregard it might send him and other leaders to jail. He felt he had no choice but to disregard it. Olney, by a process of maneuvering and misinformation, persuaded President Cleveland that the safety of the mails was endangered by the chaos in Chicago. The President, believing the situation critical, dispatched infantry, cavalry, and artillery. In spite of Debs’s warning against violence, turbulent crowds had begun to hold up trains and detach the Pullman cars. With the arrival of the troops at Chicago—aided by over three thousand floaters hastily sworn in as deputy federal marshals—violence exploded. Mobs smashed switches, halted trains, and burned hundreds of railroad cars. A mob finally attacked the troops. They in turn opened fire, and seven men lay dead in the street. The soldiers now took over the city. Two days later Debs and three colleagues were arrested, then tried and sentenced for contempt and for obstructing the mails. The strike was broken, and Debs was on his way to jail.
The Pullman strike became known as Debs’s strike. On his release from jail six months later he was the most famous labor leader in the United States. While in jail he had been visited by Victor Berger and other Socialist leaders, who hoped to enlist him in their cause. Yet for all his increased radicalism Debs remained unconvinced. Populism attracted him more than socialism. In 1896 the Populists even considered running him as their Presidential candidate, and a third of the delegates to their convention were pledged to him. He urged them instead to support the silver-tongued, silver-minded William Jennings Bryan. Bryan became the nominee of both the Populists and the Democrats. McKinley’s defeat of Bryan was the weight thrown in the balance that finally convinced Debs that the old system of capitalism was not enough, that it must be superseded by a system of public ownership and public use. On New Year’s, 1897, in a lead article in the Railway Times , the journal of his now faltering American Railway Union, he announced that he was a Socialist.
Debs was a Socialist more of the heart than of the head, a Utopian rather than a dialectical materialist. Though he later kept a framed picture of Karl Marx in his office, it is doubtful that he ever read Das Kapital . While in the Atlanta penitentiary he tacked on the wall of his cell a picture of Jesus Christ, whom he liked to consider the first socialist. To the small Socialist Labor Party, founded in 1877 and appealing mostly to the eastern foreign-born, he brought a western nativism as homespun as that of his friend James Whitcomb Riley. Debs Americanized the Socialist Party. In turn it became his final vision. “Promising indeed is the outlook for Socialism in the United States,” he wrote at the beginning of the new century. “The very contemplation of the prospect is a well-spring of inspiration.”
In 1900 the Socialists looked to Debs as their logical and their most inspiring Presidential candidate. At first he refused. But at the party convention the leaders finally persuaded him to put aside his personal reluctance for the sake of the cause. “With your united voices ringing in my ears, with your impassioned appeals burning and glowing in my breast,” he told the delegates in his Sunday-best rhetoric, “I am brought to realize that in your voice is a supreme command of duty.”
Renaming themselves the Social Democratic Party, the Socialists put forward a socialist-reformist platform that they hoped would appeal to the Populists and draw many of the disaffected from Bryan. Debs proved himself a spectacular campaigner. An actor by instinct, he found that he loved the applause of crowds, the open platform, the tense moment of anticipation as men waited for his words. Yet for all his zeal and enthusiasm he polled fewer than a hundred thousand votes, while McKinley was re-elected comfortably with 7,218,491 votes to 6,356,734 for Bryan. Swallowing his chagrin, Debs bravely predicted that “the next four years will witness the development of socialism to continental power and proportions.”
During those four years Debs became a permanent propagandist for the Socialist cause, lecturing, speaking, organizing, exhausting his none too robust body on journeys up and down the land. Rarely did he get enough sleep; rarely did he eat properly. Though only in his mid-forties he looked much older: bald, gaunt, hollow-eyed. His evenings of speeches and discussions were often followed by drinking bouts that exhausted him still further. But Socialism as a force was taking hold. He could see that in the crowds he met, in the tumultuous welcome he got from western logging camps and mining towns. The Socialist press was growing too. The party had high hopes in 1904 when the Social Democratic Convention chose him by acclamation as its Presidential candidate. “I shall be heard in the coming campaign,” he told the delegates, “as often, and as decidedly, and as emphatically, as revolutionarily, as uncompromisingly as my ability, my strength and my fidelity to the movement will allow.”
Under the dual banners of the Red Flag and the Stars and Stripes, the Socialists waged a Presidential campaign with the customary paraphernalia of badges, buttons, ribbons, lithographs, and lantern slides, plus thousands of “little red stickers” and a catchy song, “The Dawning Day.” Theodore Roosevelt, President by inheritance, easily defeated the conservative Democrat, Judge Alton B. Parker, by over two and a half million votes. But Debs’s vote increased fourfold, to 402,895. One voter in thirty-six had voted for the Socialists, establishing them as a third party that, they were convinced, would in a decade or so become America’s first party.
In 1901 the Social Democrats united with dissident socialists to form the Socialist Party of the United States. During the next four years the party doubled its membership. Farmers of the West and Midwest, workers, scholars, intellectuals, liberal clergymen, suffragists, and social workers were drawn by their different roads to the Red Flag. Every state in the Union now had its Socialist locals. There were a hundred Socialist newspapers; there was the Rand School of Social Science in New York; there was the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, supported by Jack London’s lusty presence. Debs was now recognized across America as the popular spokesman for Socialism. In 1905 he helped “Big Bill” Haywood organize the lumberjacks and miners and other revolutionary-minded Westerners into the Industrial Workers of the World. Though himself inclined to the radicals, he managed to hold the radical and conservative wings of the party together. In 1908 he was nominated for the third time as Presidential candidate, but not by acclamation and not unanimously. Conservative Socialists like Victor Berger—“Slowcialists,” as some called them—were beginning to have reservations.
The Socialist campaign was made both widespread and spectacular by the Red Special, a train that Debs rented as his mobile headquarters. Decked out with red flags and banners, carrying a brass band, the Red Special’s three cars started from Chicago at the end of August on a twomonths’ journey that would take Debs across the West to California and back to Boston and New York to end with a ten-mile-long triumphant parade in Chicago. Crowds packed Boston’s Faneuil Hall and New York’s Hippodrome to hear him. Crowds lined the tracks at whistle stops to watch him pass. In sections of Wisconsin the schools were closed to let the children see the Red Special. Debs spoke until his throat was raw. Sometimes his voice failed him completely, and his younger brother Theodore, who much resembled him, took over in his place. “The ‘Red Special’ is a trump,” Debs wrote halfway across America. “The people are wild about it and the road will be lined with the cheering hosts of the proletarian revolution.”
But for all the Red Special’s sensational passage and the warm welcomes Debs received, the election results were coldly disillusioning. The Socialists increased their total of four years earlier by a mere eighteen thousand votes. Yet even as they were debating the discouraging results, in the months that followed they benefited from a sharp upturn in popular favor as a result of the Taft-Roosevelt split and the rise of Progressivism. In 1910 the Socialists even elected a mayor of Milwaukee, and Victor Berger became the first Socialist congressman, representing the same bumptious city. By 1911 some 435 Socialists had been elected to office in various parts of the country. Yet the party’s 1912 convention was marked by increasing dissent between the “Slowcialists” and the radicals. The conservatives finally forced through an amendment excluding those who, like Haywood’s iww Wobblies, favored industrial sabotage and violence over mere political agitation. Debs was in an anomalous position. He disliked any form of violence, and yet when he called for revolution he did not mean evolution. Never wholly trusting him, the conservatives put forward several other candidates to oppose him. Still, there could be no doubt about the outcome. Debs, like no other leader, had captured the imagination and the hearts of the rank-and-file party members. He was the inevitable candidate.
That election of 1912 was the most frenzied, the most viciously contested, since Bryan had run against McKinley in 1896. With Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party moving head-on against Taft and the embattled party regulars, the election of New Jersey’s Governor Woodrow Wilson was predictable. As Debs admitted to Lincoln Steffens, he himself campaigned for Socialist propaganda purposes, with never the remotest hope of winning. His campaign was as lively as ever, though it lacked the flamboyance of the Red Special this time. Again he toured the country, and again he brought the crowds to their feet with his electrifying delivery, his evangelistic denunciations of capitalism. The more optimistic Socialists had predicted he would gather in at least two million votes. Though this was wide of the mark, Debs did manage to more than double his 1908 vote. Almost one voter in sixteen had given the Socialists his allegiance. They seemed now a permanent force in American politics.
Kate Debs did not accompany her husband on his tours. His brother and his parents had followed him enthusiastically into Socialism, but there was a rumor that Kate had fainted when he announced his conversion. Socialism was alien to her bourgeois heart. She remained nevertheless a loyal wife. In a short article, “How My Wife Has Helped Me,” Debs wrote in 1922:
But even at the time when he wrote this, Debs, from a health sanitarium, was writing perfervid letters to another woman.
Debs was never a philanderer. He cared deeply for his wife, who represented home for him, with all the connotations of the word. But passion, unstinted affection, and emotional release he found in a Terre Haute neighbor, Mabel Curry, the wife of a professor of literature at Indiana State Normal College. She and Debs first became intimate two decades after his marriage. A blond and rather buxom housewife, mother of three daughters, she was for Debs “Juno the Divine,” without whom, he told her over and over, he could not have endured his loneliness. During the Red Special’s tour she sometimes travelled aboard or met him secretly at one of the cities where he stopped off. Although not a formal Socialist, she was much more sympathetic to socialist doctrine than Kate was. She was for him beautiful, lovable, irresistible, he repeats in letters cloying in their repetitiveness. At the same time a strong streak of religiosity runs through the letters. Though Debs adhered to no formal religion, he tells Mabel that he believes with all his heart and soul in a future life and is convinced that she will have her place in it with him. Love, he insists, defies reason and the limitations of the human senses because it is itself divine and akin to the creative soul of the universe. God still reigns, he assures her, and love holds the planets in their orbits and the stars in their courses.
The bright day that seemed to dawn for American Socialism in 1912 soon clouded over. As Wilson captured the popular imagination with his New Freedom, interest in Socialism waned. Then the fateful August of 1914 arrived. Debs and his American comrades were thunderstruck as the European Socialists declared for war and nationalism. “I am opposed to every war but one,” Debs wrote; “I am for that war heart and soul, and that is the world-wide revolution.” As American sentiment swung from neutrality to the side of the Allies, and even after the entry of the United States into the war, Debs never moved an inch from that early statement. He was certain that peace could come only by the destruction of capitalism, not by the victory of the Allies. All his innate anger had been aroused by Wilson’s dispatch of American troops to Mexico in 1914 for what Debs maintained was merely a defense of Standard Oil interests. At the outbreak of the European war he called for unconditional neutrality; and when, after the sinking of the Lusitania , the preparedness tide rose higher, so that even Socialists like Upton Sinclair were carried along, Debs joined Bryan, Jane Addams, and Senator LaFollette in stern opposition to militarism in any form.
In 1916 he refused to consider running again for President, and the Socialists named a competent but relatively obscure newspaperman as their candidate. Nevertheless, over Debs’s protests, the Indiana comrades nominated him for Congress. Into this more limited role he put his best efforts, touring his district in a Model T and concluding the campaign with a boisterous torchlight parade through Terre Haute. Kate, nettled by reports and rumors that she was at odds with her husband, marched arm in arm with him at the parade’s head.
Wilson won only narrowly over the Republicans’ more war-minded Charles Evans Hughes. The Socialist vote dropped to almost half that of 1912. Debs ran ahead of the Democratic congressman, but the Republican candidate won easily. The United States war declaration, following on the heels of Wilson’s second inauguration, split the Socialist Party. Debs, aging and in ill health, remained as adamant as ever in his attitude toward the war. But much of the spark seemed to have gone out of him. Although the wartime hysteria of patriotism and the violations of civil liberties stirred him to angry protest, he did not publicly denounce the conscription act, the Liberty Loan drives, or the subsidies to the Allies.
Socialists proved themselves scarcely more immune to the war fever than the rest of the country. Some hundred thousand of them made a public declaration of their support of the war. A bare twenty thousand refused. Debs saw his own wife carried away in the surge of conforming patriotism. Kate became chairman of the women’s division of the Liberty Bond drive, was active in the Red Cross, and knitted socks for our boys “over there.”
Russia’s October Revolution came as a breath of life to the more intransigent American radicals and Socialists. For the great majority of Americans, carried away by their war sentiments, it seemed a betrayal. All who were not for America were against America. To speak out against the war became dangerous. Pressure for conformity culminated in the Espionage Act, a law so draconian that one could be sent to jail merely for commenting adversely on a soldier’s uniform or using language judged to aid the enemy’s cause. That act reactivated Debs, and he determined to defy it. On June 16, 1918, at Nimisilla Park in Canton, on a platform bare of flags, he made a defiant twohour speech that became a Socialist legend and that he knew would bring him to jail. “I would a thousand times rather be a free soul in jail than a sycophant and a coward in the streets,” he told a crowd of twelve hundred. Government agents took down every word he spoke. A fortnight later he was arrested.
He had expected no other outcome. On leaving for prison he threw a kiss to Kate from the train, and he told a friend en route that “she has stood shoulder to shoulder with me through every storm that has beat upon us and she is still standing firm now.” Yet in all the months he spent at the Atlanta penitentiary she never once visited him. Nor had she attended his trial. The reasons given by his biographers—her own ill health, the care of her aged mother, and the burden of running her Terre Haute house- seem hardly adequate. Debs’s one constant visitor was Mabel Curry, who gave up her own homelife for months to see and be near him. She visited him daily, smuggled notes past the guards for him, and even took charge of the large correspondence that came to him from all over the world. He was sixty-four when he entered the penitentiary, an old man in failing health. Yet the letters he wrote her in those years are those of a young lover—eager, idealistic, and, it must be admitted, somewhat florid and sentimental. There are few actual letters from prison, partly because Mabel was there much of the time to see him, partly because the one letter a week he was allowed to send he generally wrote to Kate.
In 1920 the battered Socialist Party, from which the Left Socialists had seceded the year before to form the Communist and the Communist Labor parties, met in convention in New York to choose a Presidential candidate. After a ritual singing of the “Marseillaise” and the “Internationale” the delegates piled red roses around a portrait of the absent Debs, and he, Convict No. 9653, was nominated by acclaim. A delegation arrived at Atlanta to notify him formally, and he received them in his prison denims. He was allowed to issue statements of five hundred words a week, and that was the extent of his campaigning. In the year that had expanded the electorate to include women, he received 919,977 votes, 3.5 per cent of the total and about half his percentage of 1912. The victorious Harding had 16,152,200 votes. A few Socialists tried to take heart at almost a million votes, but the old-time Socialist leader Morris Hillquit sensed the election rightly as “the last flicker of the dying candle.” Over the decades the two major parties would borrow much from the Socialist program as the United States stumbled toward the welfare state. But Socialism as a third-party alternative was gone.
Following his release from Atlanta, Debs spent a half year with Kate in Terre Haute. At sixty-seven his health was broken. He was suffering from heart trouble, kidney trouble, arthritis, and blinding headaches, and his digestion had still not recovered from his prison diet. After six months in Terre Haute he went to the Lindlahr Sanitarium, a “nature” health resort near Chicago.
There in his room night after night the faded Socialist leader bent his head over his desk—he claimed to have had only three hairs left—writing to his Juno with all the fervor of an adolescent. Rarely did he mention politics or his Socialist activities. But he let her see the underlying sadness beneath the equanimity of his painfully assumed cheerful exterior. Most of his life, he admitted, had been spent in the depths and very little on peaks.
Debs lived on for six more years in increasingly poor health and reduced activity. When he had entered the penitentiary, he was so sympathetic to Soviet Russia that he had declared himself a Bolshevik from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. Now, when fellow travellers like Lincoln Steffens and Communist stalwarts like Ella Reeve Bloor urged him to show his allegiance to the Soviet state, he replied that “when the people of Russia aspire toward freedom I’m all for them, but I detest the terror which the Bolsheviks imposed to wrest and hold power. I still have, and always will have, a profound faith in the efficacy of the ballot.” Nor did he have any more sympathy for the American Communists, with their tactics of violence and underground activity. In 1923 he tried to resuscitate his dying party by a speaking tour of the major cities. Huge crowds came to listen to him, more out of curiosity and respect than conviction. Finally he collapsed and had to return to the sanitarium. He had stated that he would never run for President again. Nor, as 1924 approached, would his physical condition have allowed it. In that year the Socialists ran no candidate, but instead endorsed the candidate of the new Progressive Party, Wisconsin’s Senator Robert LaFollette.
In 1925 Debs was able to attend the banquet that the Socialist Party of New York gave him on his seventieth birthday. Yet it was almost beyond his strength. To the chance remark that Socialism was dead he could still respond with the old fire. But he was a dying man. Some time in the spring of 1926 he went with Kate on a cruise to Bermuda and after a singularly rough return voyage came home worse than when he had started. Although he had hoped to attend a Socialist national convention in Pittsburgh on May i, he was too ill to leave his bed. There he managed to write an appeal for Sacco and Vanzetti, his last published work. On September 20 he went back to the Lindlahr Sanitarium for another cure and died there three weeks later, with Kate and Theodore at his bedside.
Debs is remembered as the brightest star of American Socialism, yet more for his character and kindly spirit than for his doctrinaire beliefs. That man was naturally good was his simplistic conviction. In his own case it happened to be true.