By Joe Mathewson
Twice consigned to prison by the U.S. Supreme Court for violating federal law, Eugene V. Debs of Indiana nevertheless left an influential mark on the nation, confirmed by an unlikely federal seal of approval years later.
Debs attained the fame of violent conflict in Chicago. A high school dropout, elected to the Indiana Senate at 29, and a workers’ activist, he organized the American Railway Union, the nation’s first industrial union, only to be outrun by his own members. In May 1894 they struck against the Pullman Palace Car Company of Chicago in protest against drastic wage cuts imposed by the company in the Panic of 1893. Other union members refused to handle Pullman cars and those connected to them, even U.S. Mail cars, on the 22 lines converging in Chicago, a boycott.
Fearing a government reaction, Debs actually argued against the actions at a convention of his union in Chicago, but ultimately relented and assumed leadership of the strike and boycott. However, the protest turned violent. Strikers sabotaged railroad tracks and switches, causing derailments of engines and trains, the damage running into the millions. Other union members walked out of the massive Union Stock Yards on Chicago’s South Side, crippling its production of meat products for the nation.
Debs was proved prescient. President Grover Cleveland, alarmed by the tieup’s impact on both mail service and the economy, sought a court injunction ordering the strikers back to work. The federal court in Chicago granted the order, directing Debs and other union leaders to cease interference with railroad operations. But they defied the order, causing the president to send in the U.S. Army to break the strike; 13 workers were killed in a bloody confrontation. Debs and other leaders were ruled in contempt of court and sent to jail.
Clarence Darrow, Chicago’s most celebrated lawyer of that era, left his railroad employment to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to set aside the contempt rulings. But his petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice David J. Brewer recognized that many union members had given up their own jobs in support of fellow workers, but declared firmly:
“We yield to none in our admiration of any act of heroism or self-sacrifice, but we may be permitted to add that it is a lesson which cannot be learned too soon or too thoroughly that under this government of and by the people the means of redress of all wrongs are through the courts and at the ballot-box, and that no wrong, real or fancied, carries with it legal warrant to invite as a means of redress the cooperation of a mob, with its accompanying acts of violence.”
Imprisoned in Woodstock, Illinois, Debs began studying socialism, ultimately embracing the cause. He emerged months later as a committed socialist activist, helping to organize the Socialist Democratic Party and running as its candidate for president in 1900 and several more times. He abhorred war and opposed U.S. participation in World War I. But when he gave a speech in Ohio in June 1918 praising several men and women jailed for encouraging resistance to the draft, he himself was charged with inciting disloyalty and attempting to obstruct the draft, in violation of the Espionage Act of 1917.
For that single speech Debs was convicted and sentenced to serve ten years. Once more he sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court. But, in 1919, the Court again affirmed his imprisonment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that the jury was justified in finding that “one purpose of the speech, whether incidental or not does not matter, was to oppose not only war in general but this war, and that the opposition was so expressed that its natural and intended effect would be to obstruct recruiting.”
Like other newspapers around the country, the Chicago Tribune rejoiced at the verdict: “The government, as well as all loyal citizens, have denied political animus but insisted that freedom of speech does not constitute license to arouse hatred of national duty.”
Even in prison, Debs ran again for president. His 1920 campaign featured a photo of him in inmate’s garb, with the slogan: “For President Convict 9653.”
Warren G. Harding was elected, and, despite Debs’ opposition to his candidacy, graciously commuted Debs’ sentence to time served. Debs died in 1926, just short of his 71st birthday.
Today his home in Terre Haute, on the campus of Indiana State University, is maintained by the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, “keeping alive the spirit of progressivism, humanitarianism and social criticism epitomized by Debs.”
It includes a Debs museum and is open to the public. In 1965 it was made an official Indiana historic site by the Indiana General Assembly.
Ironically, despite Debs’ notoriety for confronting the federal government, in 1966 the house was designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Park Service, which conscientiously monitors its upkeep. www.eugenevdebs.com
Joe Mathewson, a former Supreme Court reporter for The Wall Street Journal and practicing attorney in Chicago, teaches journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School. This article is adapted from his book,“The Supreme Court and the Press: The Indispensable Conflict,” to be published in January by the Northwestern University Press. Read more from Joe Mathewson on his site, Jmathewson's Blog.
Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive (This is a fantastic resource!)
"You Railroad Men" (cover of 1906 pamphlet)
Eugene V. Debs pin (The Anarchist Encyclopedia: A Gallery of Saints & Sinners ...)