Socialist Eugene V. Debs was one of the major players in American politics at the turn of the 20th century. He made five attempts to gain the presidency - in 1900, 1904, 1908 1912 and 1920 - all as the standard bearer of the Socialist Party. He conducted his last campaign from behind the bars of a federal prison. A gifted orator, Debs rivaled William Jennings Bryan in his ability to move a crowd with his words.
Eugene V. Debs
Born in Indiana in 1855, Debs went to work for the railroad at age 14 but soon gave it up at his mother's urging. He became active in the union movement forming the American Railway Union, the nation's largest, in 1893. Arrested during the Pullman Strike of 1894, he served six months behind bars. In jail, Debs converted to socialism. He helped found the Social Democratic Party of America in 1897, the Socialist Party in 1901 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. "I am for socialism because I am for humanity" he declared.
He opposed America's entrance into World War I and denounced the Espionage Act designed to silence all antiwar sentiment. In 1918, he received a 10-year prison sentence for his public opposition to the war. At his trial, Debs admitted he spoke the words the federal government considered traitorous and addressed the jury in his own defense. "I am doing what little I can to do away with the rule of the great body of people by a relatively small class and establish in this country industrial and social democracy." A guilty verdict sent Debs to the federal prison in Atlanta.
In 1920, the Socialist Party again nominated him as their presidential candidate and over 915,000 voted for prisoner #9653. President Wilson vigorously denied a request for Deb's pardon in 1921. Finally, Warren G. Harding released Debs under a general amnesty on Christmas Day 1921. Harding asked the old socialist to stop by the White House. "I have heard so damned much about you, Mr Debs, that I am very glad to meet you personally" Harding remarked at their meeting. Debs died in 1926.
References: Currie, Harold W., Eugene V. Debs (1976); Morgan, H. Wayne, Eugene V. Debs: Socialist for President (1973).