Eugene Debs was born on November 5, 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. His parents were relatively poor immigrants and he left home to work on the railroads when he was fourteen years old. He worked for five years as a fireman for a railroad company before returning home in 1874 to work as a grocery clerk.
That year, he founded a local chapter of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was elected assistant editor of the organization's magazine. In 1880, he was chosen to serve the position of Grand Secretary for the brotherhood. That same year, he was elected to Indiana's state congress on the democratic ticket.
As the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen evolved from a union-like organization to a passive organization, Debs grew disenchanted with it. He resigned from his position as Grand Secretary in order to found the first union in the United States, the American Railway Union, in 1893. It organized its first strike in April of 1894 against the Great Northern Railway and was fairly successful in increasing the quality of working conditions.
At the end of 1894, workers from the Pullman company appealed to the American Railway Union for assistance in improving their wages. Debs felt that a strike would be too risky, but the union decided to go ahead anyways and began to refuse to work with any Pullman cars.
The federal government sent in the United States Army to break the strike, claiming that the strike was preventing the prompt delivery of mail. By the end of the strike, 13 of the strikers were killed and another 57 were wounded. The strike also caused nearly $100 million in property damage.
For his supposed involvement in the strike, Debs was indicted for interfering with the delivery of mail. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to a year in prison. While in prison, he spent much of his time reading books, including the works of Karl Marx. By the time he was released in 1895, he was a staunch socialist.
He immediately joined the Social Democratic Party in the United States and campaigned for the presidency in 1900. He then joined the Socialist Party of America and ran for the presidency with their support in 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Unfortunately for him, none of his attempts were successful.
On June 16, 1918, Debs gave a speech at Canton, Ohio protesting the United States' involvement in World War 1. He was arrested for violating 1918's Sedition Act, which forbade any individuals from criticizing the government during a time of war. For his supposed crimes, he was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Debs immediately appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court, but he was still found guilty of decreasing recruitment rates and obstructing the draft. The sentence was upheld and he was sent to prison on April 13, 1919 in Atlanta, Georgia. In protest, a large group of socialists and communists held a parade on May 1, 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio.
While in prison, he ran for the presidency in the election of 1920. He managed to amass 913,664 votes (about 3.4% of the total votes), getting the largest number of votes for a socialist candidate in United States history. Despite his failure to attain the presidency, he continued to write articles for newspapers that criticized the judicial and prison systems.
On December 25, 1921, Debs was ordered to be released from prison by President Warren Harding. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1924 for his work to stop World War 1. Eugene Debs died on October 20, 1926.