Eugene Victor Debs was born in November 1855 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Terre Haute, a small city situated along the winding Wabash River, is the home of the "Crossroads of America" that give Indiana its nickname—the intersection of U.S. 40 and U.S. 41 in Terre Haute and a half-dozen rail lines surrounding the town made the town incredibly important for commerce. The home he built with his wife in Terre Haute is located adjacent to the campus of Indiana State University, is now a museum and National Historic Landmark. The nearby university maintains a special collection of his works in its campus library.
Debs went on to become one of the most important union organizers in the United States, including being a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and leading the Pullman Strike, an ultimately unsuccessful railroad strike that involved 250,000 workers across 27 states. In addition to his involvement in labor struggles, Debs was the Socialist Party candidate for President of the United States five times, in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and from prison in 1920. His 1912 electoral performance was the best showing by a Socialist candidate in US history, earning nearly six percent of the vote. While socialist candidates since Debs have earned more votes, none have earned so high a percentage of the total.
Unique to Debs among mainstream leftists is language relating Jesus to the socialist struggle—while Debs himself was not particularly religious, he saw Jesus as the quintessential socialist. About the twelve disciples and Jesus's message, Debs writes,
It was a working class movement he was organizing and a working class revolution he was preparing the way for.
'A new commandment I give unto you: That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.' This was the pith and core of all his pleading, all his preaching, and all his teaching—love one another, be brethren, make common cause, stand together, ye who labor to enrich the parasites and are yourselves in chains, and ye shall be free!
These words were addressed by Jesus not to the money-changers, the scribes and the pharisees, the rich and respectable, but to the ragged undesirables of his own enslaved and suffering class. This appeal was to their class spirit, their class loyalty, and their class solidarity.
Debs even evoked one of the earliest stories in the Bible, of Cain and his brother Abel, to relate the message of socialism to his audiences: "Thousands of years ago the question was asked: 'Am I my brother’s keeper?' That question has never yet been answered in a way that is satisfactory to civilized society. Yes, I am my brother’s keeper. I am under a moral obligation to him, inspired, not by any maudlin sentimentality, but by the higher duty I owe to myself. What would you think of me if I were capable of seating myself at a table and gorging myself with food and saw about me the children of my fellow beings starving to death?"
Debs was firmly in the internationalist camp, writing in support of the Bolshevik Revolution and praising their establishment of the first workers' democracy in the world in the late nineteen-teens, though he did not call for a similar armed revolution in the United States, instead exhorting voters to abandon the Democratic Party and vote for socialists in local, state, and federal elections. Still, Debs was certainly a committed socialist, not a social democrat. Comparing Marx to the socialist zeal he saw in Jesus, he continues the above quote: "Centuries later Karl Marx embodies the appeal [to love one another] in his famous manifesto and today it blazes forth in letter of fire as the watchword of the worldwide revolution: 'Workers of all countries unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.'"
Debs was a remarkable orator, known for giving fiery and impassioned speeches across the United States. It was one such speech that landed him in federal prison—for speaking in 1918 against American involvement in World War I, Debs was arrested and convicted of violating the Sedition Act, an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act that made it illegal to "utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United State ... or any language intended to bring the form of government of the United States ... into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute." He was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment.
In his statement to the court after being convicted, Debs famously remarked, "Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Debs served three years of his sentence before President Warren Harding commuted the sentence to time served, releasing Debs on Christmas 1921. Debs died in 1926 and his remains are interred at the Highland Lawn Cemetery in his hometown.