Editor's Note: Explaining why his July 4 piece for us was late, Doug wrote: "Tornadoes and terrible winds screamed through central Illinois on June 29." Normally, (eyebrows raised), we would say yea, sure and consider this to be a sentence written by someone too busy living life to write abou it. But we can tell you that Doug's choice of adjective and his verb usage were legit. We had visitors from Lincoln Land here on Chesapeake Bay fretting mightily as that storm savaged Abe Town, knocking out power for days and longer. We can report that Doug persevered through the fallen trees, torch lights and state capital mayhem, producing this two-part look-back to a time when an aspirant campaigned while detained.
by Doug Kamholz
To celebrate Independence Day, I offer patriot and four-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. In 1918 he spoke to an Ohio court after being found guilty of attempting to cause insubordination and refusal of military duty in World War I, thereby violating the Espionage Act of 1917. He addressed the judge between pronouncement of the jury’s verdict and announcement of his ten-year prison sentence:
“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.
"I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions. . .
“Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means. . . “
Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison. . .
“I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity. . .“I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all. . . ”
Deb’s speech went on to decry additional inequities of capitalism and to envision a day of bright justice for our nation and the world. His last run for the White House was in 1920. He campaigned from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and garnered almost a million votes. Next week’s biographical sketch of the man will include sources you can use to learn more. Happy (Belated) Independence Day!
Author's note:Moxie readers have learned here or elsewhere about events such as 1921’s Tulsa Race Massacre. As we study, we see more clearly chapters our teachers skipped in the American story. One of those is the proud history of socialism in the U.S. Below I reprise the last half of my storm-delayed Independence Day piece on Eugene V. Debs, a biographical sketch.
One hundred years ago, a popular presidential campaign button read “For President – Convict No. 9653.” That was Eugene V. Debs in 1920. He got almost a million votes.
So who was this guy, this federal prisoner who was so beloved the warden in Atlanta took him home for Sunday dinner and whose words above are still taught as a paragon of English oration? Who was this guy whose percentage of 1920 votes was bigger than Ralph Nader’s in 2000?
He was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855. His parents ran a small grocery store. To help his family he quit school at 14 and got a job as a painter in local railroad yards. Thereafter he displayed a paint scraper to recall times he earned a living with his hands. He also read, including Percy Shelley, an English poet who supported the French Revolution, Debs’ family’s homeland. Shelley wrote:
“Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you / Ye are many – they are few”.
By age 20 Debs was drawn to the deprivations of working people. A deep post-war depression had hit the U.S. Debs and many others lost their railroad jobs. Workers struck back by stopping trains and rioting. For a week in 1877 socialists actually took over the cities of St. Louis and East St. Louis. At the same time Debs is a rising star in labor organizing, starting with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.
With little support from fellow labor progressives in Terre Haute, young Debs rented a hall for Susan B. Anthony to speak on women’s suffrage in 1879, forty years before females’ right to vote became the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That same year, 1879, Debs won election as City Clerk running as a Democrat. He was re-elected in 1881. In 1884 he was voted to serve Terre Haute in Indiana’s state legislature.
One year later Debs, then 30, married Katherine Metzel. Five years later, in 1890, they built their two-story home in Terre Haute. (In 1966 Debs’ home was named a National Historic Landmark. It is now maintained by the Eugene V. Debs Foundation and is open for tours.)
Just a few years later the U.S. suffered another economic downturn. George Pullman, owner of the railcar company that bore his name, cut workers’ wages. Many lived in his South Chicago company town, also named Pullman, but their rents and company store prices did not drop with their wages. A strike grew among various railway workers. Once switchmen joined and refused to couple or uncouple Pullman cars, Midwest rail traffic jammed. Railroads hired scabs. Then more unions joined the strike until 125,000 had walked off their jobs. But when strikers derailed an engine pulling a U.S. mail train, the federal government felt a right to seek an injunction and jail strikers.
So in late 1894, even after rising lawyer Clarence Darrow failed to win a reversal, Debs was sentenced to several months in jail in Woodstock in northern Illinois. (Yes, it’s that Woodstock where Bill Murray et al. filmed Groundhog Day and, yes, I confess to having a hamburger in Debs’ old cellblock in what is now Public House of Woodstock in McHenry County’s converted courthouse.)
It was there, during long days amidst cornfields and groundhogs and quiet that Debs read and thought and embraced socialism. Here is an excerpt from a 2019 New Yorker article. “For a long time, Debs disavowed socialism. He placed his faith in democracy, the franchise, and the two-party system.‘The conflict is not between capital and labor,’ he insisted. ‘It is between the man who holds the office and the man who holds the ballot.’ But in the eighteen-eighties, when railroad men struck time and time again, and as many as two thousand railroad men a year were killed on the job, while another twenty thousand were injured, Debs began to wonder whether the power of benevolence and fraternity was adequate protection from the avarice and ruthlessness of corporations backed up by armed men. ‘The strike is the weapon of the oppressed,’ Debs wrote in 1888.”
Debs’ first run for the presidency was as a socialist in 1900. His second run in 1904 trumpeted demands starting with “The earth for all the people.” Four years later his campaign platform decried the shame of child labor and promoted this: “There is not a single right accorded man should not be accorded to woman.” Nominated again by the Socialist Party of America in 1912, his banner read: “WORKINGMEN VOTE YOUR TICKET: UNITE AT THE BALLOT BOX.” Debs ran once more, this time from his Atlanta prison cell in 1920.
Those early 1900s saw rising socialist power in the U.S., especially in places like St. Louis, Milwaukee and New York, cities with large German populations. In 1912 more than 75 mayors in 23 states held their elected offices under a socialist banner, and Debs won 6% of the presidential vote. A Slovenian woman and former hat makers’ union leader, interviewed in 1981, recalled with excitement, “Gene Debs held my baby!”
Then came the rapid fall. Early there appeared and grew a non-socialist progressive party perhaps best known for its Wisconsin leader, Robert M. La Follette, often known as “Fightin’ Bob.” As World War I neared there were splits among European socialist immigrant communities. Later, when the Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution came in 1917, more socialists peeled off in favor of the Communist Party.
Meanwhile, Debs’ popularity had soared, and he was speaking out against the world war. But dissent drew suspicion in Washington. And that became the 1918 Sedition Amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act. Debs was arrested in Canton, Ohio, after a speech and charged with violating those acts by encouraging disloyalty to military service. It is after his conviction that he gives his most famous speech, including the words:
“ . . 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.”
My last illustration of Eugene V. Debs’ human qualities is drawn from his years in federal prison in Atlanta, headquarters of his last campaign—from the jail house to the White House—in 1920. Not only did the warden invite him home for dinners, but also he allowed Debs to travel unescorted to Washington, DC, for an official meeting. When it was done Debs got back on the train to Atlanta. In December of 1921, President Warren G. Harding pardoned Debs, who was by then in failing health. All the prisoners were permitted to gather at the fence on Christmas morning to wave good-bye. Here is a description from a review of Ernest Freeberg’s Democracy’s Prisoner: “Some readers may be moved, as I was, by the photograph of a black-suited Debs standing on the road outside the penitentiary. With his back to the camera and black hat raised high in his right hand, Debs acknowledges the ovation of his fellow inmates.”
A few years later, Eugene V. Debs died at age 70 while being cared for in Elmhurst, Illinois. But for many of us he is just like federally executed labor agitator Joe Hill in that line Joan Baez sang at Woodstock: “. . Alive as you and me.”
[Postscript 1 The late Solomon Burke left us a fine musical take on Deb’s famous words “. . while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Hear it here in “None of Us Are Free” backed by the Blind Boys of Alabama: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Edaz7CUAZg8 ]
[Postscript 2 I thank sources that helped with this piece: Bill Furry, executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society; Ernest Freeberg, History Department Head at the University of Tennessee; Jill Lepore, Harvard professor and regular contributor to The New Yorker; Encyclopaedia Britannica; and 2019’s Eugene V. Debs: A Graphic Biography with art by Noah Van Sciver and prose by Paul Buhle, et al.]