For President: Convict No. 9653

Eugene Debs received more than 900,000 votes in the 1920 American presidential election – while in prison for sedition.

Eugene Debs
National Photo Company Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Eugene V. Debs was the most famous American socialist of the late 19th and early 20th century. He rose to prominence as the organiser of the American Railway Union, and went to prison – for the first time – as a consequence of that union’s notorious Pullman Strike in 1894.

(Very roughly: the Pullman Car Company made railroad cars. It was run out of a company town. Pullman owned the whole town and all the buildings in it. The company paid the workers but the workers had to pay rent on their houses back to the company. When Pullman dropped wages but didn’t drop the rent, the resulting squeeze pushed the workers into a wildcat strike. They walked off the job and the union began a boycott, disrupting trains across the United States. The government and the army stepped in, and they broke the strike at the cost of 30 workers’ lives and about 80 million dollars in property damage. Debs initially opposed the Pullman Strike but later became a strong supporter; he was sent to jail for six months because the strike had disrupted the mail.)

After the end of the Pullman Strike and the subsequent dissolution of the American Railway Union, Debs and others founded Social Democracy of America. This political party was a precursor to several socialist movements in the US, and Debs rose to become a significant public speaker and political candidate.

Debs first ran for president in 1900; he won just under 88,000 votes. But he kept going, running for election another four times and receiving more votes every time. In 1912 the Debs ticket received six percent of the entire national vote. In the 1920 election, more than 900,000 voters chose Debs for their president. That last result was remarkable for another reason: at the time, Debs was in prison.

In 1918, Debs travelled the country and spoke out against the World War I military draft. This was enough to see him arrested, charged, and jailed for sedition. Debs’ gift for oratory came out at the sentencing:

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.

Eugene V. Debs

He appealed the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully. Protests against his imprisonment led to the May Day Riots of 1919, exactly a hundred and two years ago today. Debs ran in the 1920 election while in prison. His sedition conviction meant that he could not vote, but apparently it didn’t prevent him from running. The campaign even played up the prison angle, with badges proudly proclaiming “For President: Convict No. 9653.”

Warren Harding commuted Debs’ sentence in 1921, and Debs visited the White House the day after his release. Debs’ health never recovered from his incarceration, and he died five years later.

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