Eugene Debs, the inspirational labor and socialist leader of the late 19th and early 20th centuries visited Washington, D.C. several times during his life.
However his most famous visit occurred after his Christmas Day 1921 release from the Atlanta Penitentiary while serving a 10-year sentence for sedition after U.S. President Warren Harding commuted his jail term, along with 23 others.
Debs, who received nearly a million votes while running for U.S. president from his jail cell in the 1920 election, was incarcerated for the crime of speaking out against U.S. entry into World War I and the forced draft of young men into the army.
Debs left prison and spent a day and a half in Washington, D.C. where he visited the U.S. Attorney General in Justice Department offices and U.S. President Warren Harding at the White House, a man who had defeated him in the election the previous year.
Labor & socialist leader
Early in his adulthood, Debs worked with several craft unions including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He became disillusioned with this model of unionism and was instrumental in the founding of the American Railway Union (ARU), one of the nation’s first industrial unions that organized across craft and skill lines.
The ARU achieved early success with an 1894 strike at Great Northern Railway. Workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company, many of whom were already ARU members, organized a wildcat strike over pay cuts in the summer of 1894. Debs initially opposed calling a boycott, citing the weakness of the union.
However after workers began boycotting Pullman cars in several areas of the country, Debs called for a nationwide boycott by the ARU against handling trains with Pullman cars, in what became the nationwide Pullman strike, affecting most lines west of Detroit, and more than 250,000 workers in 27 states.
Using the excuse of keeping the U.S. mail running, President Grover Cleveland used the United States Army to break the strike. Thirteen strikers were killed and thousands blacklisted.
As a leader of the ARU, Debs was convicted of federal charges for defying a court injunction against the strike and served six months in prison. The right of the government to use the injunction was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While in prison, Debs began reading socialist literature and its message hit home. He became an articulate spokesperson for socialism.
He later helped found the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—a radical rival to the American Federation of Labor.
He ran five times for U.S. president, receiving nearly a million votes in 1912 and 1920. In the latter election, he ran for the office from a prison cell.
Debs was opposed to U.S. workers fighting for the capitalist class in World War I and made a speech against the war in Canton, Ohio in 1918. Debs said he phrased his words carefully mindful of the possible consequences.
Nevertheless, he was charged with ten counts of sedition, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
He gave two thundering speeches to the court, saying at one point,
Your honor, I ask no mercy, I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never more fully comprehended than now the great struggle between the powers of greed on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of freedom. I can see the dawn of a better day of humanity. The people are awakening. In due course of time they will come into their own.
At his sentencing hearing he said,
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.
After his appeals were exhausted, he began serving his sentence April 13, 1919. More than one million signed a petition calling for Debs release. However, President Woodrow Wilson denied appeals for clemency saying at one point, “This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration.”
When Warren Harding succeeded Wilson, renewed appeals for clemency began in earnest. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty invited Debs to Washington in March 1921 as part of an evaluation of Debs status. Debs then returned to prison.
On Christmas Day 1921, Debs’ sentence was commuted. When he left the Atlanta Penitentiary, he was sent off with the cheers of 2,300 inmates. The warden provided him with a first class train ticket to Washington, D.C. (instead of to his home or to his place of sentence which is customary).
Debs rode in a sleeper car and donated the difference in the ticket to the Russian relief fund. He was accompanied by his brother Theodore; Celia Rotter of the Debs freedom conference; Lucy Robbins of the American Federation of Labor and the Debs freedom conference; along with a number of newspaper reporters.
Arrival in Washington, D.C.
Debs arrived in Washington’s Union Station where he found the taxicabs were non-union and promptly headed for a streetcar. However, a reporter prevailed upon him to accept a ride in an automobile to the Hotel Harrington where he sat down in the barber’s chair, had a shave and then ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant.
He walked from the hotel at 11th & E Streets NW and called upon Daugherty at the Justice Department offices at 1010 Vermont Avenue NW about 11 a.m. dressed in clothes provided by the warden when he left prison—brown suit, dark felt hat, dark overcoat and black shoes.
“I was courteously received by the Attorney General,” Debs said, “and expressed to him my interest in and my devotion to my fellow prisoners who were no more guilty than I and who still remain in prison.”
By fellow-prisoners, he said he meant both “political offenders and prisoners in general.” Hundreds of war opponents were sentenced to prison for speaking out against the war while the U.S. government was claiming it was fighting to make the world “safe for democracy.”
After a 30-minute conference with Daugherty he then walked to the White House arriving shortly before noon. “I’ve started for here four or five times,” Debs said tongue in cheek, “but this is the first time I ever landed,” (referring to his five times running for President).
He was received by President Harding and met with the president for about 30 minutes inside the White House.
At the White House I was received very cordially by President Harding, with whom I exchanged opinions and points of view, so that he might perfectly understand my attitude in reference to my future activities. During the visit I took occasion to express my appreciation of the consideration.
Debs walked back to his hotel. He originally planned to leave Washington the same day, but a parade of visitors caused him to stay overnight at the Harrington.
Among those who called upon him was Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor who had urged his release. Gompers committed to working to free the remaining political prisoners—mostly men and women from the rival IWW.
The following day on the 27th he saw Peter MacSwiney, brother of the late Lord Mayor of Cork; Frank Morrison, Secretary of the American Federation of Labor; Philip LaFollette, son of the senior Senator From Wisconsin; Santiago Iglesias of the Puerto Rican Senate and Canuto Vargas, Secretary of the Pan American Federation of Labor; Urbain Ledoux, the advocate for unemployed who bestowed his lantern on Debs ending Ledoux’s quest for “an honest man;” along with dozens of friends and well-wishers.
Before leaving Washington, Debs held an unauthorized rally with several hundred supporters in Union Station where he said in part, “I believe in free speech. In the expression of these differing opinions we find our way to higher civilization.”
“With every drop of blood in my veins,” he concluded, “I am opposed to war. Human life is too sacred a thing to be spent in bloodshed.”
He then left for his home in Terre Haute, Indiana and when he arrived, he was greeted by 50,000 well-wishers in a public demonstration.
Questioned about his prison-issued suit, Debs stated his desire to wear his too-large suit for some time saying, “Like the wrinkles on my face, they (the prison issued clothes) have cost me something.”
During his time in prison, Debs refused all privileges not accorded the other inmates and his health suffered. Debs never recovered his health from his time in prison and died October 20, 1926. He left a legacy as the greatest socialist leader in the history of the United States, although he said,
I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.
Sources include The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, Nick Salvatore’s Eugene Debs: Citizen and Socialist among others. The author is a student at the University of Maryland.