Eugene Debs, the legend……
Debs the labor leader, rallying the boys to the cause, standing by the men of the Great Northern Railway, the men who built the Pullman cars, the miners in the Colorado coalfields, always ready to fight for the American worker. Debs jailed in Woodstock, Illinois in 1894, convicted of impeding the U.S. mails during the Pullman strike, a thorn in the side of President Grover Cleveland, a man Debs had worked to elect.
Debs the Socialist, declaring man had lived too long by the rule of gold and there was a better way, a resolute figure reading Bellamy and Marx in his jail cell, riding the country in the Red Special as the Socialist candidate for President in 1912, making whistle stops in the small towns and country hamlets, speaking for the Socialist cause when it still found a hearing in the heartland.
Debs the convict, damned as a traitor by Woodrow Wilson, arrested, brought to book, tried and convicted for “sedition” when he questioned American participation in World War I. For his pains he served two years in the Atlanta Penitentiary, where he stood as Socialist candidate for President for the fifth and final time in 1920, finally leaving prison with his health broken, his sentence commuted, by of all people, the Republican Warren Gamaliel Harding of Ohio, who invited Debs to the White House during the Christmas season of 1921 and said “Well, I have heard so damned much about you Mr. Debs, that I am now glad to meet you personally. ”
Debs the young boy scraping paint in the Vandalia Railroad freight yards; Debs firing the engines on the midnight run from Terre Haute to Indianapolis; Debs working as Terre Haute city clerk; Debs reading his beloved Victor Hugo; Debs writing for the Appeal to Reason; Debs leaning against the bar, his foot on the railing, knocking back whiskey with the workingmen; Debs dying at seventy in an Illinois sanitarium, stepping off into eternity in the age of ballyhoo and bathtub gin.
Debs. Eugene Debs—the legend.
Eugene Debs—American labor leader, Socialist, politician and organizer— was well known to the American public of the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, a man upright citizens could admire despite the reservations many had about his actions and beliefs. Debs’ cordial nature and genuine conviction charmed even his detractors. He deserves to be better known in our own time. He’s an important figure in the histories of American labor and Progressivism. He’s a vital figure in Midwestern history as well, a reminder that the heartland’s political history is not just one of conservatism.
Debs’ resume as an activist is remarkable, demonstrating that he was on the front lines of the issues affecting working people in his time. Debs ran as the Socialist candidate for President five times. He also made a failed bid for a Congressional seat in 1916. He helped found the American Railway Union (ARU) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). His political journey began as a more conventionally liberal local organizer, city clerk of Terre Haute and one-term Democratic representative in the Indiana house and ended as one of the world’s best-known socialists and a passionate advocate for a range of progressive causes and ideals. If you want to get a feel for the life of Eugene Debs, you can’t do any better than visit the Eugene Debs House in Terre Haute, Indiana. It is well worth seeing.
The Eugene Debs House offers visitors a rewarding look at the remarkable life of Debs and the times in which he lived. The Eugene Debs Foundation owns and operates the home, which is located on the grounds of the Indiana State University, but the house is not overseen in any way by the school. The Foundation works to make sure that Debs is remembered and promotes his legacy and the values he stood for, such as social justice, labor rights, and greater equality. Each year the Foundation presents an award to a citizen or organization representing the values Debs lived by. Past winners include labor leader John L. Lewis, historian and JFK aide Arthur Schlesinger and folk singer Pete Seeger. The 2017 winner was Jobs For Justice, a worker rights organization.
The Debs home is an elegant place, built in 1890 at the cost of $4,500. Except when Debs was incarcerated, on the road, or in a sanitarium for medical treatment, he lived here with his wife Katherine from 1890 until his death in 1926. Katherine died ten years later. A professor and his family occupied the house for some years after and then it became, of all things, a fraternity house. The house then passed to an owner who rented out portions of the property as apartments.
The Debs Foundation bought the house in 1962 and owns it to this day. The Indiana legislature named it an official state historic site in 1965 and it received National Historic Landmark status by the U.S. Department of the Interior a year later.
I visited the Debs home on Saturday, June 3, 2017. I was fascinated by the house’s placement within the ISU campus. It stands on its own like a little island of nineteenth century America in the midst of a modern Midwestern university, a remnant of a long-gone world and the vibrant neighborhood that once stood here near the rail lines. Here was Debs’ sanctuary, a place of respite from the political strife of his times. The poet James Whitcomb Riley was a frequent guest here—he even had his own room as he was a regular visitor. The novelist Sinclair Lewis paid a visit to Debs here too.
And when Debs died, a wake was held at the home before a funeral service at the nearby Labor Temple that once stood in Terre Haute. Norman Thomas, another Socialist notable and perennial Socialist candidate for the Presidency, gave Debs’s eulogy. Thomas, interestingly enough, was a native of Marion, Ohio who had worked as a paperboy for future President Warren Harding, the man who commuted Debs’ sentence.
While standing in the Debs home and looking at the late spring sunshine spilling through the old windows, I was reminded of the chapter on Eugene Debs in John Bartlow Martin’s classic 1947 portrait of Indiana entitled Indiana: An Interpretation. Martin was an outstanding journalist who later served as a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy and as Kennedy’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic. Martin’s chapter on Debs is one of the best in the book–Martin would later write that “Debs almost ran away with the book.”
Martin richly evokes the Terre Haute of Debs’ time, a city known for its industry and railroad traffic– a world of sawdust floor saloons filled with the smells of cigar smoke and whiskey, the train whistles sounding across the streets and encircling countryside. It was a city of contrasts. There were stately hotels and churches as well as a tightly regulated tenderloin district where prostitutes had to agree to weekly medical exams and couldn’t exit the district without police permission. And key to the city’s vitality and industry was the railroad: the chuff-chuff-chuff of locomotives gathering steam to leave Terre Haute, the thick smoke belching from the chimneys and the cinders lying thick along the tracks. That old Terre Haute felt close by as I toured the Debs home that day.
The lovely house of a man like Debs, devoted as he was to the workingman and the causes of labor and socialism, raised some eyebrows then and can seem surprising even now, but Debs was not without means. Debs earned a modest salary from the work he did, but his wife had wealth. This aspect of his life can create a perception that Debs was an early version of what we today would call a “limousine liberal”—someone with money and comfort stumping for liberal causes while insulated from the hard economic and social realities of life.
But the fact is that Debs came from a family of immigrants who knew poverty in their early years until they established a small but successful grocery business. Debs left school at fifteen to go to work and knew firsthand hard manual labor. He worked all his life and was often on the road on behalf of his workers. However, it’s also worth asking why it’s okay for people who accumulate great wealth, sometimes by very questionable or outright illegal means, to live in opulence while those who work for the common good are expected to exist at some subsistence level.
Allison Duerk, the director of the Debs house, also pointed out when I toured there that one traditional aim of the labor movement was that of “bread and roses.” People should be able to work in safe conditions, earn enough to eat and have other basic needs met, but also enjoy life’s pleasures along with dignity and comfort. Debs wanted people to have the best lives they could. No matter how beautiful Debs’ home was and is, we must remember that Debs walked the talk, and paid the price for his beliefs. He was jailed twice, the second time in federal penitentiaries that damaged his health. He was subjected to public invective and ridicule, hounded by federal agents and dismissed by those who had once been friends. He spent much of his life on the road fighting for what he believed in. Debs was always, first and foremost, a worker.
The story of Debs is that of a more mainstream figure in politics and unionism who eventually embraced socialism and called for radical change in American life. However, Debs is also a reminder that what one generation calls radical can be widely accepted later on. Some of the Socialist Party’s most important causes—an eight hour day, social security, unemployment insurance—are accepted elements of our time. People like Debs helped pave the way for the New Deal. Eugene Debs—federal prison Convict 9653–now has his own place in the U.S. Labor Department’s Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.
A quick word here about socialism. This is a complex political philosophy that has taken different forms in different countries at different times. We live in an age when the word is often bandied about carelessly—and ignorantly–and has become as loaded with all sorts of connotations as are the words “liberal” and “conservative.” It is often a term of opprobrium. People can have strong reactions to the word. The textbook definition of socialism is a system in which all means of production and distribution are in the hands of the people, but there are a range of beliefs about what socialism is about and how it should be implemented.
For example, sometimes the notion of socialism is often far less about who owns the means of production and distribution and more about support for social programs meant to promote safety, education and security and help citizens lead productive and fulfilling lives. It is often pointed out in discussions of this political philosophy that we have elements of socialism in our everyday world—Medicaid, Social Security, the GI Bill, the Veterans Administration and other entitlements–that we in America have decided are part of a ‘social safety net” to help protect citizen health and safety as well as guarantee opportunities for all people.
The kind of pure socialism in which there is total state control of industry has not been successful, with Venezuela being a recent example of this kind of failure, and these lessons have not been lost on some within the left-liberal spectrum of belief. I have encountered people who are socialist, or who have strong socialist sympathies, who aren’t advocating for all means of production to be collectively owned by the people, but at least want to see a system geared more towards promoting the general welfare of all people and reducing the concentration of wealth in such few hands.
I would say that such individuals are attracted to what is often called Social Democracy, and it is defined in Big Ideas: The Politics Book as “a reformist political movement advocating a gradual transition from capitalism to socialism by peaceful, democratic means. Typical tenets include the right of all citizens to education, healthcare, workers’ compensation, and freedom from discrimination.” As for Debs, the following is probably the best statement of his philosophy, written by himself and appearing in a pamphlet called Unionism and Socialism. He pulled no punches about where he stood. Here’s Debs:
The earth is for all the people. That is the demand.
The machinery of production and distribution for all the
people. That is the demand.
The collective ownership and control of industry and its
democratic management in the interest of all the people.
That is the demand.
The elimination of rent, interest and profit and the pro-
duction of wealth to satisfy the wants of all the people.
That is the demand.
Co-operative industry in which all shall work together in
harmony as the basis of a new social order, a higher civil-
ization, a real republic. That is the demand.
The end of class struggles and class rule, of master and
slave, of ignorance and vice, of poverty and shame, of
cruelty and crime—the birth of freedom, the dawn of
brotherhood, the beginning of MAN. That is the demand.
This is socialism.
We might say that Debs was “true church” when it came to socialism, but Debs came to this verdict after his own rough experiences with the ways of the world–and the world he knew was one that lacked many of the protections and options we take for granted today. He was initially wary of strikes, and was also reluctant at first for the ARU to be involved in the action against the Pullman company, but his stinging firsthand encounters with the unrelenting nature of raw political and corporate power and the brutal treatment often accorded people fighting for their rights led Debs to commit to socialism. Debs ultimately had no illusions about who he was dealing with the and steps they would take to maintain their positions in Gilded Age and early twentieth century America. Despite changes for the better, this issue of massive inequality in wealth and opportunity bedevils us to this day.
Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana on November 5, 1855. He was named for the French novelists Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. His parents were Alsatian immigrants from the town of Colmar near the German border. His father came from a family of prosperous businessmen who owned a mill and meat market. Debs’ father, Jean Daniel Debs, known simply as Daniel to his friends in Terre Haute, was given a good education and developed a taste for classic literature and art. He fell in love with a girl named Margueritte Marie Bettrich who worked in the Debs family mill. Daniel had little interest in working in the family business, and his father opposed the match with Margueritte. When his father died, Daniel left for America and Marguerite joined him in New York City on September 11, 1849. They married two days later.
The couple moved first to Cincinnati and then west to Terre Haute. Daniel worked in a packing house and then laying ties for the Vandalia Railroad. The life was tough and the Debses returned briefly to New York City, but then returned to Terre Haute. Margueritte, called “Daisy” by her husband, took her last forty dollars of savings and purchased a stock of groceries, which they sold out of their home on North Fourth Street. This would grow into a profitable business for the family.
The couple had two daughters who died young and then two girls who survived, followed by Eugene. The couple had five more children. Three of these children—two more girls and a boy—survived. Eugene Debs and his younger brother Theodore became very close—Theodore would be a great friend and trusted advisor to his older brother. Theodore later had a daughter named Marguerite who provided valuable assistance to the Debs Foundation as an advisor during both the house’s renovation and the museum’s creation.
Terre Haute was a wide-open Midwestern city when Debs was a boy. He enjoyed wandering the woods and fields beyond the town and hunting with his father. Around him was a bustling city where men and their families had come to make a fortune. The boy became fascinated by the railroads and the engineers who drove the trains.
The drama of the Civil War unfolded around him during his childhood. Trains filled with Union soldiers passed through Terre Haute. In the summer of 1863, when Debs was seven, the town uneasily followed the progress of Confederate General John Hunt Morgan and his raiders on their tear through Kentucky and Indiana and into Ohio, where they were eventually stopped near Ohio’s border with West Virginia.
Although Debs had some schooling in Terre Haute, much of it was of the uninspired drill-and-recite kind. The boy got a lot more from his reading of French and German authors such as Victor Hugo and Friedrich Schiller. Daniel Debs had also read aloud to his son from the works of such writers and instilled in his son a love for liberty and justice. Eugene Debs developed a special devotion for Victor Hugo and his famous novel Les Miserables.
Because of the low quality of local schools and out of a desire to contribute to the family income, Debs dropped out of school at age fifteen and went to work scraping paint in the trainyards of Terre Haute. Like his future friend James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet, Debs also became accomplished at creating and painting signs. Debs did many of these for free for his friends and neighbors.
After several years of scraping paint, cleaning off grease and performing other car cleaning work, he became a fireman—the locomotive worker who shovels coal into the engine to power the train–for nearly four years on the route from Terre Haute to Indianapolis. Debs’ mother always worried about the dangerous nature of his work, and when one of Debs’ railroad friends was killed on the track she prevailed upon him to take a job with a wholesale grocery firm owned by Herman Hulman, later a prominent Terre Haute businessman who donated land for what became the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
On February 27, 1875, five months before he left his job as fireman, Debs became both a charter member and secretary of the Vigo Lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. He worked for the union at night after leaving his fireman’s job and donated money from his grocery clerk’s salary to support the organization. Debs also became an associate editor and later chief editor of the National Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine. He became Grand Secretary of the Brotherhood in 1880. One year earlier Debs had been elected the City Clerk of Terre Haute, a position he would hold for two consecutive terms, followed by one term beginning in 1885 as a Democratic state representative for the district that included Terre Haute and Vigo County.
In addition to his union and civic duties, Debs was a figure in the cultural world of Terre Haute. For a while he was president of the city’s Occidental Literary Club. In this role Debs brought a number of famous cultural figures to Terre Haute, such as poet James Whitcomb Riley, freethinker and agnostic Colonel Robert Ingersoll and suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Riley became good friends with Debs and had his own guest room in the Debs home. Debs married Kate Metzel in 1885. She had been born into poverty, but her stepfather had made a fortune in real estate and drugstores. Debs and Kate moved into their new home in 1890. The marriage wouldn’t be easy given Debs’ long weeks away from the home, and the couple were also disappointed to discover that they were unable to have children.
Debs’ career had a more conservative cast to it at this time. He was averse to strikes and had worked within the system as City Clerk and as a state legislator. But already his progressive sympathies were in evidence. As City Clerk he refused to levy fines on women arrested for prostitution as police were not arresting pimps or customers. As noted earlier, he had long been a devoted reader of Victor Hugo. The renowned French novelist’s Les Miserables and its battle between Jean Valjean and the repressive Inspector Javert was a seminal text that helped shape Debs’ ideas about social justice. His time spent as legislator left him feeling that the state didn’t do enough to help working people.
In 1893 Debs organized America’s first industrial union—the American Railway Union. Previously unions had been organized along craft lines: separate unions for workers who performed specific tasks. Debs felt workers had to be organized across industries. In April of 1894 the American Railway Union struck against the Great Northern Railway, owned by the corporate baron James J. Hill. For eighteen days Great Northern cars came to a complete stop and the railway eventually agreed to the union’s demands.
But this victory for Debs and his men was short-lived. In May of the same year the ARU participated in a strike and boycott of the Pullman company. President Grover Cleveland took federal action against the strike and Debs and other union leaders were jailed on the complaint that they were impeding delivery of the U.S. mails. Debs ended up spending six months in jail. This was a turning point for Debs.
During this imprisonment Debs began to read widely in socialist literature. People across the country mailed Debs and his fellow leaders assorted books, tracts, and articles. Much of what he read appealed to him. Victor Berger, who edited a socialist newspaper in Milwaukee, also visited him and gave Debs a copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.
Debs found Marx tough going, but his own experiences and his conversations with men like Berger helped push Debs further to the left. Eugene Debs entered jail as a progressive citizen and union man; he left as a committed socialist.
Debs was now on a more radical course. On June 27, 1905, he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World—the IWW, also known as the Wobblies, a union later known for its radicalism and controversial tactics, including sabotage. The IWW would become legendary and earn a lasting place in American history, literature, music and folklore thanks to famous figures such as Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Wesley Everest, and its exploits and colorful figures found their way into the works of novelists such as John Dos Passos, Josephine Herbst, and Wallace Stegner. Poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Thomas McGrath and Allen Ginsburg also referenced the famous radical union in their work. The Socialists and the Wobblies would later part ways, but Debs maintained cordial relations with its leaders and members. Debs was known for his diplomatic talents, for his aversion to infighting and grandstanding and his desire to bring people together.
Throughout the early 1900s and early 1910s Debs promoted Socialism. In 1900 Debs ran as the Socialist party candidate for President of the United States for the first time. He ran again in 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. In 1912, during the famous race that included Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, Debs earned nearly six percent of the popular vote with 901, 551 votes, a record for the most votes for a Socialist candidate for President. His second highest vote count came in 1920 when he received 913, 693 votes, despite his incarceration in the Atlanta federal penitentiary. Debs took a break from Presidential politics in 1916 when he ran for Congress and lost.
Two years after that Congressional run Debs would find himself in his most serious struggle yet. On June 8, 1918, Debs gave a speech in Canton, Ohio that led to his eventual conviction under WWI anti-sedition laws. Debs spoke in general about war and how working class people often fight the wars overseen and created by elites. Federal agents were circulating through the crowd listening carefully to what he said.
Debs was arrested on June 30, 1918 and charged with ten counts of sedition. After a trial that autumn in which Debs acted in his own defense and gave two especially eloquent statements, he was sentenced on November 18, seven days after the Armistice, to ten years in prison. Debs was sent to the federal penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia on April 13, 1919, then transferred to Atlanta where he would serve the remainder of his term. A parade in Cleveland on May 1, 1919 protesting Debs’ imprisonment resulted in disorder, an event later known as the May Day Riots of 1919.
Attorney General Mitchell Palmer, although notorious for his attacks on dissenters, tried to persuade Woodrow Wilson towards clemency in Debs’ case, but Wilson refused to budge, stating Debs “was a traitor to his country.” It would be the next President, Warren Harding of Ohio, who would commute Debs’ sentence on December 23, 1921. Thousands of convicts cheered Debs as he left the prison. Harding had Debs call on him at the White House first before the labor leader returned home to a crowd of 50,000 awaiting his arrival.
Debs’ remaining years were quiet. For the most part the 1920s in the U.S. were a politically conservative period in which more radical changes were experienced in fashion, literature, the arts and cultural mores. It was only with the onset of the Great Depression that the dialogue about capitalism and its inherent structural injustices would resume on a broader scale. Debs suffered from heart trouble after his imprisonment and spent time in a sanitarium. He died at the Lindfahr Sanitarium in Elmhurst, Illinois on October 20, 1926.
The entire arc of Debs’ career—from his boyhood in Terre Haute to the days as union man and Socialist candidate for President–is captured in the rooms and artifacts that are part of the Debs home. The home is also a reminder that although Debs was a renowned labor leader and activist, he was also a man who enjoyed his friends, family and varied interests. Debs liked to hunt with his brother Theodore. He enjoyed jokes, bantering with his pal James Whitcomb Riley and entertaining the children of his relatives and friends. He read and wrote sentimental poetry, often composing verses for special occasions such as his parents’ golden wedding anniversary.
Visitors enter the house through the front entrance and are greeted with the sight of an elegant staircase. Near the bottom of the stairs is a foyer with Debs-related merchandise for sale. Here visitors pay the entrance fee and start their tours. Director Allison Duerk was at the helm that day and gave me an excellent tour of the home. The tour begins on the first floor with the front parlor area. This room has one of the house’s seven fireplaces.
There is a handsome bust of Debs on the fireplace mantle. Other items of interest are furniture, vases and a table, all of which were owned by Eugene and Katherine Debs. There is also a photo of Debs, his wife Katherine and nephew Howard Debs Selby taken in this room during the 1920s.
A reminder of Debs’ humble origins can be seen in a photograph of his Fourth Street birthplace in Terre Haute on a wall in the parlor. It was in this same home that Debs’ family began their grocery business that brought them some much-needed financial stability.
Adjoining the parlor is the library. The cherrywood bookcases and mantle are some of the many examples of beautiful woodwork in the Debs house. This room also features a bust of Debs made by sculptor Louis Mayer during Debs’ trial for sedition in 1918. Another copy of the bust is in the Smithsonian.
Another especially fascinating item in the library is a gorgeous table with inlaid wood made for Debs by a fellow convict from the Atlanta penitentiary. Debs met many men in prison he believed were there for crimes bred by conditions of poverty and social inequality, and he was respected by many of them. Thousands at the Atlanta Penitentiary cheered him when he was released. Debs’ only book, the posthumously published Walls and Bars (1927), was a compilation of columns he wrote during his confinement in Atlanta.
Debs was a voracious reader, and many of his books are now stored in a special collection at the Indiana State University Library along with thousands of pieces of Debs’ correspondence. Many of the books on display in the library were donated to the Foundation later. Of special interest here are signed copies of books by luminaries such as Sinclair Lewis, Emma Goldman and Upton Sinclair.
Next on the tour is the dining room, which features a mahogany dining room suite. Relatives of Eugene Debs in Texas donated this original furniture, which was returned to the Debs home in 1985 and refinished.
One highlight of the fireplace is the lovely blue Italian tiling.
The couple’s full set of Haviland china is also on display here.
There is also a buffet on display that belonged to Debs’ niece, but what is of special interest is the fancy coffeepot on top of it. This coffeepot was given to Debs from the Terre Haute Occidental Literary Society, the group Debs worked with to bring noted speakers to Terre Haute such as Robert Ingersoll and Susan B. Anthony.
The kitchen area has more of a homespun quality and evokes the early years of Debs and his family in Terre Haute. The kitchen table from his parents’ home is in the center of the room.
A photo of the Debs grocery hangs on one wall, and a wooden table from the store stands along another wall. Atop the table is a shelf filled with volumes of store account records.
A display case in the kitchen contains Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen ribbons and railroad artifacts, such as a coupling pin, along with a photo of Debs as a young man.
One of the oldest items in the room—and one of the most personal—is a highchair used by Eugene Debs and all five of his siblings. The chair is believed to date to 1853. Debs gave the highchair to a railroadman and supporter named Frank Nipple in 1910 when Nipple’s wife gave birth to a son. The Nipple family used it for decades and then donated it to the Debs home in February of 1976.
Another item from Debs’ childhood is on display here—an algebra book used by Debs in school. Below the book is a photocopy of some of Debs’ schoolwork scrawled inside the book.
The first charter for the Grand Lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in Vigo County, Indiana, which includes Terre Haute, hangs on the wall, as does another one actually signed by Debs. A sign made by Debs during his youth and featured earlier in this post is also on display.
A glass display case near the kitchen holds items donated from French relatives of the Debs family, along with a French flag owned by Debs’ parents. The case also contains a small-scale model of the Debs home, and some personal items that belonged to Debs—slippers, a wallet, razors and a brush.
At this point the tour continues upstairs. At the top of the stairs visitors see a sign that once hung in the Rand School of Social Science in New York City. The auditorium at this institution was dedicated to Debs. The sign reveals how much Debs meant to some: “This auditorium is dedicated to him who has dedicated his life and given his liberty to the working class; to the bravest heart, the noblest soul and most eloquent voice of the toiling men and women of America: Eugene Victor Debs.”
In an upstairs hallway are framed copies of award certificates given to those who received the Eugene Debs Award from the Eugene Debs Foundation. The framed documents are a roll call of noted liberal and progressive voices in the United States: Pete Seeger, John L. Lewis, Michael Harrington, Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Dorothy Day were all recipients of the award.
The house’s master bedroom is now known as the John L. Lewis Room. John L. Lewis was one of the great labor leaders of the twentieth century, the pugnacious leader of the United Mine Workers and founder of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Prominently displayed in this room are bound copies of the Appeal To Reason, a Socialist paper published out of Kansas. Debs served as an editor for the Appeal to Reason. In its time the Appeal To Reason was the most prominent Socialist publication in the United States and an outlet for writing by left wing figures such as Mother Jones, Jack London and Upton Sinclair.
This room also has a wooden desk used by Debs when he was briefly imprisoned in Moundsville, West Virginia in the spring of 1919 before being sent to Atlanta.
Display cases in the Lewis Bedroom include a set of playing cards featuring famous labor leaders, Debs’ pipe collection, a pipe rack that belong to Debs’ devoted brother Theodore and also the keys from both the cell block and the cell where Debs was imprisoned in Woodstock, Illinois following the Pullman strike in 1894.
What is also worth noting here is the importance of the Midwest in the progressive history of the United States. The heartland is often thought of, with good reason, as a politically conservative part of the country. That is an important part of its heritage. A Main Street kind of conservatism embodied by the traditional Republican farmer and small business owner is certainly part of the Midwest. Even labor leader John L. Lewis was a Republican. The Republican party was born in the heartland, and Lincoln, who spent much of his life in Illinois, was the first Republican President.
But the political history of the Midwest is not a blanket of one even color, but a patchwork quilt of many shades. What is not as generally well known today is that an interesting offshoot of the Republican presence in the Midwest is–or was– the liberal Republican, a virtually extinct species in our own time. Men such as Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and the famous editor William Allen White of Emporia, Kansas stood for a progressive Republican tradition that was a force during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. Robert Ingersoll, the controversial orator known for his freethinking and agnosticism who spoke to Debs and his fellow members of the Occidental Literary Society, was also a Republican.
This master bedroom of the Debs house reflects the more radical side of Midwestern history: Debs himself, Hoosier-born and bred; John L. Lewis, a fierce agitator in the cause of labor who was born in Iowa; and the Appeal to Reason, a socialist newspaper published in the heartland and founded by Julius Wayland of Versailles, Indiana. Liberal politicians from the Midwest, to name but a few, include people such as Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey, Brand Whitlock, John Peter Altgeld and William Jennings Bryan. Liberal Midwestern politicians of our own time include Congressman Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sherrod Brown of Ohio—all Democrats.
Next on the tour was the James Whitcomb Riley Bedroom. Riley has been a regular feature on this blog lately, and the day before I visited the Debs house I visited the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum in Greenfield, Indiana. So there was Riley again, who was a great friend of Debs, and such a regular visitor that he had his own bedroom in the house! The two men spent long hours talking and laughing together, and local children sometimes spilled into the house to see the beloved Hoosier poet. It wasn’t unusual for Riley to wake up and see a group of kids clustered at the foot of his bed.
One item I found of great interest on the second floor of the home is a large display case filled with campaign memorabilia and other political souvenirs. These items include buttons, stamps, pins, ribbons, and even a pennant for the Young People’s Socialist League.
In another case are books and pamphlets, including a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital, given to Debs and inscribed by the noted Wisonsin Socialist Victor Berger and a signed copy for Debs of Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman.
Among the campaign buttons on display is one for Debs’ run for President from prison in 1920: “For President Convict 9653.” Replicas of those buttons are for sale in the gift shop area by the stairs near the house’s entrance.
The study is also located on the second floor. This room boasts another blue tiled fireplace with another bust of Debs on the mantle. A display case in this room is devoted largely to Debs’ wife, Katherine Metzel. Debs’ wife has not always been treated fairly by some admirers of Debs or those who have written about him. A case in point is the novelist Irving Stone, who wrote one of his “biographical novels” about Katherine and called it An Adversary In The House. She has often been pictured as hostile to Debs’ career. This seems unjust. What is true is that she did come from a different social background than Debs. She kept records of his career, some of which are featured in the display case. She also seems to have been protective of Debs, who suffered from poor health later in life and was often on the road. Once he was back home she was not thrilled to have railroad buddies– who may have had a snootful or two on the way over–coming by the house and wanting to visit with Debs or take him out on the town.
Katherine Metzel wouldn’t be the first spouse of a famous person who was uncomfortable with the limelight. Debs was also controversial, and she likely felt some serious discomfort at the negative attention directed towards her husband. Seeing your spouse publicly vilified and jailed would take its toll, and could make someone want to keep a low profile. She seems to have loved Debs in her own way but not enjoyed his high profile status or long absences from home. She may also have been increasingly disconcerted by his more radical political views.
In addition to the material Katherine kept on Debs’ career, there is also a scrapbook belonging to Debs that records his visit to the poet Walt Whitman’s grave in Camden, New Jersey. It includes some pressed leaves from the cemetery.
Also in this area is a desk Debs used at the Socialist Party headquarters in Chicago.
Three framed items above the desk are, from left to right, a page from the publication called the Jewish Daily Forward published on the centennial of Debs’ birth in 1955, a “Socialist Almanack” calendar for 1913 and another page from the Jewish Daily Forward published after Debs died in 1926. The publication is still around and is known only as the Forward.
This study area contains another display case containing many items that belonged to Debs, such as penknives, letter openers, and an inkwell. There are also items that were on his person at the time of his death, such as coins and a ring with a dark red stone.
The last room visitors see on the second floor was originally a maid’s room, but it became a bedroom that Debs used, especially when he came back home late at night.
There are several pieces in this room that were in the office Debs and his brother had in downtown Terre Haute. They include a desk and also a secretary: a set of shelves for filing assorted documents.
The items in the case are exactly as they were when Debs died, and there is a package inside that has never been opened. The room also features a Remington typewriter, a table, and a wastebasket that belonged to Debs.
The Herman Hulman Auditorium is located on the third floor of the Debs house. Debs and his wife didn’t make much use of this space, and prior to the Foundation’s acquiring the home its most extensive use was as sleeping quarters for the fraternity boys. This room serves as a meeting space and is decorated with murals by the late Terre Haute artist, ISU professor and Foundation board member John Joseph Laska. The murals were begun in 1976 and completed in 1979. Anton Hulman, Jr. financed the refurbishing of the room in honor of his grandfather’s lifelong friendship with Eugene Debs. Anton Hulman, Jr. was a grandson of local businessman Herman Hulman, the man who hired Debs to work in his wholesale grocery after Debs left his fireman’s job. Debs’ connections with the Hulman family illustrate how Debs, despite his political views, still formed friendships with people of wealth and privilege who genuinely liked Debs and knew his heart was in the right place, even if some believed him misguided.
The murals depict not only the life of Debs but the times in which he lived, and they include other noted figures in the progressive American tradition, such as labor organizers Mother Jones and Joe Hill and suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Several writers who left their mark on Debs are featured as well: Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Tom Paine. One panel features Karl Marx, Debs, Norman Thomas, W.E.B DuBois, Dorothy Day, A Phillip Randolph and Walter Reuther. Walter Reuther can also be glimpsed among a group of workers along with Cesar Chavez and John L. Lewis.
The murals capture a variety of times in Debs’ life. Viewers see Debs as a schoolboy, as a teenager scraping paint off freight cars for the Vandalia railroad, as union leader and protester, as prisoner in the Atlanta penitentiary. Historical scenes that are part of the background of his life and times are also portrayed, such as Union soldiers traveling on trains through Terre Haute, a scene witnessed often by Debs in his boyhood.
A visit to the home should also include some time in the courtyard featuring memorials to prominent labor leaders. This is located behind the Debs house. A low brick wall surrounds the space. Mounted on the wall are plaques commemorating labor figures. Some are well known: Mother Jones, Samuel Gompers, and Walter Reuther. Others are lesser known but still important people in the history of American labor.
They include Peter J. McGuire, one of the America’s first prominent labor leaders; Scottish-born Philip Murray, a president of the United Steelworkers of America; and Sidney Hillman, President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America from 1914-1946 and a key figure in mobilizing labor support for President Franklin Roosevelt.
I spent some time in contemplation in this garden, thinking about Debs and the contributions all of these people have made to the cause of American labor. I thought of how many people died building this country and how many suffered injuries or saw people they cared about maimed or killed. I thought of the long hours countless millions have spent in factories, in shops, in foundries, mills and mines. I thought of my grandfather, an ironmolder who worked for decades in the heat and soot at the Cooper-Bessemer foundry in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and of an uncle who worked on the railroad.
I also found myself thinking of my own past. In the late nineties and early 2000s I made a number of trips to my mother’s hometown in Missouri during the summers to see relatives, do genealogical work and visit historic sites in Missouri and Arkansas. Most of those relatives are gone now, and the trips to Missouri are far less frequent. Terre Haute is a city that I always passed on the way out to Missouri, and I had long thought of stopping to see the Debs home. Now I was finally there, and I was deeply grateful to have seen it. The day before I was in Greenfield on the track of James Whitcomb Riley. After leaving the Debs home I spent much of the afternoon visiting the Terre Haute streets that novelist Theodore Dreiser called home. The next day I was on to Dana, Indiana to see the Ernie Pyle home and museum. Dreiser’s days in Terre Haute and the Ernie Pyle site will be featured here in 2018. If there’s one thing I love it’s traveling these Midwestern roads in search of this rich history.
Eugene Debs is an important figure in that history. He has experienced some renewed attention thanks to the Presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, but Debs deserves to be better known in his own right than as a sideline figure who surfaces because of one event. Debs fought all his life on behalf of working people, of children, of women. He paid a heavy price. He knew we could make a better world. That’s a struggle that is never ending, but one we must continue to wage, especially now, when so many aspects of our democracy are threatened.
The Eugene Debs House in Terre Haute, Indiana tells a story that more Americans need to hear. In the heartland of America, amid the roar of industry and the shriek of the railroad whistles, a man stepped up and stood up for what was best in the American dream. He was a gentle man, but this was a gentleness anchored in great strength, a strength threatening enough that it brought the full weight of authority down upon him, a strength that looked straight into the long and deep shadows of the prison and faced the judge and said:
“Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, 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 first want to acknowledge Allison Duerk, who gave me an excellent tour of the Debs Home. The Eugene V. Debs Foundation has excellent information on the home that has been helpful for me in composing this piece. They also have a virtual tour of the home and the labor leader memorials behind the house. Here is their site:
Eugene V. Debs: A Biography by Ray Ginger. Collier Books, New York, New York, 1962. Originally published as The Bending Cross, A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs in 1949.
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist by Nick Salvatore. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, Chicago, London. 1982.
Indiana: An Interpretation by John Bartlow Martin with an introduction by James H. Madison. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1992. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1947.
Wikipedia entry on Debs. A very solid piece of work.
The Great Political Theories, Volume 2: From Burke, Rousseau and Kant To Modern Times. Edited, With Introduction and Commentary by Michael Curtis. Avon Books (Harper Collins). 1962, 1981.
The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. Consultant Editor: Paul Kelly. DK Publishing: London, New York, Melbourne, Munich and Delhi. 2013.