This Man Ran for President from Prison…and People Still Voted for Him

Cambridge University Press

There has never been an actual member of the Socialist Party to be elected to the White House, and only twice has one of their members sat in the House of Representatives. The original Socialist Party dissolved in 1972, and while it was reconstituted in early 2017, it is nowhere near where it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Socialist party itself was founded in 1901, but was the combination of three other socialist political organizations that had been put together in the 19th century.

Despite its lack of success on the national level, the Socialist Party was able to make a name for itself. One of, if not the most famous Socialists of all time is a man named Eugene V. Debs.

The reason why the Socialist Party was influential at all in the early 20th century is because of the push for labor equality and the ability of workers to Unionize.

The ability to strike and negotiate for better wages and working conditions is a struggle that was fierce for most of the 60 years following the Civil War. Debs got his start in politics by working with several different unions, he was even the leader of several unions throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s.

He was instrumental in founding the American Railway Union in 1893, and is considered one of the United States first industrial unions. After growing the union, he helped organized the Pullman Strike of 1894 when 250,000 railway worker refused to work on trains that pulled Pullman cars. Pullman made palace cars that were used for passenger transport, and they were very popular.

The courts ruled that the┬ástrike was illegal, and Grover Cleveland, the President at the time, used the Army to break up the strike. Eugene Debs was arrested and convicted for defying the court’s orders, and he ended up serving six months in prison. It would not be the last time he would spend time in jail, but we’ll get to that.

Debs
Debs campaign poster. History

Because of his popularity with the Unions, and his organization of several socialist groups, including the Socialist Party of America, Debs was a prime candidate for running for higher public office under the Socialist umbrella.

During his political career, Debs ran for President five times.

  • In 1900, he earned 0.63 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1904, he earned 2.98 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1908, he earned 2.83 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1912, he had his best showing and earned 5.99 percent of the popular vote.
  • In 1920, he ran for the last time and received 3.41 percent of the popular vote.

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