Presidential elections are the ultimate expression in American freedom. The people have the ultimate power to shape the levers of power in this country as they see fit, deciding their future freely and openly by choosing from among them a free person to lead them.
But in one presidential election, a free person wasn’t on the ballot, but hundreds of thousands of people still chose him.
This is the forgotten history of the prison campaign.
Eugene V. Debs was a born rabble-rouser. After dropping out of school at 14 to work in the railroad industry, he became active in the growing organized labor movement and took part in the infamous Pullman Strike of 1894. Debs was sent to prison for his role in it, and while behind bars began reading the works of Marx and Engels.
Debs was fascinated by this new idea called socialism. After a jailhouse visit by Socialist Milwaukee newspaper publisher Victor Berger (a future Congressman), Debs was fully converted. As soon as he left prison, he dedicated his life to advancing socialist causes across the country and helped found the Socialist Party of America.
He rose through its ranks very quickly, as his penchant for rabble-rousing fit in perfectly with a movement that always teetered on the brink of dangerous insurrection. Debs also became what politicians call a “permanent candidate”—a man who ran for every race he could every single election.
He was the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1904 and actually received nearly three percent of the nation’s popular vote—a total of more than 400 thousand votes.
Four years later, he added an additional 20 thousand votes as the extreme fringe Socialist movement slowly gained traction.
In 1912, he chose as his running mate Emil Seidel—the mayor of Milwaukee who two years earlier became the first Socialist mayor in the nation—and more than doubled his vote total to 900 thousand votes; an alarming six percent of the total popular vote.
Debs’s health began to decline and he didn’t run in 1916, but he was still a rabble-rouser.
He turned his attention from advancing Socialist workers’ causes to opposing U.S. intervention in what was then known as The Great War in Europe. When America entered the war in 1917, Debs barnstormed the country and made speeches decrying this decision.
“The working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war,” he said during a particularly fiery speech in Ohio during the summer of 1918. “If war is right, let it be declared by the people – you, who have your lives to lose.”
Justice Department agents were in the crowd of 1,200 and a stenographer took notes on Debs’ speech, which led to his arrest for sedition two weeks later.
At Debs’ trial in Cleveland in September 1918, the prosecutor argued that Debs’ speech was “calculated to promote insubordination” and “propagate obstruction to the draft.” Debs’ lawyers conceded the facts of the case, and Debs spoke on his own behalf.
“I have been accused of having obstructed the war,” Debs told the jury. “I admit it. I abhor war. I would oppose the war if I stood alone.” He defended socialism as a moral movement, like the abolition of slavery decades before. “I believe in free speech, in war as well as in peace,” Debs declared. “If the Espionage Law stands, then the Constitution of the United States is dead.”
Debs was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison.
A quarter century after his first sentence, Debs found himself behind bars again. And again, he was motivated to act. He announced another run for president and campaigned entirely from his cell through weekly statements to the United Press wire service, which were printed in Socialist-leaning papers and new outlets who printed his updates as comic relief: A guy was actually campaigning for President from prison!
It was no joke. Eugene V. Debs, Convict Number 9653, got 3.5 percent of the vote in the 1920 election.
A year later, recognizing how unconstitutional Debs’ conviction was, President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence.
Harding loathed socialism, but he recognized the importance of free speech in a free republic, and freed other Socialists and anti-war activists who were imprisoned for things they said.
Debs’ health continued to fail after he left prison and he died in 1926, but his legacy lives on as the only candidate in American history to win nearly a million votes while campaigning entirely from prison.