Eugene Victor Debs: The Bending Cross

1284 Words 6 Pages
CHILDREN IN the United States are routinely taught that Abraham Lincoln of Illinois freed the slaves. But few children learn that Eugene Victor Debs of Indiana devoted his life to ending wage slavery. Ray Ginger’s wonderful biography of Debs—The Bending Cross—first published in 1949, and reprinted by Haymarket Books in 2007—introduces readers to a working-class hero as well as a period of immense struggle from below often treated as a footnote in most U. S. histories.

Some of Debs’ contemporary admirers compared him to Lincoln. John Swinton, after observing Debs address a capacity crowd in 1894, wrote in his weekly paper,

Debs in Cooper Union reminded me of Lincoln there. As Lincoln of Illinois became an efficient agent of freedom, so perchance
…show more content…
For example, in 1877 a strike wave hit the railroads and the mines—reaching insurrectionary levels in some places—after the bosses cut wages by 25 percent.

Eugene Debs grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, a town that served the corn-growing and hog-raising farmers and was tied by railroads to the Midwest industrial centers. Here he got his first job for the railroad painting signs, which put him in touch with an industry and way of life that soon captivated him. Shortly before Christmas in 1871, Debs got his big chance, replacing a drunken railroad fireman on the Indianapolis run.

Debs’ father, influenced by the French Revolution, read French and German classics to his children. Debs was named Eugene Victor after the French writers Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo. Debs’ favorite book was Hugo’s Les Misérables, which he read over and over throughout his life, both in French and English. The brutalization of poverty—the theme of Hugo’s masterpiece—was something he never forgot. Anecdotes about Debs’ personal sacrifices for the downtrodden reveal an inner character that is consistent with his public persona. For example, he once gave his only overcoat to a poor worker whose luck had run out. Often, after delivering an inspiring speech to a group of workers, Debs could be found in a local bar or café treating a worker or two to drinks and a

Related Documents