The Progressive Party platform in the 1912 presidential campaign called for a number of social reforms. These reforms were radical enough that they infringed upon the platform of the Socialist Party, causing their candidate, Eugene Debs, some concern. Debs feared that Theodore Roosevelt would take votes away from the Socialist Party this time around. This was Debs’ fourth of five campaigns for United States president, having run in 1900, 1904, and 1908 prior to the 1912 election. Debs’ final campaign, in 1920, was actually conducted from a prison cell, where he had been placed for speaking out against World War I.
Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, and he grew up with an understanding of labor problems. His family was not wealthy, and his father moved from job to job throughout Debs’ youth. Eugene joined the American Railway Union after working on the railway as a young man, and he was sent to prison for his involvement in the Pullman strike of 1894. This imprisonment marked a turning point in his life, as it transformed him from a moderate labor advocate into a radical. After William Jennings Bryan lost the presidential election in 1896, Debs gave up on the Democratic Party and joined the Socialist Party.
Debs quickly became the most visible member of the Socialist Party, giving a multitude of popular speeches throughout the nation during each campaign. He traveled on a small railroad train that was nicknamed the “Red Special.” At each stop, Debs drew enormous crowds, even though the Socialist Party charged admission for his speeches.
Merely recognizing a fact, January 18, 1911. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Unfortunately for Debs, his popularity as a speaker did not translate into votes at the ballot box. The presidential race of 1912 was his most successful yet the Socialist Party won just 6% of the popular vote.
Freeberg, Ernest. Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Chace, James. 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—the Election that Changed the Country. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004.