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Darrow, Debs, and the 1894 Pullman Strike

Clarence Darrow and Eugene Debs had a lot in common. Most importantly, they both became radicalized by the 1894 Chicago Strike, often called the Pullman Strike. In July 1894, the workers, who belonged to the American Railway Union at the Pullman Company and who made luxury passenger cars, went on strike to protest large wage cuts. Shortly after the conflict began, violence and mayhem broke out. To restore order, President Grover Cleveland sent in National Guard soldiers, who broke the strike and arrested the union’s leaders including Eugene Debs. Darrow was moved by the events, which he thought was an attack on American rights. As he wrote in late 1894 to his friend, the radical reformer Henry Demarest Lloyd, “Do you know that they are making history very fast in America, and all the history is against freedom? Can anything be done to [stop] them before liberty is dead?” He continued, “I am very much discouraged at the prospect. . . . What can be done?” What he did was to join Debs’s legal defense team. They did not win, but the case compelled Darrow to give up a life of luxury and become, as Lincoln Steffens called him, the “attorney for the damned,” defending unionists, the poor, and the downtrodden.

Like Darrow, Debs too was transformed by the 1894 Pullman Strike. In the famous document, “How I Became a Socialist” (1902), he explained that the strike, his arrest, and his incarceration pushed him toward Socialism. Moreover, Debs maintained that the strike became the lifeblood of the movement. “It lives and pulsates in the Socialist movement,” he wrote, “and its defeat but blazed the way to economic freedom and hastened the dawn of human brotherhood.” Building that brotherhood and challenging the elite were lifelong projects of both Debs and Darrow.

Editor’s note: Andrew E. Kersten is a historian at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. His latest book is Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclast. He blogs at Clarence Darrow, American Iconoclasts, and Modern Politics. He invites readers to friend him on Facebook.

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