Earnest (18-07)


I read dozens of accounts of speeches by Debs, newspaper reports of public events made by friends, foes, and indifferent others. No matter who is writing what, one adjective comes up again and again with respect to Debs’s performance style — “earnest.”

Debs was not an explosive, dramatic orator, the consensus indicates. He was rather a skilled craftsman in the art of public speaking. Debs was nimble tongued and eloquent, intelligent and entertaining, with a strong and steady voice that was able to fill a room and hold the close interest of hundreds of spectators for speeches that ran for two hours or more.

Debs also expressed himself with his hands. Comments upon that are frequent and newspaper illustrations almost always make that clear.

Here’s the Newburyport [MA] Morning Herald for November 4, 1898, the morning after a speech at the town’s City Hall:

“Mr. Debs is a tall, lanky Hoosier with a face and glasses which give a strong suggestion of the late Bill Nye. His face glows with kindness and has the earnestness of an enthusiast.”


EVD’s physical similarity to humorist Bill Nye (1850-1896) was a frequent observation by those reviewing Debs speeches in the 1890s.

That’s the sort of review that recurs again and again: Debs looked like popular humorist Bill Nye. He was the possessor of a sort of charismatic kindness. He was not an inflammatory public speaker, but instead was well-spoken, emotionally measured, and very, very earnest.

And here is another perspective, this from the Springfield [OH] Daily Democrat of Feb. 21, 1899:

“Debs is tall, slim, angular, and even grotesque in appearance. In his gesticulations and manner of delivery he is not unlike [dialect poet] James Whicomb Riley. He talks earnestly, forcefully, and at times quite rapidly. He is not radical or anarchistic in his utterances, but instead is plain, rational, logical, and coolheaded. He talks not only interestingly but graphically. He is fluent, his word pictures are faultless, his epigrams plain and pointed and some even startling.”

A rival newspaper, the Springfield Republic-Times, editorialized about the same speech:

“A man terribly in earnest, and impressing one as having a mission, clean cut as to both figure and speech; a student of conditions and with a marvelous ability to marshal facts together in an argument; a man from the common ranks and evidently intended by nature as a leader…; a man whom the whole country has already heard from, and no doubt, will again; a man evidently sincere and with a desire for the elevation of man and the amelioration of the hard social and industrial conditions of the day; an agitator who does not seem to be a ranter, but practical, evidently honest, and willing to concede sincerity of opinion to others who may not agree with him; a polished speaker, and a man moved by deep convictions — all of this, Eugene V. Debs impresses his hearers as being.”

There’s that e-word, again and again and again. Earnest.

•          •          •          •          •

Every once in a while I run into something in the contemporary press that is so cray-cray that it makes me shake my head. This piece from the June 30, 1898 issue of the Woodstock Sentinel — neighborhood newspaper of good ol’ Woodstock Jail in McHenry County, Illinois — is one such example.


This imaginative polemical writing exhibits a propaganda-over-facts ethic on a par with today’s Breitbart or Fox News… Let us enumerate the misrepresentations:

(1) The split of the Social Democracy of America had nothing at all to do with Debs; it was rather a split over the fundamental strategy of the organization, a division between Utopian Socialist colonizationists and a group of European-influenced International Socialist political actionists (including contingents of emigré Germans from Milwaukee and St. Louis and East European Jews from New York City). Debs cast his lot with the latter, to be sure, but was not even present at the meeting that established the new party.

(2) Debs showed zero desire to be an “absolute leader and dictator” at any point in the process. Rather he saw his role as more akin to something like “official spokesman, moral leader, and economic prophet.” If he was consistent about anything, it was in managing to become incapacitated by sickness at a pivotal moment and to thereby neatly abdicate all responsibility for the split, leaving the political machinations for others.

(3) There was never at any point a “socialistic colony in Oregon” that was part of the prodigious series of crackpot schemes of the colonizationists, who sought, in order: a series of colonies in Washington, a railroad scheme in Tennessee, a colony in Tennessee funded by a massive sale of bonds backed by the value of land being purchased, a Colorado gold mine financed by the value of metal to be mined in the future, and a single Washington colony. In the midst of this wild year of dreaming they also explored time-consuming suggestions to establish socialist colonies in Georgia, Colorado, and Utah — which only helped to further muddy the waters. But Oregon? No.

(4) “Prosperity has returned” ….. “Destroying the government” ….. “Glorious war that compels the admiration and support of every patriotic American.”  No comment necessary…

•          •          •          •          •          

Here’s veteran labor journalist Joseph R. Buchanan — former publisher of the Denver Labor Enquirer and Chicago Labor Enquirer —  writing at the end of June 1898 on the internal contradictions within the Social Democracy of America that led to its implosion at its first national convention:


Joseph R. Buchanan (1851-19XX)

As will be seen, politics and political agitation will hereafter figure only incidentally in the program of the Social Democracy. It had been better for the movement, in the past as in the future, had it always steered clear of politics — as an organization. The recent political campaign it took part in at Milwaukee [1897 city elections under the SDA banner] had more than any other thing to do with the split which took place at Chicago. An organization which asks the financial support of all well-disposed persons in an effort to establish an industrial enterprise must not either ally itself with an existing political party or attempt to form a new one. A cooperative movement such as the Social Democracy from its incipiency aspired to establish must be without politics — in a party sense.

All this and in detailed reasoning was laid before Debs by one of his best friends, one whose advice I thought he valued, while the Social Democracy was less than a month old. As I remember it, he was told that the well to do, from whom must come the greater part of the funds to establish such a cooperative scheme as he proposed, would not give of their means to aid in the formation of a political party. There were many rich men who sympathized with the poor and who gave liberally to charitable institutions and who would be willing, under proper guarantee, to donate to any practicable scheme that had for its object the establishment of colonies or other cooperative enterprises which would relieve the congestion of the labor centers and give the helpless poor a chance to help themselves. Hundreds of thousands of dollars could have been raised on these lines, and Debs was the man to raise them. Notwithstanding the misrepresentations and vilifications of the plutocratic press the thoughtful and generous people of the country knew and know today that there never was a dishonest drop of blood in Eugene Debs’ veins and that he is brainy and courageous. But when these men understood that the purpose was to colonize a state, capture its political machinery, and substitute socialism for the existing system they would not give up a cent.    *     *     *

While philanthropically inclined, these men are not ready to surrender their notions about government along with their gifts of money to help the victims of the errors in our system. I am not going to argue the question or whether their notions are sound or not. I am only pointing out facts and their relation to the ways and means problem of a large cooperative enterprise.

There are hundreds of millionaires in this country who would like to do something to permanently benefit the poor. They say, “If the unemployed would only go on the land, they could make a good living for themselves and assist those who did not go by relieving the congestion in the wage labor market.” We know that money is required to establish men on the land, and these millionaires — or some of them — would give of their means to put men to work for themselves. Some say the millionaires would be glad of such a safety valve to relieve the tension which makes them uneasy and fearful of consequences. But when they are asked to finance a movement that is intended to overthrow “the existing order” and establish socialism as a state institution they are not disposed to jump from the frying pan into the fire….

One thing is certain, and that is that the large sum of money necessary to float the great cooperative ship designed by the Social Democracy could not be raised from among the working classes. The rich would not furnish it, and I am of the opinion that Debs’ friend was right.


Back cover of the 1899 Debs pamphlet Prison Labor. Joseph Buchanan called the SDP a “new political movement that is trying to hover around [Debs’] name and fame.”

Buchanan also perceptively observes the narrow ideological window — bracketed by the electorally-driven agrarian populism of the People’s Party to its right and the ultra-orthodox Revolutionary Marxism of the Socialist Labor Party to its left — into which the new Social Democratic Party of America was attempting to wedge itself:

And Debs is not dead yet, not by a long shot. When he has regained the strength he laid so freely on the altar of oppressed labor, when he has recuperated and is again fit to buckle on the armor, you will see him  in the front rank battling against the hosts of plutocracy, fighting, as only he can fight, where the struggle is the fiercest. He won’t fool away much if any time on the new political movement that is trying to hover around his name and fame. He’ll see, if he hasn’t already seen, that if he wants a political party he can find it either in the People’s Party or the Socialist Labor Party; that there isn’t any use trying just now to split in between those two organizations. In any event, the labor movement needs the services of Eugene Debs, and, while it is to be regretted that he has separated from his old associates, there is a work for him to do, and I believe he will do it.




The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 19 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Martyred Apostles of Labor” — February 1898 — 1,811 words
  • “Comments on the War at the Opening of the First National Convention of the Social Democracy” — June 7, 1898 — 451 words
  • “‘The Dollar Counts for Everything’ : Speech in Springfield, Massachusetts” — Oct. 23, 1898 — 2,506 words
  • “‘In the West Discontent is Widespread’: Interview with the Manchester Daily Mirror” — Nov. 1, 1898 — 805 words
  • “Territorial Expansion” — Dec. 13, 1898 — 305 words
  • “Prison Labor: Its Effect on Industry and Trade” — March 21, 1899 — 4,540 words

Total Words this week: 10,113  *******************  Total Words to date: 83,925

I also typed up for background a 1,250 word “Manifesto of the Social Democracy of America to the American People,” passed by the National Committee of the SDA in the aftermath of the split of the political actionists in June 1898, as well as a 1,600 word piece by veteran labor journalist Joseph R. Buchanan explaining the split of the SDA to the readers of a labor newspaper, some of which appears above. I also laid another 1,000 words or so into a draft introduction.

THE BIGGEST REPOSITORY OF DEBS MATERIAL ON THE INTERNET is located at Marxists Internet Archive, curated by David Walters. Here’s the link if you want to track down an article or explore the Debs corpus of work…


philpott★ My knowledge of the labor wars of the American mining industry going into this project was fairly minimal. I had four or five books on the shelves, but nothing to which I paid any significant attention. Given Debs’ intimate association with the series of strikes in the American mining industry during the the 1897 to 1904 time period, however, it quickly became clear to me that  a crash course had to begin.

The first of these strikes, as you may recall from the Feb. 16 Debs blog, was the Leadville, Colorado silver strike of 1896-97, conducted by the Cloud City Miners’ Union (CCMU), an affiliate of the Western Federation of Miners.

This bitter battle is well covered in this slim volume by William Philpott, The Lessons of Leadville (Colorado Historical Society, 1994). Working from the handicap of no surviving archive of the CCMU, Philpott ably reconstructs the battle over wages and union recognition against an organized mine owners’ association and argues that the union’s loss in the struggle was a foundational event in the radicalization of the Western Federation of Miners — one of the primary constituencies a decade later in the establishment of the Industrial Workers of the World.

schiavo★ Leaving no stone unturned in my effort to come up with an accurate scholarly body count for the 1897 Lattimer Massacre, I managed to track down a copy of a book that is showing in a grand total of zero WorldCat libraries — The Lattimer Massacre Trial, edited by Pasco L. Schiavo (Dorrence Publishing, 2015). This large format book is interesting for what it is, a chronological scrapbook of clippings from the local press detailing the trial of Luzerne Co. Sheriff James Martin and his 72 man posse for murder, which took place from February 2 to March 9, 1898.

In his extremely short introduction local historian Schiavo notes that since the original trial transcripts have been lost, these journalistic accounts are all that remain for specialists wishing to learn more about the events of September 10, 1897 as revealed in the trial.

One wishes that Schiavo did a better job making sure photocopied columns of type were laid out in more perfect manner (there are several pretty much inexcusable gaps and misplaced sections of print) and that attributions were provided listing precise newspaper name, date, and page for each clip. His reproductions of newspaper columns (microfilm printout that was subsequently cut-and-pasted) are fortunately quite legible. A collage of press drawings which fills the closing pages of the 132-page book, while of low resolution, are nevertheless useful.

Schiavo’s own body count for the massacre follows the indictment for the trial, which included 18 counts of murder and 38 counts of felonious wounding. The actual trial was for a single count of murder in the case of Mike Cheslak. Following acquittal the prosecution did not pursue costly new trials on the other counts. Alleged witnesses laid on layers of hysterical testimony about how violent and terrorizing the 300 or so striking immigrant miners were. Fact is, after reading this newspaper coverage it becomes really clear that the prosecution never once would have gotten a conviction in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania — it would have been zero times out of eighteen.

There were too many defendants being charged and Hazelton was a small town.

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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