Frenemies: The 1900 Social Democratic campaign (18-13)


The Socialist Soap Opera revisited…

The March 1900 national convention of the Social Democratic Party had nominated a ticket of Eugene V. Debs and Job Harriman for the November Presidential campaign, the latter having formerly been the Presidential nominee of the January 1900 convention of the dissident Socialist Labor Party’s convention in Rochester, New York. It seemed at the time that organic unity between the two groups would follow immediately thereafter. Instead, an orchestrated campaign by SDP leaders had sunk the Joint Unity Committee’s proposal before it had even been properly made.

The snap referendum killing organizational merger had been viewed as an illegal action by the majority of the SDP’s Joint Unity Committee, and together with their SLP counterparts the merger process had been carried through to completion — an action which the SDP leadership and a majority of the organization’s rank-and-file had themselves considered illegal.

The chief complaint of the notorious “Manifesto of the National Executive Board” which had started the internecine war was that the SLP dissidents had duplicitously refused to accept the name “Social Democratic Party” for the merged organization — a red herring for the actual complaints of the Chicago-based organization, which involved headquarters city and the related matter of party leadership, and official publication of the joint organization. When the SLP dissidents and the pro-unity elements of the SDP with whom they joined immediately liquidated the so-called party name controversy by christening themselves the “Social Democratic Party,” with new headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts, another round of wailing was emitted from Chicago…

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Saber-rattling in Chicago.


Theodore Debs (1864-1945) was Executive Secretary of the Chicago SPD and one of Gene Debs’s closest political friends.

National Secretary Theodore Debs issued an “Official Notice” to Chicago SDP members in the name of the National Executive Board on August 20 noting that his brother the Presidential nominee had “accepted the nomination by another party and subjected himself to severe criticism…in the interest of political harmony and socialist success.” No merger of the two groups was in the offing, the younger Debs insisted, with the Chicago SDP opposing any unity based upon “the surrender of our party to the dominant element of an SLP faction with whom we have neither desire nor ambition to cope in party trickery and sharp practice.”

Even now, the SLP dissidents were “secretly stabbing our candidate for President and among themselves expressing the hope that he will not get a large vote,” the National Secretary of the Chicago SDP darkly warned. A conspiracy was at work against the Chicago faithful:

Where their “organizers” failed to inveigle our branches into their fold, and they are failing almost everywhere, they advised them to “withhold dues from all parties” until union is affected. Comrades, this is another trick of theirs to destroy our party. They hope to cut off our revenue and compel our surrender. This is not a time for any loyal branch to be neutral.

…If you think they are right, we say join them and support them. If you believe we are right, it is your duty to stand by our party and support it. *  *  *

Our party is going to the front… It is a party that cannot be transferred from Chicago to a town in New England without the consent of its members. *  *  *  We are confident that the few wavering branches, temporarily misled, will now promptly and emphatically prove their loyalty by their support of the party…   (Source: Theodore Debs, “Official Notice,” SD Herald, Aug. 25, 1900, pg. 3.)

Despite the warlike official rhetoric, the iron logic of the joint ticket in the fall campaign pushed the Chicago and Springfield parties into collaboration. On August 26 a joint meeting was held in Chicago in an attempt to organize a joint effort in Cook County for the fall campaign. The two organizations, joined by other political groups from the city, agreed upon unified action with “not a single dissenting vote being heard.” A joint county ticket, already nominated on the Fourth of July, was re-endorsed and a 21 member Cook Country Campaign Committee elected, including 7 members of the Chicago SDP, 7 members of the Springfield SDP (still called the “Socialist Labor Party” in the SDP’s press), and 7 members of other organizations represented at the convention, such as the Workmen’s Sick and Death Benefit Association, the Cigarmakers’ Union, the Turners’ Society, the Lassalle Club, and Socialist Sangerbund, among others. (Source: “Political Union is Effected in Illinois,” SD Herald, Sept. 1, 1900, pg. 3.)

This united front activity was even cheered by A.S. Edwards, long a unity opponent, in a Social Democratic Herald editorial, with congratulations offered “all comrades and friends, irrespective of individual affiliations, upon this most happy outcome of the situation in Illinois.” (Source: “The Illinois Situation,” SD Herald, Sept. 1, 1900, pg. 2.)

The situation remained tense, but common action continued, powered by the needs of the moment and the desires of rank-and-file activists.`

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The Massachusetts Split.

Massachusetts-cartoon-991223-smIn Massachusetts the joint state convention of the SDP and the SLP dissidents (Springfield SDP) on July 8, 1900, had elected a new State Committee dominated by the latter faction. Former State Secretary Margaret Haile seems to have played a key role in organizing a formal split of the newly merged organization, which she depicted a new governing organization of “loyal branches” acting in “protest against the corrupt methods by which a few have attempted to override the decision of the majority of the party and against the degradation of the sacred cause of socialism.”

At the heart of Haile’s complaint was slate voting for the State Central Committee at the convention and a subsequent circular letter offering the exchange of state charters, as well as direction of the proceeds from the sales of dues stamps from the Chicago headquarters, headed by Theodore Debs, to the new Springfield Headquarters, headed by William Butscher.

The split convention was called by the Rockland and Whitman branches of the Massachusetts party and was held on Sunday, September 2, just 10 days after the convention call was issued. According to Haile there were 23 branches represented at the gathering, with another 9 unable to send a delegate but allegedly supporting the new organizational initiative.  The gathering elected a 9 member Central Committee for the faction, which included most notably Rep. F.O. MacCartney, Mayor Charles H. Coulter, and Haile herself.

S.E. Putney, new Massachusetts State Secretary, was in attendance, where he made the claim that the previous quarter’s dues had been paid to Chicago rather than Springfield, while acknowledging that future money would be directed to Springfield, despite his personal objection to the change. Despite the division, Haile and her shadow Central Committee buried the hatchet by passing a resolution reaffirming their support for the Debs/Harriman joint national ticket as well as supporting the Massachusetts mixed slate of candidates nominated in Boston on July 8. (Source: Margaret Haile, “Massachusetts’ Loyal Branches Heard From,” SD Herald, Sept. 15, 1900, pg. 3.)

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The Haverhill Defeat.


The Haverhill SDP maintained a weekly newspaper. Only two copies of the microfilm exist but my friend Marty Goodman is in the process of digitizing one of them for the world. 

The Haverhill organization, headed by two-term Mayor John C. Chase, was the crown jewel of the Springfield SDP. When in the election of November 1900 Chase was defeated in his bid for reelection, as were two socialist alderman seeking another term, the Chicago SDP crowed about the result. They were bolstered in their smugness upon learning of the  reelection of Brockton Mayor Charles H. Coulter by a plurality of 35 votes in a three-way race.

Elizabeth H. Thomas, recently of Haverhill and future top political associate of Milwaukee publisher and party boss Victor L. Berger had no doubt as to the cause of the massive setback:

The most flourishing branch, if it is cut from the parent tree, withers in a few hours. The sturdiest arm, if amputated from the body, loses its strength forever.

One year ago the whole Social Democratic Party stood behind the comrades of Haverhill. From Wisconsin, from New York, from the most widely scattered places, contributions poured into the campaign fund, till it reached over $1,200. *  *  *

But in 1900 Haverhill saw fit to cut herself off from all these sources of moral and material aid. By severing her connection with the Social Democratic Party she asserted her ability to rely on her own resources, with such little assistance as she might receive from the small body at Springfield, with which she allied herself. The result has been disastrous for her and needs no comment. (Source: E.H.T., “The Haverhill Defeat,” SD Herald, Dec. 15, 1900, pg. 4.)

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The Debs Debacle.


An unusual newspaper engraving of EVD, from the Barre Telegram, March 7, 1900.

John C. Chase was not the only Social Democrat who failed to meet expectations in the November 1900 election. Although Gene Debs was consistently an upbeat “glass half full” sort of guy, no amount of happy talk and spin could disguise the fact that he and his beloved SDP had been delivered a severe rebuke at the polls. Crowds had clambered to hear him during the six week campaign of whistle stops and two hour long evening lectures — halls were filled to capacity, hundreds turned away, and the level of enthusiasm high. Yet, when the smoke of battle lifted and the ballots were counted (or not counted, as some contended), the results were extremely poor in key electoral districts.

Debs was handed a most humiliating loss, collecting a mere 12,869 votes in New York state, versus 12,622 for Joseph F. Maloney, an unknown machinist from Massachusetts who stood as the candidate of the DeLeonist Socialist Labor Party. (Source: SD Herald, Dec. 22, 1900, pg. 4, quoting the official count of the New York State Board of Canvassers.)

In Massachusetts the Debs/Harriman ticket ran more than 3,500 votes behind the SDP’s candidate for Governor and failed to match the total delivered for any candidate on the statewide ticket. (Source: SD Herald, Dec. 22, 1900, pg. 4.)

Blaming the distraction associated with the split of the Springfield SDP for the poor showing of the Social Democratic Party in the election of 1900 was diversion for party members looking to avert their eyes from the thrashing. Debs was bitter. Immediately after the close of the election he wrote his best friend and political confidante, his brother Theodore:

Thus closes the campaign — and the results show that we got everything except votes.

I am serene for two reasons:

1st. I did the very best I could for the party that nominated me and for it s principles.

2nd. The working class will get in full measure what they voted for.

And so we begin the campaign for 1904. (Source: EVD to TD, Nov. 9, 1900, Letters of Eugene V. Debs, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155.)

With respect to the question of party unity, Debs was even more aggravated, commenting:

I am surprised at [NEB member and close ally Seymour] Stedman’s intimation that we may have something to do with the other factions. Great heavens, haven’t we got enough?

If there is any attempt to harmonize or placate, count me out. We must go forward on our own lines and those who don’t choose to fall in need not do so. There must be no wobbling at this time.

I thought our plan of action was clearly understood and now I am overwhelmed with pleas to attend a conference etc etc etc etc.

Hell! Don’t we know what we want? Or are we crazy?

We held a deliberate board meeting and went over the whole ground in detail and agreed to call a special convention within 30 days after election. I wrote the call and mailed it to you. Stedman should have written [George D.] Herron all about it as he agreed to do. We could all reach Chicago 2 or 3 days before convention and then hold the conference, but I don’t see the necessity of a conference now and a convention in 3 weeks….

I am well and in good spirits, but 30 hours a day for 6 weeks has told on me and I’m run down. I’ll not go to Chicago, nor attend any conference till I’m rested. I would not be fit for service in my present condition. If the convention has been called off I feel as if I ought to pull out and let the whole thing go and attend to my own business, but I won’t. I’ll stick to the party, through the gates of hell, till it stands on rock and defies the thunderbolts of Jove. (Source: Ibid.)

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Chicago Unionist campaign of 1900.


Algie M. Simons (1870-1950), editor of the dissident SLP/Springfield SDP weekly The Workers’ Call. Simons was also the first editor of the International Socialist Review.

The so-called “Unionists” of the Springfield SDP spearheaded a drive for a united Social Democratic ticket for the spring elections in 1901, holding a nominating convention on December 15, promoted by Algie M. Simons and his Chicago weekly, The Workers’ Call. The Chicago “Unionists” sought to run their joint slate under a new moniker now that the fall election was over, fielding their candidates under the name “Socialist Party.”

Predictably, the Chicago leadership group unleashed a barrage against the unification effort,  with Social Democratic Herald editor A.S. Edwards accusing the “revolutionary” socialists (scare quotes were his) of having “slipped a cog somewhere in their deliberations” in deleting any municipal ownership plank from their platform.

“A party that refuses to adopt in its program of immediate political demands one declaring for socialization of that large class of public utilities operated for private profit in cities…is neither a socialist nor a revolutionary party,” Edwards scolded. (Source: “Confusion Among Unionists,” SD Herald, Dec. 29, 1900, pg. 2.) 

Even before unification, the outlines of conflict in the early Socialist Party over the desirability and limits of a minimum program had already begun to emerge.

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A Tidbit about Party logos.


This button was made for the Milwaukee SDP for the 1900 fall campaign.

The shaking hands superimposed over a globe motif was first used as the “national emblem” of the Social Democratic Party of America in October 1900, published for the first time in the Social Democratic Herald issue of Oct. 27, 1900, pg. 2. The design was created by the National Campaign Committee for use in the Debs/Harriman campaign. It should be noted was the emblem of the Chicago SDP, not its Springfield-based counterpart.

The “Social Democratic Party” buttons featuring a red flag design were created by the Milwaukee local branch of the SDP for the 1900 campaign. They were sold at the price of 2 buttons for a nickel. (Source: “Notes from the Field,” SD Herald, Oct. 27, 1900, pg. 4.)

The SDP published a series of six campaign leaflets out of the national office in Chicago.

No. 1 — Address to Unorganized Socialists.

No. 2 — An Open Letter to the Average American Workingman.

No. 3 — Machine Production, Where Profits Go.

No. 4 — Toilers of America, Vote for Your Freedom.

No. 5 — Industrial Crises — Cause and Cure.

No. 6. — Platform and Debs Epigrams.

They also produced a pamphlet featuring the initial speech of the 1900 campaign by Debs, delivered in Chicago on Sept. 29, 1900 and another speech by Rev. George D. Herron made at that same campaign event.

The SDP in Chicago produced their own four page leaflet for the campaign that was distributed nationally through the National Office.

All of this ephemera is hella rare or lost to history.



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 13 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “Prospects of the SDP: Interview with the Haverhill Social Democrat” — Nov. 27, 1899 — 852 words
  • “The Haverhill Municipal Campaign: Speech in Haverhill, Mass.” — Nov. 27, 1899 — 5,985 words [full version, replacing an earlier excerpt version]
  • “Warning Notice” — Sept. 21, 1900 — 426 words
  • “The Downfall of Capitalism” — Sept. 29, 1900 — 283 words
  • “The Democratic Party Will Not Deceive and Destroy the Social Democratic Party“ —Sept. 29, 1900 — 569 words
  • “You Are Doomed to Be a Sorely Disappointed Man” : Letter to Samuel M. Jones” — Oct. 8, 1900 — 1,174 words
  • “A Final Word” — Nov. 3, 1900 — 824 words
  • “The Republican Party Continues in Power” — Nov. 7, 1900 — 199 words
  • “Martin Irons, Martyr” — Dec. 9, 1900 — 941 words

Word count: 140,672 in the can + 10,061 this week = 150,733 words total

I also typed up for background a number of long documents on the SLP split of July 1899: a 2,100 word exchange of letters between SLP Organizer Lazarus Abelson and dissident SLP leader Morris Hillquit from June 1899; a 2,800 word announcement from July 1899 on the effort of the dissidents to overthrow DeLeon, Kuhn, Vogt & Co. by Henry Slobodin, the acting National Executive Secretary of the dissidents; and a 2,600 word account of the battle between July 8 and 10, 1899 published by the dissidents in their official organ shortly thereafter.


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 body of work…


About carrite

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