The Snap Convention of January 1901.
The November 1900 elections represented the proverbial half-filled glass to the American socialist movement. On the one hand, the vote tally for Debs and the joint Social Democratic Party ticket, nearly 100,000 ballots actually counted, represented a marked increase over the totals generated by any socialist campaign of the past. On the other hand, the ticket of Debs and Harriman had failed miserably in such natural centers for the party as New York and Pennsylvania and had finished far short of every modest expectation for the campaign.
During the campaign, while the officialdom of the Chicago SDP stewed over their shotgun marriage with their upstart counterparts in Springfield, the rank and file of the rival organizations had joined hands in common electoral work, undercutting the anti-unity perspective of the Chicago National Executive Board and its aggressively anti-Springfield party editor A.S. Edwards. In the aftermath, when the Chicago officialdom began to cast blame on their east coast counterparts for the weak showing of the SDP ticket, the rank and file appears to have been unmoved.
Acting in accord with a plan put in place during the fall campaign, the Chicago NEB called a snap convention of the organization for January 15, 1901. The ostensible purpose of the gathering, at least according to a cover story seeded to the press, was that the election of new officers was needed.
Indeed, a new 9 member National Executive Board was due to be elected in accord with the constitution which had been overwhelmingly passed the previous June, replacing the 5 member Chicago-Milwaukee body with a larger and more geographically diverse set of officers.
As a matter of fact, however, nominations for this new NEB had been already been conducted over the course of many weeks via nominations made by local branches of the party. A sufficiently massive list of candidates already existed and there was no practical reason for the holding of a costly and cumbersome physical convention to select these candidates — a referendum vote would have sufficed.
The ulterior motive for the convention, it would seem, was factional — a last ditch effort to staunch the rank-and-file drive towards unification of the two rival Social Democratic Parties by bringing the True Blue together in the urban center of their fief, Chicago. Faced with a growing “unity from below” through joint efforts between the rival organizations in a wide range of states, the convention marked a final effort for the Chicago leadership to undercut the national unity drive and to restore its own sovereign authority. Debs himself made mention of a plan for a “special convention within 30 days after election” in a November letter to Theodore, alluding to some sort of clearly factionalist “line of action” that had been “confidentially communicated” to the Chicago NEB’s supporters in the East. (Source: EVD to Theodore Debs, Nov. 9, 1900, Letters of Eugene V. Debs, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155.)
Lamentably, there is virtually no Debs correspondence from 1900 or 1901 to shed further light upon his evolving views on party unity. We have only his anti-unity public statements from the spring, a temperate letter to NEB member Frederick Heath from August in which Debs upbraided the “fanatics” on both sides of the unity question (closely followed by his own declination for reelection to the Chicago NEB), and the scoffing and sputtering letter to his brother Theodore mentioned above, written days after the shattering November electoral defeat. In this crucial communication Eugene had expressed surprise in fellow NEB member Seymour Stedman’s intimation that “we may have something to do with other factions [i.e. the Springfield SDP]” and that “if there is any attempt to harmonize or placate, count me out.”
Did he follow through on this threat?
• • • • •
The Mystery of the Missing Scrapbook.
The year 1901 was absolutely pivotal in American socialist history — the year of the founding of the Socialist Party of America. Imagine my surprise to discover that Gene and Theodore’s meticulous scrapbooks of newspaper accounts of the activities of the Terre Haute orator, the Social Democratic Party, and the news of the day that Debs found to be important and worth preserving are nowhere to be found. After years of devoted scrapbooking and newspaper preservation that can only be described as “archival,” the spigot of fastidiously preserved publications abruptly shuts off.
My initial idea was that the material for 1901 was included in a scrapbook which was filmed and preserved out of sequence on the 21 reels of Papers of Eugene V. Debs microfilm. In an effort to test this theory, I invested a number of hours of spinning as yet unexplored reels out of sequence trying to find the missing 1901 fare. Despite my best efforts, I have as of this writing found no evidence whatsoever that the “lost non-sequential volume” theory has any basis in fact.
While it is hard to prove a negative proposition, one thing has become increasingly clear: There simply was no 1901 scrapbook. The Debs brothers went on intellectual hiatus.
From 1902 onward scrapbooks resumed and important newspaper pages were again saved, to be sure, although more haphazardly, catch-as-catch-can, with many years of clippings mishmashed into multiple volumes. But there is nothing, nothing at all, for the year 1901.
• • • • •
Jumping ahead with the story a little bit…
With the above in mind, ponder these words published in 1953 by Howard H. Quint, an excellent historian, in his book The Forging of American Socialism: Origins of the Modern Movement:
Illness in the family prevented Debs from attending the unity convention when it opened as scheduled on July 29  at the Indianapolis Masonic Hall. Sicknesses seemingly had a habit of coming to Debs or his family when unpleasantries at socialist gatherings threatened to develop. But an impressive total of 128 delegates from 20 states and Puerto Rico were on hand…
Representatives of the Springfield faction were in the majority, with 72 delegates holding 5,155 [proxy] votes. The Chicago group had 49 delegates with 1,403 [proxy] votes. Seven “independents,” claiming 382 votes, were also present. The convention was dominated by lawyers, editors, and writers. Representatives of the laboring class, as such, were almost distinguished by their absence. Likewise, the foreign-born element was definitely in the minority. * * *
The Indianapolis Journal, expecting to find visible evidence of the internecine socialist fight at the convention, was astounded to note the “warm feeling” which members of the Springfield and Chicago factions showed toward each other. It also noted that there was no separate seating of the two groups. The debates, moreover, were to disclose that both sides were in a mood to compromise…. The recriminations and personal vendettas which had appeared in the Social Democratic Herald and The People had no place on the convention floor. The whole issue of socialist unity was hardly discussed because it was, from the first, assumed. (Source: Howard Quint, The Forging of American Socialism, pp. 377-378.)
So it is clear that by the time of the Summer 1901 Joint Unity Convention, there had been a geological shift of ideas; unity was already assumed. In some places unity was already achieved in practice. In the city of Chicago itself, for example, ground zero of the Chicago NEB, rank-and-file activists had held their own snap convention immediately after the November election, joining forces under a “General Committee of the Socialist Party.”
The ostensibly dominant Chicago SDP — which only shortly before proudly trumpeted a circulation of 8,000 for its party organ and intimated a paid membership of only slightly less than this number — had in actuality fallen into distinct minority status vis-a-vis pro-unity Springfield. Victor Berger and Corinne Brown and Margaret Haile moved from a position of patent opposition to unity to a tactic of building a form of decentralized unity that they could live with, knowing full well they retained the future opportunity to torpedo any form of unity which they found untenable.
Meanwhile Debs, the demigod and founder of the Chicago faction, using the excuse of family illness (his wife, mother, and mother-in-law all sick, he said), had made himself conspicuously absent from the triumphant unity proceedings, unable to make it from Terre Haute to Indianapolis for even a single day of the four day event.
Again, those words: “If there is any attempt to harmonize or placate, count me out.”
• • • • •
The plot thickens…
The first thing I do when I take on a new year for the Debs Selected Works is closely examine the material for the year in my database of Debs’s published works — which currently sits at 3,918 pieces. There are “big” years and “light” years for Debs to be sure: 1894 was massive, as was 1895; so was 1897. The years 1896, 1899, and 1900? Not so much. But even those paltry totals eclipse Debs’s sparse output of 1901.
So what was there produced by Debs in that year? An obituary for Martin Irons. A courtesy note to Gaylord Wilshire thanking him for a copy of a new magazine, a response which was published by that great self-promoter in order name-drop, I am sure. A reprint of a short excerpt of an old speech made in St. Louis. Some back-and-forth with the Indianapolis press over the legacy of the late Benjamin Harrison, one of Debs’s least favorite people. Some replowing of old fields with respect to the sanctimonious library-builder, Andrew Carnegie, another member of EVD’s list of Enemies of the People.
Not a single major speech was made by Debs until one delivered to a SDP picnic in Chicago on the 4th of July. He also made another major speech for Labor Day in the town of Nashville, Illinois — speaking to a crowd larger than the community’s total population of about 2,200 — which was apparently not transcribed. He finally went on tour again in October, keeping ahead of the weather.
There was exactly one article about the unity question and the forthcoming convention was published in June, a positive enough piece which declared:
The convention for unifying socialists and converting jarring factions into a united party is now a certainty…. [T]he very fact that the convention was agreed to by practical unanimity would seem to indicate that the separate columns are ready to unite into a grand army, and that henceforth factional strife is to be silenced and the combined resources of the party are to be brought into concerted action upon the enemy.
After the unity convention that he pointedly missed, another positive article appeared cheering the provisions for “state autonomy” and pronouncing the move of the new united organization to St. Louis and the leadership of Leon Greenbaum (a former Springfield SDP adherent) as positive events — and endorsing ratification of the convention’s results by the self-liquidating membership of the Chicago SDP.
But beyond that, both public speaking and writing dwindled appreciably.
Gene Debs had effectively curtailed his political activity.
• • • • •
The Snap Convention of January 1901, redux.
The convention was called to order at Aldine Hall, located at 77 Randolph Street in Chicago, on Jan. 15, 1901. Seymour Stedman of the National Executive Board called the gathering to order was chosen as temporary secretary. Margaret Haile of Massachusetts, a fierce opponent of unity with the Springfield SDP, was elected temporary secretary of the gathering. Eugene Debs was in attendance as a delegate. The first day’s session was occupied with routine business. An estimated 200 people were in attendance. (Source: Wire report, Ottawa Daily Republic, Jan. 16, 1901, pg. 4.)
The tone was immediately set with the reading of a message from the Springfield SDP protesting the holding of the gathering. It was moved that the communique be returned to Springfield without action, but at the suggestion of Debs a committee of 16 on organization was elected, with Seymour Stedman the chair and including Debs, Margaret Haile, and Victor Berger, as well as Frederic MacCartney, George Strobell, G.C. Clemens, and a smatter of lesser luminaries from around the country.
Corrine Brown of the NEB read the report of the committee, which lambasted the Springfield SDP, calling it a “narrow, stagnating set which harassed and obstructed in the hope of ruining the party.” The evening session was occupied with committee meetings, with the chairs including Victor Berger (Platform), Margaret Haile (Constitution), Victor Berger (Publications), Frank Roderus of Illinois (Resolutions), and E. Ziegler of Wisconsin (Finance). (Source: “Debs for Harmony,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Jan. 16, 1901, pg. 5.)
There’s only one direct Debs quotation from the floor of the convention that I’ve located, and it makes clear that he was no gushing pro-unity enthusiast. In the debate on a motion to return unanswered an “objectionable” communication to Springfield, one which questioned the motives of the Chicago NEB behind the January snap convention, Debs declared:
While my personal feeling is such as would warrant me in voting for the resolution, yet in a convention of this sort I am the last man who will deny any man or men a fair hearing. If the “kangaroos” desire harmony, as they profess to do, why do they insult us in this manner? I am in favor of having the committee on resolutions give this letter the most considerate attention, but in their reply, let it be made manifest who is seeking to disrupt the socialistic movement in this country.
Last summer I accepted the nomination for the office of President at their hands in the interests of harmony, because I felt it my duty to accept it. My experiences after that time were most humiliating. Instead of the expected harmony we took into our midst a lot of hissing snakes. However, for the sake of our principles I propose that every effort shall be made to conciliate the factions now at variance.
January 17, the third day of the convention, was the most explosive day of the conclave. Delegates were divided between pro- and anti-unity perspectives and several competing strategic plans were vetted, amidst speeches that were both lengthy and heated. Former Populist G.C. Clemens of Kansas, an advocate of unity, called for a convention of all socialists, to be held before July 4, with the results of the gathering to be put to the membership of the party in a referendum vote. Debs was the proposer of a greatly similar convention plan, albeit one which favored formal alliance (i.e. political fusion), in the course of the debate making clear his opposition to organic unity and desire to preserve the Chicago SDP as an independent organization. Another approach was offered by George Strobell of New Jersey, which would place the future of the party directly in the hands of a National Committee, with no provision made for a unity convention.
The situation was tense, with two delegates who differed on the unity question at one point coming to blows on the convention floor. Both were separated by their friends before serious damage could be done. During the protracted debate Debs was accused by one Illinois delegate of having “changed his views” on the unity question by allowing a final test of the issue at a convention, with the delegate likening the competing convention proposals to a choice between two ropes with which the party was to hang itself. (Source: “Fists on the Floor,” Chicago Inter Ocean, Jan. 18, 1901, pg. 4.)
On January 18, the fourth and final day of the convention, a modified version of the Debs plan was passed by the Chicago gathering, calling for a convention of all socialists to be held in Indianapolis, opening the second Tuesday of September 1901. Results of this unity conclave were to thereafter be submitted to the participating organizations for ratification by Jan. 1, 1902. (Source: Wire report, Indianapolis Journal, Jan. 19, 1901, pg. 1.)
This approach was a grudging acknowledgement that a unity convention was coming in 1901, with or without the participation of the Chicago SDP as an organization. By taking the initiative of issuing their own convention call, the Chicago administration was able to set certain terms for their participation, preserving a back door option to sabotage any result they disliked, controlling as they did the did the party press and having already demonstrated the ability to manipulate party opinion enough to swing a referendum vote.
Beyond the rough details above, as reported in the mainstream press, coverage of the January 1901 convention remains extremely sketchy. The conclave was completely ignored by the Workers’ Call, the weekly newspaper of the Springfield SDP in Chicago, which instead of offering critical convention coverage chose to run a “Special Labor Issue” of the paper in the week following the gathering. Nor did editor A.M. Simons deign to mention the Chicago convention in the next issue of his paper, instead running a coy front page “Socialist Pointer,” to wit: “Don’t worry about union; as the rank and file favor union, it is only a question of time.” This was followed by an if-the-shoe-fits-wear-it aphorism seemingly directed at the Chicago officialdom in an oblique manner: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly. Send him some literature and he may get over it.” (Source: Workers’ Call, Jan. 26, 1901, pg. 1.)
With no Debs scrapbooks preserving such accounts of the gathering made by the friendly press in such rare publications as the Chicago Chronicle, and no published stenographic report of the proceedings, sourcing remains meager indeed.
No Debs letters exist sharing his views of the situation facing the Chicago organization in the run up to the summer Joint Unity Convention with the “hissing snakes” of the Springfield SDP. Morris Hillquit’s 1903 History of Socialism in the United States doesn’t even mention that a convention even took place in Chicago in January 1901!
Historians Kipnis and Quint do their best to tell the story, but large pieces of the puzzle inevitably remain missing. I can’t help but think there’s a good account of the gathering out there somewhere, but thus far it has not emerged.
The story of the socialist politics of 1901 remains but a partially told tale.
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 11 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “Aims and Objects of the Social Democratic Party” — Nov. 3, 1899 — 801 words
- “Letter to Frederic Heath in Milwaukee” [excerpt] — Aug. 6, 1900 — 387 words
- “Three Classes, Three Parties: Campaign Speech in Cincinnati, Ohio” — Oct. 4, 1900 — 2,411 words
- “Convention Statement on Proposed Unity with the Springfield SDP” — Jan. 15, 1901 — 305 words
- “Schwab’s Silly Advice” — March 31, 1901 — 264 words
- “Socialists Who Would Emasculate Socialism” — April 20, 1901 — 1,529 words
- “The July Convention” — June 15, 1901 — 691 words
- “The Mission of Socialism is as Wide as the World: Speech to a Socialist Picnic, Hoerdt’s Park, Chicago” — July 4, 1901 — 4,844 words
- “Telegrams to the Joint Unity Convention Founding the Socialist Party of America” — July 29 & 30, 1901 — 170 words
- “‘They May Shelve Me If They Like’ : Statement to the Philadelphia Times”
— July 30, 1901 — 313 words
- “The Indianapolis Convention” — Aug. 6, 1901 — 704 words
- “Statement to the Press on the Shooting of President William McKinley” — Sept. 7, 1901 — 639 words
- “The War for Freedom” — Dec. 11, 1901 — 814 words
Word count: 156,473 in the can + 13,493 this week = 169,966 words total.
I also typed up for background a 450 word document detailing the referendum questions on unity polled by the Springfield SDP in December 1900; an 800 word convention call and cover letter from Theodore Debs of the Chicago SDP to William Butscher of the Springfield SPD, as well as an 875 replay and set of ratified resolutions.
I also typed up a 1,400 word piece by Morris Hillquit written on the even of the Socialist Unity Convention that will be used in a future book project. I am pretty sure that I will be moving to Hillquit after Debs.