The 1904 Socialist Party Convention (18-22)


On May Day, 1904, Socialists from around the United States descended upon Chicago to hold their first quadrennial national convention, called for the purpose of nominating a ticket for President and Vice-President of the United States. As a nominating convention, there was little drama in the air — mainstream newspapers were unanimous in their belief that the nomination of Gene Debs for a second run for the presidency was a foredrawn conclusion. One or two papers did halfheartedly speculate that perhaps Los Angeles publisher Gaylord Wilshire might also be nominated.

While in the hours before the convention rumors began to circulate that Debs would once again play coy and decline the nomination, reality seems to have been less dramatic. A fairly straightforward nomination was made by Prof. George D. Herron and a unanimous decision rendered in favor of a ticket comprised of Debs and journalist and printer Ben Hanford of New York City.

•          •          •          •          •

The View from Milwaukee.

The Social Democratic Herald, edited in Milwaukee by newly elected city alderman Fred Heath, provided an excellent firsthand account of the festivities:


Brand’s Hall, located on the SE corner of Clark and Erie Streets, was said to be a cavernous room with terrible acoustics. In 1905 the building would also play host to the founding convention of the Industrial Workers of the World.

The national nominating convention of the Socialists of America … would have been practically perfect but for two things. One of these was the unfortunate selection of a hall. Brand’s Hall, on North Clark Street, is large and roomy and the location is not bad, but its acoustics are execrable — they could not well be worse, and this fact contributed greatly toward producing confusion and, at time, actual tumult. It was almost impossible to hear what the speakers were saying, and often when one delegate had the floor, his words were drowned by others calling out for the floor, in blissful ignorance that anyone already had it.

The other factor making for confusion was the altogether well meant work of the Appeal to Reason, of Girard, Kansas, in publishing a daily edition at the convention containing a stenographic report of most of the speeches. The effect of this was soon seen in the scramble of the ambitious among the newer Socialists in attendance to get the floor on the slightest pretext, in order to get themselves into the proceedings and hence into the Appeal’s report….

As a result of these two things that we have pointed out, the convention was almost constantly in uproar and the sessions were dragged out and time wasted, so that a convention that could have easily finished up its business in four days at the most, kept the delegates in attendance for full six days, and that, too, under heavy personal expense.

… The convention brought together a remarkably fine body of intellectual men and women, averaging high above the usual conventions of a national character. Every delegate was a student of society, and it was to be noted that the Utopian “skyentific” phrase-monger was, happily, not in evidence. The debates were all keen and creditable — only there was an over-plus of a good thing. The convention was called for business, not personal display.

It was clear that time had healed all wounds between the former Chicago and Springfield SDP organizations, with Heath enthusiastic about the New York delegation, comprised of the heaviest hitters of the former Springfield party’s batting order:

The New York delegation was a bunch of thoroughbreds, if we may be permitted the expression. There was Dr. [George] Herron and Morris Hillquit; and [Frank] Sieverman, who not only carried off the chairmanship honors of the convention, but contributed one of the very best speeches in the trade union debate; there was Editor [John] Spargo of The Comrade, who possesses a style of speaking that is very effective in a convention…; there was Editor [Algernon] Lee of the New York Worker, who deservedly made many friends; and then Ben Hanford, [Alexander] Jonas, [Henry] Slobodin, [Otto] Wegener, and the rest of them. They took good Socialist ground on the propositions that came up, as, indeed, they ought to, being seasoned men in the movement. (Source: “Lights and Shadows of the Chicago Convention,” Social Democratic Herald, May 14, 1904, pg. 4.)

•          •          •          •          •


A Chicago photographer sold frameable 14 x 17 inch prints of the delegates for a dollar.

The Rowdy Red West.


Debs was nominated for President at the May 1904 SPA convention in Chicago by Rev. George D. Herron. On the first day of the previous month Herron had visited Terre Haute, giving a speech to local Socialists at their city nominating convention, held in the Debs house. (Syndicated drawing from Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, May 11, 1904, pg. 3.)

This is not to say that everything was placid at the 1904 convention. J.H. Walsh, editor and publisher of the Lewiston Montana News and a delegate to the Chicago convention, provided a glimpse of the backstage politics:

The convention had on its floors nearly every nationality in the civilized world, which showed strongly its international scope….

In fact there were some 230 delegates on the floor composed of lawyers, ministers, priests, printers, editors, businessmen, laborers, engineers, machinists, shoemakers, artists, farmers, etc., etc., without end. A large majority of the convention were American born while about 50 were foreign born….

Woodbey the colored Socialist from California, who wrote the book What To Do and How to Do It, was there and claimed to have been sent to give the convention color. The noted Japanese Socialist speaker, Katayama, now touring this country, delivered a short address at the banquet Sunday night the 1st….

Every question was thrashed out before a vote was taken. Two questions of importance arose — the trade union resolutions and the report of the committee on state and municipal program, [which was] to govern or act as a guide to Socialists elected on state or municipal tickets. The program was referred to the National Committee to boil down and revise, and then to be submitted to the membership for a referendum vote.

J.H. Walsh of Montana introduced a substitute for the whole lengthy report for the committee on program, which precipitated a fight that lasted all one day, but which showed conclusively that the convention was quite strong with sentimentalists, while all the Western delegates were for the substitute and showed themselves to be revolutionary to the core; also were the old SLP people noticed in this move as they lined up on the vote as well as speeches with the Western comrades.

The report of the committee was a lengthy document containing numerous contradictions etc., while the substitute simply suggested that in state or municipal elections where Socialists get elected, that they shall be guided in all their legislative acts by this: Is this law in the interest of the laboring class? If so I am for it, if not I am against it….

The radicals, as they might be called, desired to leave the trade union question alone, while the intellectuals and sentimentalists desired to throw them a little sop in the way of a pet resolution. This was adopted by a large vote…

•          •          •          •          •

Victor Berger Weighs In.


Newspaper engraving of Debs used during the 1904 campaign. The hairline indicates that an earlier photograph was used as the model.

Never one who was afraid to speak his mind, Victor Berger weighed in on the recently completed 1904 Socialist Party convention from the opposite factional angle with a front page editorial in the May 21 issue of his Social Democratic Herald. Berger hailed the fact that, unlike previous conventions of the Socialist Labor Party, the convention of the SPA was “American by a large majority,” although acknowledging that it included a larger contingent of “German and Jewish elements” than did the previous conventions of the Social Democratic Party with headquarters in Chicago.

Berger did not fail to note the factional split, however, charging:

A decided disadvantage were the half-baked ex-Populist elements from the Far West, who, while very little acquainted with Socialism, posed as extreme “radicals;” banded together with a few Chicago “impossibilists” — former DeLeonites — they formed a strange conglomeration.

The peculiar specialty of these new members is their fight against all so-called “immediate demands.” They want the Cooperative Commonwealth at once and they want it complete without racking their poor brains as to just what the “complete commonwealth” means.

Berger, the king of practical, street-level politics, was adement in his opposition to impossibilism, declaring that “to reject a working program altogether is to reject all political activity, and then there is no need of a political party at all.”

Berger noted that while the 1904 platform was “virtually the same as that of former years,” nevertheless significant changes were made to the organization’s structure, with the replacement of the geographically-based National Quorum with a National Executive Committee to be chosen by the delegated meeting of the National Committee at its annual session. No change was made to the SPA’s “brotherly attitude” towards the existing trade union movement, despite the efforts of the impossibilist left wing to harden the party’s stance.

Berger also groused about the “wretched acoustics” of the convention facility as well as a tedious pace of proceedings, which he attributed to a lack of a businesslike attitude by some delegates, who felt the convention to be “a sort of holiday outing.”

Berger hailed the ticket of Debs and the former Springfield SDP activist Ben Hanford, declaring that “a better choice could not have been made.” (Source: Victor L. Berger, “The National Convention,” SD Herald, May 21, 1904, pg. 1.)

•          •          •          •          •

Debs and Hanford nominated (art) -

Journalist Ben Hanford of New York was nominated for the first of two times for Vice President of the United States by the 1904 convention.

On the Socialist Party’s left wing, the selection of Debs and Hanford was also met with satisfaction, with Montana editor J.H. Walsh almost embarrassingly enthusiastic. He wrote:

Eugene V. Debs is one of the most unique figures in American public life; a man who is true to the class to which he belongs and who has sacrificed his youth, energy, and ambition struggling for the industrial emancipation of the workers is the Socialist candidate for President. Well known as an aggressive worker in the people’s cause, the great ARU strike left him the most noted labor leader in the country.

Offered $50,000 to call the strike off he indignantly kicked the would-be briber out of the room. His honesty and aggressive, fearless policy in conducting the strike reduced the capitalists to the last extremity…

Debs could neither be bought nor frightened so our enemies, the rich, placed him in prison. During this imprisonment he studied the Socialist philosophy, and since that time has been an active worker in the Socialist ranks. The majority of the people are as yet ignorant of the ethical beauty and material advantage of Socialism, but the labors of such men as Debs have removed a great mass of ignorant prejudice concerning our movement….

Living in an age notoriously corrupt, when the idol of success is made of gold and every crime is lauded in a captain of industry; when the majority of the press, churches, and colleges teach the love of gold as superior to all else, teach it by practice, if not by precept; when the alleged rights of property are used as an excuse for wanton extortion, Debs has proved himself superior to all debasing surroundings, fearless in fighting for liberty. He towers above the petty politicians of the old parties

“As some tall cliff that lifts its awful form,
“Swells from the vale, and midway leaves the storm,
“Though round its breast the rolling clouds are spread,
“Eternal sunshine settles on its head.”

(Source: J.H. Walsh, “Our Nominee,” Montana News, May 11, 1904, pg. 2.)

In Walsh’s words one sees further growth of the Legend of the Great Debs, the Incorruptible Proletarian, with a legend of a mythical $50,000 bribe that was rejected and intimation that Debs’s imprisonment — which happened months after the collapse of the 1894 Pullman strike — was a necessary expedient to end the railroad shutdown.

Debs was clearly a unifying element within the American socialist movement. That the movement was in need of such unification seems equally axiomatic.



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

  • “As to True Brotherhood: An Open Letter to the United Brotherhood of Railway Employees” — Dec. 5, 1903 — 1,042 words
  • “Why Peabodyism Exists” — Feb. 13, 1904 — 1,422 words
  • “The Coal Strike Surrender” — March 31, 1904 — 1,130 words
  • “Darrow, Hearst, and the Democrats” — April 1, 1904 — 835 words
  • “Our First National Campaign: Interview with the Terre Haute Sunday Tribune” — May 15, 1904 — 753 words
  • “The Overmastering Passion for Profit” — May 28, 1904 — 468 words
  • “To the Seattle Socialist and Its Readers” — July 10, 1904 — 1,203 words

Word count: 229,358 in the can + 6,863 this week = 236,221 words total.


The above material — along with fairly vast numbers of other Debs speeches and articles — is available for free download via Marxists Internet Archive <>


About carrite

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