Those who write about history — historians — are generally not satisfied unless they make a unique mark upon their subject, either uncovering new facts to tell a story in a new way, or reinterpreting old facts to provide a fresh telling of a seemingly familiar tale. That’s pretty much the point of the exercise: everyone has slightly different interests and fascinations, and the way humans see their past inevitably evolves over time.
There is no such thing as “definitive” history — there is always something new to be found, or new ways to look at old things. One could easily fill an entire bookshelf with tomes about Abraham Lincoln or the Bolshevik Revolution or the Great Depression or D-Day and no two books out of hundreds on these big subjects would be precisely the same in their presentation or interpretation of facts, nor should they be.
Eugene V. Debs and his Socialist Party is a pretty big topic, albeit not quite as large, the subject of several shelves of books — including, by my count, more than twenty biographies or monographs dealing wholly or in very large measure with the man himself.
Despite this, there remains plenty of new evidence to be found about Debs as well as ample room for analysis and reinterpretation of some of the documented facts already in evidence.
One of the biggest “blank spots” that I have identified is coverage of Debs’s specific activities as a touring lecturer and political orator. While every biographer has noted that he toured and spoke, only one paid much attention at all to where he did it and when (Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, 1982), and even that book is extremely spotty and dodges entire years.
There is much to be learned about Debs by taking a close look at not only what he said, but where he said it and when. With nearly half a billion pages of newspapers now digitized and online and searchable, this is extremely fruitful new ground to be plowed.
Details of the travels of Debs is a topic of great interest to me and absolutely will figure in the approximately 90,000 words that I have to tell the Debs story in my own way in six book introductions. While articles on this topic might seem boring to you, the handful of long-suffering readers of this blog, they are important my tale, and I once again beg your indulgence.
• • • • •
As we have seen, after Gene Debs left his position as secretary-treasurer and magazine editor of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen he made his living — a comfortable, middle class living — as a professional orator.
In the days before radio and television, public lectures and debates represented not only discourse and the exchange of ideas, but collective entertainment. People have always been willing to pay to be entertained, and public oratory was no exception. Vaudeville was an entire industry built upon gathering large audiences to pay similarly modest entrance fees to see singers or dancers or acrobats or comedians perform in rapid succession. Those 25 cent admissions added up.
Debs was a skilled craftsman of the spoken word, able to gather large crowds of hundreds or even thousands and to hold an audience’s rapt attention for two full hours. Debs spoke extemporaneously — he didn’t read notes. He recited a similar tale differently each night from memory, speaking intensely, fluidly, earnestly, and eloquently without employing the transparent tricks of political oratory — cheap applause lines for conventional patriotic platitudes. He challenged his audiences.
Debs was good at what he did, one of the best public speakers in the country. He was also a speaker with a purpose, a socialist missionary to small town America.
• • • • •
It should also be mentioned here that Debs was also — simultaneously and independently — a political opinion writer and commentator on public events. He was not a theoretician, but rather an analyst of issues and events who sought to inspire and motivate. This work he did pro bono, at least through 1906. His audience for the written word, generally speaking, was not the general public but rather fellow believers in the socialist cause.
We still don’t know precisely how many dates Debs spoke each year. That number eventually may be calculable, if half a billion pages of digitized newspapers to search ever becomes five billion. We can speak in round numbers: Debs spoke perhaps 100 nights a year, plus-or-minus 50. But no matter the exact number of times he took the stage in front of a rapt audience, there remained plenty of time to think and write in the endless hours on the road aboard trains from Point A to Point B.
He certainly did not focus upon crafting great prose. Much of what he wrote was terse and loosely structured, particularly one-off pieces for fledgling socialist publications begging for a few words written especially for them. He was prone to sloganeering rather than story-telling. He clearly did not enjoy writing as a craft the way he surely enjoyed the art of oratory.
Debs’s written manuscripts, with only one or two exceptions, have not survived. He did not type, at least through 1906, but made frequent use of the abilities of those who did.
As he did not write a memoir and his surviving correspondence is sparse, historians attempting to really understand Debs necessarily must read the tea leaves — where he went, when he went, to whom he spoke, what he spoke upon, for whom he wrote, when he wrote, what he wrote…
The story is there, but it must be deduced.
• • • • •
MICHIGAN TOUR: Debs opened up 1906 with a short tour of Michigan in January. There are at least three confirmed evenings filled, Benton Harbor on Sunday the 7th speaking on “Social Problems,” Dowagiac on the 8th, and Detroit on Thursday the 11th with “Social Revolution” as his theme — with the blank gap implying at least five Michigan dates were actually filled, along, perhaps with others later in the week.
The Dowagiac News was enthusiastic, lauding Debs for delivering a speech “absolutely free from anything that could be considered as abuse.” The review continued:
His choice of language was beautiful and faultless, his passages at times sublime. Words slipped from tongue into sentences of perfect English. It can truly be called a masterpiece of its kind.(fn. Dowagiac News, Jan. 9, 1906.)
The NORTH CAROLINA TOUR started on January 21 when he hit the road for North Carolina. He began in Asheville on Tuesday the 23rd, speaking for 90 minutes as part of the town’s “Lyceum Lecture Course.” Thereafter he lectured in Salisbury, Winston (twice), and Greensboro — seemingly using the title “Socialism” each night.
In Greensboro on Saturday the 27th, Debs was introduced by a local minister and was very well received, with the religious aspect of Debs’s message given large play in one local paper the next day:
Mr. Debs’ speech, at the last analysis, had not a word in it that was not placed there in the service of love and humanitarianism, and that did not make a plea for the “brotherly love” for the continuance of which St. Paul agitated so strongly. Mr. Debs has all the natural eloquence of a man who has an unselfish purpose and a heart great enough to carry it on in the face of opposition, discouragement, and repeated defeat. (fn. Greensboro Industrial News, Jan. 28, 1906, p. 6.)
According to an interview given in Indianapolis at the start of this tour, Debs was then planning on heading north to Pennsylvania and New York, before crossing into Canada — a rather strange itinerary for the dead of winter, but there you go. It is known that he spoke for more than two hours in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania on January 29 and in Jamestown, New York at the Samuel Opera House on February 1.
There follows a nearly three week gap in the currently available record before Debs reappears on the radar in Austin, Minnesota on February 20. There he delivered what seems to have been a very typical lecture on “The Great Struggle,” with his performance generating a review that uses versions of the word “earnest” twice in three sentences:
A tense, nervous speaker, never hesitating for a word, wasting no time on the ornamentation nor the frills of oratory, [Debs] sends his message home with a directness and earnestness which marks all great speakers if not all great men. He lacks neither wit nor logic. However one may differ from him in theory or belief, one must be impressed with his sturdy manhood, fighting a hard and earnest battle for what he believes is right. (fn. Austin Daily Herald, vol. 18, no. 44 (Feb. 21, 1906), p. 2.)
Was he in Canada in the interim? Perhaps, although no newspaper reports confirming his presence have surfaced. Or did he return home before starting a third distinct tour in Minnesota? This also remains a possibility.
• • • • •
The Arrest of the WFM Leaders
The arrests of Western Federation of Miners officials Charles H. Moyer, William D. Haywood, and George H. Pettibone for “suspected complicity” in the December 1905 assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg came the night of Saturday, February 17, 1906. The next day it was national news as first reports burned up the wires. By that time, the trio were already spirited away to Boise pending trial, getting them out of Colorado and into Idaho before government offices and courts opened on Monday. Published word of that stealthy and illegal transfer would break on Monday, February 19.
These were personal friends of Debs and he was infuriated. It appears that his first written article on the topic, directed to the monthly newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World, was dated February 22.
We know Debs spoke in Austin, Minnesota, two days before that, on February 20, and again at New Ulm one day after, February 23. While it would be unusual for Debs to have two “off” nights between speaking engagements, to date nothing has surfaced indicating that he spoke on the 21st or the 22nd — which means that he probably sat and stewed and wrote.
On the 26th he wrote a long piece for Hermon Titus’s The Socialist, then published in Toledo, Ohio, with his best known piece on the Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone Affair, “Arouse, Ye Slaves!” undated but appearing in print in the Appeal to Reason on March 10.
These were some of EVD’s most inflammatory pieces, in which he rattled the scabbard of armed revolt and revolutionary retribution should his friends be harmed in the assault on their lives being waged by the governments of Idaho and Colorado, in conjunction with the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Now where was professional orator Debs during this crucial period? On his Iowa Tour:
- Feb. 23 — New Ulm, MN.
- Feb. 24 — Rock Rapids, IA
- Feb. 25 — Sioux City, IA
- Feb. 26 — Boone, IA
- Feb. 27 — Waterloo, IA
- Feb. 28 — Marshalltown, IA
- March 1 — open date?
- March 2 — Davenport, IA
At this point Debs again drops off the radar for ten days, with only one news report appearing on March 10 — of somewhat dubious accuracy — indicating that he was on tour in Canada.
Debs was billed for a March 12 speech in Denver — which would be a most fascinating appearance, if it occurred, Denver being the headquarters city of the Western Federation of Miners. Unfortunately, coverage of Colorado newspapers of this period in the Newspapers.com search engine is currently abysmal and there is a high likelihood that this scheduled engagement never took place. A good number of the announcements of future Debs speeches which one sees in the contemporary press never did materialize, with the wishful thinking of event organizers and eagerness to rush into print with announcement of distant events a leading factor.
One thing is clear — when news of the WFM arrests broke, Debs did not immediately drop everything and race to Colorado or Idaho to raise the rabble. He instead wrote several thousand words of red-hot prose for three friendly papers (The Industrial Worker, The Socialist, Appeal to Reason) while continuing to practice his profession, speaking on generalized socialist themes to large and appreciative paying audiences across Iowa.
Activism had its limits. Obligation called.
• • • • •
The March 17 Cancellation
So Debs either did or did not go to Denver for a big Moyer-Haywood-Pettibone protest event tentatively scheduled for March 12. This remains a question of history that needs to be solved. The next big event on his scheduling horizon was a fundraising event for the WFM defense slated for venerable Uhlich’s Hall in Chicago on March 17.
At this precise moment much of the nation was in an absolute tizzy over Debs’s “Arouse, Ye Slaves!” petrol bomb, published in the Appeal of March 10, which threatened:
Let them dare to execute their devilish plot and every state in this Union will resound with the tramp of revolution. Get ready, comrades, for action! No other course is left to the working class. Their courts are closed to us except to pronounce our doom….
A special revolutionary convention of the proletariat at Chicago, or some other central point, would be in order, and, if extreme measures are required, a general strike could be ordered and industry paralyzed as a preliminary to a general uprising.
If the plutocrats begin the program, we will end it. (fn. “Arouse, Ye Slaves!” Appeal to Reason, whole no. 536 (March 10, 1906), p. 1.)
Unsurprisingly, Eugene V. Debs was prominent in the news again.
Now here came the engagement, scheduled for the center of the labor world, Chicago, with the iron glowing red-hot. It was barely more than a week after Debs had raised his red banner of revolution to hundreds of thousands of readers across the nation, quoted extensively in the mainstream press, eliciting cries of “anarchy!” and “treason!” from the editorialists.
Chicago waited with baited breath. Former Haymarket prisoner Oscar Neebe promised to be there to share the podium with Debs in defense of the Boise defendants against a new attempt to decapitate the radical labor movement of the country. The Chicago police also publicly indicated they would be around, planning to send a detachment of officers to short-circuit any prospective new “Haymarket riot” in the making…
Evening fell. A.S. Edwards, former editor of the Chicago SDP’s Social Democratic Herald, now editor of the official IWW organ, The Industrial Worker, made his way to the podium for some introductory remarks. He intoned:
We are here to protest against the instrumentality of the mine owners and corporate greed to crush the Western Federation of Miners by putting to death Brothers Haywood and Moyer by suborned and perjured witnesses and packed juries and to express our opinion upon these men by the officials in Idaho. Eugene V. Debs is not present here tonight because he is confined to his bed and unable to come.” (fn. Chicago Inter Ocean, March 18, 1906, p. 5.)
Only about 100 people were said to be present according to the Inter Ocean — a publication which was no friend of the workers’ movement and therefore to be suspected of undercounting, it should be remembered. No bombs were thrown nor arrests made. A healthy $700 was raised for the Haywood defense.
But without Debs.
It is worthwhile recalling the words of EVD’s best biographer, Nick Salvatore:
While sufficient evidence to evaluate the medical basis of Debs’s multiple illnesses does not exist, it is difficult to avoid the impression that many were emotional rather than physical in nature. With certain exceptions…Debs’s doctors often could find no illness to cure… As with many other men and women reared with middle-class aspirations in late-nineteenth century America, Debs used illness as an emotional escape from pressures of his life. Whether in a hotel room in New York during a tour, surrounded by concerned comrades, or at home, attended by the dutiful Kate, Debs periodically created for himself a haven from the world where he might bask in the devotion and uncritical attention of others. (fn. Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982; pp. 213-214.)
Debs had once again reprised what was by now a pattern:
When factional struggle reared its head — Eugene Debs was sick in bed.
• • • • •
The 1906 Chautauqua Circuit
The spring of 1906 was a lost season — Debs’s treasured mother was fading and scheduled April appearances in Fort Scott, Kansas and Muskogee, Illinois were necessarily scrubbed. His spring tour of the Midwest was reduced to a mad scramble.
Debs ventured out near the end of the month, speaking on the 29th in Superior, Wisconsin, but a telegram informing him of his mother’s death reached him there and he immediately departed for Terre Haute, canceling the April 30 event in Minneapolis planned by the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen.
He would venture out again after the first week of May, speaking in Muscatine, Iowa; Detroit; and making up his Minneapolis date before racing across country to attend a May 30th gala in New York City to celebrate the launch of the daily New York Call.
A June 15 appearance at a WFM defense mass meeting in Toledo, Ohio was made, where Debs spoke before a crowd of 1,200. A handful of Midwestern dates followed, including Horton, Kansas (June 19) and South Omaha (June 22).
In years previous, Debs had toured extensively about nine months a year, more or less shutting things down during the hot months of summer. In 1905 he and the Chautauqua movement discovered one another, however, and the summer of 1906 was booked solid as Debs was shuttled around the Chautauqua circuit as a headline attraction.
The Chautauqua movement was part adult educational movement, part local entertainment festival, part protestant tent revival meeting — and a real moneymaker for its promoters. By the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century literally hundreds of Chautauqua gatherings were held, each bringing together musicians, singers, and orators in a fair-like rural atmosphere.
As with the vaudeville circuit, star performers were booked for the season and ferried from one event to another, where they would speak or play or sing for audiences numbering into the thousands.
This summer would be a busy one. Here is a list, doubtlessly not complete, of EVD’s 1906 Chautauqua dates:
- June 25 — DES MOINES, IA spoke at Midland Chautauqua (reprint Miners Magazine of 7/5/06)
- July 1 — APPLETON, WI at Fox River Chautauqua. Spoke on “Labor and Liberty” beginning at 2:30 in “the big tent.” About 2,000 in attendance, with Debs speaking nearly two hours.
- July 7 — ELYRIA, OH Chautauqua, spoke in the afternoon.
- July 9 — NEOSHO, MO Chautauqua scheduled, 10:30 am.
- July 9 — MONETT, MO Chautauqua scheduled, 2:30 pm
- July 9 — SPRINGFIELD, MO Chautauqua scheduled, 8 pm
- July 10 — TULSA, INDIAN TERRITORY Chautauqua, 2:30 pm start.
- July 10 — MUSKOGEE, IT Chautauqua, 8 pm was the scheduled time but started late due to a late train.
- July 11 — PITTSBURG, KS Chautauqua, 2:30 pm. Barely made the show due to being aboard a train out of Vinita, IT which derailed, leading to missed connections; had to take a special chartered train from McCune provided by the event organizer at the cost of $100.
- July 11 — PARSONS, KS Chautauqua scheduled 7 pm
- July 12 — IOLA, KS Chautauqua scheduled 10:30 am
- July 14 — CANTON, SD Chautauqua, spoke in the afternoon at the 6th annual Canton Epworth League Association. Then headed out for Omaha via Sioux Falls, SD, located 23 miles away.
A review of the Canton appearance:
Mr. Debs created a very favorable impression with all classes. Debs is a deep thinker and magnetic speaker. He held his audience spellbound during the assembly, and was warmly applauded. While his theories cannot be accepted by a vast majority of the people, still his evident earnestness and sincerity could not but create a feeling of sympathy in the breasts of his hearers. He was a surprise to those who had expected to hear a frantic denunciation of all existing things…. Quite a number from out of town were here to listen to him. (fn. “Debs Spoke at Canton,” Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, July 16, 1906, p. 8.)
- July 18, 1906. — STONY FALLS, SD for 2 hours and 10 minutes. Arrived from Canton at 8:30 pm the previous day.
- July 19. — ALTUS, AR at the chapel of the public school building to an audience of 200. Spoke just over two hours. This was not a Chautauqua lecture. This is a weird scheduling, I note.
- July 20 — SOUTH MCALESTER, OK Chautauqua.
- July 21 — INDEPENDENCE, KS Chautauqua started 8 pm
A review of the Independence appearance:
Mr. Debs lacks almost all the graces of a platform speaker except tremendous earnestness and gripping moral conviction, and these qualities in the possession of any man cover a multitude of sins. Here is no dilettante, lecturing for his fee, repeating common platitudes to gain applause, fulfilling all the proprieties lest opposition should show its head to the detriment of his pocket, a time-server and self-lover. Rather the tall, angular speaker, bent towards his audience with a crookedness of body almost as grotesque, speaking grammatically but using the pronunciation that has come up with him from his early training, reminds the thoughtful in his audience of an old Hebrew prophet, or of Savanorola, who will reform the ills of his time even if his reforms leads him personally to the gibbet and the stake.” (fn. “Center Shots from Greatest Socialist,” The Evening Star [Independence, KS], vol. 7, no. 34 (July 13, 1906), p. 1.)
- July 22 — OKLAHOMA CITY, OK at Wheeler Park, scheduled to speak on “The Toiling Millions” in the afternoon. This was a socialist encampment, on the Chautauqua model. Debs to speak for free. A total of 15 speakers arranged, including Mother Jones.
- July 24 — COFFEYVILLE, KS Chatauqua scheduled, for 3 pm on “The Genius of Liberty.”
Thereafter, Debs mixed privately-booked dates with a handful more Chautauqua events, speaking in Missouri, Kansas, and Alabama. The official end of the Chautauqua tour came late in August, with Debs to the Appeal to Reason offices in Girard for ten days to recuperate.
• • • • •
The 1906 Labor Day Spectacular
Contrary to the telling in volume 4 of Philip Foner’s factually sloppy History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Debs spoke very infrequently in 1905 and 1906 under IWW auspices — three times in Chicago and five times in New York in 1905, the apparent frequency of which was dramatically exaggerated by the presence of a stenographer and conversion of four of these eight speeches into published pamphlets. (See: Debs and Berger Part Ways, Blog 19-06)
But there was at least one more really big IWW event that was to take place — September 3, 1906, Labor Day, in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
IWW President C.O. Sherman and Socialist Labor Party leader Daniel DeLeon were to share the platform — just two weeks before these two factional bosses went to war at the 2nd Convention of the IWW, virtually destroying the union in the process. (See: The IWW Split of 1909, Blog 19-09)
Also appearing on the bill as was to be a future top leader of the IWW, Vincent St. John of Nevada. He would prove unable to attend, replaced at the podium by IWW national organizer E.R. Markley. Debs was to deliver the keynote address.
It is lamentable that this was not one of the Debs IWW addresses which was stenographically reported.
In the middle of September Sherman and DeLeon sharpened their knives and departed for the Chicago convention. Debs, however, averted his eyes and stopped his ears, continuing with a Pennsylvania Tour, which featured speeches in Shamokin (Sept. 18), Hazleton (Sept. 19), Pottsville (Sept. 21), Philadelphia (Sept. 23), Allentown (Sept. 24), and Allegheny (Sept. 26).
So concluded EVD’s 1906 professional oratory — but there remained on last stint on the road.
• • • • •
Speeches of the 1906 Campaign
Throughout his life, Debs retained a mystical belief in the power of elections to overthrow capitalism and install a fundamentally new order. The patently obvious reality that elected Socialist politicians were able to only do their best to attenuate the worst excesses of the system through ameliorative reform did not dampen his enthusiasm in the slightest.
Debs was the proverbial Happy Warrior on the campaign trail.
The 1906 campaign that piqued his interest and garnered his effort was the insurgent campaign to elect Big Bill Haywood as Governor of Colorado. Incarcerated in Boise, denied bail pending a trial which was delayed, delayed, and delayed again, Haywood was nominated for governor on the Socialist Party ticket as a means of raising consciousness of the plight of the jailed WFM leaders.
Debs traveled to Colorado in the second half of October and hammered the state hard on behalf of Haywood:
- Oct. 23. — LA JUNTA, CO. (first Colorado speech of the tour)
- Oct. 24, 1906. — TRINIDAD, CO at the courthouse, to a packed room.
- Oct. 25 — DURANGO, CO scheduled.
- Oct. 26 — SILVERTON, CO scheduled
- Oct. 27 — OURAY, CO scheduled
- Oct. 28 — MONTROSE, CO appeared.
- Oct. 29 — Grand Junction, CO scheduled for the Auditorium. Some 700 people turned up but a train wreck kept Debs from arriving in time to speak. Several hundred people stayed for an hour and a half waiting in hope of a late arrival. Finally arrived at 2:30 am, met by a few socialists at the station, then departed at 4:00 am for Salida.
- Oct. 30 — SALIDA, CO scheduled
- Oct. 31 — CRIPPLE CREEK, CO scheduled
- Nov. 1 — PUEBLO, CO scheduled
- Nov. 2 — COLORADO SPRINGS, CO scheduled
- Nov. 3 — BOULDER, CO scheduled
- Nov. 4 — open date
- Nov. 5 — DENVER, CO to close the campaign with a speech at Coliseum Hall. Said to be far and away the biggest meeting in Denver of the 1906 campaign, with the hall jammed to the rafters and overflow crowd outside in the street.
Though he blithely ignored the ignominious factional struggle which was gutting the Industrial Workers of the World, Debs unquestionably stepped up and took personal heat in defense of Big Bill Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone.
Any assessment of his performance in 1906 should include both of these aspects.
The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 16 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.
- “A Personal Word” (Jan. 5, 1907) — 383 words
- “Show Your Hand” (Jan. 5, 1907) — 536 words
- “The Center of the Fight: Letter to the Appeal to Reason” (c. Jan. 17, 1907) — 818 words
- “My Case is Obstinate: Letter to Fred Warren of the Appeal to Reason” (Jan. 22, 1907) — 184 words
- “We Must Fight!” (Jan. 26, 1907) — 1,832 words
- “I Have Come to Girard: Open Letter to Readers of the Appeal to Reason” (Feb. 1, 1907) — 613 words
- “First Anniversary of the Kidnapping of Moyer, Haywood, and Pettibone in the Capitalist Conspiracy to Russianize the United States” (Feb. 16, 1907) — 2,163 words
- “The Kidnapping Case in Congress” (March 2, 1907) — 1,564 words
- “Worker Solidarity and Mouth Revolutionists” (March 16, 1907) — 1,408 words
- “The Accused Miners” (March 16, 1907) — 1,557 words
- “Hold Your Nerve” (March 23, 1907) — 1,078 words
Word count: 125,052 in the can + 12,136 this week +/- amendments = 137,188 words total.
David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.
To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive
Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.
• Chicago Daily Socialist — 1907 (March-Sept.)
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