The 1908 USA Socialist Campaign





Eugene V. Debs said the Democratic and Republican parties are twins of the master class

And there’s Gene Debs -a man ‘at stands
And just holds out his two hands
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Jedgment seat.
(James Whitcomb Riley)

A Radical Lover

Eugene Debs was an American Socialist before socialism was equated with Red Communism. He was not your hot-headed revolutionary from Europe with a manifesto in his pocket and a bomb under his coat. Nevertheless he was hated by American conservatives who considered themselves ‘liberals’ and who wanted to stifle all other forms of liberty besides their own, classical brand of liberty – a pseudo-Darwinian liberty that fanatically conserved freedom for the power elite who lorded it over the rest of society.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt, the most prominent progressive of his day, believed Debs was “an undesirable citizen.” In his 1906 correspondence with Senator Lodge, Roosevelt indicated he wanted to curb both plutocracy and proletariat, yet he was convinced that the gravest threat to life and property was coming from the socialist side. That side had become more popular since the widespread violence between labor and capital following the Civil War had abated. Respectable people were now discussing socialism. Christian ministers had audaciously associated socialism with Jesus, and socialists were getting out the vote.

Given the democratic aspects of the Constitution and the inspiration of the Declaration of Independence along with the intention of the American people to have a New World, American reform was bound to threaten the status quo. The sharp financial panic in 1907 had been followed by unemployment and social unrest; however, as the 1908 presidential election drew near, reform and not revolution was the respectable order of the day. The candidates were all liberals in a sense: they differed in what they wanted to be liberated from and in their definitions of progress and choice of who should manage it.

Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate for president in 1908, figured the Democratic and Republican parties were twins of the master class, and he spoke of relieving that class of its duties at the helm of state. As far as Debs was concerned, the idea that capitalism could be reformed was a “progressive

heresy.” Debs was known as a striker who had been associated with the undemocratic and violent Wobblies, and for that reason many people thought Debs was a violent and hateful person. Nevertheless, persons of all persuasions who knew Debs personally, or who took the time to inquire into his true nature, loved him well, for he had a genuine love for humanity:

“The ecstatic exclamation of a young lady at a Socialist mass meeting in New York recently to the effect that Eugene V. Debs, the chief speak of the occasion, is ‘the living and not the missing link between God and man’, is typical of the sort of adulation heaped upon him by his admirers. It sounds amusing to most of us, but it evidently comes from the heart. No man in the radical movement in America to-day has so many idolatrous friends as Debs has. For a quarter of a century he has been traveling over the country making speeches, and in every state of the union he has won a loyalty based on personal affection.” – Current Literature, 1908

The Stout Republican Candidate

President Roosevelt hand-picked William Howard Taft for the Republican candidacy. Taft was stout in the days when fat often stood for substantial happiness – he was an amiable man who was happiest when he was serving as a judge. As we shall see, it was in his judicial capacity that his path had already encountered the likes of Eugene Debs.

In 1900 Taft, after serving on the bench for awhile, was appointed governor-general of the Philippines and was given the task of terminating military rule there. He did just that, and with flying colors. His lack of racial prejudice and his sympathy for Filipino self-determination stood him well in that job. He went on to become Roosevelt’s secretary of war; he was a good administrator yet was not a militantly inclined, but no problem: the generals handled that end. Taft was put in charge of building the Panama Canal.

Taft’s 1908 campaign promised the voters four more liberal years of Roosevelt’s golden mean – between what middle-class Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth”, and “reckless agitators.” After Taft was elected, he wrote to Roosevelt that he would never forget that the power he exercised “was voluntarily transferred from you to me.” He went on to do twice as much trust-busting than Roosevelt. He establish two “socialist” institutions – postal savings banks and the parcel-post system. He took the first steps towards establishing a federal budget. He promoted safety for workers and supported workmen’ compensation legislation. He was a conservationist, but alienated conservationists over an administrative flap. He alienated progressives because he failed to yield ground to the Republican liberal wing, and did not put up a fight against the dictatorial House Speaker, Joseph G. Cannon. He fell out with Roosevelt in the end, some say because his legalistic belief, that the nation is a nation of laws and not men, was contrary to Roosevelt’s affections. In any case, his stolid faith in “the fixedness of moral principles” made him too stodgy to be a lawyer or a politician. In 1921, President Harding put him in his happy place, the U.S. Supreme Court. He wound up with a reputation for being a conservative judge because of his position in a child labor case and a labor dispute; however, he sympathized with both labor and capital; his views on labor organization and strikes were the most advanced of his day. One might say in retrospect that Taft did his best to steer a course between Roosevelt’s “malefactors of great wealth”, and “reckless agitators.”

The Democratic Silver Bullet

William Jennings Bryan, the ‘Great Commoner’, won the Democratic nomination. He had made his claim to fame with his unforgettable ‘Cross of Gold’ speech at the 1896 Democratic convention in Chicago: “Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interests, and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a gold standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Therefore the free coinage of silver was wanted by the people out West, and they intended to get it by voting not revolting. What that amounted to, as far as the vested interests back East were concerned, was the use of the democratic ballot to repudiate debt with inflation and hence to redistribute their accumulated wealth. Thus was the line drawn between the agrarian and the industrial interests of the day.

Bryan championed the common man, laborers, farmers. His radical program was of course far more ‘liberal’ than the Republican platform, but he did not cotton to socialism: “Socialism has grown because individualism has been abused,” Bryan said, “and the friends of individualism owe it to themselves and to their cause to at once eradicate those abuses.” His position is hardly surprising in the light of his fundamentalist faith. Bryan was an ardent anti-evolutionist: he stumped the nation for anti-evolution laws – his name was mud to scientists and academics; he testified for the prosecution in the Scopes case before he died; he led the dry forces promoting the 18th Amendment for Prohibition. His fundamentalism did not include keeping women down: he helped win support for the 19th Amendment for Woman Suffrage.

We also remember Bryan for his pacifist tendency. Since wars are always declared by the ruling class and fought by the under-classes, he supported the popular referendum for war concept. He was instrumental in getting Woodrow Wilson into the White House – Wilson made him his secretary of state. Before the U.S. entered the Great War, Bryan persuaded the president to oppose loans to the belligerents – Wilson reversed himself later on and war was declared. Bryan resigned his office because he felt Wilson’s stance towards Germany would result in war.

The Socialist Convention

The Socialist Party had grown phenomenally since Eugene Debs and Victor Berger founded it in 1897 – Debs strongly believed a political party was necessary to advance the interests of labor; he was the party’s leading agitator and would become its presidential candidate five times. The delegates to the 1908 Socialist Party convention in Chicago spoke for 40,000 members representing almost 3,000 local organizations from nearly every state in the union. The delegates on the left wanted to officially recognize the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and to condemn the craft unions – craft unions tended to dilute or divide the interests of labor and to compromise with the capitalists. The IWW was a national organization of all laborers regardless of trade or skill, united against the capitalists; the IWW harkened back to the industrially organized principle of the old Knights of Labor; the Knights had been smothered by the AFL. There had been talks of violent revolution within the IWW ranks, and that alarmed conservative socialists on the right: they were not about to support the ‘Wobblies’ and were willing to compromise with employers.

Among the conservative socialists were the ‘parlor socialists’ – professionals, ministers and small businessmen whose creed was gradual evolution to state socialism. In the middle of right and left were the centrists – they wanted to avoid violence but insisted on forthright socialism. Now Debs was a radical on the left wing of the party, but he opposed violence. Although he had helped found the IWW, he soon broke with it because he did not approve of its sabotage tactics and its anti-political attitude. He also opposed the tactics of the American Federation of Labor, headed by Samuel Gompers. Gompers believed more could be accomplished for labor by shifting from candidate to candidate than by forming a minority political party: he thought a labor party was certain to be divided by ideological disagreements. Debs charged Gompers, who was cozy with capitalists, with selling labor out to capital. As far as Debs was concerned, craft-unionism itself was divisive, short-sighted, and prone to corruption. He espoused the Socialist tactic of “boring from within and without” such organizations, advised against violent radicalism, and preached gradual progress toward taking over the government – public ownership of the means of production meant little to him if the government itself was owned by capitalists. However that may be, Debs would win the nomination – someone on the right complained of his methods, saying the Socialist party “had one man in it.”

Debs was living in Girard, Kansas, when, on May 23, 1908, he and the townspeople heard about his nomination. The people called on him to come down to the town square to make a speech. Many of the residents did not like Debs’ politics, but they liked the man who was usually followed around town by a bevy of kids. Debs loved Kansas as much as he loved John Brown. In fact, during the impromptu speech that he was much obliged to give as requested, he paid tribute to Kansas:

“I have always felt when in Kansas that I stood on sacred soil. When I hear the name o Kansas I doff my hat in reverence. The Free Soilers came here, despised, hated and persecuted. They were the enemies of the human race. Why? Because they had hearts throbbing within their breasts. Because they looked with compassion on the negro slave who received his wages in lashes applied to his back; who saw his crying wife torn from his side and sold into slavery, while the great mass looked on just as the great mass is looking on today, and the preachers stood up in their pulpits and said, ‘It is all right. It is God-ordained.’ And whenever an abolitionist raised his head he was persecuted and hounded as if he had been a wild beast.”

Still today we notice the majority voting against its own best interests. Debs referred to that disappointing habit yet again in his speech: “I have said so often, and I wish to repeat it on this occasion, that mankind have always crowned their oppressors, and they have as uniformly crucified their saviors. It is true to today. It will not always be so…. I know that as a rule the workingman is the friend of his enemy and the enemy of his friend….”

Yet again Debs did not urge violent revolution – he asked his listeners to betake themselves of the political power they already had to better their conditions, the voting power: “The Rockefellers have the dollars, but we have the votes; and when we have sense enough to know how to use the votes we will have not only the votes but the dollars for all the children of men.” He went on to prophecy the coming Great Depression, but the date he gave was premature:

“I venture the prophecy that within the next five years you will be completely dispossessed. You are howling against the trusts, and the trusts are laughing at you. You keep on voting in the same old way and the trusts keep on getting what you produced. You say congress will give you some relief. Who will save us from congress? don’t you know that congress is made up almost wholly of trust lawyers and corporate attorneys? … Now in the competitive system the lawyer sells himself to the highest bidder the same as the workingman does. Who is the highest bidder? The trust and corporation, of course. So the trust buys the best lawyer and the common herd gets the shyster.”

The Keeper of Socialist Heaven

Debs hit the campaign trail running. In the summer of 1908 he was speaking several times a day to sold-out halls in New York – admission was charged to defray campaign expenses. In the early days he was a third-rate speaker, but practice had made him one of the best speakers in the land: he stuck to his few subjects for hours on end, nearly beating his dogs to death as he bent forward from the waist to earnestly exhort his listeners, yet his audiences were gripped by his sincere enthusiasm. No doubt Debs would have converted many people to Christianity if he had taken up religion instead of socialism. In fact, many Taft supporters preferred to attend Deb’s speeches. Lincoln Steffens, a muckracking journalist, interviewed Debs after listening to him speak before a paid audience of 25,000 gathered at a socialist picnic in Milwaukee. The interview took place at Victor Berger’s house.

Victor Berger, who emigrated to the U.S. from Austria in 1878, was one of the most prominent Socialists in the United States during the 1900’s. He was the first Socialist elected to the U.S. Congress. Both Berger and Debs would be convicted of sedition for their anti-war activism in 1918 – for that reason Berger would twice be denied his seat in Congress upon re-election. Steffens tells us that Berger is the man who really made a Socialist of Debs, and that Debs is, in 1908, “the keeper of Socialist heaven.” Steffens leaves this personal impression of Debs for our perusal:

“I don’t know how to give you may impression of this man; I suppose I can’t; I can hardly credit it to myself, and I wouldn’t, I guess, if I hadn’t discovered before that the world… hates a lover of the world. Nor am I the only one that thinks so. And that’s what ‘Gene Debs is: the kindest, foolishest, most courageous lover of man in the world. Horace Traubel says, ‘Debs has ten hopes to your one hope. He has ten loves to your one love. You think he is a preacher of hate. He is only a preacher of men. When Debs speaks a harsh word it is wet with tears’…. Debs is dangerous; it is instinct that makes one half of the world to hate him; but don’t. He loves mankind too much to be hurt of men; and that’s the power in him; and that’s the danger. The trouble with Debs is that he puts the happiness of the race above everything else: business, prosperity, property.” Everybody’s Magazine 1908

As far as Eugene Debs was concerned, the competitive capitalist system is rooted in the selfish war of all-against-all – the evil genius of competitive capitalism – and is evolving to democratic socialism – the fulfillment of the good spirit of cooperation. “The trusts are wiping out the competition,” Debs told Steffens. “They are a stage in the process of evolution: the individual; the firm; the corporation; the trust; and so, finally, the commonwealth. By killing competition and training men to work together, trusts are preparing for the cooperative stage of industry: Socialism.”

“Then you would keep the trusts we have and welcome others?” asked Steffens.

“Of course.”

“They do harm now.”

“We would have the government take the trusts and remove the men who own or control them.”

Steffens asked, “Would you pay for or just take them?”

“Take them,” Debs answered.

“No,” Berger cried, leaping to his feet. “No, you wouldn’t. Not if I was there. And you shall not say it for the party. It is my party as much as it is your party, and I answer that we would offer to pay.”

Debs would abolish profits as well. And we find these choice statements in the interview:

“Capitalism is a thing, a system, it’s the organization of society under which we all live. And it’s wrong…. It forces the individual to be selfish, and rewards him for beating and abusing his fellow man. Profit is made the aim of all human effort, not use, not service. The competitive system sets man against man, class against class; it puts a premium on hate; and love – the love of a man for his neighbor – is abnormal and all but impossible. The system crucifies the prophets and servants of mankind. It pays greed the most, honors highest the ruthless, and advances swiftest the unscrupulous.”

“Socialism does not abolish private property, except in the means of production. We want all men to have all they produce; all: WE are for private property. Under Capitalism only the few can have property….”

“We do not preach hate; we preach love. We do not teach classes; we are opposed to classes. That is Capitalism again. There are classes now, and we say so. Why not? It’s true , terribly true . But it’s exactly what we are trying to beat. The struggle of the best men now is to rise from the working into the exploiting class. We teach the worker not to strive to rise out out of his class; not to want to be an employer, but to stay with his fellow workers, and by striving all together, industrially, financially, politically, learn to cooperate for the common good…. Then we should have no class at all, should we? Only men and women and children.”

“There would be emulation after competition is abolished. Men would vie in skill and service, and that would produce individuality and character, though of a different sort…. We would level up, not down. We would let human nature develop naturally…. If we took away the fear of starvation on the one hand and on the other the tremendous rewards for crookedness and exploitation; removed all incentives to base self-seeking; and arranged things so that the good of the individual ran, not counter to, as at present, but parallel with, the good of society, why, then, at last, human nature would stand erect, manlike, frank, fee, affectionate and happy.”

“Do you teach him (the worker), by example and precept, to love to turn a piece of wood to fit a place? No. He doesn’t know where the piece is to go. He works without interest, to live; he must; he works for wages. He sees the exploiters making their money easily; he hears industrial leaders, dishonest and self-indulgent themselves, insisting upon his honesty and industry. He understands; if he does more and better work his employer gets the benefit, not he. He rebels; he catches the capitalist spirit. His boss robs him and then public; so he loafs, skimps, and robs the boss. All he is after is all the boss is after – money. That’s the system.”

“Socialism is the next natural stage in the evolution of human society; an organization of all men into an ordered, cooperative commonwealth in which they work together, consciously, for a common purpose: the good of all, not of the few, not of the majority, but of all.”

“For we believe in man and in the possibility of the love of man for man. We know that economic conditions determine man’s conduct towards man, and that so long as he must fight him for a job or a fortune, he cannot love his neighbor. Christianity is impossible under Capitalism. Under Socialism it will be natural. For a human being loves love and he loves to love. It is hate that is unnatural.”

The Red Special

J. Mahlon Barnes, Deb’s presidential campaign manager, had a wonderful idea for getting the Socialist idea across the United States: why not rent a train and convert it into a moving campaign headquarters, and call it the Red Special? Eugene Debs liked the idea. First of all, he had been a railroad man in his youth. He started out in the shops back in 1871, as a fireman on a freight engine. He joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. In 1877, its members, without apparent direction from or approval of union officials, went on strike; after two weeks of violence between guerillas and militia, federal troops were called in to help the militia end the economic war. Debs, at the young age of twenty, became the editor of the union’s magazine; at twenty-four he was elected grand secretary and treasurer. Debs eventually wrote an article about those youthful days:

“… I rode on the engines over mountain and plain, slept in the cabooses and bunks, and was fed from the pails of the swarthy stokers who still nestle close to my heart, and will until it is cold and still. through all these years I was nourished by Fountain Proletaire. I drank deeply of its waters and every particle of my tissue became saturated with the spirit of the working class….” The Comrade

Debs resigned from the Brotherhood and launched an organization for all railway workers: the American Railway Union. The union was victorious over the Great Northern Railway in 1894. Then the union boycotted Pullman cars on twenty-four railroads. Debs asked the AFL for cooperation, but his appeal was rejected – the AFL advised strikers to return to work. At this juncture the old common-law judicial injunction was firmly established in the U.S. as a federal anti-labor device – President Cleveland used it and send troops to Chicago, over the objections of Illinois Governor Altgeld, to put down the strike. Debs’ union was smashed; he and a few comrades were jailed.

Judge William Howard Taft had also used the injunction against labor in some cases. During the Pullman strike, as a private citizen he remarked to his wife that “It will be necessary to kill some of the mob before the trouble can be stayed. They have only killed six…. as yet. This is hardly enough to make an impression.” However, at the same time and in his judicial capacity, he said the employees of one of the railroads involved (the Southern Cincinnati Railroad) had a right to organize a union, conspire to strike and to conduct a strike; nevertheless, Taft said that Frank M. Phelan, one of Eugene Debs’ lieutenants, was party to an illegal combination for which the Cincinnati Southern employees had no legitimate grievance. Years later, in 1921, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Taft asserted the existence of a common law right to strike, a right that courts must protect by refusing to enjoin strikes called for legitimate objectives. The Pullman strike brought Debs into the glaring public spotlight, and he did not look too handsome: he was portrayed as the evil genius of the strike, as a dangerous agitator of the worst sort. While doing his jail-time, Debs read Bellamy and Marx and was converted to Socialism – he also admired Robert Burns and Walt Whitman, and was fond of reciting Edwin Markham’s Man With a Hoe.

Yes, indeed, the Red Special would be perfect for the 1908 campaign. $20,000 was the estimated cost, but the total tick eventually came to $35,000. A collection was taken up. William D. Haywood, founder of the Wobblies, organized meetings to that end, and others helped out too as the train went along – an estimated 200,000 people contributed to the Red Special fund. The Red Special had an engine, a combination sleeper and diner, a baggage car stuffed with socialist literature and campaign paraphernalia, and a brass band was accommodated aboard. It was decorated with red flags, bunting and streamers. Westward bound, the Red Special left Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station. H. Wayne Morgan provides us with a good account of the rail campaign in Eugene V. Debs, Socialist for President. Debs, whose stipend was $3 per day no matter how much money was raised – the Red Special was almost abandoned on the West Coast for lack of funds – loved the train from the time a got aboard:

“From the hour that it started it has made good a hundred-fold every inch of the way, and I am sure that not a comrade who has seen the train in action regrets having contributed to make it possible. The enthusiasm it inspires everywhere is a marvel to me. If nothing else it would be worth ten times its cost to the movement,” Debs said.

Buffalo Bill paid his respects along the way. In Los Angeles, Debs condemned capitalism, Democrats, Republicans, Roosevelt. The Red Special turned around and headed towards Mississippi, the returned to Chicago. On that western leg of the tour, Debs traveled 9,000 miles, made 187 speeches in 25 days in the Far West, spoke in every western state and territory – 275,000 people had heard him. Local merchants who were not inclined to Socialism did not mind the extra business the Red Special brought to their towns. From Chicago, Debs headed east to Boston, and to New York, where 7,500 people paid to hear Debs speak at the Hippodrome – 2,500 who could not get in waited nearby at a hall. Squares of red cloth were sold at the door, and were waved as a sea of red by the audience when Debs made a point. The crowd tried to carry Debs to his hotel in his automobile. Several women donated jewels to the fund that evening. And so on and so forth, as the Red Special went along the tracks. There was a problem in Duluth: the Socialists were seen hauling bags of contributed money all over town trying to find a bank that would accept Socialist’s deposits – they returned to the train with their cargo. Debs appealed for black votes. He stopped at Harpers Ferry and visited the monument to his hero, John Brown. And on to Woodstock, Illinois, to take a tour of the prison he had lived in after the Pullman strike. Everywhere Debs went, kids were all over the place with red flags. Finally, back in Chicago, Debs and Haywood headed up a grand labor parade, and Debs spoke to 16,000 people that evening. Finally, he closed his campaign with a speech at Terre Haute, and went home.

Happy Returns

The Socialist hoped for a million votes, but got 420,793, only 20,000 more than 1904. Bryan received 44% if the popular vote with 6,412,294, and 162 electoral votes. Taft of course won with 7,625,320, and 321 electoral votes.

Socialist literature had literally flooded the country while the Red Special was riding the rails,. The Republicans had taken advantage of an economic rebound towards the end of the campaign to get more votes in the name of prosperity. Debs lost some votes to Bryan. Samuel Gompers’ opposition had hurt him. But Eugene Debs had no regrets; he was sure the country was well on its way to socialist heaven. We can be certain of one thing: Americans love a good show, and Eugene Debs gave them one for the Socialist cause.


Sources Quoted:

‘Eugene V. Debs on What the Matter Is In America and What To D About It,’ by Lincoln Steffens, article in Everybody’s Magazine, October 1908

‘Debs – The Living Link’, article in Current Literature, Vol. XLV. 1908

Eugene V. Debs, Socialist for President, by H. Wayne Morgan, New York: Syracuse University 1962


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