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“...As Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
In the decades before the First World War he was the most dynamic, persuasive, and at the same time the most lovable figure that American Socialism had produced. He hated capitalism but could hate no man. Hoosier-born, he combined in his gangling person a rural nativist populism and the class-conscious zeal of the urban foreign-born worker. Now that the American Socialist movement, shattered by World War I and disintegrated by the Russian Revolution, has faded and the other Socialist leaders of that eia are forgotten or all but forgotten, Eugene Debs remains a vital memory. His Indiana friend James Whitcomb Riley wrote of him:
On the platform, with his gymnastic delivery, he was the very Billy Sunday of Socialism, carrying his audience along as much by his personality as by what he said. Once, facing a crowd of hostile Poles in Chicago, he completely captivated them by his presence, his voice, and the animation of his gestures, even though most of them could not understand his words. He was a man it was impossible to dislike. When, after his leadership in the great Pullman strike of 1894, he was sent to the McHenry County Jail for six months for violating a court injunction, he formed a friendship with the sheriff and his family that lasted the rest of his life. Twenty-five years later he was sentenced to ten years in prison under Wilson’s Espionage Act for an antiwar speech he made at Canton, Ohio, in the summer of 1918. The first few months he spent in the West Virginia State Prison at Moundsville. When he was transferred to the fcdei al penitentiary at Atlanta, the Moundsville warden wrote to the Atlanta warden: “I never in my life met a kinder man. He is forever thinking of others, trying to serve them, and never thinking of himself.” At Atlanta he charmed eveiyone he came in contact with, prisoners and guards alike. “While there is a lower class, I am in it,” he had written earlier. “While there is a criminal class, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison I am not free.” He took pains to seek out the dregs among the prisoners, to encourage them by letting them know that he cared about them. Prisoners of all sorts came to him for advice. Whenever the men were allowed outside their cells, Debs always formed the center of a group, radiating warmth and fellowship. The warden came to feel deeply obligated to him for his tremendous influence in calming and often rehabilitating other prisoners. During his penitentiary term the Socialists in 1920 nominated him for the fifth time as their Presidential candidate, and over nine hundred thousand Americans voted for him. President Wilson, always relentless against anyone who opposed him, refused even to consider reducing Debs’s sentence. It took the easygoing Harding, after his inaugural in March, 1920, to release the Socialist leader as soon as it seemed politically piopitious. Three weeks after the inauguration Debs was allowed to go on the train to Washington alone and unguarded for a three-hour interview with Harding’s Attorney General, Harry Daugherty. Thai scaiied and cynical politician was, against all his instincts, captivated by his visitor. “He spent a large part of the day in my office,” Daugheity later confided to Clarence Danuw, “and I never met a man I liked better.”
On December 23 the White House announced that Debs and twenty-three other political prisoners would be released on Christmas Day. He could not go directly to his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, however, for Harding had asked him to call at the White House in passing. As he walked through the penitential y gates for the last time twenty-three hundred convicts crowded against the prison’s front wall—the warden having in his honor suspended the usual rules—to wave and checi him on his way. Just outside the gates Debs turned to face them, the tears running down his cheeks.
Free after two years and eight months, he ai rived at the White House to find the genial Harding his most genial self. “Well,” said the President, bounding out of his chair to shake hands, “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that 1 am now very glad to meet you personally.” What the two men discussed in their private interview they nevei said. But afterward Debs told the waiting reporters: “Mr. Harding appears to me to be a kind gentleman, one whom I believe possesses humane impulses. We understood each other perfectly.”