With Gene Debs on the Fourth

October 26, 2012

October 22 was the 125th birthday of socialist journalist John Reed, who is probably best known for his account of the Russian Revolution Ten Days that Shook the World. This article, which originally appeared in the Liberator in 1918, tells about Reed's meeting with socialist Eugene V. Debs a month after the antiwar speech in Canton Ohio that got Debs arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive.

"WHAT'LL it be, Mr. Sparks?" asked the drug-clerk, with the familiarity of common citizenship in Terre Haute, Ind., and the respect due to a successful politician.

"Gimme a nut sundae, George," said the lawyer, who lived around the corner on Sycamore street. Sparks is not his real name. He was dressed up in a new grey suit, adorned with a small American flag, buttons of the First and Third Liberty loans, and a Red Cross emblem. "Reg'lar Fourth o' July weather, hey George?"

Through the windows of the drugstore Eighth Street looked extremely animated; with families trooping toward the center of the town, Hags aslant in children's hands, mother and pa in holiday attire and sweating freely; with patriarchal automobiles of neighboring farmers, full of starched youngsters and draped with bunting. Faintly came the sound of an occasional firecracker, and the thin strains of martial music from the parade. A hot, sticky wind blew occasional puffs of yellow dust up the street.

"Yes, we got a spell of heat all right," responded George. "We're going to close the store pretty soon and go up town to see the p'rade." He scooped ice cream and went on gossiping. "They say Gene Debs has got arrested up to Cleveland..."

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Everyone in the place stopped talking and looked up.

"Yes," said the lawyer in a satisfied tone. "Ye-e-es, I guess from what the papers say Gene stepped over the line this time. I guess they'll shut him up now."

An old man in a stiff white shirt, with grey whiskers sticking out of a shrewd, smooth-shaven face, looked up from a table in the corner.

"Do ye think they're again' to put Gene in jail?" he queried, a little anxiously.

"He'll have to pay the penalty of breakin' the law just the same as other folks," answered Sparks, virtuously. "If he's again' to make trouble for the Gov'ment, trouble is what he'll get. This ain't any time to talk Socialism..."

George paused in his concoction of a milk shake. "You know Hank, the policeman; well he was in here last night, and he says Gene Debs ought to ben locked up 25 years ago.
There were mutters of approval at this.

"It's bad for the town," announced Mr. Sparks. "Why with all the money Gene Debs has made out on the Chautauqua, he ain't bought a single Liberty bond..."

A raw-boned, brick-colored youth who sat with two giggling girls in muslin finery, spoke out fiercely: "I bet the Kaiser would give him the Iron Cross if he ever heard about Gene Debs!"

The old man with the chin-whiskers mildly intervened. "We-e-ell, that's goin' a leetle strong," he remarked. "Everybody knows Gene Debs. He ain't no traitor, Gene ain't. Only jest a trifle flighty, that's all's a matter with Gene Debs..."

EVERYBODY KNOWS Gene Debs in Terre Haute. Sixty-two years ago he was born in Terre Haute, of parents who came to America from Alsace. Gene's father was of upper middle-class family, and owned mills in Colmar. He fell in love with a girl who worked in one of his mills, and renounced his heritage to marry her. They came to Indiana as immigrants, and lived through hells of poverty...

This was all before 1870. But old man Debs never admitted that Alsace could be German. On his tombstone he had engraved, "Born at Colmar, Alsace, FRANCE."

Gene, his father and his mother went through their political and economic evolution together. Together Gene and his father voted for the Greenback Party, then for the Populists...and that way, the characteristically American way, Gene Debs and his father and mother came to Socialism...

Terre Haute is a rich little country town in the Hoosier land, where Eugene Field came from, and James Whitcomb Riley, and a whole raft of novelists and poets. Going through that country on the train I can never resist the feeling that after all, this is real America. Trim villages, white farm-houses set in trees, fields of tasseled corn; shallow rivers flawing between earthen banks, little rolling hills spotted with lazy cows, bare-legged children; the church-spires and graveyards of New England, transported hither by Protestant folk, mellowed and grown more spacious by contact with the South and West; rural schoolhouses, and everywhere hideous and beloved monuments commemorating the Civil War; locusts jarring in the sycamores, an almost overwhelming fertility rioting in the black earth, steaming in the procreative heat of flat-country summer, and distilling a local sweetness that is distinctively American-sentimental and humorous.

The Middle West, with its tradition of settled, country-living folk, and behind that, the romance of the Civil War, and still further back, the epos of the race moving West and conquering...

Here lives Gene Debs, authentic kin of Field and Riley, American, Middle Western, shrewd, tender-hearted, eloquent and indomitable. When I was a small boy, my conception of Uncle Sam was just what I found Gene Debs to be--and I'm not at all sure my instinct was wrong.

It was on the Fourth of July that Art Young and I went to Terre Haute to see Gene. Barely a month before, the terrible rumor had gone round, chilling all our hearts--"Gene Debs is going back on the party!" That lie he nailed in the ringing statement published in the New York Call, and the Wallings, the Simonses, the Bensons cringed under the lash of his words...Then came his tour through the middle states, menaced everywhere with arrest, violence, even lynching...and Debs calmly speaking according to schedule, fearless, fiery and full of love of people...Then his Canton speech, a clear internationalist manifesto, and the Cleveland arrest.

"Gene Debs arrested! They've arrested Gene!" people said everywhere, with a shock, a feeling of pity, of affection, of rage. Nothing that has happened in the United States this year has stirred so many people just this way. The long sentences given to conscientious objectors, the suppression of the Socialist press, the indictment of editors, lecturers, Socialist officials under the Espionage and Sedition Acts--people didn't seem to he deeply moved by these things; but the arrest and indictment of Gene Debs--of Gene Debs as a traitor to his country! That was like a slap in the face to thousands of simple people--many of them not Socialists at all--who had heard him speak and therefore loved him. Not to mention the hundreds he has personally befriended, helped or even saved from every sort of evil...

"Gene Debs arrested! Our Gene! That's going too far!"

It appears that Allan Benson had come out with a piece in the paper criticizing the authorities for arresting Debs at the moment when he was "just on the point of going over to the National Party!" Sitting there in his darkened sitting room, with the busts of Voltaire, Rousseau and Bob Ingersoll just behind him, he chuckled over Mr. Benson's perspicacity. I couldn't help seeing a ludicrous mental picture of Gene Debs in the company of pious Prohibition preachers and Socialist renegades. "Cheap skates," was Gene's dismissal of the whole tribe.

HE WAS in bed when we arrived, but insisted on getting up. Not very well, his wife said, had not been well a whole year. How gaunt and tall he was, how tired his long burned-up body looked; and yet with what a consuming inward radiance he came forward and greeted us, holding both his hands on ours, looking at us so eagerly, as if his affection for us was so deep...We felt wrapped in Gene Debs' affection. I had never met him, but I had heard him speak. How from that body and soul then he had poured out vitality, flaming across all his time, warmth and courage and belief!

Now he was older, more ravaged by the strain of giving and fighting; but his smile was still as delighted, and his sympathy as wonderful, and the tides of his indomitability at the service of anyone...

Gene talked. You who have never heard him talk don't know just what that means. It isn't erudition, fine choice of words, or well-modulated voice that makes his charm but the intensity of his face, glowing, and the swift tumbling out of his sincere words. He told about his trip, describing with boyish pleasure how he outwitted the detectives watching for him in Cleveland; and how mayors and patriotic committees in little towns had warned him not to speak--and he had spoken, just the same.

"Aren't you afraid of lynching?" I asked him.

Gene smiled. "Now that's a funny thing," he said. "I just don't happen to think about it, some way. I guess I'm sort of psychically protected, anyway. I know that so long as I keep my eye on them, they won't dare to do anything. As a rule they're cowardly curs anyway. Keep your eye right on them., that's all..."

Outside as he talked to us the automobiles went by, covered with flags, and the sound of the parade came drifting down...Looking through the darkened windows we watched the people. As they passed the house they motioned or pointed toward it, with expression compounded half of eager malice, and half of a sort of fear. "That's where Gene Debs lives," you could see them saying, as one would say, "The House of the Traitor..."

"Come on," said Gene, suddenly. "Let's go out and sit on the front porch and give 'em a good show, if they want to see me."

So we went out on the porch, and took off our coats. And those who passed only looked furtively our way, and whispered, and when they caught Gene's eye, bowed over-cordially.

The old man told us how the people of Indiana, and indeed, of all the Middle States, were will-broken and terrorized by "Loyalty" leagues, citizens' committees, vigilantes--and whipped into hysteria besides...The old frankness which still characterized Hoosier farmers before the War, was now all gone. No one dared speak his mind to anyone. Many, many loved him, Gene Debs, who dared not testify in any other way except by anonymous letters...He spoke of leaders of the people who, after being beaten by mobs, or tarred and feathered, abandoned their rebellion and conformed to the view of the majority.

"If they did that to me," said Gene, "even if I changed my mind I don't think I could say so !"

THERE WAS something tragic, and funny, in the way Terre Haute regarded Gene. Before the war, Gene added luster to the name of the town, as well as having an immense personal popularity. In the beginning, practically the whole population, all through that section, was against going to war...But since the war the usual phenomenon has happened in Terre Haute. The whole place has been mobilized physically and spiritually. Except Gene Delis. The simpler people couldn't understand it. The bankers, lawyers and merchants felt for him a terrible rancor. Even the ministers of the gospel, who had often implored him to address their conventions, now held meetings denouncing "the enemy in our midst."

No names were mentioned. No one dared to call Gene Debs "enemy" to his face. When he went down the street, everyone was studiously polite. Department of Justice operatives, volunteer detectives of all sorts, Liberty loan agents, prowled all around his house--but did not dare to enter and front the old lion. Once a businessmen's "patriotic" committee descended upon a German-born workman, and threatened him. Gene heard about it, and sent word to the committee: "Come down to my house, why don't you, instead of to the place of a poor man. I have a shotgun waiting for you fellows." The committee did not come...

I have a picture of Gene Debs, his long bony head and shining face against a background of bright petunias in a box on the rail, his lean hand lifted with the long, artist's fingers giving emphasis to what he said:

"Say, isn't it great the way most of the boys have stood up? Fine! If this can't break them down, why then I know nothing can. Socialism's on the way. They can't stop it, no matter what they do. The more breaks the other side makes, the better for us...

And as we went down the steps, wringing our hands, dapping us on the shoulder, winning and warm, he said-and all the neighbors could hear him, too--

"Now you tell all the boys everywhere who are making the fight, Gene Debs says he's with you, all the way, straight through, without a flicker!"

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