When Eugene Victor Debs came to New York from Chicago last year he
made a speech in Cooper Union which I heard. I sat near a spot at which
I had sat at another meeting held in the same place thirty-four years
previously, which was addressed by another speaker who came to New York
from Chicago. The western speaker who stood on that platform in August,
1894, was to me a reminder of the other western speaker who stood there
in February, 1860. Both men were tall and spare in figure; the
complexion of each rather darker in the one than in the other; the face
of each was rather gaunt, that of the earlier speaker much more gaunt
than that of the later; both were men of good and strong features; there
was something intense about the facial expression of each; both were men
of commanding and impressive manners.
I recall the somewhat peculiar and shrill voice of the speaker of
1860; I heard another voice in 1894 which resembled it. As they spoke,
it was easy for a New Yorker to discern that they were both men of the
The man to whose speech I listened in Cooper Union in February, of
1860, was Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois - born in Kentucky; the man who
spoke from the same platform within my hearing last year was Eugene
Victor Debs, of Illinois - born in Indiana.
I recalled the appearance, the manner, the voice and the speech of
Lincoln as Debs stood before me thirty-four years afterwards.
It seemed to me that both men were imbued with the same spirit.
Both seemed to me as men of judgment, reason, earnestness and power.
Both seemed to me as men of free, high, genuine, generous manhood. I
"took" to Lincoln in my early life, as I took to Debs a third of a
In the speeches of both westerners there was cogent argument;
there were apt illustrations; there were especially emphatic passages;
there were moments of lightning; there were touches of humor, and there
were other qualities which produce conviction or impel to action. Each
speaker was as free as the other from gross eloquence. I confess that I
was as much impressed with the closing words of Debs' speech as I was
with those of Lincoln, when he exclaimed, "Let us have faith that right
makes might, and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty, as
we understand it."
As Lincoln stands in my memory while looking far back, Debs stands
in it as I saw him in Cooper Union a year ago.
Lincoln spoke for man; so spoke Debs. Lincoln spoke for right and
progress; so spoke Debs. Lincoln spoke for the freedom of labor; so
spoke Debs. Lincoln was the foe of human slavery; so is Debs.
I was in the deepest sympathy with Lincoln when he came here, as I
was also with Debs when he came here. I had striven for Fremont in my
youth, as I have striven in later years for principles that are the
logical sequence of those of Lincoln and are represented by Debs.
Let no admirer of Abraham Lincoln - I do not mean the apotheosized
emancipator, but the Lincoln of 1860 - offer objection to aught that has
been here said. At the time I have spoken of Lincoln was regarded by
millions of people as a cross between a crank and a monster. In hundreds
of papers and by hundreds of speakers he was called the "Illinois
baboon." Every epithet that hate could invent was applied to him; every
base purpose that malice could conceive was imputed to him. To the
"Satanic press" of New York Lincoln was an object of loathing and
derision, a "nigger lover," a clown, a subverter of the constitution and
the law; and above all, he was a blatant fool who would destroy that
indestructible "system of labor" which had existed of old, which was
upheld by the supreme court and the lynch law court, the church, the
army, the press and the capitalist, as also by congress - both houses.
Why, the Debs whom we have with us in our country today is a harmless
citizen compared with the Lincoln of 1860, as he had been described
before he came to New York. It looks to me as though the newspaper
slubberdegullions and plutocracy in our time had lost that power of
cantankerous invective which was possessed by their contemporaries of
1860, now mostly dead and forgotten. I have read some assaults upon
Debs, but all of them were poorly done.
Lincoln's name was less familiar to New York masses at the opening
of 1860 than Debs' was in 1894. Lincoln had campaigned in the west, but
the west was much farther away then than it is now, and western men were
less known in the east than they are now. Lincoln drew a crowd to Cooper
Union, but not as large a crowd as Debs drew.
Well, when I heard Debs' speech here I had half a notion that it
might be the prelude to an incident like that which followed Lincoln's
speech. There were few people, at least in New York, who could have
believed that within three months from the day of Lincoln's speech here,
Lincoln would be a candidate for the office of President of the United
States. "Some say," he said while in New York then, "some say they may
make me Vice-President with Seward."
It was always the opinion of my old friend Raymond, the founder of
the New York Times, whom I long served as chief of his editorial staff,
that it was the Cooper Union speech of Lincoln that made it possible for
him to be a candidate for the presidency, and that it was most potent in
making him acceptable to the Republican party in the east. It certainly
was a factor of influence in the nomination in Chicago the following
No matter about that now. When, in Cooper Union, a year ago, I
heard the speech of Eugene V. Debs, which, in so many ways reminded me
of that of Abraham Lincoln long ago, I felt sure that nobody could deny
that here again, in this new western leader in the struggle for labor's
emancipation, there might be the stuff for a presidential candidate.
And this suggestion would have been made by me at the New York
meeting but for the jam of perversity on the platform.
Debs in Cooper Union reminded me of Lincoln there. As Lincoln, of
Illinois, became an efficient agent for freedom, so, perchance might
Debs, of Indiana, become in the impending conflict for the liberation of
labor. Let us never forget Lincoln's great words, "Liberty before
property; the man before the dollar."
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