Eugene V. Debs as an Orator

by Max Ehrmann
August, 1907

TERRE HAUTE, IND., August, 1907.

No man in America has been more hated, and few have been so much loved as Eugene V. Debs. His name is known and his face is familiar where the city of his birth was never heard of. His opinions are considered by men in high places as the countersign of bloodshed, anarchy and riot, and by millions of others they are regarded as the beacon light that is to lead humanity to a better life and a higher civilization. Whatever may be said of his philosophy, one thing is certain, that he has won a place in American history as one of its greatest orators; and in my opinion, there is not a man on the American platform today who is his equal. His is a new and different kind of oratory. He resorts to no tricks of rhetoric, no claptrap and stage effects, no empty pretense of deep emotion; but he stands frankly before his audiences and opens the doorways of his mind and heart that seem ever to be overflowing with terrible invective or the sweet waters of human kindness.

This style is very different from that of such speakers as Senator Beveridge. Mr. Beveridge's orations on occasions and in the Senate are finished, modeled, filed and practiced. Intonation and gesture are carefully arranged to fit the sentiment. It is a piece of good workmanship. But the whole effect lacks sincerity. You feel that Mr. Beveridge is secretly using you for his personal ends. None of these elements enter the oratory of Mr. Debs, and his sincerity is almost terrible in its reality. You feel that he will tell you what he thinks regardless of consequence.

The first time I heard Mr. Debs was more than ten years ago, when I was a student at Harvard. He was booked to lecture at Prospect Union, Cambridge. This was shortly after the great Chicago strike; and a good many Harvard students and some instructors came out to see the "monster." Mr. Debs was late; but the audience waited. When he came there was no applause. He began to speak, and for more than two hours he held that audience as if riveted to the seats; and they who had come to scorn, hovered around him for more than an hour, and went away his friends. It was more than half an hour before I could get to the speaker's stand and shake hands with him.

The night before that he had spoken to one of the largest audiences that had ever crowded into Faneuil Hall, Boston. And so generously was his message received that, as Dr. John Clarke Ridpath afterwards told me, he feared the audience would "tear him to pieces trying to shake his hand." Dr. Ridpath was at that time editor of the Arena and believed then that Mr. Debs was one of the most masterful orators that had ever been reared on American soil and that he had then already a secure place in American history.

The next time I tried to hear Mr. Debs was in Denver. The crowd was so great that I could not get within fifty feet of the door of the largest public hall in that city, and it was then said that up to that time there had never been such an audience in that hall.

I did, however, get to hear Mr. Debs the next Sunday, in the same city, where the day was celebrated as Debs-Day at Manhattan Beach Gardens - at that time a prominent summer garden of Denver. He spoke in the theater, and after the speech an opera was given by the splendid stock company playing there that summer. Everybody wore Debs badges and the day was generally observed in Denver as given to the great Socialist.

And Mr. Debs has gone on and on and spoken to more and larger audiences than any other speaker except Mr. Bryan, until every great rostrum in America has supported his tall figure, and the walls of every great public hall have resounded his words.

In some ways our distinguished fellow-townsman has wandered a stranger in the city of his birth. Here we have been the last to acknowledge his power and influence. We see him often, recognize him as a quiet, respected citizen, possessing those domestic virtues that all men and women admire; but the great Debs, the Debs who first arraigned the trust abuses in this country, who broke the first ground for the harvest of modern popular reforms - that Debs we have never yet recognized, nor that power of his - whatever one may think of his doctrines - which is the type that has made the names of men undying. |