A Labor Trilogy Party III – Socialist Surges: 1912 and 1917

The Socialist Party reached its peak strength in 1912, and in 1917 performed well in several key municipal races.  Eugene Debs offered a rallying point for many dissidents.  In Indiana County the Socialist Party achieved limited success.  However, several communities provided Debs with significant proportions of the vote in the election of 1912.  His totals in these areas ranged from 10-40% of the vote.  The Socialist Party showing in 1917 had a very different character.  The major race featured Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville businessman, winning 45% of the vote for burgess in an election against a fusion candidate.  Protest activity diminished in the 1920s but Reuben Einstein remained active.  A local of the Socialist Party operated in Homer City and John Brophy provided leadership for coal miners in District 2 of the United Mine Workers.  Socialist activity revived in the 1930s as unemployed organizations emerged and workers struck and organized.

Many observers viewed socialism as a rising tide between 1910 and 1920.  Europe exhibited numerous strong socialist movements.  In Germany the socialists played a particularly important role in the national legislature.  The United States failed to duplicate this level of performance.  Nevertheless, the Socialist Party of America became an important presence.  Eugene Debs, the party’s perennial presidential candidate, became the tribute of the poor and the conscience of the nation.  The party elected candidates, held meetings and published newspapers.  Cities such as Milwaukee and Reading became socialist strongholds and Debs won 17% of the Oklahoma vote in the 1912 election.  Schisms and other problems undermined the party but it achieved a temporary revival in the municipal elections of 1917.  Morris Hillquit, the Socialist Party mayoral candidate, polled more than 20% of the vote in New York City.

The Socialist Party of Indiana County began its 1912 campaign in February.  Jack McKeown, state organizer for the party, addressed a meeting at the Court House.  The following week a mass meeting at the West Indiana House resulted in the establishment of a permanent organization.  D.R. Palmer of Black Lick served as permanent chairperson and Reuben Einstein became the secretary.  The audience chose a committee of urged socialists to continue to educate the public until socialism achieved a global triumph.  A speech by James H. Maurer highlighted the activities of the following month.  Maurer, the only socialist member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, later became president of the Pennsylvania Federation and vice presidential candidate on the tickets with Norman Thomas in the elections of 1928 and 1932.  Maurer lectured to a large audience on the topic of “How our Laws are made.”  The audience included delegations from Clymer, Dixonville, Black Lick, Creekside, and Blairsville.  The sponsors invited workingmen, farmers and decent citizens and issued a special invitation to women.  Two other socialist speakers came to Indiana in April.

The election results showed the growth of socialist sentiment since 1908.  At the national level Debs increased his vote total from 400,000 to 900,000 in 1912 as he won 6% of the ballots.  His Indiana County vote almost tripled.  He polled a little over 6% of the vote in 1912.  In some districts, however, his performance far exceeded this level.  For example, he won 11% of the vote in Montgomery Township and 12% in Blairsville.  In some coal communities he achieved his peak strength.  Glen Campbell cast 24% of its vote for Debs as did Burrell Township.  Black Lick Township No. 2 cast 18 of its 45 votes for Debs as he outdistanced Theodore Roosevelt, the runner up with 12 votes, and the other presidential candidates.

The 1917 election lacked this broad based socialist turnout.  However, the race for burgess in Blairsville offered a showcase for an unusual socialist candidate – Reuben Einstein.  Einstein opened a clothing store in 1892 and soon achieved local prominence.  The Blairsville Evening Courier described his marriage to an Oil City woman in 1894.  The article noted their honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls and the many presents received by the bride and groom.  Einstein’s involvement in socialist politics preceded the 1917 campaign.  He played a role in the 1912 election and ran for Congress on the socialist ticket in 1914, polling about 5% of the vote.  The Blairsville Courier provided little news coverage of the race for burgess, but a series of socialist party ads and letters offered readers its perspective on the issues.  The party pointed with pride to its provision for the recall of officials unfaithful to their constituents.  Municipal housekeeping received consideration as the socialists promised to watch cost sheets carefully and town water works, streets and schools in a manner beneficial to the public.  The party promised to mail a leaflet “What Is Socialism” to every Blairsville voter.  The socialist party criticized the economic system for underpaying workers and an inability to generate sufficient demand to consume what the economy produced.  The final ad written by Reuben Einstein, criticized the railroads for gouging and called for the people to own the railroads as well as industry and the natural resources.  A fundamental problem resulted from our toll gate system in which the few exercised control over the industrial life of the nation and imposed low wages and bad conditions on the workers.

The race for burgess pitted Reuben Einstein against J.W. McAnulty who ran as a fusion candidate of the Republican, Democratic and Prohibition parties.  McAnulty viewed an unequal distribution of wealth as a natural condition.  His reply to the socialists emphasized his patriotism and a condemnation of the Kaiser as an enemy of mankind.  A week before the election Einstein pointed to his wealth as qualification for public office.  He stated that he paid more taxes than any individual property owner in town and depicted that status as a strong motivation to look after the interest of the voters as well as his own.  However, McAnulty won the race for burgess by 52 votes as he carried the 2nd and 3rd wards.  Einstein won 45% of the total vote and a 30 vote margin in the 1st ward.  Protest movements in Indiana County began to fade after this defeat although Einstein remained an active socialist, and John Brophy became a rallying point for miners in the District of the United Mine Workers as he opposed John L. Lewis and supported progressive measures including the nationalization of the mines.

Protest continued in Indiana County.  However, the 20th century differed from the late 19th century.  The role of farmers receded and the activities of miners increased.  The Greenback-Labor Party and the Populist Party gave way to the Socialist Party of America.  Protest lacked a county wide constituency but in some areas it emerged and even flourished.  Glen Campbell, Black Lick and Blairsville provided continuity with earlier protest movements.  In the 1930s socialism rose again and for a time Black Lick and other areas emerged as centers of protest.  The New Deal and the United Mine Workers received most of the attention, but grass roots activities by the unemployed, workers and socialists provided channels for protest as they had in earlier movements of the 1890s and early 20th century.

A Labor Trilogy Part I: The Greenback-Labor Movement in Indiana County, 1878-79

National monetary policy played a big role in national politics in the 1870s.  Toward the end of the decade Pennsylvania became a stronghold of Greenback-Labor Party sentiment.  The northern counties dependent on agriculture and lumbering proved particularly responsive.  The race for governor in 1878 illustrated support for the party in Indiana County.  It polled 30% in the county compared to 11% statewide.  Some townships registered totals in the 50% range.  The party never duplicated this showing, but the following year the county received much attention with the nomination of Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton outdistanced the Democratic candidate in Indiana County.  James Weaver’s race for the presidency in 1880 produced disappointing results.  Nevertheless, Indiana County cast more than 1,000 votes for him, a figure matched only by Tioga County.  The count exceeded the 1,000 figure in the elections of 1881, 1882 and 1884 to rank as one of the county strongholds of the Greenback-Labor Party in the Commonwealth.

Declining farm prices and tightened credit helped to set the stage for protest movements in Pennsylvania.  The Grange gained popularity and many farmers used it to complain about the railroads.  The Depression of 1873 aggravated conditions and as late as 1878 the agriculture and lumber sectors remained unimproved.  The economic crisis buoyed the prospects of the Greenback-Labor Party which polled over one million votes in the congressional election of 1878; Pennsylvania, a stronghold of the movement, included a number of counties in which the party surpassed 30% of the total vote.

Peter Sutton
Peter Sutton, Greenback-Labor Party candidate for State Treasurer, 1879

The Indiana County party took more tangible form with its county convention in May 1878.  The twenty-four delegates included twelve representatives from Green Township.  The following month Blairsville demonstrated its interest by organizing a Greenback Club and hosting a speech by W.R. Allison, a party stalwart on July 4.  The National Labor Tribune, a leading labor newspaper published in Pittsburgh, described the Greenback-Labor Party of Blairsville as flourishing and adding to its numbers.  By July, the club held weekly meetings in the Town Hall.  Other communities also hosted Greenback-Labor meetings and other activities.   Jacksonville held a June meeting and a July 4th celebration at Pine Flats that included a dinner, speeches, reading of the Declaration of Independence and music.

The pace of campaigning intensified in September.  Local meetings continued but the emphasis shifted to larger and more dramatic activities.  The Greenback parade featured a large delegation from Green Township, the Elderton brass band and six martial drum corps.  A convention in late September attracted a sizable turnout with estimates ranging from 300 to 600.  A week before the election the party held another convention.  This activity drew a large crowd well supplied with banners and flags.  They heard a speech by the Greenback-Labor candidate for governor.

The election returns illustrated the strength of the Greenback-Labor ticket in the county as its candidate for governor polled 30% of the vote.  The party carried a number of townships, winning in Burrell, Rayne, Washington, Canoe, Green, and Grant.  It also won Homer City.  Green Township, the party stronghold in the county, produced 60% of the vote for the Greenback-Labor ticket.

Census figures for 1880 provided an occupational breakdown for areas of strong party support.  The vast majority of adults males listed themselves as farmers with their sons recorded as farm hands and their wives as keeping house.  Variations occur, however, most notably in Homer City with a population composition heavily weighted to laborers, sawmill workers and teamsters, and in Burrell Township with railroad workers, laborers (especially at the fire brick yard), coal miners and carpenters as well as the more commonplace categories of farmers and farm hands.  Washington Township included workers in the trades such as masons and carpenters and Canoe Township contained some grist mill and saw mill workers in addition to carpenters.

1879 began auspiciously for the party with a meeting of the county committee in early January.  Good news continued the following month with the entire Greenback ticket elected in Burrell Township and two Auditors victorious in Blairsville.  June featured the county convention which met at the Indiana Courthouse.  The representatives chose delegates to the State Convention and instructed them to support Peter Sutton for State Treasurer.  Sutton won the party’s nomination.  He came from one of the oldest families in the county and established a personal reputation as a well-to-do merchant and former Associate Judge of Indiana County.  The Party publicized his campaign with a biographical sketch and the party’s platform.  In his speeches Sutton condemned the current ruinous financial system.  A tremendous Greenback-Labor meeting at Marion Center in September highlighted the campaign.  The event attracted an audience of 5,000 which heard eight bands and several speakers.  The speakers encouraged laborers to join the struggle for universal justice and human rights.  Ox roasts and picnics produced large audiences and gave Sutton and other party orators an opportunity to spread their message.  Peter Sutton outpolled the Democratic candidate in Indian County and Tioga County.  He polled a statewide vote 10% of the winner’s total.  The party continued to operate in the 1880s publishing a newspaper, the Indiana Banner, and amassing vote totals of over 1,000 which compared favorably with party showings elsewhere in the state.  However, the revival of prosperity undermined the party’s appeal and the attempt to bring farmers and workers into solidarity remained relatively dormant until the revival of a more favorable climate in the 1890s.

This episode links developments in Indiana County with protest movements elsewhere in the state.  It also deepens our knowledge of a protest tradition in the county.  The role of the abolitionists and the organizing campaign of the United Mine Workers in the 1930s has received some attention, but there are other notable movements to chronicle.  The Greenback-Labor Party provided farmers and other discontented groups with a channel for expressing their discontent.  Peter Sutton’s campaign gave Indiana County voters an opportunity to support a man of recognized probity, integrity and uprightness who presented himself as “The Farmer Candidate and Mechanic’s Friend.”