Appeal to Reason

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The Appeal to Reason was the most important socialist weekly newspaper ever published in the United States. Its rise and fall—circulation peaked at about 760,000 readers in 1912 but declined after that—parallels the rise and fall of the socialist movement in America, which saw its greatest electoral victory in the 1912 presidential election, when the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs received 6 percent of the popular vote. The Appeal is interesting to literary historians because of the various rhetorical and stylistic strategies its writers and editors used to convince its readers to support the socialist cause.


It is impossible to separate the history of the Appeal from the biography of its founder, Julius Augustus Wayland, who called himself the "One Hoss Editor." Wayland was born in 1854 into an Indiana family left nearly destitute by his father's death. He committed suicide in 1912, at the height of support for both the Appeal and the socialist movement but also in the midst of attempts by the government to suppress the paper. At the age of sixteen, Wayland became a printer's apprentice, eventually learning the business and operating his own shops, which published a weekly paper and printed other jobs.

During the early period of his newspaper career, Wayland developed several strategies that allowed him to prosper as a small-town newspaper editor. First, he demanded that subscribers pay in advance, which allowed him to meet initial costs, and he actively solicited new subscribers. In turn, he used the subscription numbers to solicit advertisers and to keep the rates for advertising high. Finally, he reinvested funds into the business, relying on the latest printing technology, which also helped to keep costs low. In short, Wayland was a businessman first. But as a newspaper editor, it was also inevitable that he would become involved in politics because most local papers received support from a specific political party. The first paper he purchased in 1873, the Cass County Courier, was staunchly Democratic, yet Wayland considered himself very much a Republican. Republican leaders supported his efforts to start a Republican newspaper, which he did in 1878, calling it the Cass County News. Wayland used this opportunity to become more vocal about Republican issues and to offer sharp criticism of the majority Democrats.

In 1882 Wayland moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where he not only built a prosperous printing business but also managed to earn considerable wealth (about $80,000) by becoming almost inadvertently involved in real estate speculation as he began buying property to expand his printing business. Later, Wayland would declare that the "present system of private ownership is wrong" (p. 151), but at that time he saw real estate speculation as merely a more efficient way to make money. Toward the end of the decade, convinced that "another crisis was about to hit the country" (p. 24), Wayland began rapidly converting his real estate holdings to cash. During the time that he lived in Pueblo, probably around 1890, Wayland began studying the theories of socialism and eventually became both a convert to the movement and an agitator for it. In the introduction to Leaves of Life, a 1912 collection of his writing for the Appeal, Wayland himself describes this process. He began to have conversations with a local English shoemaker, William Bradfield, about railroad strikes, which he had almost certainly learned about through print jobs submitted to his shop. Bradfield gave him a pamphlet and then another. As a result of his study, Wayland notes, "I closed up my real estate business and devoted my whole energies to the work of trying to get my neighbors to see the truths I had learned" (p. 24). He became a kind of sidewalk advocate for socialist views, converting others through the force of his personality, but by the mid-1890s he had decided to return to the nation's heartland and to use his skills as a writer and newspaper editor to advance the movement.

Significantly, considering the way the Appeal would later serve as a quasi-official organ of the Socialist Labor Party, disseminating information about socialist theory and politics across the nation, Wayland came to socialism through works by John Ruskin and Edward Bellamy, whose approach to socialism was utopian, and not through Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, or European writers, who focused more on the problems of labor and capital. Most historians now agree that the form of socialism advocated by the Appeal and its editors was a distinctly "American" form of the philosophy. Elliott Shore has identified four sources of Wayland's unique and sometimes even contradictory beliefs, which came to be known collectively as the "One-Hoss Philosophy": a faith in American democratic ideals, populism, the socialist views of Bellamy, and his own reading of Ruskin (Talkin' Socialism, p. 35). Wayland's philosophy was, as David Paul Nord describes it, "indigenous American socialism" (p. 78), and the Appeal "was a paper which served up its socialism on a plain earthenware platter seasoned to American tastes" (p. 88). Wayland firmly believed that social change could be effected through the ballot box, and he consistently favored all kinds of political activism over the various kinds of labor activism that other socialists advocated. Quite simply, he felt that if enough people could be persuaded to vote for socialist candidates, the nation would change. But to persuade them to vote socialist, he had to first convince them that they were "slaves" to the ruling class, that the existing competitive economic system must be replaced with a cooperative one, and that this change could occur through radical political change.

In February 1893 Wayland left Pueblo and returned to Indiana, publishing the first edition of the Coming Nation, a precursor of the Appeal to Reason. But this publication was not just to be another publishing enterprise. Wayland envisioned the paper as part of a larger communal effort, which would, in effect, demonstrate the socialist principles that the paper espoused. To this end, Wayland moved the Coming Nation to Tennessee and founded the Ruskin Colony. But the communal lifestyle was difficult for Wayland, who resented giving over any control of the paper. As Mother Jones, who had been invited to join the colony but declined, notes in chapter 4 of her autobiography: "I visited the colony a year a later. I could see in that short time disrupting elements" (p. 28). In 1895 Wayland turned over the Coming Nation to the Ruskin Colony and returned to Kansas City, Missouri. There, Mother Jones found him "despondent" but urged him to start another paper, for which she agreed to solicit subscriptions. Thus, in August 1895 Wayland published the first issue of the Appeal to Reason, which he later relocated to the small town of Girard, Kansas, where it would be published until its demise in 1922.


The Appeal to Reason consisted of short pieces by Wayland himself along with excerpts from writers like William Morris and Ruskin, letters from readers, and as the socialist movement grew, essays by staff writers and columnists as well as articles and essays by well-known socialist writers and politicians. It also published political cartoons, especially in the later period. Wayland's "paragraphs," short mediations about the meaning of socialism, were a distinct feature of the Appeal until his death in 1912. In a letter written in 1899 and quoted in Leaves of Life, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, tells Wayland: "You have a faculty of reaching the average man. More than anything else it is your pointed paragraphs that do the work" (p. 38).

In essence, Wayland invented a new genre of political discourse aimed at educating and persuading the masses. He relied on vivid analogies to show readers the disadvantages of the current system. In one paragraph he notes, "Debt is like morphine," and later in the same piece: "A people in debt is helpless. The usurers make the law and keep them in bondage" (p. 49). The idea of slavery was a particularly potent image for him. Several of his "paragraphs" draw analogies between black chattel slavery of the antebellum era and what he called "wage slavery": "The employer is the task master. He must get all he can out of his wage-slaves, just as did the chattel-slave master" (p. 147). Wayland often suggested that wage slavery was, in fact, even worse than chattel slavery and that those who perpetrate wage slavery "will do even viler things" (p. 151). He felt that the chattel slave had a more intrinsic value than individual wage slaves have under capitalism. In a 1907 paragraph, written in dialect, Wayland recounts a conversation between a slave and a master. When the master asks the slave to fix a leaky roof, the slave tells his master that if he falls off the roof, the master loses $500, the slave's value. The slave concludes: "Now if massah send up that Irishman whom massah is hiring for $1.50 a day, and he rolls off, and he falls down, and he breaks his neck, massah will lose nuffin" (Graham, p. 80). Through epigrams, parables, and fables, Wayland was able to teach socialist principles.


In 1901 Fred D. Warren joined the staff and in the next few years assumed from Wayland much of the responsibility for the paper's editorial content. Warren's political beliefs were similar to Wayland's; they shared the goal of effecting radical economic change through political action by an experienced, carefully educated electorate. And like Wayland, Warren accepted the contradictions inherent in advocating socialist views in a mass consumer society. For example, both agreed with the Appeal's policy of accepting advertisements from the very capitalists they hoped to overthrow. In a 1913 article in the Appeal titled "What I Believe," Warren states, "I have no conscientious scruples against the use of any method, direct or indirect, that will secure to the working class possession of the machinery of production" (Graham, p. 87). Warren certainly took risks. The publication in 1906 of Debs's article "Arouse, Ye Slaves!" prompted none other than President Theodore Roosevelt to look for ways to stifle the Appeal. In 1907 Warren was arrested for threatening and defamatory language when the Appeal issued what purported to be a "reward" for the return of the former Kentucky governor to stand trial for conspiracy to commit murder. In 1911 he was charged by the federal government with sending "obscenity" through the U.S. Post Office when the Appeal published a series of articles on abuse in Leavenworth prison. Despite all government effort to suppress the Appeal during the period before World War I, it was not until 1917 that the paper's second-class postage rights were denied under Title 12 of the Espionage Act.

Warren always stopped well short of advocating any kind of violence to achieve his ends, as he asserts in "What I Believe," "I think entirely too much of my head to risk butting it against a stone wall in the shape of a policeman's club wielded by a man who takes his orders from capitalist politicians" (Graham, p. 87). Warren, like Wayland himself, was not just a political activist but a journalist as well, maintaining a strong editorial hand. Under Warren's leadership the Appeal solicited not only essays but also poetry and fiction, publishing writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Stephen Crane. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was serialized in the Appeal. In Nord's words, "It was a mixture of muckraking scandal, circulation hustle, and epigrammatic socialism that made the Appeal such a rip-roaring success" (p. 76). Its success was also boosted by advertising revenues and by an army of salespeople, numbering about eighty thousand by 1913, who sold subscriptions across the country. Although its influence began to decline, especially after Warren resigned in 1913, it remained until 1922 a significant voice for alternative political views.

See alsoPeriodicals; Socialism


Primary Work

Jones, Mary Harris. The Autobiography of Mother Jones. Edited by Mary Field Parton. Chicago: C. H. Kerr, 1925.

Wayland, J. A. Leaves of Life: A Story of Twenty Years of Socialist Agitation. 1912. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1975.

Secondary Works

Graham, John, ed. "Yours for the Revolution": The "Appeal to Reason" 1895–1922. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Hume, Janice. "Lincoln Was a 'Red' and Washington a Bolshevik: Public Memory as Persuader in the Appeal to Reason." Journalism History 28, no. 4 (2003): 172–181.

Nord, David Paul. "The Appeal to Reason and American Socialism, 1901–1920." Kansas History 1, no. 2 (1978): 75–89.

Shore, Elliott. Talkin' Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890–1912. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988.

Shore, Elliott. "The Walkout at the Appeal and the Dilemmas of American History." History Workshop Journal 22 (1986): 41–55.

Sterling, David L. "The Federal Government v. the Appeal to Reason." Kansas History 9, no. 1 (1986): 31–42.

Nancy Morrow

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Appeal to Reason

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