8 Centuries-Old Etiquette Rules for Talking Politics

Three Lions/Getty Images
Three Lions/Getty Images

It can sometimes be easy to forget that a civilized political discourse is possible—especially around the holidays, when family members with vastly different viewpoints gather around one table. Doing your best to rise above the fray? Nineteenth century etiquette experts were full of (surprisingly) timeless pieces of advice for discussing issues with friends, colleagues, and family members. Keep this list handy this holiday season, and remember: Politics can get ugly, but the drawing room conversation doesn't have to.


"It is very needful for one who desires to talk well, not only to be well acquainted with the current news, and modern and ancient literature of his language, but also with the historical events of the past and present of all countries. He must not have a confused idea of dates and history, but be able to give a clear account, not only of the chief events of the recent Rebellion, but also of those of the Revolutions of the past century, and of the period of the Roman Empire, its rise and fall, and of the various important events which have occurred in England, France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, and Russia."

From Daisy Eyebright’s A Manual of Etiquette With Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding, 1873


"Retain, if you will, a fixed political opinion, yet do not parade it upon all occasions, and, above all, do not endeavor to force others to agree with you. Listen calmly to their ideas upon the same subjects, and if you cannot agree, differ politely, and while your opponent may set you down as a bad politician, let him be obliged to admit that you are a gentleman."

From Cecil B. Hartley’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette, 1875


"Never, when advancing an opinion, assert positively that a thing 'is so,' but give your opinion as an opinion. Say, 'I think this is so,' or, 'these are my views,' but remember that your companion may be better informed upon the subject under discussion, or, where it is a mere matter of taste or feeling, do not expect that all the world will feel exactly as you do."

From Florence Hartley’s The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1860


"A man is sure to show his good or bad breeding the instant he opens his mouth to talk in company … The ground is common to all, and no one has a right to monopolize any part of it for his own particular opinions, in politics or religion. No one is there to make proselytes, but every one has been invited, to be agreeable and to please."

From Arthur Martine’s Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness, 1866


"Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion … or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing."

From Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness


"Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry … Many there are who, giving their opinion, not as an opinion but as a law, will defend their position by such phrases, as: 'Well, if I were president or governor, I would,' — and while by the warmth of their argument they prove that they are utterly unable to govern their own temper, they will endeavor to persuade you that they are perfectly competent to take charge of the government of the nation."

From A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette


"In a dispute, if you cannot reconcile the parties, withdraw from them. You will surely make one enemy, perhaps two, by taking either side, in an argument when the speakers have lost their temper."

From A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette


"It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians … or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them."

From Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness

This piece originally ran in 2016.

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Eugene V. Debs, the Five-Time Socialist Candidate for President Who Once Campaigned From Prison

Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
APIC/Getty Images

By 1920, the name Eugene Debs represented different things to different groups. For some, he was a visionary union leader and politician who rose to the national stage to unite American workers under the banner of socialism. To others, he was a dangerous traitor who sought to discredit the nation’s war effort and undo the tremendous progress the country’s economy had made in the beginning of the 20th century. And to the employees at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he was inmate number 9653.

The first two viewpoints depend solely on a person's political leanings, but the third was an indisputable fact. Debs was indeed an imprisoned man—who also happened to be running for President of the United States from his cell.

Who was Eugene Debs?

Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Marguerite Bettrich and Jean Daniel Debs, two immigrants from Alsace, France. They came to the U.S. in 1849 and worked in the grocery business. At age 14, Eugene took a job as a paint scraper at Vandalia Railroad, where he earned just $.50 a day. He soon moved up to become a railroad fireman, shoveling piles of coal into the locomotive’s firebox for more than $1 each night [PDF]. This was at a time when workers toiled for 16 hours a day, six days a week. 

In 1875, Debs was elected secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was an editor for the organization’s monthly magazine. Seeing the dangers firemen faced firsthand, Debs said his brotherhood would fight to “provide for the widows and orphans who are daily left penniless and at the mercy of public charity by the death of a brother.” His growing interest in social and economic issues also led to a two-term stint as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1879 to 1883, and a term serving as a Democrat in the Indiana General Assembly in 1884.

On June 20, 1893, Debs's ambitions grew when he founded the American Railway Union (ARU) to protect all workers throughout the railroad industry, not just firemen. The union was soon one of the country’s largest, with 125 local chapters nationwide; at one point, enrollments hit 2000 a day.

The Pullman Strikes: Eugene Debs's First Arrest

Eugene debs addresses a crowd of union workers.
For a brief moment, the American Railway Union was the most powerful labor union in the country.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In May 1894, after suffering a series of salary cuts, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked off the job. In response, Debs and the ARU organized a massive sympathy boycott of any trains and railroads using Pullman cars, and by June, 125,000 ARU workers had joined the cause. A nation that thrived on cross-country train commerce was now being stopped in its tracks.

The workers' defiance soon turned to anger. After Debs made a speech to workers on June 29 in Blue Island, Illinois, some in the crowd broke off and began a riot. By day's end, buildings had been burned to the ground and a locomotive with a mail train attached to it lay topped over.

With the U.S. mail system affected by the strike, and vital rail service crippled, President Grover Cleveland now considered the unruliness to be a federal matter. In early July, Attorney General Richard Olney issued an injunction against Debs and other ARU leaders that forbid them from communicating with their union members. The press at the time turned on Debs, too, claiming the strike he organized around the Pullman situation was a power grab. One political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune portrayed “Dictator Debs” as a cigar-chomping would-be king who liked to rest his feet on the U.S. Constitution [PDF].

President Cleveland deployed troops to Chicago to quell the ongoing demonstrations, but on July 7, the conflicts turned violent. Members of the National Guard killed anywhere from four to 30 strikers in the clash. Debs, who was no longer legally allowed to communicate with his members, could do nothing to calm tensions.

That same month, Debs was arrested and charged with contempt of court and conspiracy to interfere with U.S. mail, and spent six months behind bars. The ARU crumbled soon after, and while many Pullman workers were eventually rehired, they had to agree in writing to never form a union.

The four-time presidential candidate

Behind bars, Debs read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and converted to socialism. In 1897, two years after leaving prison, he established the Social Democratic Party of America.

Under this banner, Debs made his first run for president in 1900 on a platform revolving around workers’ equality and better wages. William McKinley won the race with a total of 7,207,923 votes, while Debs garnered just 86,935. Still, it was a start.

Debs ran again in 1904, this time as a member of the next political party he helped establish: the Socialist Party of America. His totals jumped to around 402,000 votes; in 1908, he returned with 420,000 votes, losing to Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, respectively.

Debs's peak came in the election of 1912—one of the great wild cards in U.S. history. It featured the incumbent, Taft, running against Democrat Woodrow Wilson; former president Roosevelt, who was running as a member of the Progressive Party; and Debs, running again as a Socialist on a platform that put an emphasis on workers, women's suffrage, and ending child labor.

Debs fell short once again, but his total ballooned to more than 900,000 votes—6 percent of the popular vote. It's still the highest percentage of the vote a Socialist candidate has ever received in a presidential election, and it’s more than double the amount he earned in 1908. It would be another eight years before his fifth and final presidential campaign—arguably one of the strangest the country has seen.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts: Eugene Debs's Second Arrest

Eugene Debs during a 1912 presidential campaign speech.
Eugene Debs was known as a prolific orator, with speeches clocking in at over two hours long.
Keystone/Getty Images

By 1914, Debs was expressing his ardent opposition to America’s seemingly inevitable involvement in World War I in a series of anti-war editorials in the National Rip-Saw, where he stuck to one main message: “Capitalist nations not only exploit their workers, but ruthlessly invade, plunder, and ravage one another. The profit system is responsible for it all.”

Written words gave way to public rallies. Debs traveled across the Northeast to speak to his base of frustrated workers looking for a unifying voice against war. During one memorable stop in Boston, he asked a packed crowd of workers: “Must we send the workers of one country against those of another because a citizen has been torpedoed on the high seas, while we do nothing about the 600,000 workingmen that are crushed each year needlessly under our industrial machinery?”

Socialist opposition to the military action had little real effect. On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war against Germany. Just a few months later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which targeted “disloyal” citizens who attempted to interfere with military progress during the war. This was followed by the complementary Sedition Act of 1918, giving federal authorities the power to punish anyone using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” toward the Constitution, the military, or the country.

Debs knew the risks he was taking with his anti-war crusade, but he continued throughout the Midwest, culminating in a speech at a Socialist Party gathering in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. For two hours, the impassioned orator made his case, criticizing everything from the war to the Sedition Act to the military draft.

“The master class has always declared the wars,” the 62-year-old told the crowd. “The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

Days later, Debs was arrested while heading to another party event in Cleveland. The jury found him guilty on three counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts. On September 18, 1918, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A convicted man's campaign

Eugene Debs running for president from prison.
A look at Eugene Debs's 1920 presidential campaign, where he ran for office from prison.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even prison couldn’t quiet Debs. In fact, by 1920, he was again nominated to be the Socialist Party's candidate for president, his fifth run overall. While he was accustomed to campaigning by train and speaking in front of thousands, in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Debs was allowed [PDF] to give one political statement every week, which was then handed over to news wires. Supporters did the campaigning for him on the ground, making posters featuring the slogan “From Atlanta Prison to the White House, 1920” and campaign buttons that showed Debs in a prison jumpsuit with the words “For President: Convict No. 9653” splashed across them. It wasn't so much a campaign as it was a protest against what many thought was Debs's unconstitutional imprisonment.

Amazingly, Debs still captured 3.4 percent of the popular vote, meaning more than 910,000 people chose a socialist in prison over Warren G. Harding or his opponent, James M. Cox.

By December 1921, with the war over, President Harding pardoned Debs and invited him to the White House. “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally,” Harding said upon meeting him. Indeed, Debs had left prison almost as a mythic figure to his followers—50,000 of whom lined up to watch his train pull in upon his return to Terra Haute.

Though the meeting with Harding was as close as he ever got to the White House, Debs proved he didn't need to win an election to make his voice heard.