Voltairine de Cleyre, “Hugh O. Pentecost” (1907)

EIGHTEEN or nineteen years ago, away out in a sleepy little Michigan town, there fell into my hands a tiny bit of a paper “no bigger than a man’s hand”; there were only four sheets of it, but every word was vibrant with life and power. It was written by Hugh O. Pentecost and T. B. McCready, and at this hour I feel my eyes opening wide again as they did that morning with the light and the movement in the swinging lines. They were Single-Taxers then, but with an alarming freedom in their handling of it that must have made the orthodox Georgeites tremble for what was likely to come next; and for what did come next. From week to week the little paper grew in thought, and grew in size, and grew in force. McCready wrote comments on life as it passed, and Pentecost delivered speeches which were printed; and it was often hard to tell who said the best things and said them best. One great quality they had in common: their thoughts were naked and not ashamed. They were moving towards a rising sun, and if from week to week the light broke farther, wider, higher, and things came out with a different face than they had appeared in the semi-twilight of a month before, neither McCready nor Pentecost shrank from owning it; and men who were thinking along with them felt not the respect of a pupil for a teacher, but the free comradeship of fellow-seekers. There was such a world of good humor in it, such a frankness, such a fearlessness in reversing themselves! and such fire in it all!

Only,—even those of us who were already Anarchists, and who saw things coming our way, naturally with satisfaction, could not but feel startled at times, and a little dubious, too, at the unwonted speed the Twentieth Century was making. Willy-nilly, the question would intrude: “Can the man who so easily, so rapidly changes his mind, have had time to ground himself well? Will not he who so readily deserts his old position desert the new as readily?”—It was at the time this question was obtruding itself most insistently upon me, in spite of the genuine delight I felt in reading Pentecost’s speeches, that my first opportunity to hear him came. I remember so well the remarks he made concerning those self-same lightning changes, which, apparently, others must have questioned him about. “People say that I change my mind too rapidly. Why, it is perfectly delightful to find out you have mind enough to change!” Still we kept on shaking our heads over our own good fortune (for Pentecost had now become unequivocally opposed to all law, and while he never called himself an Anarchist in the paper, he even went as far as that in a private letter which I have seen, wherein he said: “Any one who advances logically along the lines that I have done, must land in Anarchy, and that is where I have landed.”) I recall that in discussing Mr. Pentecost with Dr. Gertrude Kelly, not long after this, she expressed her opinion that he was an “immoral character,” in that being himself in a developing state of mind, not certain of himself, he nevertheless undertook to teach others; that he pronounced himself before knowing what he was talking about, and upset other people’s minds without giving them clear ideas. Remembering all this now, I cannot help thinking that Dr. Kelly was right, and yet I am unspeakably glad that Pentecost and McCready spoke when they did and as they did. The Twentieth Century was the most interesting type of the “free platform” we have seen in this country within my knowledge; it blew like a breath out of the world of the making of things, it bubbled with life, and was indifferent to consistency. It had grown from the tiny paperlet to a sixteen-page journal, and never lost its principal character of eager questioning.

Then there came a heavy blow: McCready, sunny McCready, of the laughing words; funny McCready, with his gay tilt-riding at the ponderous Knights of the Present Order; tender McCready, with the brimming sympathies; loving McCready was dead, and half the light of the “Twentieth Century” went out.

Nay, more than half. For already there was creeping into the editorials of Pentecost a lassitude, a heaviness, that told of the dying fire. The contributors gave as before, and there were many good ones. But the peculiar glory of the paper, its brilliant editor was somehow a little spiritless. Words went around. The man had sacrificed too much; he had been a wealthy preacher of a wealthy church. He had forsaken wealth to follow his ideals of truth, and though the crowd that followed him had grown larger and larger, it was not the crowd that could give him the material things he had once enjoyed. And then we heard that Mr. Pentecost was studying law; and then that he had given up the “Twentieth Century.” And then we heard little more of him till the black thing fell. And when it fell I was glad that McCready was dead and would never know. The daily papers told us first, but of course we did not believe them. We waited till we saw it all in the “Twentieth Century” itself, and then we had to know that Hugh O. Pentecost, the man who had so effectually demonstrated the iniquity of laws, had mocked at law-worship, done his best to destroy it, had sought and all but received an Assistant District Attorneyship. All but. It was his own ghost that saved him; for the daily papers of the opposition had dragged out the files of the “Twentieth Century,” hunted through them for the most Anarchistic of his speeches, reprinted and spread them broadcast—unmindful that they were doing the Anarchists good service thereby, so that they won their point—and asked the voters: Is this the man for a District Attorneyship? So great was the pressure brought upon the chief who had promised him the position, that he was compelled to retract his promise to Pentecost, after the election, and when the latter came prepared to take the oath of office he was met by a definite refusal. Thereupon appeared Mr. Pentecost’s recantation of heresy. In all my life I have never read a document so utterly devoid of human dignity, so utterly currish. There is a piece of detestable slang which is the sole expression fit for it: “The Baby Act.” Not only did Mr. Pentecost renounce his former beliefs in liberty, but he took refuge in the pitiable explanation that he, a cloud-land dreamer, had been misled by his innocence into the defense of Parsons, Spies, etc., who, now he had been convinced, had been properly enough hanged. Poor, delicate lamb deceived by ravenous wolves! That was the tenor of the story. Had it been all true, a man would have bitten out his tongue rather than have told such truth. All this is many years ago, and gentler spirits than mine have overlooked and almost forgotten it, in the redemption of his after years. But when the sum of his life is cast up, Justice says, let it not be forgotten that he had within him the Benedict Arnold, and had the times been such as are in Russia now, he would have sold the lives of men as then he sold his conscience for a mess of pottage.

“After Death the Resurrection.” That recantation was the putrefaction of a dead soul. There came a quickening. For a few years he was silent; then one day we heard that Pentecost was speaking—again back on the side of liberalism! I confess I heard it with rage. “Let him have the decency to keep still,” I said. “If he is really sincere, let him be a radical, long enough to prove his sincerity, without talking.” Others said I was too harsh, and I think they were right. But I could not forget that sentence about the Chicago men.

For all the years since 1892 I had not seen him. I avoided him as sedulously as I could whenever requests for speeches would have brought us in contact. To all descriptions of his splendid addresses I sneered back: “What is he now?” At length it fell out, about a year ago, that we were both to address a Moyer and Haywood protest meeting in Philadelphia. In such a cause I did not think I had a right to refuse to speak; so I swallowed my dislike, but remarked to the chairman, Geo. Brown, “Don’t you steer me up against Pentecost. I don’t want to have to speak to him.” Geo. Brown is nothing if not mischief-loving. He wanted to see the fur fly. Incidentally he wanted to tell Pentecost that he himself was still a little sore over that recantation, but, while fond of seeing other people rage, he dislikes to say disagreeable things. So he did just what I told him not to do. I am glad now that he did. There was nothing for it but to say what I felt. I remember the hurt look, hurt and surprised, on Pentecost’s face when Brown said, “Here is a lady who has a grudge against you.” I plunged in; his mouth and eyes saddened, inexpressibly. “The District Attorneyship? Yes, it was all wrong, all wrong. But wasn’t that a long time ago?” I admitted it was; but was that an excuse? No, it was no excuse; there could be no excuse. He knew that; he didn’t offer any; his mind had been in a condition of moral slump, and influences had been used on him; but he knew that didn’t justify him. “Of course, if I had got it, I would have accepted and gone on with it—” I interrupted him: “It was your luck, Mr. Pentecost, that you didn’t get it.”—”It was. No one realized that better than I. No one was happier than I that I didn’t get it.—It was through the efforts of Mrs. Pentecost that the offer had been obtained.”—”And what you said of your having been deceived into the defense of Parsons and the rest?”—He didn’t remember having worded the matter quite so pitiably as I said; but what he meant was that he had been misinformed; he had thought these men had never preached force or counseled it, while later information had led him to believe there had been a conspiracy, as the State contended. However, for any evidence that went before the court, the men were never proven guilty, and that he stood by, as he had stood in the old days of ‘86, when, to the best of his belief, he was the first public man who had spoken in their defense. He seemed to take great satisfaction in that memory, and repeated it on the platform later on. As for the rest, he had done his best. He had kept silent for a while; and now for ten years he had worked in New York, and he thought those who knew his work would bear witness to his sincerity. What more could he say?

And what more could he say? When a man has done wrong, and owned it, and done his best to retrieve himself, he has done all. My bitterness melted, and we shook hands then.

His speech was, as always, strong, graceful, effective. But it was the trained lawyer speaking; not the old inspired prophet of liberty. The menace in his final sentence showed that if he had once deprecated forcible resistance as preached by the Chicago men, he had shifted that ground, too; for he said that if the powers of Idaho refused fair trial to these men, annihilated all attempts at peaceable justice, then—”LET THEM TAKE THE CONSEQUENCES.”

Before he went he said to me: “I am glad we have had this talk. I would not want you to feel unkind towards me, for you have not a better friend than I am.” I give the sentence, because it shows his personal magnanimity and gentleness. I had not been mild, and a smaller man would not have felt particularly friendly just then.

His time was short and he left before the meeting was over, refusing to accept his expense money, saying: “Keep that as my contribution.” I never met him again.

Of his recent conversion to socialism I have little to say. It did not surprise me. I had recognized before that his mind was of the unstable order which has to be changing. Had he gone into Unitarianism, or Catholicism, that also would not have surprised me. He would not have remained a socialist any more than he remained an anarchist, or a single taxer, because he could not remain anything. But, in the party or out of it, he would always have been a splendid force; and in the summing up of his life, the balance must go to the credit side. For the effective and concentrated efforts of his best years were for progress, humanism, liberty.

Would that he had died sooner, or not so soon.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Hugh O. Pentecost,” Mother Earth 2 no. 1 (March 1907): 11-16.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2195 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.