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Socialist Priest Built Democracy and Aberdeen

Rev. Robert Haire, father of initiative and referendum.
Rev. Robert Haire, father of initiative and referendum.

In my speech on the American Argument to the Green Aberdeen Chautauqua last weekend, I mentioned how proud Aberdonians can be to live in the birthplace of statewide direct democracy, thanks to the efforts of Father Robert W. Haire. I mention the good Father Haire fondly and frequently in the context of my advocacy for initiative and referendum, which the Catholic priest got the people of South Dakota to write into our constitution in 1898.

Father Haire achieved much else for the Hub City during his 36 years busy years here. He invited the Presentation Sisters to move here from Fargo and establish their permanent base of operations in Aberdeen 1886. Father Haire was the Sisters’ father confessor and chaplain at St. Luke’s, the hospital they established, for the last fourteen years of his life. During his years on the Board of Regents, Father Haire persuaded the Legislature and his hesitant friend, Governor Andrew Lee, to establish Northern here in 1901. Father Haire thus established not only a statewide democratic tradition but three of the defining and sustaining institutions of this community.

Monument to Father Robert W. Haire, Northern State University campus, erected 1924.
Monument to Father Robert W. Haire, Northern State University campus, erected 1924. Photo by CAH.

Father Haire was also a diehard socialist. A small memorial tome published by the Socialist Party in Sisseton after the priest’s death in 1916 and archived in the state archives in Pierre honors Father Haire as the “Founder of Socialism in the Dakotahs.” The booklet includes eulogies from many public figures, including American Socialist Party leader and three-time (at that point; his fourth bid would happen in 1920) Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who said Father Haire’s socialism truly expressed Christianity:

Word comes to us that the good Father Haire of Aberdeen, South Dakota, has passed away. Father Haire was a pioneer Socialist of that section and many a Socialist who traveled in that direction was given food and shelter, a hearty hand-clasp and a word of cheer by the good priest who has just been laid to rest.

Almost twenty-five years ago I first met Father Haire. I had heard of him even before that as the priest who was loved by the poor and unfortunate and as being the lone Socialist in that section of the country.

Father Haire was a true follower of the Judean Carpenter. He gave all he had, and best of all, HE GAVE HIMSELF, to the poor. He reminded me of the good bishop in ‘Les Miserables.’ He sought out the sorrowing and suffering, spent all his time in ministering to them, and loved them with all his great heart.

Eugene V. Debs, 1912
Eugene V. Debs, 1912

But he not only sympathized with the poor, he told them WHY they were poor and how they might put an end to their poverty by uniting in their might against the capitalist system and abolishing that system and establishing in its stead the Socialist Cooperative Commonwealth.

Father Haire was an active Socialist to the end of his life. He was to have addressed the Socialists of Aberdeen a day or two after death suddenly claimed him.

Father Haire was a true follower of Jesus Christ, a real Socialist and love of his fellowmen, and as noble a soul as ever dwelt in tenement of clay.

Peace to his dust and love to his memory! [Eugene V. Debs, in E. Francis Atwood, A Memoir of the Life of Father Robert W. Haire, The Socialist Party, Sisseton, South Dakota, 1916]

Father Haire was an elector for Debs in the 1900 Presidential election.

What Would Jesus Do? Through his life’s work, Father Robert Haire answers, “Democracy and socialism.”


  1. Donald Pay 2019-09-29 10:36

    Father Haire was part of a grassroots effort to get the initiative and referendum into the South Dakota Constitution in 1898. The I & R, though, had over a decade-long discussion prior to 1898. The idea circulated `among territorial legislators. The folks who drafted the South Dakota Constitution had toyed with the idea of putting the I&R into the statehood Constitution, which had several drafts over several years. They decided in the last drafts to leave it out. They thought it would be a better political strategy to do I&R as a Constitutional amendment after statehood. I think their concern was that Congress might not go for such direct democracy by the voters, and use it as a reason to vote against statehood. After several years of Congress diddling on statehood, they didn’t want anything to derail it.

  2. Clyde 2019-09-29 19:20

    Thanks for putting this up, Cory.

  3. John 2019-09-29 21:14

    Sad we’ve forgotten our history. I don’t recall this appearing in the ‘histories of South Dakota’.

  4. Debbo 2019-09-29 23:22

    So interesting Cory, thanks. I’m a graduate of NSC and don’t recall learning any of this. I don’t believe anything on the campus is named after him either.

    About 75% of Roman Catholicism’s social teachings is excellent stuff. The homophobia and misogyny messes up the rest, but I give them credit for a significant amount of very good contributions to the world.

    Debs is correct that Haire, as a socialist, was a true follower of JC. There’s just no getting around the fact that Jesus’ vision of communal living was exactly what socialism is. No group of humans has been able to pull that off over the long haul, though some have come close. I guess that’s what Jesus expected of people, do the best you can to follow his plan.

  5. David Newquist 2019-09-30 00:13

    This information was suppressed at NSU. When I came there, AAUP, which I belonged to, had a sanction against NSU for suppression of academic freedom. Early in my tenure there, the president was severely berated by the Janklow-appointed Board of Regents for inviting Sen. George McGovern to be a commencement speaker. The University should be proud of the history of its founding, but that would be regarded as liberalism, even if its founding was a liberal idea. Discussion about such things was regarded as a subversive activity, but there were a lot of subversives on the faculty.

  6. Donald Pay 2019-09-30 09:26

    It is strange that South Dakotans don’t know their own history. When I went through school in South Dakota in the mid-50s through 1969, we had a unit on South Dakota history in third grade, and another in sixth. We learned about the Sioux being here first, the “wars” with the Indians, and the reservations. We learned about the pioneers and the gold rush. We went to the Pettigrew Museum. I remember hearing snippets of South Dakota history mixed in with both American History and American Government classes in high school, but that’s about all I remember from my education in the finest schools in Sioux Falls. Everything else I learned was self-taught.

    I had an interest because the Pays came to South Dakota early, right after the civil war, so I heard some of this political history from my grandfather. There are a few good basic histories of South Dakota. To get a good understanding of how the socialists, various Christian groups and the Republicans, who were often populist and progressive, often worked together in coalitions on issues, you have to dig deep into various historical annals, newspapers and student theses, etc. It usually isn’t drawn up nice and tidy in one spot.

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