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A Blast from the Past: The State Policy Tournament, 1902-Style

The State Tournament, 118 Years Ago: Fight Songs, Celebrity Guests, Live Music, and More

2020 marks the 118th year of statewide Minnesota policy debate tournaments. Our students are making memories this weekend, and you’ve probably got memories of your own State experiences – but the very first days of Minnesota debate are rarely revisited. Perhaps they should be – State was an event including hundreds of audience members, VIP guests, and the interest “of all reading people”!

The May 10th, 1902 edition of the The Minneapolis Journal, in quotes below, paints a delightful picture of the first statewide policy debate tournament.

Le Sueur’s team won against Glenwood, debating a topic timely in the burgeoning Progressive era: 

“Resolved: That Capital Punishment Should Be Abolished in the United States.” 

Glenwood met honorable defeat at the hands of Le Sueur last evening in the University chapel. The first annual high school debate resulted in the award of the state Championship and the Journal prize silver loving cup to the team from the Le Sueur high school. Each winning debater was presented by The Journal with a gold enameled prize button. The buttons are gifts to the victorious three. The cup must be won three successive years before it becomes the property of any school. 

Judges included Judge Edwin A Jaggard of St. Paul, Professer John N. Greer and H. V. Mercer of Minneapolis. Le Sueur rooters occupied one section of the chapel and fairly out-shouted the noble Glenwood fifty who went down to defeat.

In the four preliminary rounds, representatives from the Minneapolis and St. Paul urban core schools – including some with current policy debate teams! – were represented. They split their support of the finalists as an enthusiastic audience:

The big delegations from the St. Paul central high, the St. Paul Humboldt high, the south and central high schools of Minneapolis, and other scattered delegations divided their applause. 

Imaginative fight songs (with some light trash talking) were heard from both sides in the chapel. On Glenwood’s side:

Le Sueur! Le Sueur! You’ve done brown! Better go ‘way back and sit down.

Le Sueur gave it back just as well:

War! War! Blood! Gore! Rah! Rah! Le Sueur!

VIPs in attendance included the superintendent of schools, county sheriffs, and Senator George P. Wilson, who kicked off the debates with a speech:

In these latter days it is accounted a great thing in university and high school affairs to excel on the athletic field. I am here to affirm it a much greater and much wiser and better thing to excel in the arena of debate. You will listen tonight to an intellectual contest and victory in the area of debate. … [This league] has aroused great interest throughout Minnesota. It has not been confined to the localities from which the teams come, but all reading people of the state are interested in this contest tonight.

All of the students of the final were seniors. Le Sueur, (affirmative side), was represented by siblings Alice Currer and Henry Currer, identified as children of a Presbyterian minister, and Michael Doherty, “son of a farmer.” Glenwood, on the negative side, was represented by Lotta Gray, “daughter of a railroad man”; William Padden, “son of a railroad boiler maker”; and Viggo Johnson, “son of a shoe merchant.” 

Whatever specific arguments were made – or weighed in adjudication – has been lost to time. But the Journal reporter tells us:

Each debater showed a surprising grasp of facts and statistics and handled his part of the detail of the debate in a clear and forceful style. It is probable that the rebuttal of the Le Sueur team won out. Viggo Johnson of Glenwood showed a remarkable natural oratorical ability which counted much, but the closing arguments of Henry Currer for Le Sueur evidently had an appreciable effect on the judges. The young women, to whom fell the difficult task of presenting opening arguments, were in every way the peers of the young men.

As the judges deliberated, the St. Paul Central Mandolin club gave enthusiastically received musical selections in the evening. 

“The moment the decision was announced, Le Sueur 2-1, the Le Sueur followers, beribboned with the school colors, swarmed over the platform with congratulations for the winners and good wishes for the Glenwood champions of four preceding battles. They returned at 11 o’clock by special train.”

The Minnesota Journal reporter expressed hope for the art of debate, for Minnesota competitors and the activity as a whole:

“I noticed something that I hope will characterize the debates for all time to come – a fairness of mind, a fairness of conduct, and, above all else, a willingness to not mob the umpires.” 

“The American youth speaks from its heart, it talks through its mind and not through its nose. The time will come when contests with Michigan, contests with Wisconsin, contests with Iowa, will be crowned with the victory for Minnesota.”

Professor McDermott, organizer of the tournament, gave a speech which identifies remarkably similar reasons to why we still believe in the power of debate, even more than a century later:

“When this league was organized about a year ago, I thought if twelve schools joined, it might be considered a fair success. Instead, twenty-five have expressed sympathy and it is probable that next year will see fifty or sixty schools in the league. I have come to the inevitable conclusion that it is a good thing in some form and is of special benefit to the student. Debate gives command of better English. It teaches one to think on one’s feet, admirable self-control, development of independent judgment, and it breaks down book worship better than any system I know of. The debater finds that unless he grasps the underlying principles of what he learns in books, he will drift about in the sea of contending opinions. The debater develops individual judgment and critical consideration.”