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In 1920, socialist leader Eugene V. Debs ran for president while serving a ten-year jail term for speaking against America’s role in World War I. Though many called Debs a traitor, others praised him as a prisoner of conscience, a martyr to the cause of free speech. Nearly a million Americans agreed, voting for a man whom the government had branded an enemy to his country.
In a beautifully crafted narrative, Ernest Freeberg shows that the campaign to send Debs from an Atlanta jailhouse to the White House was part of a wider national debate over the right to free speech in wartime. Debs was one of thousands of Americans arrested for speaking his mind during the war, while government censors were silencing dozens of newspapers and magazines. When peace was restored, however, a nationwide protest was unleashed against the government’s repression, demanding amnesty for Debs and his fellow political prisoners. Led by a coalition of the country’s most important intellectuals, writers, and labor leaders, this protest not only liberated Debs, but also launched the American Civil Liberties Union and changed the course of free speech in wartime.
The Debs case illuminates our own struggle to define the boundaries of permissible dissent as we continue to balance the right of free speech with the demands of national security. In this memorable story of democracy on trial, Freeberg excavates an extraordinary episode in the history of one of America’s most prized ideals.
This account of the trial and jailing of Eugene V. Debs for sedition in opposing WWI will be read by many as a warning for our times, yet it stands on its own as solid history. Remarkably, in 1920 Debs ran-from prison-a clever presidential campaign that gained him almost one million votes. Freeberg, associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee, relates this tale in a fast-paced narrative that underplays the irony. Debs-a firebrand orator and radical Socialist Party chieftain whom Woodrow Wilson and others considered a security threat-became a model federal prisoner who worked to alleviate the situations of fellow inmates. He also issued biting criticisms of American policy and never left off denouncing capitalists for having caused WWI. Not surprisingly, Debs's stance long delayed his pardon, first by Wilson, then by Warren Harding, who eventually commuted his sentence in 1921. But it gained Debs the wide hearing he sought. The most enduring consequence of this whole affair is the fuel it contributed to the growth of civil liberties consciousness and organization in the United States. Not for the first time, administrations brought about the very results they most opposed. 17 b&w photos. (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
During wartime, a tension exists between freedom of speech and the demands for national security. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson understood the importance of controlling the U.S. wartime message, and he thus supported the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to assist the enemies of the United States. The addition of the Sedition Act of 1918 controlled the public debate over the war by limiting speech. The Socialist Party's Eugene V. Debs was an outspoken opponent of the war. During a speech in Ohio, he criticized the Espionage Act, which led to his prosecution and ten-year prison sentence. Ultimately, Debs (who ran for President for a fifth time, while jailed, in 1920) and others who had been arrested as political dissidents were freed, owing to an evolved political and civil-libertarian climate. Freeberg (history, Univ. of Tennessee) argues that Debs's case illustrates the problems associated with silencing public discourse, most especially during a time of war. Debs was never a threat to national security; instead, he was a principled individual expressing his political beliefs. This excellent introduction to Debs and the Socialist Party is also an engaging examination of an issue that still tensely engages us today. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.
List of Illustrations
Prologue: Free Speech Campaign 1
1 Dangerous Man 7
2 Never Be a Soldier 24
3 War Declarations 42
4 Canton Picnic 67
5 Cleveland 83
6 Appeal 110
7 Long Trolley to Prison 134
8 Moundsville 148
9 Atlanta Penitentiary 174
10 An Amnesty Business on Every Block 190
11 Candidate 9653 203
12 The Trials of A. Mitchell Palmer 215
13 The Last Campaign 236
14 Lonely Obstinacy 257
15 Free Speech and Normalcy 268
16 Last Flicker of the Dying Candle 301
Epilogue: Amnesty and the Birth of Civil Liberties 319
Archives Consulted 365