Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Nadine Strossen
Democracy's Prisoner powerfully reminds us of the pressure that war places on our First Amendment rights. The fight to free Debs almost a century ago was the first time that Americans organized to defend the right to speak against war. A timely lesson for us today.
Michael Kazin
A beautifully crafted narrative of Debs' prosecution, incarceration, and the fight to free him that effectively recreates the dramatic crisis of the left and the rise of a civil liberties lobby during and just after World War I. An excellent and compelling book.
Christine Stansell
Democracy's Prisoneris a superb account of the battle over free speech and civil liberties in the WW I era, beautifully argued and engrossing to read. Freeberg brings a wonderfully fresh perspective to this study of citizens' heroism, showing us the courage and shrewdness of the ever admirable Debs. But perhaps more important, he reveals for the first time the critical role that ordinary citizens, led by a political novice, played in mobilizing moderate Americans on his behalf. This book could not be more timely.
The Morning News - Robert Birnbaum
The Eugene V. Debs story is a moving, albeit instructive one, though he likely will never be given his due as one of the great figures of American history. Jailed for speaking out against the so-called “war to end all wars,” Socialist Debs ran for president in 1920, garnering a million votes. By the way, when he was finally released from that same Atlanta penitentiary, the whole of the prison’s population--guards and prisoners--cheered him.
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Peter Richardson
If history is what the present wants to know about the past, Democracy’s Prisoner is teeming with lessons. But above all, it’s the story of one extraordinary man’s showdown with the establishment--and how that confrontation turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs’ story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus.
Boston Globe - Eric Arnesen
Freeberg's Democracy's Prisoner explores the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs and the subsequent campaign to free him from a federal penitentiary. America's best-known socialist, Debs was loved by the party faithful and despised by conservatives as a traitor. For speaking out against the war, he became one of some 2,000 people arrested, and 1,200 convicted, for challenging the Wilson administration's war policy. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Debs immediately became a cause célèbre to socialists, trade unionists, and civil libertarians...In [his] timely, readable, and engaging book, Freeberg reminds us of the fragility of rights in the context of fear, providing us with cautionary tales about what is lost when unquestioned political obligations trump the preservation of liberty.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - Bob Hoover
Freeberg has written an exhaustive account of the three-year campaign to free Debs from federal custody while the nation struggled over civil rights and government power in the last days of the Wilson administration, which included the notorious "Palmer Raids" on suspected dissidents.
New York Review of Books - Anthony Lewis
Eugene Debs is a largely forgotten man today, an odd footnote in American history of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this fascinating book about his climactic last years makes clear that he really mattered. In both political and legal ways he played a significant part in reducing intolerance of dissent in this country, and bringing to life the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
Dissent - Jon Wiener
Sending Debs to prison made him the center of a campaign for freedom of speech for dissenters and antiwar activists. And when the courts eventually recognized a constitutional right to dissent, they were following a broad public debate spurred by talented organizers and activists who came from places ranging from Debs's own Socialist Party to the new American Civil Liberties Union to the rank-and-file locals of the American Federation of Labor. Freeberg's beautifully written book combines a political biography of Debs in his years of crisis with a broader argument about the unintended consequences of the campaign to win his release.
Choice - R. J. Goldstein
An important contribution for those interested in Eugene Debs and the early days of the American Socialist Party.
Publishers Weekly

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.
Library Journal

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.
—Michael LaMagna

The Morning News
The Eugene V. Debs story is a moving, albeit instructive one, though he likely will never be given his due as one of the great figures of American history. Jailed for speaking out against the so-called “war to end all wars,” Socialist Debs ran for president in 1920, garnering a million votes. By the way, when he was finally released from that same Atlanta penitentiary, the whole of the prison’s population--guards and prisoners--cheered him.
— Robert Birnbaum
Los Angeles Times Book Review
If history is what the present wants to know about the past, Democracy’s Prisoner is teeming with lessons. But above all, it’s the story of one extraordinary man’s showdown with the establishment--and how that confrontation turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs’ story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus.
— Peter Richardson
Boston Globe
Freeberg's Democracy's Prisoner explores the arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of Eugene V. Debs and the subsequent campaign to free him from a federal penitentiary. America's best-known socialist, Debs was loved by the party faithful and despised by conservatives as a traitor. For speaking out against the war, he became one of some 2,000 people arrested, and 1,200 convicted, for challenging the Wilson administration's war policy. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Debs immediately became a cause célèbre to socialists, trade unionists, and civil libertarians...In [his] timely, readable, and engaging book, Freeberg reminds us of the fragility of rights in the context of fear, providing us with cautionary tales about what is lost when unquestioned political obligations trump the preservation of liberty.
— Eric Arnesen
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Freeberg has written an exhaustive account of the three-year campaign to free Debs from federal custody while the nation struggled over civil rights and government power in the last days of the Wilson administration, which included the notorious "Palmer Raids" on suspected dissidents.
— Bob Hoover
New York Review of Books
Eugene Debs is a largely forgotten man today, an odd footnote in American history of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But this fascinating book about his climactic last years makes clear that he really mattered. In both political and legal ways he played a significant part in reducing intolerance of dissent in this country, and bringing to life the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
— Anthony Lewis
Dissent
Sending Debs to prison made him the center of a campaign for freedom of speech for dissenters and antiwar activists. And when the courts eventually recognized a constitutional right to dissent, they were following a broad public debate spurred by talented organizers and activists who came from places ranging from Debs's own Socialist Party to the new American Civil Liberties Union to the rank-and-file locals of the American Federation of Labor. Freeberg's beautifully written book combines a political biography of Debs in his years of crisis with a broader argument about the unintended consequences of the campaign to win his release.
— Jon Wiener
Choice
An important contribution for those interested in Eugene Debs and the early days of the American Socialist Party.
— R. J. Goldstein
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674057203
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/30/2010
  • Pages: 392
  • Sales rank: 1,324,049
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ernest Freeberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.
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Table of Contents

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

Notes 329

Archives Consulted 365

Acknowledgments 367

Index 369

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