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.
Democracy's Prisonerby Ernest Freeberg
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. In this book, 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. In this story of democracy on trial, Freeberg excavates an extraordinary episode in the history of one of America's most prized ideals.
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.
R. J. Goldstein
- Harvard University Press
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Ernest Freeberg is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.
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