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Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent Hardcover – May 31, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From 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)
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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...Freeberg relates this tale in a fast-paced narrative...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. (Publishers Weekly 2008-03-03)

Freeberg 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. (Michael LaMagna Library Journal 2008-06-01)

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 The Morning News 2008-06-30)

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 Los Angeles Times Book Review 2008-06-15)

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 Boston Globe 2009-01-04)

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 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2009-04-19)

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 New York Review of Books 2009-07-02)

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 Dissent 2009-06-01)

An important contribution for those interested in Eugene Debs and the early days of the American Socialist Party. (R. J. Goldstein Choice 2009-05-01)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (May 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674027922
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674027923
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #785,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Ernest Freeberg grew up in New England, attended Middlebury College, and worked as a reporter for Maine Public Radio. Now a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at the University of Tennessee, he has published three award-winning books.
The Education of Laura Bridgman won the Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association, a biennial prize for the best first book in any field of American history.
His second book, Democracy's Prisoner, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in biography, and won both the David Langum Award for Legal History and the Eli Oboler Award from the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Roundtable.
His most recent book, Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America, examines the social and cultural impact of electric light on American society in that invention's early decades. The American Library Association named The Age of Edison a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2014.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By J. Grattan VINE VOICE on July 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is a somewhat detailed look at the conviction in 1918 of Eugene Debs, labor leader and socialist, on trumped-up sedition charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, his subsequent incarceration, the three-year effort to free him, and the commutation of his sentence on Christmas Day, 1921. More broadly, the overall climate for and general reactions from various quarters to political dissent both during WWI and in subsequent years is covered. Though not emphasized by the author, this entire scenario was played out while the US was supposedly making the world safe for democracy.

The book is not a treatise on the history of the First Amendment, but it is clear that rights under that amendment had not been well articulated by the time of WWI. The US government helped to create a climate, with the creation of the Committee on Public Information in 1917, just after declaring war on Germany, where any perceived disloyalty to the American cause would not be tolerated. The Postmaster General did not allow so-called radical publications to be mailed. The nation's press did its part by casting those speaking against the war as traitors. Convictions of disloyalty were obtained usually only on a vague sense that a speaker might be disloyal. Such was the case with Debs; the climate of hysteria was such that his anti-capitalism and anti-war beliefs were viewed as having the potential to incite others to refuse military service, though not one example could be pointed to.

Many, at the time, felt, with WWI ending on Nov 11, 1918, that convicted dissenters, such as Debs, would be granted amnesty. The author repeatedly looks at the rationalizations of Pres. Woodrow Wilson and Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in their refusals to do so.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By MZ on July 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A good account of the Socialist career of Eugene Debs, the beloved leader who was jailed under the Woodrow Wilson Administration because of his opposition to the US entry in World War I, as well as his outspoken opposition to capitalist abuse. The corporate malfeasance he railed against sounds very much like what's going on today; how discouraging.
It's interesting to read about other famous contemporary progressives--Upton Sinclair, Samuel Gompers (not so progressive), Helen Keller, Max Eastman, and the founder of the Nation magazine, Oswald Garrison Villard.
The book does a good job of describing how the rallying for Debs's release from prison caused more division than unity among Progressives; some felt that it was counterproductive to push too hard against the Wilson Administration and subsequently the Harding Administration, and back them into a corner; while others felt that Debs's case had to be kept front and center. Communists, labor leaders, socialists, and other activists differed on what direction to take. Just like liberals today!
The dilemma was whether to try to free the ailing socialist leader on humanitarian grounds, since he was nearing the end of his life and was much respected by the wardens, fellow prisoners, and even his political opponents in power, all of whom acknowledged his gentlemanly manners and virtue--or keep him imprisoned in light of his principled refusal to apologize or admit wrongdoing, and his insistence on the release of all political prisoners.
The book is an in-depth treatise on the history of the First Amendment in the early part of the twentieth century, and the formation of the modern-day ACLU. In this regard, at least, the United States has made some progress.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Peter Richardson on June 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is a superb book about an extraordinary figure--labor organizer, Socialist Party leader, and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs--during an intensely controversial period of his life. At age 63 and in poor health, Debs was convicted under the new and deeply flawed Espionage Act for criticizing the U.S. entry into World War I. University of Tennessee historian Ernest Freeberg shows how a fascinating cross-section of Americans pushed for or resisted amnesty for the charismatic radical. The historical parallels with the present are uncanny, and the differences are instructive, too. If you like American history or just well crafted general nonfiction, give this one a look.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Hazel S. Bray on July 26, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A second book from U of Tenn. History professor Ernest Freeberg takes us back to a turbulent period in our history, the early 20th century.

Eugene Debs was a shadowy name to me before I read this book as were the details of the U.S. involvement in the "war to end all wars" WW1.

Freedom of speech is the issue and all sides of the issue were thoroughly explored by Prof. Freeberg.

A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read.
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