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

4.8 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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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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Review

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: #1,522,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

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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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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One of the best books I've read in the last five years. Period.
Excellent writing, about a man everyone should know
more about. I can't say enough about this book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I have always been interested in Debs and adding this to my library has enlightened me further.
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