- 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 (10 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,001,052 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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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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)
Top Customer Reviews
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. The Supreme Court demonstrated a most limited view of the First Amendment by upholding Debs' conviction in March, 1919, allowing his imprisonment. The unconscionable roundup of 6000 so-called radicals in Jan, 1920, by Palmer may have been the low point of the assault on the political rights of Americans. Virtually all were released - falsely accused in a temper branded as the "Red Scare." The rise of vigilante groups after the war, including the formation of the American Legion, and their repeated physical assaults of socialists, communists, amnesty advocates, etc are also described.
There is a certain amount of busyness and repetitiveness about the book as any number of relevant developments outside of the trial are covered, such as the breakup of the Socialist Party into pro- and anti-war factions, including Bolshevik versus reformist wings, and numerous marches, petitions, meetings, letter writing campaigns, etc, and the efforts of numerous individuals to free Debs and to grant general amnesty for all political prisoners jailed for their opposition to the war. The work of anarchist Lucy Robins in orchestrating support for Debs from ordinary persons to AFL head Samuel Gompers to high-ranking gov officials was quite remarkable.
While the book is not intended to be a biography, much is learned about Debs' character, beliefs, associations, and his standing among working- and middle-class supporters. By the time Debs was freed from prison, the socialists and the radical labor movement had been irrevocably broken. Yet, ironically, the American public had come to accept a broader interpretation of free speech. It was the Harding administration that granted amnesty to all political prisoners and rescinded all restrictions on the mailing of radical publications. This was also the time that the ACLU was established.
It seems like the free speech/dissent lesson has to be relearned again and again in this nation: witness the McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s, which was another Red Scare. Nonetheless, it is clear that the suffering that Debs and other dissenters/radicals endured during the aftermath of WWI did help in furthering the cause of free speech.
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.
The one fault I found with this book is it gets a bit monotonous toward the end: Debs is about to be released, then somebody stalls; then it happens again, over and over. A briefer summary of the final contest would have made it more readable and no less informative.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Excellent writing, about a man everyone should know
more about. I can't say enough about this book.