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Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism First Edition Edition

4.6 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393058802
ISBN-10: 0393058808
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By Geoffrey R. Stone's estimate, America has lived up to the ideals encapsulated in the First Amendment about 80 percent of the time over the course of its history. Perilous Times's focuses is on the remaining 20 percent, when, during war or civil strife, the better instincts of the public and its leaders have been drowned out by a certain kind of repressive hysteria. Stone, the former dean of law provost at the University of Chicago, identifies six periods of widespread free-speech repression, dating back to the administration of the nation's second president, John Adams, and continuing through the Vietnam era. In between, two of history's greatest presidents, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, were involved in constitutionally questionable efforts to suppress dissent.

Stone examines these pivotal episodes with a lawyer's attention to detail and precedence and a writer's focus on character and story structure. From Adams's secretary of state, the "grim-faced and single-minded" Timothy Pickering (who scanned the papers daily looking for seditious language) through John Ashcroft on one side, and the cheeky late-18th-century congressman Matthew Lyon and the Yippies of the 1960s on the other, there are plenty of characters enlivening these pages. Given its publication during the War on Terror, Stone's work feels particularly timely and vital. He devotes only a few pages to the post-9/11 environment, crediting George W. Bush for his refusal to scapegoat Muslims in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but castigating his administration for "opportunistic and excessive" actions centering around the Patriot Act. One wonders if Stone will some day be forced to update Perilous Times with a full chapter on the early 21st century. --Steven Stolder

From The New Yorker

Stone's history examines America's tendency in wartime to compromise First Amendment rights in the name of national security. During the Civil War, a former congressman, Clement Vallandigham, was imprisoned and nearly executed for objecting to the conflict as "wicked, cruel, and unnecessary" in the First World War, the anarchist Mollie Steimer was sentenced to fifteen years for calling capitalism the "only one enemy of the workers of the world." Each of these measures seemed essential to victory at the time; later, however, pardons were issued. We may one day feel the same about Guantánamo and the Patriot Act, but not all wrongs are immediately remedied. In 1971, Attorney General John Mitchell tried to use the contentious Espionage Act of 1917 (which, largely forgotten, had never been revoked) to prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers. It is still law today.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 800 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (October 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058808
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058802
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #453,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce J. Wasser on March 9, 2006
Verified Purchase
Throughout Geoffrey Stone's engrossing examination of free speech during times of war, two crucial conclusions emerge. Both drive from an explanation articulated by Justice Louis in 1927: "fear breeds repression" and "courage is the secret of liberty." Exquisitely researched, gracefully written and forcefully argued, "Perilous Times" is a compelling exploration of the First Amendment in wartime. Professor Stone, through argument and anecdotal evidence, develops a convincing thesis that the American people, hesitatingly and often with frustrating slowness, have embraced not only the right, but the need, to honor dissent during times of national emergency. This is a hard-earned victory for free speech, one gained only through the raw and open courage of dissidents and the often underestimated and unseen courage of jurists who stood for principle when it mattered most. "Perilous Times" is an unusual historical analysis; its scholarship is meticulous, making it an academician's treasure, and its narrative drive is irresistible, welcoming a large audience to its research and understandings.

Wartime political dissent invariably brings charges of disloyalty and suspicions of motivation. Stone chronologically analyzes six periods of the condition of free speech during times of war; from the nation's first attempts to thwart free speech during the "half war" with France in the late 1790s to its coming of age in respect for the First Amendment in the Vietnam War era, those in power have had an uneven approach to the First Amendment. Within a decade of writing the First Amendment, a repressive congress passed the nefarious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, blatant contradictions to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.
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Format: Hardcover
In this marvelously readable new work by celebrated academic Geoffrey R. Stone, the author offers up for our reading pleasure a wonderfully pensive, comprehensive and timely contextual look at one of the key elements in the ongoing calculus of a free society; the right to free speech as embodied in the First Amendment. Opening by collaring Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous dictum regarding the social, economic and political wisdom in allowing all sorts and manners of thoughts and premises to freely compete in the marketplace of ideas, Professor Stone delivers a wonderful and sometimes whimsical history of just how critical such allowances of civil liberties are in guaranteeing the continuance of the republic. In so doing, he allows us a more meaningful window through which we can view the current battle-lines organized around civil rights issues emanating from concern over the Patriot Act and other infringements on personal liberties.

His anecdotes are telling, and often surprising, as when one learns that Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of the writ of habeas corpus several times during his embattled administration, or how the government tried groups of dissidents in the aftermath of World War One (including famous intellectuals such as Eugene Debs and the later sixties countercultural "back-to-the land" icon Scott Nearing) for treason for their free speech critical of the war effort. In sum, this book provides the reader with a marvelous compendium tracing the history of the continuing struggle and tension between the need for public order, on the one hand, and the right of individuals and groups to speak their minds without fear of official or unofficial consequences from the government at large.
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Perilous Times is a fascinating account, by Geoffrey R. Stone, of free speech in wartime, that is oddly both often a little frightening and quite hopeful. The six periods on which the author focuses are the sedition act of 1798, the Civil War, the two World Wars, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Three of these periods show a carlessness with the First Amendment (1798, World War I, and the Cold War) on the part of national leaders that is balanced with a less hysterical reaction in the other three wartime periods. The author is brilliant in analyzing why this is so and he tells a fascinating story of a progressive, though never inevitable or strictly linear, development of the importance of a free press and a free discourse of ideas, even (perhaps particularly) during times of national crisis. A brilliant, important, truly fascinating tale.
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Format: Hardcover
Don't be intimidated, as I first was, by the fact that the author was a law professor. Stone tells an important story in an engaging style, blending legal analysis with history lessons and character development - the result is a terrific book that is at the same time educational and thought-provoking. I confess I am a liberal, which is what attracted me to the title in the first place, but "Perilous Times" is not preachy. It is a true examination of the evolution of our relationship with the first Amendment. The good news seems to be that after each bow-wave of hysteria and fear, cooler heads prevail and free speech generally emerges intact. The bad news is that history does, in this case, seem to repeat itself. It's also important to note that the usual cast of towering figures in our history, like Roosevelt and Lincoln, were not innocent in their approach to defending the Constitution when they felt the country was in danger.

The bottom line is that I learned a tremendous amount from this book (and I bought it as a recreational read - I am not a law student) - it was terribly enlightening - and I think we ALL would do well to examine the issues that Stone presents - I believe we Americans don't take the time to have an appreciation for the Constitution really means - I guess we trust our lawmakers to cover that for us - but as Stone points out, that hasn't always worked out.

In my view, a must-read. Particularly today.
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