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Democracy's Prisoner

Ernest Freeberg

Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent

(Harvard University Press)

Imagine an era in America when the push for national security erases free-speech rights; when anti-war opinions are labeled unpatriotic, even treasonous; when the war machine is as much a corporate one as it is a military one. Sound familiar?


While these are all hallmarks of America under George W. Bush, they are also characteristic of the America of World War I described by Ernest Freeberg in his incisive biographical history, Democracy’s Prisoner. Focusing on the legal struggles of Eugene V. Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party and four-time presidential candidate, Freeberg argues that the war era and the 1920s were the crucible in which contemporary ideas about free speech were forged. Through the story of Debs’ arrest for violating the Espionage Act and the three-and-a-half-year amnesty campaign Debs’ supporters waged, Freeberg illuminates the complex array of social forces at work in the U.S. during the early 20th century, with depth and nuance.


The oppressive, pro-war atmosphere of America during the Great War will no doubt feel familiar to contemporary readers. Other aspects of the political landscape may not be so easily recognized. When Debs and his comrades founded the Socialist Party in 1901, they were thousands strong. While few but the most devout may have ever believed that one of their own would reach the White House, Socialists did gain regional and state offices in several elections during the early 20th century. Debs received nearly one million votes in his inaugural run for president in 1912. As Freeberg puts it, “Debs found a growing audience ... because so much was new, and so much was not working.”


To help the reader grasp how such a thing was possible, Freeberg eloquently takes the reader through the birth of American Socialism. Steering clear of dry lectures on ideology, Freeberg depicts the Socialists as lively and inclusive champions of the progressive causes that have become part of the boilerplate of the American left-wing. Back then, supporting such causes landed plenty of men and women in jail, deported or worse—Freeberg does not hesitate to remind us that blood was sometimes shed in defense of Socialist principles, but he stops short of making martyrs out of his subjects. Democracy’s Prisoner also points out that, while the persecution of Socialists was by no means just, they did by their own admission pose a serious and fairly credible threat to the status quo. In Freeberg’s words, “(The Socialists’) ultimate goal was not to repair capitalism, but to abolish it.”


At the heart of it all is Debs, a figure painted by Freeberg as being just shy of sainthood. Debs, we are told, is charismatic, honest and unyielding, a railroad-worker-turned-Red who quickly became the public face of American Socialism through his extraordinary speaking talent and his tireless work for the party. Debs is also an adulterer who perhaps enjoys his liquor a bit too much, but this appears to be his only human failing; Freeberg tells us often how the Socialist press and Debs’ many admirers compared him to Christ, and seems uninterested in contradicting this view.


Since Debs and his Socialist beliefs are as much at the heart of this book as are the issues of free speech, it is unfortunate that Debs’ own conversion to Socialism gets such short shrift. The great man found Marx as many find Christ, behind the bars of a county jail, but little is said about how his much-touted unshakable beliefs first took root.


More weight is given, perhaps rightly so, to the questions raised by Debs’ July 1918 arrest. When Debs joined radicals such as Rose Pastor Stokes and most of the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World behind bars after giving a vaguely anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, a debate began over First Amendment rights that resonates to this day. Throughout Democracy’s Prisoner, Freeberg returns again and again to the court cases that challenged the government’s right to imprison a man for speaking against war or any other government action. He demonstrates how ill-defined American notions of free speech were, and shows how public opinion gradually shifted to Debs’ side after World War I to make the point that the court’s decisions are firmly rooted in the soil of popular sentiment, whether or not the judges themselves are aware of any such bias.


Most of all, Freeberg demonstrates, at times chillingly, how a nation caught in the grip of a war, popular or otherwise, can demonstrate shockingly little regard for individual liberties if they believe such actions are in the best interest of the nation. Democracy’s Prisoner achieves what all histories should aspire to do: it illuminates the past through the lens of the present in such a way that new insights about both become visible. Freeberg not only makes Gene Debs come alive on his pages, he resurrects an entire, complex era—one which the reader will be pleased and edified to explore.

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Popek is a newspaper editor who moonlights as a bookstore clerk and freelance writer. She received a bachelor's degree in American studies from Bennington College and worked more than 25 different jobs over a 10-year period. She lives in upstate New York with her husband.


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