In 1920, socialist leader Eugene V. Debs ran for president while serving a ten-year jail term for speaking against America's role in World War I. Though many called Debs a traitor, others praised him as a prisoner of conscience, a martyr to the cause of free speech. Nearly a million Americans agreed, voting for a man whom the government had branded an enemy to his country.
In a beautifully crafted narrative, Ernest Freeberg shows that the campaign to send Debs from an Atlanta jailhouse to the White House was part of a wider national debate over the right to free speech in wartime. Debs was one of thousands of Americans arrested for speaking his mind during the war, while government censors were silencing dozens of newspapers and magazines. When peace was restored, however, a nationwide protest was unleashed against the government's repression, demanding amnesty for Debs and his fellow political prisoners. Led by a coalition of the country's most important intellectuals, writers, and labor leaders, this protest not only liberated Debs, but also launched the American Civil Liberties Union and changed the course of free speech in wartime.
The Debs case illuminates our own struggle to define the boundaries of permissible dissent as we continue to balance the right of free speech with the demands of national security. In this memorable story of democracy on trial, Freeberg excavates an extraordinary episode in the history of one of America's most prized ideals.
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 20080303 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 20080601 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 20080630 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 20080615 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 celebre 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 20090104 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 20090419 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 20090702 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 20090601 An important contribution for those interested in Eugene Debs and the early days of the American Socialist Party. -- R. J. Goldstein Choice 20090501