Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in bookish,

Review: Democracy's Prisoner- Eugene V. Debs, The Great War and the Right to Dissent

Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War and the Right to Dissent by Ernest Freeberg is not so much a biography of the book's main individual subject as it is a brilliant and insightful history and analysis of the right of free speech during the period immediately prior to, during, and after the first world war. The book centers around the life of American Socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, the former union leader, one-time Indiana State Senator, and five-time candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. The book spends little time on Debs early life and antecedents, taking us instead into the time leading up to the Great War, when President Woodrow Wilson campaigned on the slogan "He Kept Us Out of War" only to renege on that promise after he is re-elected.


One of the first casualties of the war becomes freedom of speech, as censorship is ramped up under the guise of preventing internal dissent from becoming an aid to the enemy. Eugene Debs and the Socialists are opposed to the war, and especially the draft. They see the war in terms of the class struggle they are fighting in which poor men go off to die in wars so that rich men can prosper. Wilson and leading members of his cabinet are able to convince Congress to pass the Sedition Act, legislation that drastically limits what critics of the war are able to say. As government censors are able to shut down the socialist message using post office censorship and arrest of those advocating open resistance to the draft and other opposition to the war, often on questionable or spurious grounds, Debs is able to initially avoid arrest. But as public pressure mounts from supporters of the war, Debs is arrested following a speech he makes in Cleveland, the tone of which, the author argues, one must contort to find offensive to the law.

Freeburg provides an interesting account of Debs' trial, his conviction, his sentencing and his appeal process. Much of the book describes Debs' life in prison, first in Moundsville, West Virginia, and later at Atlanta Penitentiary. A remarkable aspect of the story is how Debs is able to win the respect of the wardens of both institutions as well as of the inmates, even though political dissenters were considered to be a lower caste in the prison system at the time. Debs is described in near-sainted terms as he is allowed to work in the prison hospital and is allowed liberties not offered to other inmates. Remarkably, he is even allowed to run for President as the nominee for the Socialist Party while still bearing the label "Convict 9653".

Meanwhile, as the war concludes, the issue of whether or not those imprisoned under the Sedition Act should now become pardoned becomes one that divides the nation. Freeberg describes the efforts to win Debs release, first from the Wilson administration, and later from his successor Warren Harding. This begins at a time when Wilson's Attorney-General, Mitchell Palmer, mounts a war against the "red scare", also at a time when the world witnesses the Russian Revolution and its results, with mixed opinion, and at a time when many veterans resent the dissenters, while others assert that free speech was what they were fighting for in the first place. It is a time when the socialist cause fractures, and when many have differing views of the future of the labor movement. This vast difference of opinion makes a political fence that is difficult for those in office to straddle.


I chose this book with the intention of learning more about the fascinating life of Eugene Debs, but in the end, found my interest captivated by the author's outstanding account of the history of free speech during this crucial era and his careful study of this complex issue. Freeburg fairly presents all of the arguments espoused both by those seeking to defend the limits placed on speech and by those who viewed these limits as unreasonable and extreme. This includes politicians, judges and lawyers, academics, journalists, soldiers, those in the labor movement, and citizens in general. I hesitate to say that this book will be of special interest and value to those with an interest in the right of free speech, because in reality, that subset should capture all of us.
Tags: author: f, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: biography, subject: history

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