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Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs,…

Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to…

by Ernest Freeberg

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The Right to Protest for Right

A biographical recount of the imprisonment of Eugene Victor Debs for his Canton, Ohio speech in which he spoke out publicly against America's entry into World War I and the amnesty campaign that fought for and eventually won his freedom. The book is written by Ernest Freeberg, a Professor of History at the University of Tennessee.

Freeberg does a terrific job detailing the major events in chronological order. I don't think anything fundamentally new is uncovered however Freeberg has managed to put together all the facts into a tight narrative and interpretation that is easy to read and engaging. There are lengthy examinations about the birth of civil liberty associations like the ACLU, the progressive reformers, the Wobblies, anarchists, and more. Also detailed by Freeberg are the Debs' Presidential campaigns including the one he ran while in prison. Finally, there are some great photos of Debs which Freeberg has managed to find through all of his exhaustive research through various library archives.

It is fitting that in 2008, with the never-ending War on Terror and the Patriot Act, America faces a similar circumstance as it did in 1918. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right". Debs story reminds us all of the fragility of democracy, how the natural tendency of authoritarian institutions whether they be governmental or corporations is to suppress public dissent and maintain a prostrate civil society.

I highly recommend this book not just because Debs was a socialist and spoke out against capitalism, but because his story is an American one and fundamentally its a human story. It's a story about a man who lost his freedom because he spoke for peace. It's a story about what "freedom" actually means. I leave you with a quote from Debs, "Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth" (p. 77). ( )
  bruchu | Oct 17, 2008 |
A look at the evolution of free speech rights in the WWI era through the lens of the imprisonment of Socialist leader Eugene Debs. Debs was convicted for a speech in Canton, Ohio, that allegedly had the "bad tendency" of discouraging men from participating in the military draft. The book is also a reminder that democracies have a long history of punishing dissent during times of national crisis, real or imagined. One criticism: I wished that there had been more elaboration of the world view of Debs and his vision of a Socialist America. ( )
  abbot | Jul 5, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674027922, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:22 -0400)

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