In today's politics, we hear a lot of talk about "toughness," which appears to mean the ability to stand at a podium to deliver pre-written bluster to a hand-picked audience. In 1920, Socialist candidate for President Eugene V. Debs didn't have that option, since at the time he was imprisoned in an Atlanta penitentiary for criticizing America's role in the First World War and the government's war on dissent that accompanied it. Debs' campaign to go "from the jailhouse to the White House" garnered over a million votes from Americans fed up with the government's suppression of free speech. Many of these Americans, among whom numbered scores of prominent intellectuals, didn't necessarily agree with Debs' socialist views, but nonetheless were shocked that the government would so cavalierly imprison someone for simply speaking his mind. Out of the campaign to free Debs was born a movement that would eventually give rise to the American Civil Liberties Union, changing forever the way Americans view dissent during wartime.
University of Tennessee historian Ernest Freeberg's new book on Debs (Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, out now from HUP) examines the controversy surrounding Debs' trial and imprisonment and shows how the consequences of this near-forgotten episode reach deep into our own times. Writing in the Los Angeles Times last Saturday, Peter Richardson had the following to say about Democracy's Prisoner:
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.
|| Read an excerpt from Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, out now from HUP.