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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
Dr. Ernest Freeberg
Harvard University Press, 2008
392 pp., $29.95

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Reviewed by Jeff Crosby


Convict No. 9653

A new book about Eugene V. Debs sheds light on free speech and censorship—and civil liberties more generally—during a time of war.

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After examining the judicial process that led to Debs' imprisonment, beginning in a Cleveland federal court and concluding at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., the balance of Democracy's Prisoner travels with the famous convict from the Moundsville, West Virginia prison that first received him to the Atlanta penitentiary from which he was freed on Christmas Day, 1921. All the while, the book peers in on the Socialists' drive for amnesty—not only for Debs but also for his many comrades, whom the Socialists regarded as "political prisoners" but whom Wilson and others deemed "dangerous men and women."

In summing up the lessons learned from the Debs case, Freeberg writes that "the fight to free Debs convinced many other Americans that their society should offer greater protection for those who refuse to support the majority, even in times of war. Today civil libertarians return to many of the same arguments employed by the amnesty movement almost a century ago, arguing that democracy is strengthened by diversity of opinion, that the freedom to speak is a right undermined by social and economic inequality, that the suppression of dissent is often counterproductive, and that the First Amendment's guarantees should apply equally in times of war as in times of peace."

Freeberg acknowledges, however, that while the story of Convict No. 9653 offers important and illuminating insights into this ongoing conversation, it does not offer the last word. In an interesting bit of irony, in 1966 the Terre Haute house that Eugene V. Debs called home was declared a National Historic Landmark of the U.S. National Parks under the auspices of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The home of the man whom Woodrow Wilson and his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, once deemed a "very dangerous man" is now protected by the government Debs so often called into question. And at the Debs Foundation website, shoppers can get a replica of his 1920 presidential campaign button—the same one which adorns the cover of Freeberg's book—for a mere $2 each or three for $5.

One wonders what America's most famous radical would think about it all.

Jeff Crosby serves in management at InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois and lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with his author/editor wife, Cindy. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writings of Lewis B. Smedes.


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