Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent
by Ernest Freeberg
Harvard University Press, 2008, 392 pp., $29.95
Newsweek proclaimed that Barack Obama’s budget means, “We’re all socialists now,” and conservative erstwhile presidential contender Mike Huckabee declared that “a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born.” For them, “socialism” means something like “big government.” But when Eugene Victor Debs ran for president from 1912 to 1920, “socialism” had a different meaning: the end of capitalist exploitation. Today Debs’s belief in the imminent birth of a classless society makes him seem “deeply deluded” about “the political and social reality in front of his face,” as Ernest Freeberg suggests in Democracy’s Prisoner. But if Debs was hopelessly naïve about the coming of socialism, he left a legacy for the country in another area: Eric Foner called it “the birth of civil liberties.” Before the 1920s, Americans had no legally enforceable right to free speech. The First Amendment was not considered fundamental. The transformation in our definition of “freedom” came in response to what Foner calls “the most intense repression of civil liberties the nation had ever known”—the wartime policy of Woodrow Wilson, that Democrat and former Princeton professor of history who jailed Debs, and thousands of others, for opposing the Great War.
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.
When the Wilson administration sent Debs to prison, it jailed the greatest living hero of American radicalism. In 1912, six years before his incarceration, Debs had won almost a million votes running for president, 6 percent of the total, doubling the Socialist tally from four years earlier. His theme: the coming victory of the poor in their struggle to bring peace, harmony, and cooperation in place of the evils of capitalism.
It seemed at the time that socialism was on the march, and that 1916 would be even better. But that 6 percent turned out to be the high-water mark for left-wing candidates (in 1948, Henry Wallace got 2.4 percent; in 2000, Ralph Nader got 2.7 percent.)
The speech that provoked the Wilson administration to jail Debs was one he gave in Canton, Ohio, in June ...
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