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The conscience of a socialist.

[Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, Ernest Freeberg, Harvard University Press, 380 pages]

EUGENE VICTOR DEBS was a socialist icon, a pioneer of 20th-century labor unionism, a five-time presidential candidate, and a firebrand who went to prison for publicly denouncing America's intervention in the First World War. In 1920, he won almost a million votes running his White House campaign from behind bars. His story is a timely reminder of the limits of a democratic society and should interest today's antiwar Americans, both on the Left and Right.

Author Ernest Freeberg describes Debs as a radical "in an American grain." His "fight against capitalism was inspired as much by Tom Paine, Walt Whitman, and Wendell Phillips as it was by Karl Marx." He was also a man of contrasts: an all-American Marxist and a self-described "citizen of the world" who was devoted to his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. His socialism coexisted with the unfettered capitalism of early 20th-century America.

Debs and other socialists considered World War I to be a fight among capitalists. In 1915, in the radical publication Appeal to Reason, he wrote that to be a soldier was to be a "hired assassin of his capitalist master." The U.S. was then officially at peace. By 1917, when the country went to war, Woodrow Wilson was determined to build support through propaganda and even censorship. That year, his administration introduced the Espionage Act. Congress removed a provision in the original bill that would have given an executive-branch committee the power to censor newspapers, but left in clauses allowing the postmaster general to refuse mailing privileges to publications he considered "treasonous" or guilty of "insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny or refusal of duty in the military ... or willfully obstruct[ing] the recruitment or enlistment services of the United States." In the spring of 1918, Congress added the Sedition Act, which punished "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" that might encourage "contempt scorn, contumely or disrepute" toward the Constitution, government, or military.

This broad language gave the government great power to gag its opponents. Freeberg documents some of the numerous assaults on civil liberties: "An Iowa man received twenty years for predicting that American boys would leave for Europe as heroes but return to fill the insane asylums. Others went to jail for distributing a pamphlet that a federal prosecutor thought 'overstated the horrors of war.' ... A Montana man was prosecuted when he called the president 'a Wall Street tool' during a 'hot and furious saloon argument.'"

In this atmosphere, Debs's loud dissent was an invitation to arrest, but he declined to be quiet. In a fateful speech in Canton, Ohio, he declaimed, "they have always taught you that it is your patriotic duty to go to war and have yourselves slaughtered at command. But in all of that history of the world, you the people, never had a voice in declaring war ... the working class who fights the battles, the working class who make the sacrifices, the working class who shed the blood, the working class who furnish the corpses, the working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war."

Clyde Miller, a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter, was so outraged by these words that he campaigned, both through his publication and by directly lobbying a federal prosecutor, to have Debs punished. Amid public acrimony, Debs was tried in Cleveland and given a ten-year sentence, which was later upheld in the Supreme Court. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would later reverse his stance on free speech with his famous "clear and present danger" test, wrote the majority opinion.

Democracy's Prisoner covers the trial in detail, but the second, and perhaps more important, part of the book is about Debs's time in prison and the campaign to release him and other political prisoners of the Wilson years. It was a struggle that continued into the 1920s, through three presidencies and amid an evolving public mood.

Freeberg's depiction of Wilson is unflattering. He writes, "for a man determined to impose his ideals on a wartorn world, Wilson showed remarkable deference to his postmaster." After the war, Wilson refused to grant pardons to political prisoners in spite of lobbying from the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair. He also repeatedly deferred to his infamous attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. When Wilson cabled from France that he was considering pardons for free-speech prisoners, Palmer convinced him to wait until they could discuss the matter in person. The attorney general persuaded Wilson that amnesty was a bad idea and that it was the wrong time to release Debs.

"For Palmer," writes Freeberg, "the Debs case posed a unique challenge. He had no doubt that Debs deserved to be in prison ... Palmer conceded that his ten-year sentence was excessive and should be commuted at the appropriate time. But in the summer of 1919 he believed that freeing Debs would be a terrible political mistake, one that would only give comfort to Wilson's enemies ..." As Wilson's term ended, however, even Palmer publicly supported clemency for Debs, but the president still refused. Wilson was not in a generous mood, having "spent his last months in office stewing over grudges, petty and great, against those he perceived as his political foes." Debs, meanwhile, said that he preferred to remain in prison while Wilson was still in office and that it was the latter who was in need of a pardon: "No man in public life in American History ever retired so thoroughly discredited, so scathingly rebuked, so overwhelmingly impeached and repudiated as Woodrow Wilson."

Behind bars, first at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia--the feds were overcrowded--and later at the federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia, Debs became a model prisoner. Because of his celebrity status, Debs managed to develop special relationships with prison officials and garner privileges such as a tour of Atlanta with the warden and Lucy Robins, a visiting radical working for his release. His unique status was highlighted in 1920 when the Socialists nominated Debs as their presidential candidate for the fifth time. The Wilson White House relaxed prison rules to allow Debs to release a statement once a week to the press. "Where Debs had once stormed the country in a verbal torrent," Freeberg relates, "he would now have five hundred words a week, forwarded to his brother and then distributed through the wire services."

In addition to being a presidential candidate, Debs was himself a subject of debate in the build up to the election. The eventual victor, Warren G. Harding, had the Debs issue "thrust upon him" whenever he left the safety of his front-porch campaign. Harding was reluctant to promise freedom for political prisoners, whom he considered dangerous, although he had stated that "too much has been said about Bolshevism in America." He ordered a review when he took office, and his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, summoned Debs to Washington to discuss the matter. Daugherty disapproved of Debs's insistence that his First Amendment rights had been violated, but recommended that he be released out of "mercy rather than justice." Harding ignored the request that he wait until after New Year's Day 1922 to commute his sentence in order to "preserve the sanctity of Christmas."

Reporters flocked to the prison in Atlanta before Christmas 1921, anticipating the release of Debs. Freeberg sets the poignant scene as Debs walked to freedom with his new suit and a $5 bill:
   Halfway to the street, Debs was
   stopped in his tracks by a roaring
   tribute from his fellow inmates....
   Most of the two thousand convicts
   cheered, hollered, and called his
   name. Debs turned to face them,
   and for half a minute he held his hat
   aloft as their applause grew louder.
   Finally overcome, he bowed his
   head and wept. This was, he later
   wrote, 'the most deeply touching
   and impressive moment and the
   most profoundly dramatic incident
   in my life.'

Debs met President Harding at the White House, but was unimpressed by Washington. He told reporters that he preferred "to live privately as a humble citizen in [my] cottage in Terre Haute."

Debs's release didn't entirely resolve matters, but Harding and later Calvin Coolidge released the rest of the political prisoners from Wilson's war.

The Debs case shows the fragility of free speech during wartime. Sen. William Borah of Idaho, campaigning for release of political prisoners, said, "it seems to me that a vicious doctrine has grown up ... that when war comes the constitution is for the time suspended."

Free speech now enjoys much stronger protection, but a problem persists as much today as in 1918: when the country is gripped with nationalistic passion building up to war, few are willing to listen to the opposition, whether they be Debsian radicals or not.

Clark Stooksbury has written for American Enterprise, Chronicles, and Liberty.
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Title Annotation:BOOKS; Democracy's Prisoner: Eugene Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent
Author:Stooksbury, Clark
Publication:The American Conservative
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 30, 2008
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