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The offender

Democracy's Prisoner Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent Ernest Freeberg Harvard University Press: 380 pp., $29.95

June 15, 2008|Peter Richardson | Peter Richardson is the author of "American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams." His book on the history and influence of Ramparts magazine will be published next year.

It ALL sounds so familiar: a foreign war, an unpopular president, high-minded vows to spread democracy abroad and a dubious law to restrict liberties at home. Add to that scenario vast inequalities in wealth, high immigration rates, scant regard for working families and festering resentment about the ravages of global capital. The conclusion seems inescapable: the first decades of the 20th century sound weirdly like the present.

But the differences are also notable. Before World War I, a radical journal could reach 700,000 American households, and socialism was what William James might call "a live hypothesis." The impassioned speeches of labor organizer, Socialist leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs were nothing short of evangelical in tone and effect. (He once called socialism "merely Christianity in action.") Debs inspired groups large and small, and his remarkable charisma is what most concerned the powers that were. For the historical parallel to hold, we must imagine a third-party presidential candidate today who could receive 1 million votes without leaving his prison cell -- and a roaring ovation from his fellow inmates when he finally did.

According to historian Ernest Freeberg, it was precisely Debs' virtuosity that forced America to grapple with the limits of dissent. In 1918, Debs was convicted under the recently minted Espionage Act for questioning America's entry into World War I; before that, free speech protections were more a matter of custom, easily dispensed with during wartime, than of high legal principle. But his 10-year sentence raised 1st Amendment issues with unprecedented force. Sixty-three years old and in poor health, Debs faced the prospect of dying in prison. His drama played out against a backdrop of revolutionary violence both here and abroad: While he was serving his sentence, a bomb planted by anarchists ripped through a busy Wall Street intersection, killing more than 30 people and injuring 200.

Freeberg shows that in the end it was Debs' popularity, not a knockdown legal argument, that compelled politicians, the mainstream media and eventually federal judges to reconsider the government's power to jail dissidents. The legal justifications came later, after Debs walked out of an Atlanta prison and caught a train to meet his unlikely Republican pardoner, President Warren G. Harding. Ailing, distracted by foreign affairs and stung by criticism from progressives and conservatives alike for his policy failures, Democrat Woodrow Wilson had refused to pardon Debs despite rising public pressure to do so after the war. When it seemed safe, his successor made the call, shrewdly connecting it to his pledge to return the nation to normalcy.

Throughout this time, many civic groups and public officials defended the Espionage Act. One leader of the American Defense Society declared, "Those who are not for us, must be against us." A congressman advised: "People should go ahead and obey the law, keep their mouths shut, and let the government run the war." Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. dismissed criticism of the court's unanimous ruling against Debs as "a lot of jaw about free speech." But Holmes reconsidered his position and later offered his "clear and present danger" test to adjudicate such cases. By that standard, Debs never would have been convicted.

Freeberg's narrative unfolds at a stately pace. He patiently introduces the main characters and many minor ones. Debs' main advocate, Lucy Robins, leaves her vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco to take up the fight. She receives strong backstage support from Debs' labor rival, the AFL's Samuel Gompers, and equally strong resistance from her more radical husband. Upton Sinclair weighs in, overconfident in his ability to reason with Wilson. We also hear from John Reed, Helen Keller, Clarence Darrow and U.S. Postmaster General Will Hays, who would later lay down the law for the Hollywood studios. (His nemesis, Mae West, appears briefly to lobby Harding for Debs' release.) Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, launches raids on radical groups and thereby scotches his political future. But Palmer's loss is J. Edgar Hoover's gain; the young bureaucrat fills his files with the names of subversives -- and eventually carries the imprint of those years into the Nixon era.

The middle section of the book, which describes the various pressures and counter-pressures brought to bear on the amnesty question, slows to a crawl. Debs moves through two prisons and three wardens, whom he invariably impresses with his integrity and affability. His freedom looms on the horizon like a mirage as two administrations ponder the politics of his release. One delegation after another makes its pitch in Washington, and the decision-makers dispense blandishments until the battle for popular opinion is all but settled. Freeberg's reader languishes along with Debs, waiting for some definitive outcome.

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