Eugene Debs and the Birth of American Civil Liberties

Ernest Freeberg
Ernest Freeberg
University of Tennessee

Ernest Freeberg (Ph.D., Emory University) is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities and head of the History Department at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of four books, including the award-winning Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, The Great War, and the Right to Dissent.  Professor Freeberg is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians.

 

Overview

In the summer of 1918, as U.S. soldiers fought and died on the battlefields of France, socialist leader Eugene V. Debs gave a speech denouncing World War I as a “Wall Street war” that benefited only the rich. Because of this speech, Debs was labeled “a clear and present danger” to national security and sentenced to ten years in a federal prison. Two years later, Debs ran for president and won almost a million votes — without ever leaving his Atlanta jail cell. Most cast their vote for him not in support of his politics, but of his right as an American to speak freely, even in time of war. Though eventually pardoned, Debs’ imprisonment sparked an argument that still rages: is protest in times of war a democratic right or an act of treason?  In this talk, we’ll explore this incident that sparked a national debate over the meaning of the First Amendment and the government’s power to silence its critics.

 

Recommended Reading:

Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, by Ernest Freeberg

The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—And Changed the History of Free Speech in America, by Thomas Healy

Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, by Nick Salvatore

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Over one thousand American men and women were jailed during World War I for speaking against the war. What were their reasons for protesting American involvement in the Great War, and why did the Wilson administration find it necessary to prosecute them for their dissent?
  2. While the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution, historians point to the World War I period as “the birth of civil liberties.” Why?

 

 

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