- Prisoner of War
Offshore prisons. Extraordinary rendition. Warrantless wiretaps. Torture. By pushing questions of civil liberties and human rights to the forefront of political consciousness, the war on terror has provided some new subjects of inquiry for American historians, while putting some old concerns in a new light. Established accounts of the nation’s past have rather quickly become inadequate. When alleged U.S. violations of the Geneva Conventions dominated the news a few years ago, Linda Kerber, president of the American Historical Association at the time, expressed her “embarrassment” that she had never discussed the conventions in her classes.1 Surely many scholars were blushing, or should have been, along with Kerber. Contemporary events have, not for the first time, outrun attempts to place the present in historical context.
Fortunately, some recent scholarship has demonstrated how embarrassment might lead to opportunity. This work has not only explored human rights, broadly defined, but has also tried to incorporate human rights concerns into more general narratives of American, and world, history. Notable efforts include Lynn Hunt’s long view of the campaign against torture, Elizabeth Borgwardt’s illuminating exploration of World War II-era multilateralism, and Mae Ngai’s incisive study of illegal aliens, along with a pair of pathbreaking essays by the late Kenneth Cmiel.2 To this pioneering work we can now add Ernest Freeberg’s Democracy’s Prisoner. In his riveting account of the incarceration of Eugene V. Debs and the amnesty movement that set him free, Freeberg has subtly reimagined the post-World War I Red Scare for a post-September 11 world.
Freeberg’s previous book, The Education of Laura Bridgman (2001), breathed new life into the hoary topic of antebellum reform by recounting the deeply moving story of Samuel Gridley Howe and Bridgman, his deaf and blind protégé. Keeping this troubled and ultimately tragic relationship at the center of his narrative, Freeberg weighed in on longstanding scholarly debates over nineteenth-century science, religion, and social control, while making a novel [End Page 78] contribution to the emerging field of disability history as well. Democracy’s Prisoner manages a similarly deft balance of the human and the historiographical. It is a study of human frailty in the most literal way: an old man, Debs, dying in prison, and another old man, Woodrow Wilson, dying in the White House, both of them taxed to the limits of their declining powers. Yet within this tale of mortality, Freeberg explores seemingly deathless arguments about civil liberties, social movements, and American democracy.
The book is not a biography of Debs or a response to the old question of why (recent government bailouts notwithstanding) there is no socialism in the United States. For those purposes, Nick Salvatore’s sensitive Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist (2007) remains the standard. Freeberg is most interested in an “unintended consequence” that sprung from the activities of the Socialist Party during and after World War I, namely “a national debate about the meaning of the First Amendment” (p. 319). Democracy’s Prisoner joins a growing historical literature on the “unintended consequences” of American radicalism, a literature that downplays the subject of workers’ revolution in order to take up other subjects. The trend has been especially fruitful in accounts of Depression-era American Communism. Robin Kelley and Glenda Gilmore have moved racial equality to the forefront of Communist history, while Michael Denning has posited a “cultural front” of Communists and fellow travelers who pioneered lasting innovations in literature, music, and film. For these scholars, the far left had an influence out of proportion to its numbers.3 Freeberg accomplishes an analogous change of focus with the Socialist Party by showing how the amnesty movement to free dissenters after World War I gained widespread appeal beyond the ranks of diehard revolutionaries.
The events that led to Eugene Debs’s incarceration are familiar, though Freeberg effectively shows how bewildering they looked at the time. When the Great War began in Europe in 1914...