Eugene V. Debs,
The Great War, and
The Right to Dissent

Ernest Freeberg
Well, Debs was certainly a prickly pear. After they arrested him, tried him, and finally stuck him in federal prison at Moundsville, West Virginia in 1919 --- he had more than a few chances to be pardoned. He refused them, saying that he would only consent to be set free of all other "political prisoners" were pardoned as well. Besides, he said, the speech that he gave at Dayton (the one that got him busted) was not inflammatory, and only broke a law that was unjust, unprecedented, and in violation of the Free-Speech clause of the Constitution. The feds didn't believe him. But the voters gave him almost a million votes while he was behind bars. The slogan was "From the jailhouse to the White House."

We learn from Democracy's Prisoner that Debs was conscientious, usually consistent, and a valiant old geezer. And he was a certified geezer: by the time they salted him away, he was sixty-seven, not in the best of health, beset with "nerves" and heart problems. If nothing else, we are left with no small respect for one that the various newspapers of the day (including the august New York Times and the Washington Post) labeled terrorist.

Which he was not. He was a card-carrying Socialist who despised violence and war. He saw WWI as a battle between plutocrats who would never fight themselves but would throw the young and the innocent into the trenches to protect their wealth.

Debs was a charmer, even though his speeches were pure rabble-rouse. (In those days before amplification, he would fill the halls with his voice, leaning forward to capture the hearts --- and the minds --- of his listeners, drawing back to shake the rafters). He was a charmer in other ways, too. Turns out he had a mistress, Mabel Curry, with whom he corresponded from prison.

And then there was the matter of his three wardens. Each of them were initially determined to see to it that he was treated no differently than the other prisoners; each of them (one at Moundsville; two at Atlanta) ended up moved by a man who was at once gentle and principled (and, much to their liking, no trouble).

Debs was also a master at charming the other prisoners: a murderer by the name of Sam Moore ended following him about like a puppy dog. One of the most moving passages here has to do with the ovation that Debs received when he finally was released from the pokey: not by the intransigent, bitter, hidebound Wilson (who after his stroke, lived in his own prison) but by his Republican successor, Harding.

"Halfway to the street, Debs was stopped in his tracks by a roaring tribute from his fellow inmates. In Debs' honor, the warden had loosened prison regulations that holiday morning, and the prisoners pressed against all three stories of barred windows, craning for a last look at their beloved cellmate."

    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 of my life.' The prison ovation continued, still audible a half-mile away, as Debs rode in the warden's car to the train station."

--- George Green, MA
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