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KNOXVILLE — UT Associate Professor Ernest Freeberg’s book, “Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent,” has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award in the biography category.

Ernest Freeberg
Ernest Freeberg
All awards will be presented in a ceremony on April 24. The awards are presented in nine categories — biography, current interest, fiction, the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, history, mystery/thriller, poetry, science and technology and young adult. There are five nominees in each category.

Other nominees in the biography category are: “A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt” by H.W. Brands; “Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching” by Paula J. Giddings; “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House” by Jon Meacham; and “Chagall: A Biography” by Jackie Wullschlager.

Freeberg’s book, published last summer by Harvard University Press, tells the story of Debs, a five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for president. In 1918 Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act for questioning America’s entry into World War I.

Debs served only three years before he was pardoned by President Warren Harding, who yielded to a rising national protest from Americans who spoke against the government’s attempt to silence war protestors.

“Before that, free speech protections were more a matter of custom, easily dispensed with during wartime, than of high legal principle,” fellow author and historian Peter Richardson wrote in a review of the book in the Los Angeles Times.

In a review of the book soon after it was published, the Los Angeles Times noted that Freeberg’s book contains timely lessons.

“If history is what the present wants to know about the past,” the Times wrote, “’Democracy’s Prisoner’ is teeming with lessons. But above all, it’s the story of one extraordinary man’s showdown with the establishment — and how that confrontation turned into a complex political struggle whose outcome was up for grabs. Carefully researched and expertly told, Debs’ story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus.”

Freeberg specializes in American religious and cultural history, with an emphasis on the 19th and early 20th centuries. He is particularly interested in conflicts over free speech and religious liberty and the role of the First Amendment in American history.

“I’ve always been attracted to those moments when the individual conscience is pitted against the will of the state, or of the majority,” Freeberg said. “It’s an ancient story, and one that reveals a great deal about our democratic ideals. Debs’ decision to speak his mind on the war, knowing that he would likely be sentenced to 10 years in prison, is one of those moments when our nation’s commitment to freedom of speech and conscience was tested. In fact, this attempt to balance the rights of conscience with the needs of the state, especially in times of war, is a struggle that has done much to define the direction of American democracy in the past hundred years — and the Debs case is a good starting place to understand the evolution of our own ideas about the rights of war protestors.”

Freeberg’s first book, “The Education of Laura Bridgman,” which looked at the antebellum philosophical and religious controversies raised by the education of the first deaf-blind person to learn language, won the American Historical Association’s Dunning Prize.

Freeberg has a doctorate and master’s degree from Emory University and a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College.

NOTE: Historical photo of Debs speaking in Knoxville area available upon request.


Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,