Working Class Hero: Ernie Freeberg's "Democracy's Prisoner" Examines a Real Socialist

Local historian Ernie Freeberg wrote the book on America's biggest Socialist, Eugene Debs. How'd he end up living in Cas Walker's house?

Socialism is a word we hear thrown around a lot, in political debate, and you can sometimes get the impression that the people who like to use the word most aren't quite certain what it means. As it happens, the University of Tennessee employs one of the nation's leading authorities on America's most famous Socialist.

Ernie Freeberg teaches American history, specializing in cultural and religious history of the 19th and 20th centuries. His recent book, Democracy's Prisoner: The Prisoner, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, is an account of trying days in the life of Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president five times on the Socialist ticket, calling for an end to capitalism, an institution which he believed to be beyond reform. Debs had advocates even in Knoxville, and spoke here several times in the early 1900s, to cheering crowds.

The last time Debs ran for president, in 1920, however, he conducted his campaign from a jail cell. In the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Debs was prisoner #9653, serving a 10-year conviction for speaking out against U.S. participation in World War I. He received close to one million votes, the most votes any Socialist has ever earned in a presidential campaign.

That strange, often misunderstood, and almost forgotten period when hundreds of people were jailed for outspokenly disagreeing with the administration interested Freeberg. It was a dramatic time in Debs' life, and in the history of the American Socialist Party, but it was the birth of America's unique systems for preserving civil liberties.

Freeberg's book, published by Harvard University Press, has won awards for legal history and was nominated for last year's Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography. It's also earned national praise from reviewers: "Carefully researched and expertly told," wrote Peter Richardson for the Los Angeles Times, "Debs' story also brings a fascinating era into sharp, vivid focus." Pulitzer-winning journalist and liberal intellectual Anthony Lewis called the book "fascinating." Other critics hailed it using words like "wonderfully fresh," "excellent and compelling," "superb"—words and phrases no author minds hearing. And, over and over, you see the word "timely."


At 52, Freeberg is a tall, friendly guy with a close-cropped white beard, almost too friendly to pass for a tenured professor. You might guess he was a children's photographer, or a guy who builds kayaks for a living. He speaks in the warm, even tones of a public-radio reporter, which, in fact, he used to be.

He lives with his wife Lauren Bray, an elementary-school librarian, in a house on Gaston Avenue in North Hills. The spacious living room has big sunny windows to the south, oriental rugs on the hardwood floors, and comfortable modern furniture. "We like the view of the mountains," he says, noting that he and his wife have remodeled the house to widen the view. "And we like this side of town," he says. "We like the lack of traffic, the easy access to downtown, easy access to the university. And our neighbors are very friendly."

It would seem like an appealing place to live even if you didn't know this house, with its lovely view of the hills of Sevier County to the southeast, was the longtime home of Cas Walker.

Groceryman and provocateur, country-music impresario, coon hunter, and longtime city politician, Walker was a reputedly millionaire, but lived in this relatively modest house in a working man's neighborhood, with dog kennels and a small stable for a pony in the back yard.

Walker, another skinny, bald-headed guy who, like Debs, was always quite sure he was right, bore a superficial resemblance to the Socialist Party candidate. He made fun of the "silk-stocking crowd" he saw as his opponents in downtown Knoxville; Debs would have done the same. He and Debs shared a distrust of the old-money elite, and Walker, like Debs, threw in his lot with the working class. But despite his populist gestures, Walker tended to swing to the far right, and in his unprecedented 30 years as a member of City Council, and two brief spells as mayor, he often tried to block progressive reform. He condemned water fluoridation as a Communist plot.

For almost all that time—when he was being recalled as mayor of Knoxville, when he was on TV and radio every day hosting his Farm and Home Hour, when he was discovering a young talent named Dolly Parton—he was living in this house. Walker often seemed proud he had nothing more than a fourth-grade education; it's hard to know what he would think of a nationally renowned scholar from the Northeast living in his house, enjoying Walker's old views of his native Sevier County. The old pony stable is now a storage shed. The concrete pad where the kennels used to be is now a grapevine arbor. Freeberg also grows fruit trees: apples, pears, peaches, cherries. "I'm very much an amateur gardener," he says, and raising fruit organically has brought mixed results. "The apricots have been the best."

But they might have found some things to talk about. After all, Cas was an author, too, and liked to think of himself as a historian. His book, The White Caps of Sevier County, about the violent vigilantes that terrorized Sevier County's impure in the 1890s, sold pretty well in Cas Walker groceries, as did his autobiography.

Walker died in 1998, but his house wasn't completely cleared out, about six years ago, when Freeberg moved in. "I had read Bruce Wheeler's history of Knoxville by the time I moved here in 2003, and knew something about Cas Walker's mystique," he says, smiling. Walker is a major character in Wheeler's book, which details the grocer's genius for spectacle. Freeberg was impressed, the first time he saw the house, by the previous owner's security measures. "There was a ton of locks on the doors," Freeberg says. "And floor safes." Contrary to rumors of fortunes stashed in the house, Freeberg says the safes were empty, and he didn't find anything of obvious value. There was a good deal of paper records, and Freeberg was going to donate it to the East Tennessee Historical Society. But when he moved in, most of it had been cleared out. A few interesting artifacts remained. One is a copy of a play called The Book of Job, by the Children's Theatre Press, produced in Kentucky, personalized to Cas in 1960.

Another was the mailbox with Cas Walker's name on it. For certain pilgrims, it has been kind of a landmark, proof that Cas used to live there. Freeberg doesn't have it any more, only because a certain flamboyantly local musician and public-radio personality talked him out of it. "You've made it in Knoxville if Todd Steed wants your mailbox," says Freeberg.


Freeberg grew up near Boston. He got his bachelor's degree from Middlebury, in Vermont, and early in his career worked as a news reporter for Maine Public Radio. But he earned his masters and Ph.D. from Emory in Atlanta, where Debs did his time.

Before he came to Knoxville, he taught at New Hampshire's Colby-Sawyer College, where he was best known as the author of The Education of Laura Bridgman, a biography of the New England woman believed to be the first deaf and blind person to learn the English language, and the philosophical and religious controversies raised by her education. Her astonishing career as an exemplar has been overshadowed by that of Helen Keller, who was born about 50 years later. Freeberg's book won the national Dunning award from the American Historical Association.

His interest in the conflicts over free speech led him to look at Debs, the Indiana-born reformer and politician famous even in mainstream America a century ago, but now almost forgotten. He wrote the book before the current talk-show-fueled anxiety about "socialism," and was more interested in Debs' outspoken rejection of the First World War, and the trouble it caused him. All college-level history students learn about Debs, but Freeberg was struck by what they didn't know. "My students hadn't heard that he'd been jailed." He wanted to point that out, and also explore for himself why the government reacted so strongly. "It was an important turning point in American civil liberties."

"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 states in Harvard University Press's publicity. "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."

Debs had called for the end of capitalism for more than 20 years, as well as for women's rights, an end to child labor, direct election of senators (they'd been chosen by state legislatures up to that time), and a range of other reforms condemned, or sometimes praised, as "socialistic." Though Teddy Roosevelt denounced Debs and Socialism, he adopted several planks in Debs' platform, especially during his third-party run in 1912. A generation later, his Democratic cousin Franklin might have seemed to borrow some more.

Debs never got in serious legal trouble over his Socialism. It wasn't until he gave a strongly worded speech to a Socialist gathering in Canton, Ohio, in 1918, that Debs got in trouble with the federal government. He claimed the war was more about profits than "making the world safe for Democracy," and denounced the Wilson administration's new policy of jailing some of the more outspoken dissenters.

"World War I was an important turning point in civil liberties. Wars are always hard on civil liberties," Freeberg says, and Wilson's second term was surprisingly tough on dissenters who opposed U.S. participation in the European war. First amendment freedoms didn't necessarily extend to allowing speech condemning a war effort, especially when it could be interpreted to imply young men should resist the draft. Americans were free, Wilson administration policy went, says, Freeberg, "but not free to incite young men to break the law." War resistance coincided with news of the violent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which raised anxiety about dissent in America, especially when it had to do with socialists. Wilson tightened the screws on public dissent.

A former Knoxvillian was a player in the stateside dramas of 1917-20. Wilson's Secretary of the Treasury, also his son in law, was William Gibbs McAdoo, son of a UT history professor, who had spent much of his youth in Knoxville. Many years earlier, the younger McAdoo had built Knoxville's first electric streetcar system. Freeberg says McAdoo represented the liberal wing of the Wilson administration, urging the president to consider amnesty for dissenters. "McAdoo urged Wilson to let the prisoners go," he says. (Whether the fact that the secretary of the treasury had an arrest record himself—he'd been briefly jailed in Knoxville in 1897 for his part in inciting a riot over rights to build streetcar lines—made him more sympathetic toward incarcerated dissenters is unclear.)

But McAdoo's rival, the hyperpatriotic politician A. Mitchell Palmer, seems to have gotten the president's ear. As McAdoo left the Wilson administration, later to become a senator from California and popular presidential candidate, Mitchell became Wilson's attorney general known for the Palmer Raids, aimed at rooting out terrorists and other radicals.

"But there's always a push back." Freeberg says World War I was the beginning of a well-organized civil-liberties movement, including the 1917 founding of the National Civil Liberties Bureau, which was by 1920 better known as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Debs sympathized with the Bolsheviks, explaining that they had to be violent to defend themselves against one of the world's most repressive regimes. But he never advocated violence to achieve his ends in America. "He wanted socialism in the American tradition: revolution in the ballot box," Freeberg says. Meanwhile, the violent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia shocked Westerners, and marked a perhaps permanent setback for Socialism in America. "The Russian Revolution was a real threat to the American tradition." After World War I, Debs' views of a "cooperative commonwealth," governing industry for the good of the people and perfecting humankind through government, seemed less plausible. "It began to look like a naive faith," says Freeberg.

Debs became a galvanizing force, the most famous of about 1,200 political prisoners in America during World War I, and many Americans grew increasingly uncomfortable with that fact. Perhaps ironically, running his campaign from prison, Debs earned almost a million votes, probably more votes from non-Socialists than he ever had before. Many Americans sympathized.

"Wilson, in moments when he was more lucid [after his incapacitating stroke] never apologized," Freeberg says.

Debs' story upends some assumptions about conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans. Wilson, the Democrat, is often characterized as the idealistic liberal; his administration was followed by three very conservative Republicans. It was the first of them who freed Debs.

Warren Harding pardoned Debs after three years in prison for speaking his mind. Harding has made some historians' list as the worst president of all time, but Freeberg gives him his props. "Harding deserves credit for that," he says. "As a conservative, he rightly understood that the way the government reacted in World War I was a huge overreach. Proper conservatives worried about the federal government's overreach, and Harding did. Harding was no great intellect, but he did have a sense that the country had to get these war tensions behind it. It was part of a plan to restore the pre-war status quo."

Ninety years is a long time, and many of the individual changes Debs campaigned for came to pass. One is the guaranteed right to unionize. In Debs' day, Freeberg observes, "strikes were more violent, more bloody than they are now."


Democracy's Prisoner reads in places, like a novel, with swift pacing. History scholars aren't known to be graceful writers, but Freeberg is an unusually good one. "It all has to do with being a journalist," he says, crediting his background as a radio reporter in Maine. Full time for three years, part time for five, he had to file multiple news stories each week, and he learned how to tell a story. "So many people who have written about Debs are admirers who put him on a pedestal. I was determined not to do that." Though he worked on the book for close to 10 years, he claims he never tired of his subject. Part of it was the engaging cast of characters: He mentions economist/activist Scott Nearing, American Communist John Reed and writer Max Eastman, who shaped Debs' life and times. "And I have to admit I was seduced by Debs' personality," he says. He enjoyed finding each new anecdote that added to his subject's complexity.

Critics have praised the book as "timely," but Freeberg says any resemblance between Wilson's crackdown on civil rights and the Bush administration's Patriot Act is coincidence, at least as far as the inspiration for his book is concerned. "I didn't write the book in response to 9/11," he says. "I started researching it well before that, in the late '90s." He does see some similarities between the Wilson and Bush administration's responses to national security, but also some differences. "The Bush administration did tend to erode the right to protest, only inviting loyalists to the rallies and not allowing protesters to come near. But it was nothing like rounding up speakers and throwing them in the penitentiary for 10 years."

Things are different today, and generally better. "We have the advantage of a well-organized response" to government threats, in the person of the ACLU and other more specific organizations.

What would Debs think of modern politics? Freeberg says Debs might have been dismayed that corporations still play a strong role in who gets elected. He would have been happy, though, to see America elect a black president. "He was very progressive in race issues. Debs refused to speak to segregated crowds." But Freeberg thinks the Socialist would have disapproved of Obama's practical politics.

"He wouldn't recognize Obama as a socialist at all," Freeberg says, and brings up one handy example, the Wall Street bailout. With major government support for banks and other industries, Freeberg says, "Both parties became funders of what Debs called the Oligarchy."

Maintaining that "Oligarchy" was important to Obama. Debs would have been happy to watch Wall Street crash. He expected it would, eventually.

"Liberalism serves to soften and semi-regulate capitalism," Freeberg says. "But Debs would say it doesn't get at the root of the problem." Debs, he says, didn't think that mere regulation of powerful private enterprise would ever be successful.


"I'm sympathetic with Debs' concerns," Freeberg says. "I admire his strength of conviction. But no, I'm not a socialist."

Freeberg is just back from a month's work at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, where he's been researching his next project, enjoying "the Southern California sunshine, with one week of apocalyptic flooding." He's writing another book—he expects this one to take several years, too—on an entirely different subject than radical politics. He's examining how the introduction of the electric light in the 1880s changed American life and culture. Electric lighting in public places came to be seen as a modern marvel, and for a while a distinctly American one. He also wants to show that it wasn't just Edison who invented the lightbulb. The electric light, he says, has a whole array of inventors who contributed to the technology and to the many uses for it. Even in its early years, electric lights were used for surgery, underwater exploration, and retail, allowing department stores to stay open much later—and, in the mix, effectively giving workers more usable leisure time.

It might seem a strange jump, from America's high-water mark of Socialist activism to the development of electric-light technology, even though they shared an era. But Freeberg says the Debs study made him curious about why America never had a major socialist revolution despite radical disparities in income. "I want to recognize the ways industrial capitalism delivered," he says. That's a sentiment even Cas Walker, who was proud of himself as a rare case of a dirt-poor country boy using his wit and hard work to rise above his circumstances, might appreciate.

Print-Edition Exclusive!

A Note About Our Photos of Eugene Debs at Fountain City Park: Relatively few photos of Eugene V. Debs exhorting crowds exist, and these, of his speech to a crowd at Fountain City Park on Labor Day, 1905, are well known among Debs scholars. At the time, the populist Socialist Party was the most popular of several third parties in America. "He will find some sympathetic listeners, for Knoxville has some zealous socialists," predicted the Republican Knoxville Journal, accurately. He stayed in a Gay Street hotel, and greeted several friends by name. "From the start, Mr. Debs had the admiration of the people of Knoxville." In a speech that lasted two and a half hours—"holding his audience in the most intense interest"—he condemned child labor, dismissed the U.S. Senate as a puppet of corporate interests, and predicted the end of capitalism within 50 years. "The Republican Party are the big capitalists," he said at Fountain City Park. "The Democratic Party are the little capitalists."

Photo Courtesy of the Debs Collection, Indiana State University Library.