Thursday, March 05, 2009

Ernest Freeberg Discusses History of Dissent and Free Speech

Ernest FreebergThe Langum Charitable Trust is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2008 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History is Ernest Freeberg for Democracy’s Prisoner: Eugene V. Debs, the Great War, and the Right to Dissent, published by the Harvard University Press. This prize is awarded annually to the best work of American legal history or American legal biography published by a university press, that is accessible to the educated general public, rooted in sound scholarship, and has themes that touch upon matters of general concern to the American public, past or present.

Freeberg will receive his award, which carries a stipend of $1,000, in a presentation held in the auditorium of the central branch of the Birmingham Public Library at 4:00PM, March 14, 2009. Professor Freeberg will make a few remarks concerning the writing of the book and will respond to questions. A reception will follow. The event is free of charge and the public is warmly invited.

During American participation in World War I, the Wilson administration prosecuted and jailed war critics on the specious ground that their dissent tended to interfere with recruitment of soldiers. The federal government spied on groups thought to be critical, harassed individual dissidents, and caused them to lose their jobs. The government encouraged private vigilance groups to harass, abduct and even torture American citizens because of their failure to support Wilson’s ludicrous notion of a war to end all wars.

book jacket
As leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs became a primary target of these persecutions, and Freeberg focuses most of this well-written book on Deb’s specific story, even while relating the more general history of the repression. Debs became one of the few imprisoned dissidents whom Wilson refused to release after the war was completed, and a large-scale campaign clamored for his pardon, ultimately granted by President Harding. In this campaign, Freeberg tells us, Debs the specific became the general story, since the amnesty effort did much to engender the more expansive notions of free speech that we enjoy today.

This book has important lessons for today, when we are now concluding another war, in Iraq, that many people and groups opposed. Again the federal government spied on Americans and practiced torture. Before surrendering to utter discouragement, we might reflect on either the refusal or inability of President Bush to simply imprison those who strongly criticized his war, as predecessor Wilson had done. The sacrifices of Debs and the dissidents of that generation may have worked a permanent change in the rights of dissent and free speech during wartime. For that, and this fine account, we should be thankful. – DJL, Sr.


Where: The Arrington Auditorium at the Central Library
When: Saturday, March 14, 2009
Time: 4:00 p.m.

There will be a reception following the ceremony.

2008 Honorable Mention

Honorable mention is made to Peter Charles Hoffer for the book, The Treason Trials of Aaron Burr, published by the University Press of Kansas.

This fine work vividly portrays Aaron Burr’s strange intrigues in the West and provides an illuminating account of the political and legal aspects of trials that helped to establish the principle that courts will not permit the President or Congress to manipulate the law of treason for the purpose of stifling dissent. Hoffer also demonstrates how the trials made fundamental contributions to the law of evidence and criminal procedure.

Hoffer provides fresh insights into the interactions among Burr, Thomas Jefferson, and John Marshall, and his book is an important addition to the on-going re-evaluation of Burr’s reputation.

The awards are sponsored jointly by the Friends of the Birmingham Public Library and the Langum Project For Historical Literature.

Previous winners list

David J. Langum, Sr. founded the Langum Project for Historical Literature in 2001 out of a conviction that far too many historians today write only for each other, and that there is a need to make the rich history of America, in both her colonial and national periods, accessible to the educated general public. It seeks to encourage this sort of writing by awarding two annual prizes of $1,000 apiece for the best books published by university or small presses in the category of American historical fiction ("both excellent fiction and excellent history that to some extent delineates between the two") and in the category of American legal history or legally related biography ("rooted in sound scholarship, accessible to the education general reader, and with themes that touch upon matters of general concern to the American public, past or present"). The Project is now a division of Langum Charitable Trust, a private operating foundation with 501(c)(3) status.

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