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Feb 17, 2016

William B. Greene, American Mutualist

William Batchelder Greene was an individualist anarchist and a pioneer in free banking.

William Batchelder Greene was born in 1819, in the northeastern Massachusetts town of Haverhill, the son of poet, publisher, and Boston Postmaster Nathaniel Greene. A free-market libertarian who was a member of the socialist First International, educated as both a military officer and then as a man of the cloth, Greene’s singular life combines a surprising array of experiences and ideas. Greene had a diverse assortment of interests and published on topics ranging from ancient Egypt, Freemasonry, and calculus to the Kabbalah and Transcendentalism. As historian and anarchism scholar Shawn Wilbur observes, Greene wove “the religious, political and economic elements of his writing tightly together.”

The intellectual current with which Greene is most often associated is individualist anarchism, though Greene’s generation of American libertarians (which includes fellow Massachusetts natives such as Ezra Heywood, Joshua King Ingalls, Stephen Pearl Andrews, and Lysander Spooner) did not actually call themselves anarchists. Indeed, Greene even employed the word anarchy in the older negative sense, to convey disorder, violence, and chaos.

Greene is among the earliest American advocates of a free banking system under which money could be legally based on “any thing that may be sold under the hammer,” abolishing the privileged position of gold and silver. Mutual banks would be free to circulate their notes as currency, based on property of all kinds, and competition between them would drive down the price of credit, allowing those in need of it to borrow at cost.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1845, Greene took up a post as the pastor of a Unitarian church in the small town of Brookfield, Massachusetts, where he remained for the next five years. It was during this period, while tending his flock, that Greene first began to explore radical proposals for political and economic reform, gravitating in particular to those of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (whose first and perhaps most famous book, What Is Property?, appeared just a few years earlier in 1840). He wrote extensively in these years, presenting his evolving mutualism, his work frequently featured in a local paper, Worcester’s Palladium, under the nom de plume “Omega.”

Greene, like Proudhon, sought the dissolution of the governmental machinery in economic relationships, the hope that industry, cooperation, and trade would make government obsolete.1 As historian Eunice Minette Schuster observes of their many parallels, both men entered the political fray to advance this idea, Proudhon as a delegate in the French National Assembly in 1848, Greene at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1853. Greene spent most of the ’50s in France, where he became personally acquainted with Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, from whom he had acquired so many of his ideas on banking and monetary reform.

The eruption of hostilities in the Civil War brought the now middle aged Greene home to his native Massachusetts from Paris. Upon the conclusion of the War, the former Reverend, now Colonel Greene, became active in Boston’s radical milieu, though, as Wilbur notes, Greene had concluded most of his substantive work on the subject for which he is most well known, mutual banking, during the ‘40s. According to the great American anarchist Benjamin Tucker, the Civil War veteran cut quite an impressive figure. Recalling one of his first meetings with Greene, Tucker observed that the Colonel’s presence “would have made him notable in any company,” that “[h]e was strikingly handsome,” courtly and polite.2

That chance encounter took place at a meeting of the New England Labor Reform League in Boston, in June of 1872. Greene had cofounded the League in 1869, along with the radical publisher Ezra Heywood, with the goal of launching a different kind of labor union. The goal of the League, as expressed in a Declaration of Sentiments which Greene coauthored, was the “abolition of class laws and false customs, whereby legitimate enterprise is defrauded by speculative monopoly.” The League favored “[f]ree contracts, free money, free markets, free transit, and free land,” in short, the liberation of all aspects of social and economic life from coercive intervention. If the individualistic, free-market labor advocacy of Greene and his associates appears unconventional and anomalous to modern eyes, it was at least somewhat so even to their contemporaries. As historian James J. Martin observes, “The anarchist conception of the term ‘labor reform’ was not that generally understood,” eschewing and even denouncing such common labor movement tactics as striking and lobbying lawmakers. Tucker, for his part, accused political trade unions, those agitating for new laws and special treatment, of “abominable authoritarianism.” Such sentiments are characteristic of the individualist anarchists as a group, though as a matter of course they preferred the “labor authoritarians,” whom they regarded as acting defensively, to predatory “capitalist authoritarians.”

In an 1875 article for Heywood’s radical journal The Word, Sidney H. Morse3 insightfully captured the philosophical divide existing in the labor movement of the time. Attentive to the “two distinct schools” of labor reform active in Boston, Morse observed that one, the Equity School, sought to ground the economic system in philosophical principles whose operation would “secure to each and all ownership in what he or she produces.” Based as it was on Josiah Warren’s thought, the Equity School contemplated a careful and unhurried movement in the direction of a more free and fair society, the “calm judgment of the people” being the only proper foundation for deep societal change. Violent upheavals, political revolutions, and all manner of “heroic leaps” were anathema to the kind of individualist anarchist typified by Tucker, Morse, and Greene. Morse’s name for the other camp, the Political or Eight-Hours School, offers more than a hint at its inclination to “legislative enactment,” which of course Morse sees as “furnishing no solution” whatever. This dichotomy offers a framework with which to understand Greene’s participation in the reform efforts of the New England Labor Reform League and his political economy generally.

Greene regarded his mutualism as a midway point between or a synthesis of socialism and individualism, combining the best insights and salutary effects of both. Mutualism would avoid a harmful individualism that would be a threat to the underlying principle of equal freedom—that would gather all wealth into the hands of an avaricious and unscrupulous few. Likewise, it was a rejection of the kind of authoritarian socialism that would, “through artificial methods established by the legislature,” disrupt free competition and stifle individual initiative. Greene thought that the economic system of his home state, Massachusetts, was both socialistic and plutocratic. It was the former because wealth was apportioned arbitrarily and coercively through a “corporation system,” in contradiction to a competitive market system—the latter, because the benefits of this system were lavished upon the few who had access to the controls, to the halls of power.

Greene believed that a decentralized economic system, a genuine free market, would reward the industrious and distribute wealth comparatively widely and evenly. Greene followed Proudhon in placing the notion of reciprocity at the center of his mutualist project. He criticized power disparities in both politics and economics, seeing the two as inextricably linked. And also like Proudhon, Greene was inclined to highlighting the tensions and contradictions inherent in various ideas and ideologies percolating in political theory. Greene’s conceptions of individualism, for example, are among the particularly unique qualities of his political thought, often appearing to contradict one another. He warns against an individualism that is not properly “qualified and balanced by socialism,” yet criticizes socialism and insists that “unlimited individualism” is “the essential and necessary prior condition” of mutualism. Competition between apparent opposites was, for Greene, a source of balance, both in the world of ideas and in the economic system.

For Greene, the state could never be made a tool with which to accomplish economic justice, to free the working class from “the sovereignty of the capitalists.” It was, in his view, government power, ultimately held by a powerful few, that had itself laid the groundwork for widespread poverty, not any accident or the natural fluctuations of free markets. There were verifiable, historical reasons for “the subjugation of the working-man to capital. Those grounds and reasons are to be found in positive and arbitrary legislation, which creates privilege.” The goal, Greene insisted, was neither the vilification of the capitalists (in Greene’s time, the word capitalists almost never went unaccompanied by the definite article, and “the capitalistic system” was not taken to mean a free market system) nor any “vain war against poverty in the abstract.” Rather than histrionics or violent rhetoric about expropriation, class warfare for individualists and mutualists like Greene meant simply equality before the law, the absence of special legislation passed by and for the property owning class.

Among the privileges then in existence, Greene pinpointed those surrounding currency, credit, and banking as most pernicious. The mutual bank, cooperatively organized and owned by its members, would provide the affordable and abundant credit that would allow the working poor to self-organize and compete with monopoly capital. Thus was banking reform especially important—even central—to the mutualist prognostication of a withering and eventually vanishing state. Mutualism, in essence, said to the lords of capital, if you preach competition and laissez faire, then simply give us leave to compete; and if you are yet able to obtain your wealth through the honest means of trade, without resort to “legislative interference,” then you are entitled to it.

In Equality, published in 1849, Greene writes, “Competition is natural to man. Every blow aimed at competition, is a blow aimed at liberty and equality; for competition is but another name for that liberty and equality which ought to exist in every manufacturing and commercial community.” For the socialist and labor mainstreams, competition was socially destructive and backward; it should be abolished, not universalized. Where Greene’s was the equality of liberty and opportunity, premised on the right of every individual to own and exchange property, communism and socialism promised the lifeless equality of compelled sameness. For their devotion to individualism and the market, anarchists of Greene’s variety were denigrated as spokesmen for a merely “philosophical anarchism,” neutered, indisposed to action, and bourgeois in its class character. It was the communist publisher and editor Burnette G. Haskell who first labeled Greene’s circle the “Boston Anarchists” in his periodical Truth, intending to distinguish it from real anarchism, opposed to free market exchange and private property.

Though Greene’s practical mutualist ideas never attained widespread popularity, even among radicals, they became a key ingredient of later individualist anarchism and provided an entire generation with its introduction to the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Given the continued important of free banking within the current libertarian conversation, Greene’s pioneering works on mutual banking remain relevant; Benjamin Tucker deemed his Mutual Banking “one of the most important works on finance in the English language.” Greene was a champion of libertarian ideas at their best. He understood that while individuality and independence are essential to a free and vital society, so too are community and cooperation—even better still, he understood that these values are not irreconcilable with each other, but always and everywhere indivisible. Pastor, theorist, author, and soldier, William Batchelder Greene deserves a place among the great libertarians of the nineteenth century, using his resources and his extraordinary talents to challenge the status quo and advance liberty.


  1. Greene writes, “Mutualism operates, by its very nature, to render political government, founded on arbitrary force, superfluous; that is, it operates to the decentralization of the political power, and to the transformation of the State, by substituting self-government in the stead of government ab extra.”
  2. Martin Henry Blatt, Free Love & Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood (University of Illinois Press 1989).
  3. Morse was a freethinking sculptor who became the literary executor of Josiah Warren and was a frequent contributor to Tucker’s Liberty.