Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

Sep 1, 1978

Radical Individualism in America: Revolution to Civil War

Bibliographical Essay

One of the most highly-regarded historians of 19th-century America gives his contribution to the Literature of Liberty.

Nothing is more characteristic of American society than efforts to reform it. From the earliest days of colonial settlement, virtually every generation has witnessed some endeavor to improve the institutions of American life. But even as historians remark on the persistence of radicalism and reform in the American past, they have found it difficult to account either for the roots of the radical impulse, or for its strengths and weaknesses, successes, and failings. Too often, studies of the radical tradition are cast in a “heroic” mold, in which radicals are pictured as heroes to be emulated rather than historical figures defined by their own time, even as they struggle to transcend it. Such an approach is able to provide striking portraits of individual radical figures and movements, but it is usually less successful in examining the social, cultural, and political aspects of American life which have limited the spread of radical movements. On the other hand, those who, like Louis Hartz, have dismissed radicalism altogether, positing an all-encompassing liberal ideology from which there has been virtually no dissent, have difficulty in accounting for the persistence of American radicalism in spite of an all-too-frequent lack of success.

It is only recently that ideology has come to play a central role in the study of American history. The writings of Bernard Bailyn, J. G. A. Pocock, and Eugene Genovese, to name only a few, are a salutary reaction against a period of “consensus” history during which historians argued that Americans have produced no ideas worthy of serious consideration. These writers have reopened the question of the origins and development of radical ideology in the American past.

 

Radical Traditions: Jacobin vs. Jeffersonian

In studying the radical tradition, it is essential to distinguish among a number of distant, although interrelated, expressions of American radical thought. One can begin with the distinction drawn by Yehoshua Arieli in his brilliant analysis of American political culture, between the Jacobin and Jeffersonian traditions: the first collectivist, unitary, and oriented toward the state, the second voluntarist, pluralist, and oriented toward the individual and his “pursuit of happiness.” A related, but not identical, distinction can be made in terms of the attitude of radical movements toward the institution of private property. The most prominent strain of American radicalism has derived from what C. B. Macpherson calls the theory of “possessive individualism,” which defines liberty as freedom from dependence upon the will of other persons, and views possession of private property as a necessary guarantee of individual autonomy. The most common strain of American radicalism has been the attempt both to expand the boundaries of individual liberty (often focusing on groups excluded from its benefits, such as blacks and women), and to create a society simultaneously possessing all the attributes of the American dream—equality and liberty, freedom and order, private property and access to personal advancement. A second element of the radical tradition begins its critique with society, rather than the individual. Such movements as communitarianism and socialism have attempted not to perfect the individualist ethos but rather to transcend it, erecting a competing vision of the good society, defined by the collective good. Whatever one’s opinions of the Jacobin and Jeffersonian ideological strands, both are intrinsically American, for both can be traced back to the republicanism of the American Revolution. It is here that the analysis of nineteenth-century American radicalism must begin.

 

English Roots: Commonwealthmen

During the past decade, a series of significant works have chronicled the ideological causes and consequences of the American Revolution. Drawing on the pioneering work of Caroline Robbins, such writers as Bailyn, Pocock, and Gordon Wood have traced the republicanism of the Revolution to a group of English political theorists beginning with James Harrington, and succeeded by the coffee house radicals and opposition politicians of the eighteenth century. These publicists, variously known as Commonwealthmen, Radical Whigs, or the Country Party, developed a pervasive critique of the “corruption” overtaking English life as a result of the political and economic changes of the eighteenth century. They were especially critical of the rise of cabinet power—the creation of political stability through expanding the national bureaucracy and filling Parliament with various appointees and sinecurists. These Radical Whigs opposed the financial revolution evidenced by the creation of the Bank of England and other large moneyed corporations in order to underwrite the new national debt. They feared that the spread of market relations into all areas of English life would unsettle the foundations of traditional liberty. In contrast to the manipulation of Parliament by the Crown, they exalted the ideal of balanced government. The Commonwealthmen were inimical to the emergence of speculators, financiers, and stockjobbers in the national debt, who were all dependent on the state for their income; they looked with nostalgia to a time when men of independent means controlled the destiny of Parliament.

In England, the Country Party comprised a small and not very influential band of reformers. But their influence in America was considerable. Their writings helped shape an image of a corrupt Old World, where liberty was in retreat, and helped to shape the republicanism which emerged as the ruling ideology of revolutionary America. As Wood and Pocock describe it, American republicanism rested on a number of central concepts: “virtue”—the ability of men to sacrifice individual self-interest to the common good; “independence”—freedom from relationships except those entered into voluntarily; and “equality”—“the soul of a republic,” according to Noah Webster. History demonstrated that rulers consistently sought to usurp the rights of the people; liberty could be preserved only by basing government on popular representation and ensuring that virtue, independence, and equality characterized the republican citizenry. Liberty could not exist where men lived in the abject conditions of poverty typical of the Old World.

 

Republican Solidarity and Republican Individualism

In the work of Pocock, republicanism emerges as a nostalgic quest for the virtues of a simpler time, a negative response to the political and economic developments of the eighteenth century. In emphasizing the concept of “virtue” as central to republican thought, Pocock implicitly rejects Louis Hartz’s assumption that liberalism and competitive individualism dominated American thought from the beginning. But Joyce Appleby has charged Pocock with ignoring the individualist, liberal strand of republican thought. Within republican ideology, it appears, there existed a tension between a traditional corporate view of society, emphasizing the common interests of a homogeneous “people”—especially when set against their rulers—and a more individualist social vision. The latter strand, as Appleby emphasizes, was greatly strengthened by the Revolution itself. As reflected in the Madisonian concept of politics, republican individualism insisted that the purpose of government should be to give free rein to the competition of conflicting interests, rather than to stifle that competition in pursuit of a unitary general good.

This transition from communal harmony to competitive individualism was hastened by the influence in America of the third generation of opposition thinkers in eighteenth-century England. As Staughton Lynd has emphasized, such writers as James Burgh, Richard Price, and Joseph Priestley expanded the long-standing demand by Protestant Dissenters for religious liberty, into a call for complete freedom of conscience and a warning of the dangers posed to personal liberty by powerful governments. Therefore, side by side with the classical republican definition of liberty (as that attainable only through self-denial and active citizenship), there also emerged a newer conception of freedom as simply a collection of rights belonging to the people. In this conception the key to liberty was not “virtue” and public spiritedness, but the setting of limits to the exercise of authority. Such a view drew on traditions lying deep within English and American political culture. The heritage of the “free-born Englishman,” that sense of hostility to authoritarianism and an assertion of the right to resist arbitrary power, is not sufficiently emphasized by students of Country Party thought, but as E. P. Thompson has shown, it played an extremely important role in popular politics in the eighteenth century.

The individualist definition of freedom obviously possessed strong affinities for the view of economic life Adam Smith was proposing at precisely this time. In laissez-faire economics, as in Madisonian politics, the public good emerged from free competition and the private pursuit of gain. As the Dissenters demanded that government give up its traditional supervision of the religious realm, classical economists called for a separation of government from the economy. It is easy to forget the radical implications of this demand in the context of the eighteenth century. The call for success based on individual merit was a powerful weapon of assault against the aristocratic world. In effect, it demanded the dismantling of hereditary privilege, of government-granted favors, and of all artificial distinctions among individuals. Competitive individualism was eagerly embraced by the emerging bourgeoisie, since that class possessed the qualities presumably required for success in what came to be called “the race of life”—frugality, self-discipline, and the ability to postpone immediate gratification. The losers in the “race” would be the profligate and unproductive aristocracy, and the undisciplined lower orders. But the call for rewards to talent and an end to privilege also generated an enthusiastic response among other classes, such as artisans and yeoman farmers, to whom “aristocracy” represented a threat to the very meaning of the American Revolution.

 

Paine: Dissent Tradition and Radical Individualism

No figure of the American Revolution is more closely associated with the history of American radicalism, or reflects more clearly its complex intellectual origins, than Thomas Paine. Born in England in 1737, the son of a staymaker, Paine emigrated to America in 1774. He won fame as the author of Common Sense, that brilliant call for American independence, and thenceforth devoted himself to promoting the national war effort. In addition, Paine became intimately involved in the complex struggle in Pennsylvania, which saw the Revolution broaden into a debate over the fruits of independence. The highly democratic Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, with its broad suffrage, unicameral legislature, and annual elections, reflected a process occuring in virtually every colony as part of the Revolution: the expansion of political participation and the decline in deferential politics. In Pennsylvania and areas like western Massachusetts, backcountry North Carolina, and the Hudson Valley of New York, “equality” became the great rallying cry of those who sought to restructure the political life of the colonies. The demand for “equality” was, as Franco Venturi has written, a “protest ideal,” a critique of a society based on hierarchy and privilege, rather than a demand for massive social levelling. While remaining firmly within the republican tradition which linked individual autonomy to the possession of productive property, some Pennsylvania radicals proposed that the state discourage large concentrations of wealth, since “an enormous Proportion of Property vested in a few Individuals is dangerous to the Rights, and destructive of the Common Happiness of Mankind.”

Paine himself, though passionately attached to “equality” as an ideal of society and the basis of republican government, did not, in the 1770s, subscribe to such proposals. But in his writings, he did touch on virtually every theme which would flow into the nineteenth-century radical tradition. First, there was his conscious effort to democratize political participation, his attack on the idea that a traditional elite should enjoy a monopoly of political power. The literary form of Common Sense reflected Paine’s complete rejection of deference as thoroughly as did its political content. Written in a style designed to reach a mass audience, it was a catalyst of the massive politicization of American life during the era of the Revolution. Paine’s literary style, as Harry Stout observes, was akin to Patrick Henry’s mode of public speaking. Both broke the previous rules of political discourse, and both aroused consternation among traditionalists.

Common Sense not only called for American independence, but bitterly denounced the elements of inequality which characterized the Old World—monarchy, aristocracy, and hereditary privilege. Paine articulated the utopian thrust of the American Revolution, the complete rejection of the Old World and the possibility of creating a better society in the New. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote; “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” Paine redefined the meaning of the Revolution, transforming it from a struggle over the rights of Englishmen, into a contest with meaning for all mankind. As Arieli writes, Paine’s vision of America “could only be created by a man who knew Europe well enough to hate its society and who longed desperately enough for salvation to envision in a flash of illumination the destiny of the New World as liberation from the Old.”

At times, Paine’s rejection of European political forms led him to a condemnation of all government, expressed so strongly that he has sometimes been claimed as a precursor of nineteenth-century anarchism. In Common Sense, Paine drew a sharp distinction between society and government, the one natural, voluntary, and harmonious, the other coercive, artificial, and productive of evil. Like the Newtonian universe, human society was based on harmony and order; it was outside interference by the state which corrupted human nature and created, through war, oppressive taxation, and grants of artificial privilege, the inequalities of Europe. For Paine, monarchical government was the primary cause of poverty and inequality in the Old World. And yet, his view here was not altogether consistent. It has recently been argued that Paine in the 1770s and 1780s often acted as the spokesman for the artisan class, from which he himself had sprung.10 Artisans, beset by competition from British manufacturers, looked to a strong American government to protect their own enterprises. They, and Paine, supported the Constitution of 1787 in the hope that it would create a government actively promoting the economic development of the nation, and releasing the economic energies of its citizens. In the Paineite social outlook, society was divided between producers—artisans and farmers, and nonproducers—speculators, financiers, and rentiers. The activities of the former could be encouraged by government; the latter, in a republic, would be cut off from their sources of income—government favors and court sinecures—and destroyed.

Paine’s writings thus expressed many of the central themes of early American radicalism: democracy, equality, the distinction between producers and nonproducers, the sharp contrast between the Old and New Worlds and the implied fear of the “Europeanization” of American society, and a suspicion of government as an artificial imposition on the natural workings of society.

 

Jeffersonian Republicanism and Land Ownership

Land was, of course, central to the variant of republican ideology associated with Thomas Jefferson. “Those who labor in the earth,” Jefferson wrote in an oft-quoted passage, “are the chosen people of God…. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.” Often interpreted as pure nostalgia, (the “myth of the garden” according to Henry Nash Smith) Jeffersonianism, in fact, expressed the common republican conviction that liberty sprang from the independence of the individual. Passionately averse to debt and credit for the web of dependence in which they enmeshed individuals, Jefferson perceived self-sufficient farming as the surest basis for republican independence and virtue. Like so many Americans of the era, Jefferson distrusted large cities with their population of wealthy nonproducers and dependent, impoverished laborers. Thus, Thus, as Leo Marx argues, it was simply the livelihood of the farmer but his social, moral, and political qualities which made the yeoman the basis of Jeffersonian republicanism. And, Jefferson’s fear of a dependent lower class helps explain his conviction that if the slaves of the South were freed, they should be returned to Africa.

Jeffersonianism rested, therefore, on a commitment to ownership of landed property as the basis of independence. But, as Gary Wills has recently argued, Jefferson allowed that society had a responsibility to promote the widest diffusion of landed property. One way of doing this would be to grant every head of family fifty acres to stake out his own independence. Where uncultivated land and poverty coexisted, he wrote, the natural right of all men to a portion of the land had been violated.

Edmund Morgan has recently emphasized that the spectre of a large class of propertyless poor haunted the republican theorists of the Revolution. Moreover, republicanism was ambiguous, or even hostile, to capitalist development as the eighteenth century perceived it. In Country Party thought, “corruption” flowed in part from the financial revolution of the eighteenth century and from the new classes—speculators, government bondholders, placemen—which it spawned. Paine and Jefferson wished to preserve the social basis of republicanism—the wide diffusion of property among urban craftsmen and yeoman farmers.

Yet, as Madison observed at the Constitutional Convention, history seemed to present Americans with an insoluble dilemma. A republic required a citizenry possessing the independence provided by private property, yet economic development seemed destined to create an ever-increasing class of propertyless poor, congregating in large cities, and susceptible to manipulation by demagogues. Thus, Madison’s Constitution rested on an elaborate structure of checks and balances, to prevent the propertyless from using political power to despoil the propertied. William Appleman Williams argues that Jeffersonians sought to resolve this dilemma through territorial expansion. America could remain a nation of industrious farmers, and avoid the corruption and political degeneracy of Europe, only by expanding into the interior. Yet, underlying even this solution lay a deep historical pessimism. For, even after the Louisiana Purchase doubled the nation’s size, Jefferson had to admit that land was not infinite. Eventually it would be filled up, and then the classic historical dialectic of progress and corruption, growth and decay, evidenced in the history of all previous republics, would overtake the American experiment as well. And there was a further dilemma: territorial expansion required an aggressive foreign policy, conducted by a strong central government. Here lay the fatal flaw in the idea of the West as America’s salvation. Jefferson could speak glowingly of the nation as an “empire of liberty,” but he never confronted the question: can an empire also be a republic?

 

Hamilton’s State Capitalism vs. Jefferson’s Market Capitalism

The political debates which emerged in the aftermath of independence were framed by the republican ideology of the Revolution. Central to the issue between Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1790s, according to a recent work by Richard Buel and Lance Banning, was the question of the relationship of the new national state to early capitalist development. Party differences first arose over the fiscal program proposed by Alexander Hamilton—the funding of the federal debt, establishment of a national bank, and promotion of manufacturing. These policies appeared to Jeffersonians as an attempt to recreate in America a powerful state on the English model, welding it to the interests of the business classes. The Hamiltonian program thus raised the specter of the state promoting the growth of “nonproductive” classes, dependent for their livelihood on the government. By way of contrast, Jeffersonians proposed to allow the free market to develop in its own way, confident that the result would be an equitable distribution of the nation’s economic resources.

Jefferson could dismantle the state capitalist program of the Hamiltonians after his election in 1800, but he could not reverse the economic process at work in early nineteenth-century America. Between 1800 and 1850, the nation experienced a thorough economic revolution, reflected in the emergence of the factory system in textile manufacturing, the transportation revolution, the spread of market relations throughout the society, and the creation of a new urban wage-earning class. As Robert Shallope has recently observed, the old Jeffersonian paradigm was incapable of explaining, or even discussing, these new economic developments.

By the time of Jefferson’s death in 1826, the profound social and economic changes American society had experienced since the Revolution were beginning to generate radical criticism. The republican heritage of the Revolution did not contain readily apparent answers to the economic problems of the Age of Jackson. America had eliminated kings and aristocrats, and had extended the right to vote to virtually the entire white male population. Yet the twin threats to republican society—dependence and inequality—more and more seemed to characterize American life, especially in the large eastern cities. Much of the radicalism of these years reflected a search for the causes. Some critics found the reasons for social dislocation and inequality in artificial privileges and monopolies created by the government. Others located the source of social problems in private control of new technology. In a study of the industrialization of the Pennsylvania village of Rockdale, Anthony Wallace terms this strand of radicalism “communal industrialism.” Demanding that social relations be guided by cooperation rather than competition, that productive property be regulated by the community, it drew on classical republicanism in its hostility to concentrated economic wealth and power.

 

Communitarian Experiments

The expression of radicalism which diverged most completely from the liberal, individualist ideology of the emerging order were the numerous communitarian experiments created in these years. Between 1800 and 1860 over one hundred such communities were founded. They varied greatly in their internal structure. At one extreme stood Oneida in New York State, whose regimen of mutual self-criticism and dictatorial direction by John Humphrey Noyes left little room for individual initiative. And at the other was the communitarian anarchism of Josiah Warren, which blended extreme individualism with labor radicalism in a unique amalgam. Warren accused most utopian socialists of reproducing on a small scale the arbitrary authority typical of the larger society. The true policy of a community, he believed, was “allowing each individual to be absolute despot or sovereign” over himself. At Modern Times community on Long Island, there were virtually no rules or laws. “A man may have two wives, or a woman, two husbands, or a dozen each, for ought I care,” said Warren. “Everybody has a perfect right to do everything.” (Warren’s remark points up the central importance of the family in the history of communitarian experiments. Many utopians challenged the nuclear family and proposed alternatives ranging from the celibacy practiced by the Shakers to the polygamy of the Mormons, the “free love” advocated by some Owenites,  and the system of “complex marriage” devised by Noyes at Oneida.) Warren’s radicalism also extended to labor relations: he insisted Americans needed to be freed from the coercion of the marketplace as well as that of the state. In Cincinnati, Warren organized a “time store” and a currency, “labor notes,” so that goods could be exchanged for their value in human labor, and middlemen and nonproducers would be eliminated entirely, thereby allowing the worker to receive the full product of his labor.

Historians have devoted more attention to the Owenite communities of the early nineteenth century than any other variant. As Arthur Bestor shows in his classic study, Owenism embodied a plan for social reform blending communitarianism, a critique of the competitive ideology of the emerging capitalist order, and a science of society based on an environmentalist conception of human nature. J.F.C. Harrison has emphasized the millennial aspect of Robert Owen’s aim—nothing less than the creation of a “new moral world” in which social harmony would reign supreme. Although Owen’s famous experiment at New Harmony was short-lived and torn by dissention, Owenism exerted a powerful influence on the early labor movement. Two themes of Owen’s thought, the labor theory of value and his stress on education as a means of social improvement and character-molding, were especially influential. The ideal of cooperation, moreover, remained a strong element in labor ideology well into this century, as did the conviction that men could shape a more equitable society through a conscious rebuilding of their local institutions.

 

Workingmen’s Movement: Equal Rights vs. Special Privileges

Despite the colorful quality of communitarian experiments, they represented a secondary strain in the radical impulse of the 1820s and 1830s. More pervasive was the influence of the early labor movement, which drew on the tradition of republican egalitarianism to challenge the social consequences of the economic transformation of the nation. For the urban artisan (the central figure in the early labor movement) the most disturbing economic development was the decline of skill, the loss of the “dignity of labor.” The most striking example was, of course, the emergence of the early factory system in New England; more typical was the gathering of artisans into urban workshops, the subdividing of traditional crafts, and the introduction of unskilled workers into the trades. As a result, journeymen found it increasingly difficult to become independent masters and were faced with the prospect of a lifetime of wage labor. At the same time, the imposition of new forms of work discipline in factories, workshops, and even the artisans’ own shops, represented a striking change from an earlier period when the craftsman generally controlled the rhythm and pace of his own labor.

Urban laborers responded to these changes by forming workingmen’s political parties (the first such organizations in the world), producers’ cooperatives, and labor unions. As Alan Dawley observes in a significant study of workingmen in Lynn, Massachusetts, the great rallying cry of the early labor movement was Equal Rights. The economic inequalities of the Jacksonian era infused new life into the traditional social distinction between producers and nonproducers, and encouraged the view that capitalists were growing rich by accumulating the fruits of the laborers’ toil.

“You are the real producers of all the wealth of the community,” said one labor newspaper. “Without your labors no class could live. How is it then that you are so poor, while those who labor not are rich?” The quest for an answer to this question led leaders of the labor movement to a variety of political, social, and economic programs. One common demand was the removal of intermediaries between producers and consumers, the nonproducing merchant and banker. This was the rationale of Warren’s time store, as well as of producers’ cooperatives, which reflected a collective response to the problem of preserving the artisan’s traditional independence. Cornelius Blatchley, a physician who popularized “Richardian socialist” doctrines in a series of pamphlets, insisted that the rich exploited laborers by receiving an unearned income on their property. Equality thus required the abolition of interest on money and rent on land.

Other specific demands of workingmen included the abolition of imprisonment for debt, the establishment of a free public school system, and reform of the legal system. Hostility to lawyers had long been a component of American radicalism, reflected, as Richard Ellis shows, in persistent complaints about the high fees charged by courts and lawyers, the use of the English common law in American courts, and the inaccessibility of legal procedures to the average citizen. An important recent study by Morton Horwitz reveals how court decisions during the first half of the nineteenth century transformed the legal conception of property, insulating corporations from some of the social effects of their actions, limiting their liability for damages and, in effect, transferring property from smallholders to corporate enterprises. Horwitz’s study of the way in which the legal system helped subsidize the emerging capitalist order helps explain the hostility to lawyers and judges within the labor movement.

The writings of Edward Pessen and, more recently, Anthony Wallace, demonstrate the extent to which the early labor movement was the intellectual child of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. The central tenets of labor though derived from Paineite republicanism—a belief in natural rights and social progress, the division of society into producers and nonproducers, and  hostility to government actions which seemed to grant privileges to nonproducing classes. Through the influence of Paine and Owen, the early labor movement also reflected the heritage of deism and rationalism. Labor leaders in New York and Philadelphia were as hostile to the attempt of revivalists to create a “union of church and state,” as they were to the growth of inequality in the economic realm.

Probably the most original theorist of the early labor movement was Thomas Skidmore, a teacher and machinist who published The Rights of Man to Property. The title was meant to pay homage to the heritage of Paine while at the same time transcending Paineite republicanism in an attempt to solve the economic problems an earlier generation had not had to confront. A passionate devotee of the ideal of equality, Skidmore proposed the abolition of inheritance: under his plan, all property would revert to the state at death, while each individual would receive a sum of money from the state at the beginning of his adult life. Skidmore thus did not challenge the institution of private property, or the notion of a “race of life” in which accumulations of wealth would be unequal. What he objected to were concentrations of property which were not the result of the immediate labor of each individual. His was an attempt to combine the ideals of equality and individual competition.

A different solution to the problem of inequality was devised by George Henry Evans, the immigrant English radical who edited the Workingman’s Advocate in New York City in the 1830s and became a leading figure in the National Reform Movement in the next decade. Along with Thomas Devyr, an Irish immigrant who had participated in the British Chartist movement, Horace Greeley, and a few others, Evans popularized the principle of land reform as the solution to urban poverty. Land monopoly was, Evans insisted, the root cause of poverty and inequality. It drove men into large cities, where their competition for employment drove wages down to subsistence levels. America could only enjoy industrial development with high wages if every worker had access to a homestead, enabling him to escape the city if working conditions were not to his liking. Evans criticized manufacturers who sought to keep the price of public land high, so as to create a low-wage working force. (Manufacturers insisted that without low wages or tariff protection, they would be unable to compete with British industry.)

 

“A perfect free trade in all things:”  the Locofoco and William Leggett

Evans was also associated with the Locofoco, the radical wing of the New York Democratic party, who represented the absorption of part of the workingmen’s impulse into party politics. The theme of the Locofoco was equal rights and hostility to monopoly. Whereas the Whig party viewed society as governed by a harmony of interests between capital and labor, Locofoco inherited the traditional portrait of pervasive social conflict between producer and nonproducer. They objected particularly to what they perceived as the grant of special governmental favors and privileges to capitalistic groups. William Leggett, a leading Locofoco spokesman from his editorial post on the New York Evening Post, insisted the function of government was simply to make “general laws, uniform and universal in their operation…. Governments have no right to interfere with the pursuits of individuals by offering encouragements and granting privileges to any particular class or industry or any select bodies of men.”

In the work of Walter Hugins, the Locofoco emerge as doctrinaire adherents of the principles of laissez-faire, whose views stood in sharp contrast to the Whig American Plan, under which the government would consciously promote and shape the nation’s economic development. Hugins, the leading modern student of the New York workingmen’s movement, stresses the Locofoco’s opposition to all kinds of monopolies and privileges, including even the “medical monopoly”—the licensing of physicians by the state and the banning of certain kinds of medical practice. Medicine, like manufacturing and transportation, should be “left free to the competition of capital and enterprise.” Leggett’s principle was “a perfect free trade in all things.”

The greatest monopoly of all, of course, was the Second Bank of the United States, and the Locofoco supported the administration of Andrew Jackson in its attack on the “Monster Bank.” But while many Jacksonians hoped the destruction of the Bank would clear the way for increased activities by state banks, the Locofoco were hostile to all banks of issue, demanding a currency based on specie. Paper money not only robbed the worker of a part of his wages by constantly deteriorating in value, but encouraged “intemperance, dissipation, and profligacy,” by promoting a speculative mentality in which nonproducers thrived and producers suffered. “Its direct and indirect tendency,” Leggett wrote, “is to create artificial inequalities and distinctions in society; to increase the wealth of the rich and render more abject and oppressive the poverty of the poor.” Hostility to paper money and banks of issue was a major reason for the support the Democratic party received among wage-earners, especially the immigrant Irish who arrived in the eastern cities with no money, and were dependent upon wages for their livelihood.

The Locofoco did not wish to destroy all banking activities, but they objected to banks issuing paper money and the granting of bank charters by special acts of the legislature. Instead, they demanded a general banking law, so that the “banking monopoly” would be broken, coupled with the abolition of small paper notes. They did not oppose savings banks, since savings were a crucial means by which workers escaped the wage system, a prime element of transition between the wage-earning class and independence.

The Locofoco represented the most radical expression of competitive individualism during the Jacksonian era. Blaming the granting of economic privileges by the state for the increase in inequality, they demanded a return to the natural functioning of the economic order, freed from privilege and monopoly. Yet they lacked a critique of the emerging economic order itself; their focus was on the ties between that system and the government. In this they reflected the crisis of the republican heritage itself. Geared to looking for political solutions for economic problems, republicanism was not attuned to analyzing the new capitalist economy apart from its relationship to the state.

 

Reform and Perfectionism

If the early labor movement struggled with the problems resulting from massive economic change, another series of reform movements focused on freeing the individual from sin. In the 1830s and 1840s a veritable army of reform movements sprang into existence, promoting causes ranging from temperance, abolition, and peace, to spiritualism and good health. Behind the reform impulse lay a religious revolution—the evangelical revivals known as the Second Great Awakening. Preachers like the evangelist Charles G. Finney held great revivals in New England, upstate New York, and some of the urban centers, emphasizing the doctrine that men were free moral agents, with the power to choose between good and evil. In contrast to traditional predestinarian Calvinism, evil was not seen as the product of conscious choice, not innate depravity. The revivals emphasized both the ability of men to save themselves by an act of will, and the necessity on the part of the saved to attack the sins of others. The key doctrine of the reformers influenced by the revivals was perfectionism, the belief that both man and society could indeed be made free from sin. Here was a utopian vision which not only inspired the creation of new reform movements, but led to the transformation of old ones. From attempts to mitigate evils which could never be wholly eliminated from human life, reforms now became efforts to cleanse the world of sin entirely. Thus, antislavery became immediate abolitionism, temperance became total abstinence, the movement against war became pacifism and nonresistance.

Much has been written on the reform movements of the antebellum years, but historians have found it difficult to strike a balance between the liberating impulse embodied in reform, and its tendency toward social control. Perhaps the tension was inherent in the Protestant heritage itself, which stressed both the integrity of the individual, and the need for order and stability in a society in which an elect of redeemed oversee the morality of the unregenerate. Reform has been interpreted by Clifford Griffen as a form of “moral stewardship,” whereby one version of morality was imposed upon the entire society (though not without resistance from groups like Irish and German immigrants who did not share the reformers’ definition of sin). Similarly, the various benevolent societies of the 1820s and 1830s—the Home Missionary Society, American Bible Society, etc.—can be seen as attempts to impose order and morality on the new urban lower classes, notorious for their intemperance and infidelity. Paul Johnson, in his studies of the revivals in Rochester, sees revivalism and reform as serving the interests of the emerging manufacturing elite. According to Johnson, the revivalists’ emphasis on self-discipline, temperance, and hard work reinforced the demands of the new industrial order, and helped manufacturers assert their control over a recalcitrant work force. The evangelical drive for moral order, in this view, coincided with the need for punctuality, sobriety, and obedience in the mills and workshops.

Such interpretations have been criticized by Lois Banner who points out that there were other roots to reform movements than religious benevolence. Moreover, evangelicalism possessed a second aspect: its emphasis on individual redemption led many converts into an intense anti-institutionalism and, occasionally, all the way to anarchy. Some reformers came to challenge all existing institutions as illegitimate exercises of authority over the free will of the individual, and as interferences with his direct relationship with God. In the form of “come-outerism,” this strand of reform demanded that the redeemed sever their connection with the state, army, and organized churches, in the quest for perfect freedom. At the same time, however, as David Rothman has shown, many reformers engaged in the building of new institutions in the hope of remaking the human character. What Rothman terms the “discovery of the asylum”—the sudden outburst of construction of prisons, insane asylums, poorhouses, and schools—also reflected the perfectionist belief that human beings could become truly free. If the poor, the criminal, the insane, were removed from their accustomed environments and placed in a controlled setting, they could be instilled with the virtues of self-discipline and good order, and eventually become productive members of society. As Rothman observes, these new institutions quickly lost their reforming zeal and became places of incarceration for the poor, a transformation which helps explain the intense hostility of the lower classes (especially Irish immigrants) toward them and the reformers who created them. But this does not mitigate his point that, at the outset, these reformers embodied a truly radical vision—that human personality could be remade.

No individual reform movement reflects the dialectic of liberation and control more fully than the expansion of free public education. Traditionally viewed as a step in the progress of American democracy, the rise of the common school has recently been subjected to critiques by Michael Katz, and Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis. To these writers, the “silent curriculum” of the schools is as important as the subjects taught. The purpose of public education is to create an orderly, deferential, and disciplined population, who can become an obedient work force upon graduation. The educational system, write Bowles and Gintis, is “best understood as an institution which serves to perpetuate the social relationships of economic life… by facilitating a smooth integration of youth into the labor force.” However, other writers have pointed to the pervasive conflict surrounding the schools in these years. Rather than reflecting the views of one class, the schools were a battleground, pitting professional educators and proponents of centralization against immigrants and workingmen. Universal public education was a demand of the labor movement as well as manufacturers, although as Katz shows in his study of Beverley, Massachusetts, workingmen were often disillusioned with the schools when free public education did not seem to produce the economic equality which had been expected of it.

One other reform which merits individual attention is the early movement for women’s rights. The history of American women has, in a sense, only begun to be written, but it appears that the early nineteenth century was a period of declining status for women, the majority of the population. Increasingly, society’s image of women came to center around the home. At the same time, as work moved from the household to the workshop and factory, the productive function of women in the home became increasingly unimportant. Some women followed spinning and weaving out of the household and became the nation’s first factory labor force. Others, especially in the middle class, found themselves with fewer and fewer responsibilities and opportunities in the home.

The early feminist movement had roots dating back at least as far as the Age of Revolution, which had produced, in Mary Wollstonecraft, the first great ideologue of women’s rights. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Owenites had demanded greater rights for women and Frances Wright, the Scottish-born follower of Robert Owen, had become notorious by delivering public lectures demanding not only legal equality for women, but the right to birth control and divorce as well. The Owen-Wright brand of feminism was the child of Enlightenment rationalism and its heritage of natural rights. It was thus somewhat different from another expression of early feminism, which stemmed from the great revivals. At first, the revivals stimulated the formation of women’s reform societies which did not challenge the conception of women as the guardian of household and family. Moreover, increasing numbers of women participated in the crusade against slavery. From their experiences in abolitionism, some came to challenge the status of women as well as blacks. The leading example of the way abolition fed into early feminism was that of the remarkable Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina. Daughters of a prominent South Carolina family, they became, in the 1830s, Quakers and advocates of emancipation. Denounced by the Massachusetts clergy for addressing mixed audiences of men and women, the Grimkés undertook to defend the right of women to a role in public affairs. The controversy aroused by their activities not only helped split the abolitionist movement but inspired those, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who organized the Seneca Falls convention of 1840 where women’s suffrage was first demanded.

As Ellen DuBois has argued, the women’s suffrage movement challenged the pervasive division of society into public and private spheres, with women confined to the private world. It demanded access for women to the political realm as well as to all branches of employment. On the other hand, William O’Neill has suggested that the early feminists gradually receded from a critique of the nuclear family and sexual discrimination within the home, issues which had been raised by Frances Wright but were considered too controversial by later feminists. A related question is the class basis of the feminist constituency. Gerda Lerner argues that the early women’s rights movement was resolutely middle-class, and had little to offer the growing class of female factory workers. These women also organized themselves in the 1830s and 1840s, but along lines of class, not gender. The female workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, conducted a series of strikes in these years against the deterioration of working conditions and wages, but they tended to look to the male labor movement for allies, rather than the early feminists, and did not view the ballot as a panacea for their problems.

 

Abolitionism

The greatest of all the antebellum reform movements was, of course, abolition. But it was not free from the conflicting tendencies of the reform impulse in general, or from the problems of class constituency reflected in the women’s rights movement. Sentiment against slavery was hardly new in the 1830s. It could be traced back to the American Revolution and before. But prior to this decade, the prevailing expression of antislavery was the American Colonization Society, which proposed the gradual elimination of the South’s peculiar institution and the deportation of the freedmen to Africa. (This policy was resisted by most leaders of the free black community, although a few, like the early black nationalist Paul Cuffe, did attempt to promote voluntary emigration to Africa.)

The 1830s witnessed a complete transformation in the crusade against slavery. Drawing on the idea of perfectionism, abolitionists abandoned the earlier gradualist approach and demanded immediate emancipation. Essentially, as Gilbert Barnes noted many years ago, immediatism was a call for repentance by the slaveholder for the sin of slavery. Instead of a complex institution embedded in a web of social institutions, slavery came to be viewed essentially as a moral and religious question. “We believe slavery to be a sin, always, everywhere, and only, sin—sin in itself,” wrote William Lloyd Garrison. Here lay the radicalism of the immediatist approach: identifying slavery as a sin eliminated the possibility of compromise with the South.

It is not surprising, therefore, that abolitionists tended to view slavery in highly abstract and individualist terms. Slavery was an exercise of authority forbidden by God; the central wrong was the black’s loss of the right of self-ownership, the transformation of a human being into a thing. From this position, some abolitionists moved to “non-resistance,” denying the legitimacy of all coercive relations in American society. Many, in addition, condemned existing institutions for their complicity in the existence of slavery. What Stanley Elkins calls the anti-institutionalism of abolitionists was, in part, a conviction that slavery was so deeply embedded in American life, that its abolition would require fundamental changes in other institutions as well. To remove slavery, said Garrison, he was willing to see every political party “torn by dissentions, every sect dashed to fragments, the national compact dissolved.” In its most extreme form, then, abolitionism’s stress on the autonomy of the individual could lead, as Lewis Perry has shown, to a species of anarchism.

 

William Lloyd Garrison

Garrison was the most important single abolitionist leader of the 1830s, and his inauguration of The Liberator in 1831 is usually taken to mark the emergence of a new, militant breed of abolitionist agitators (even though some of his doctrines had been anticipated by the fiery black abolitionist David Walker in the late 1820s). What set Garrison apart from previous opponents of slavery were his hostility to the idea of colonization, the doctrine of immediatism, the harsh, invective language he employed to condemn slavery and slaveholders, and his insistence that the rights of free blacks in the North must form a central part of abolitionist doctrine. It was this last concern which won him immense support among the northern free black community. In its early years, a majority of the readers of The Liberator were free blacks, and many helped raise funds for the journal. Abolition was the first integrated radical movement in American history, even though blacks sometimes resented their exclusion from important policymaking positions.

The abolitionist movement spread from a tiny handful of radicals in 1831 to a movement reaching into every corner of northern society a few years later. If Garrison was its propagandist, the man who helped mobilize its constituency was Theodore Weld. A brilliant orator in his own right, Weld organized a group of speakers who disseminated abolitionist doctrines throughout the free states. Often, the initial response to their efforts was violent hostility. The mid-1830s witnessed a series of anti-abolitionist riots, culminating in the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy, who died defending his press in Alton, Illinois. The effect of the riots was that a large group of northerners, who may not have agreed with immediate abolitionism, came to sympathize with the movement and defend its right to freedom of speech. At the same time, when Congress enacted the “gag rule” to prevent the reading of antislavery petitions, it seemed further proof that the “Slave Power” was utilizing its influence in the federal government to undermine the liberties of northerners. “The contest,” one abolitionist wrote, “is fast becoming—has become—one, not alone of freedom for the black, but of freedom for the white.

The main work of abolitionism was completed by the end of the 1830s. The movement had not, of course, accomplished its goal of emancipating the slaves. Indeed, in response to the abolitionist assault, the South at the same time suppressed internal dissent and developed the proslavery argument in its most advanced form. What the abolitionists did achieve was the destruction of the conspiracy of silence which had prevented serious debate on the slavery issue. The abolitionist legacy to the radical tradition was their mastery of the techniques of agitation in a democratic society. They understood that the reformer who stands outside the political realm and directs his efforts toward influencing public opinion, can have as great an impact on policy as the most powerful statesman.

Slavery contradicted the central ideals and values of artisan radicalism—liberty, equality, independence—and the founding fathers of the movement, Thomas Paine and Robert Owen, had both been opponents of slavery. Recent research, moreover, moving away from a definition of abolitionists as representatives of a declining elite, has underscored the central role played by artisans in the urban abolitionist constituency (although not in the leadership). Nonetheless, relations between the labor and abolitionist movements remained unfriendly throughout the 1830s. In the very first issue of The Liberator, Garrison condemned the labor radicals for setting class against class, and a few weeks later he insisted that social inequality resulted not from “wealth and aristocracy,” but from differences in talent and diligence among individuals.

Some scholars have viewed the abolitionists as complacent champions of middle-class values, who were, as a result, hostile to attempts to alter northern labor relations. There is a certain truth in this; after all, the Tappan brothers, wealthy New York merchants who helped finance the movement, were themselves representatives of the very class which was transforming labor relations to the detriment of the workingmen. Yet the abolitionists were not apologists for their society. They often criticized the spirit of competition and greed so visible in northern life, as the very antithesis of Christian brotherhood. Yet they did tend, in contrast to the labor movement, to accept the economic relations of the free states as fundamentally just. If the labor movement articulated an older ideal of freedom, stretching back to the republican tradition of the Revolution (in which freedom was equated with ownership of productive property) the abolitionists expressed a newer definition. Freedom for them meant self-ownership; that is, simply not being a slave. It was this individualist conception of personal freedom which not only cut abolitionists off from the labor movement, but, as Gilbert Osofsky argues, rendered them unable to make a meaningful response to the economic condition of Irish immigrants, despite a principled effort to overcome nativism and reach out for Irish support in the 1840s.

A few abolitionist leaders did, in the 1840s, attempt to bridge the gap separating them from the labor movement. Most prominent was Nathaniel P. Rogers, the New Hampshire editor who proposed a grand alliance of the producing classes North and South, free and slave, against all exploiters of labor. Yet most abolitionists condemned Rogers for accepting the notion of “wage slavery.” Wendell Phillips, later so prominent in labor reform circles, in 1847 insisted that the solution to the grievances of workingmen lay in individual self-improvement rather than social reform: “to economy, self-denial, temperance, education, and moral and religious character, the laboring class and every other class in this country, must owe its elevation and improvement.”

It has recently been argued by David Brion Davis, that the abolitionist movement in England helped to crystallize middle-class values and identify them with the interests of society as a whole. By isolating slavery as an unacceptable form of labor exploitation, abolition implicitly, though usually unconsciously, diverted attention from the exploitation of labor occurring in the emerging factory system. “The anti-slavery movement,” Davis writes, “reflected the needs and values of the emerging capitalist order.” A somewhat similar argument has been proposed for the United States by Alan Dawley and Anthony Wallace. Had it not been for the dominance of the slavery question in the 1850s and 1860s, Dawley suggests, an independent labor party might have emerged in American politics. Wallace sees the antislavery movement as an evangelical crusade adopted by both factory owners and their employees. This united them in accepting the ideal of a Christian, industrial republic based on free labor, in which the interests of labor and capital would be brought into harmony.

 

These arguments, reminiscent of Elie Halevy’s proposition that the rise of Methodism prevented revolution in early nineteenth-century England, would seem, however, to ignore the strand of antislavery thought which condemned both wage-slavery in the North and chattel slavery in the South. During the 1840s and 1850s, increasing numbers of workingmen were drawn into antislavery circles, by the variant known as free soilism. The trend toward reconciling the two movements reflected the increasing prominence of the land issue in the 1840s. For labor leaders like Evans, as we have seen, a homestead policy was a way of solving the problems posed by the increasing stratification of wealth in eastern cities. The renewed emphasis on land also reflected, as David Montgomery and Bruce Laurie argue, a turn in the labor movement away from the cooperative effort of the 1830s, toward more individualist solutions. Self-help and a nativist tendency to blame immigration for the problems of the crafts shattered the multi-ethnic labor solidarity of the 1830s, according to Montgomery.

George Washington Julian

The key figures in the tendency to link antislavery and land reform were Horace Greeley and George W. Julian. Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, moved from an interest in communitarianism to the belief that “the public lands are the great regulator of the relations of Labor and Capital, the safety valve of our industrial and social engine.” The homestead policy would create harmony between capital and labor, by offering every citizen the economic alternative of “working for others or for himself.”

Emerging from a Whig economic background, Greeley viewed the state as an active agent of economic development. For him, land reform was part and parcel of a broad program of state-sponsored economic growth, including tariffs, internal improvements, and regulation of currency. Julian, the Indiana congressman who became a staunch free soiler and land reformer, reflected, by way of contrast, the vitality of the Jeffersonian tradition. For Julian, the proper role of government was to curb monopoly and speculation, rather than undertaking economic or social planning.

Julian was indeed a classic Jeffersonian, believing in free trade, a specie currency, and the virtue of the agrarian life. His land reform commitment rested heavily on the idea that the only valid title to property was labor. Thus, he opposed not only plantation slavery, but land speculation. His biographer, Patrick Riddleberger, insists that during the 1850s land reform was secondary to Julian’s antislavery views. Making land readily available to settlers would create “a formidable barrier against the introduction of slavery” in the West. Later, during the Civil War and Reconstruction, land reform became his primary concern. Julian denounced the policy of large government land grants to railroads and the engrossment of the public domain by speculators, as subverting the policy inaugurated in the Homestead Act of 1862. By the end of the 1860s he had become the “leader of a little group of recalcitrants” in Congress. They opposed monopoly and land speculation and sought to protect the public domain from railroads, speculators, bounties to veterans, and grants to agricultural colleges. Moreover, with a small group of other radical Republicans, Julian endeavored to extend the principle of land reform to the postwar South. Advocating the confiscation of the property of the large planters, he warned that these lands must not “become the basis of new and frightening monopolies” with the slaveholder replaced by the “grasping monopolist of the North, whose dominion over the freedmen and poor whites would be more galling than slavery itself.” His aim was to “see to it that these teeming regions shall be studded over with small farms and tilled by free men.”

Julian, then, represented the convergence of many of the strands of antebellum radical individualism within the early Republican party. The Republicans, in effect, sought to solve the ideological debate over slave and free labor by returning to the classic Madisonian answer of expansion as the key to preserving personal freedom and republican government. Their defense of the “free labor” system of the North accepted the labor movement’s definition of freedom as resting on ownership of property, and of permanent wage-earning status as virtually a form of “slavery.” But they denied that this condition would exist within the North, so long as the safety valve of westward expansion was available. By cutting off access to the West for northern farmers and laborers, the spread of slavery would be a step down the path of the “Europeanization” of American society. Thus, the Republicans did, as Dawley argues, locate the threat to republican equality outside northern life. Yet at the same time, in their homestead policy and in their refusal to countenance a permanent wage-earning class, they also represented at least a partial culmination of the radical tradition. The Republicans’ concept of a society based on free labor exalted the values of personal liberty with independence, and the demand for equality of opportunity for all in a competitive social order.

Civil War: Twilight of Radical Individualism

The Civil War represents in part the greatest triumph, in part the death-knell, of the antebellum tradition of radical individualism.  On the one hand, the abolition of slavery represented a vindication of the ideals of personal freedom and autonomy; in this sense the war represented, in Lincoln’s words, a new birth of freedom. Yet it has also been argued by William Appleman Williams and George Dennison, that the Civil War separated Americans at last from their revolutionary heritage. It was not simply that the effort to coerce the South to remain in the Union was, as Williams argues, a betrayal of the ideal of self-determination, or the right of the people to determine their own form of government. Every argument utilized to support American independence in 1776 could be employed with equal effect in support of the southern cause in 1860–1861. Further, as Dennison insists, the war represented an end to the dream of America as a nation whose institutions rested on consent rather than force. Dennison finds the antecedents of this transformation in the suppression of the Dorr War in Rhode Island in the early 1840s. This set a precedent which, he believes, cast traditional ideas of popular sovereignty and the right of revolution into disrepute, and created the justification for the use of force to put down challenges to civil authority. Order and stability, he claims, had become as important to Americans as liberty itself.

Finally, as George Fredrickson points out, the Civil War led many abolitionists and reformers to abandon their previous stance as disinterested critics of society, and to identify themselves whole-heartedly with the war effort. Here, too, there was an antebellum precedent. The response of abolitionists to John Brown’s raid in 1859, their endorsement of his attack on Harper’s Ferry, symbolized the waning of the old pacifist, nonresistance strain of antislavery thought, and a willingness to adopt violence as a legitimate means of combatting slavery. A few reformers, such as Adin Ballou, architect of the Hopedale community in Massachusetts, remained true to their nonresistance principles during the war and refused to join in the patriotic fervor. Some of the members of Josiah Warren’s Modern Times community left the country rather than participate in the war effort. But for the most part, the war appeared as the culmination of the reformers’ efforts and it promoted, as Fredrickson argues, a tendency to view government, rather than voluntary associations or individual effort, as the source of future reforms. Thus, institutionalism replaced anti-institutionalism, nationalism succeeded individualism for many reformers. In addition, abolitionists found themselves in the anomalous position of defending the Lincoln administration’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, jailing of newspaper editors, and use of troops to break strikes, all in the name of the war effort.

The Civil War, moreover, required an effort of mobilization, a strengthening of the apparatus of government, unmatched in nineteenth-century American history. The war stimulated, too, the consolidation of business enterprise, the increased use of mechanization, and the rise of great fortunes. Such bonanzas were often promoted by the government itself, through aid to railroads, a high tariff, the issuance of lucrative bonds, and other wartime economic measures. The Republican party itself was transformed in the process. For during the 1850s, that party had contained a strong element derived from the Locofoco wing of the Democratic party, namely, Jacksonians hostile to the use of the state to grant economic favors and promote economic growth. Many of these Jacksonian Republicans would return to the Democratic party after the war. George W. Julian and other radical individualists were disillusioned both by the expansion of federal power and by the Republicans’ adoption of the old Whig economic program of state intervention with its special privileges, tariffs, and paper money inflation.