Ammon Hennacy believed he had a duty as a Christian to help others directly and to oppose the state.
Ammon Hennacy was born on July 24, 1893, on a farm in Negley, Ohio, a town near the Pennsylvania border, some 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. As he tells it in his autobiographical manifesto, Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist, his first memory was of his great‐grandmother, a Quaker, telling him “how the peaceful Quakers loved the Indians and were not hurt by them.”
This Quaker peace tradition seems to have penetrated him deeply, as we shall see. He lived the life of an ascetic vagabond, ever on the move and driven by, in his friend Dorothy Day’s words, a “keen sense of struggle against gigantic forces and adversaries such as the military and the State.” He dedicated his life to fighting, albeit without violence, war and military conscription, taxes, the death penalty, police and prisons, voting, and government itself. He was a conscientious objector during both World Wars. He refused to register for the draft and even resigned from a job as a social worker so as not to work for the government. In one of his leaflets, entitled “The One Man Revolution,” he asks the reader, “Are you a producer or a parasite? Why not cease voting for all politicians? Why not refuse to make munitions or to go to war? Why pay income taxes for your own destruction?” In his writings, Hennacy makes frequent reference to this notion of the One Man Revolution (which he frequently capitalized), a phrase borrowed from Robert Frost’s poem “Build Soil,” in which Frost writes, “I bid you to the one man revolution—/ The only revolution that is coming.”
Hennacy became a socialist as a teenager in 1910, joining the Industrial Workers of the World soon thereafter. He met his first wife, Selma Melms, in the socialist circles of Wisconsin, where her father was a well‐known Socialist Party official and politician. Their engagement followed a very brief courtship of only days and they eventually entered into a common‐law marriage (Hennacy being opposed to the institution of marriage at that time). Hennacy remained active in the socialist milieu during those years, serving as head of the Intercollegiate Socialist Club at Ohio State, soapboxing, and acting as a party delegate. In the spring of 1917, he was arrested and charged with “conspiracy to defraud the Government of enforcement of the Draft Act,” for disseminating anti‐war and anti‐draft stickers and posters, and for encouraging other young men to resist the draft and the war effort. Following his arrest, the Columbus Citizen carried a statement from the governor of Ohio, in which he identified Hennacy as among “the chief agents of nationwide plot against enforcement of the selective service army bill.”1 For this outspoken, pacifistic objection to World War I, Hennacy endured two years of prison time that included several months of the torture that is solitary confinement. This prison term would prove to be a pivotal moment in his life and intellectual development.
It was during this sentence that Hennacy happened to meet the anarchist Alexander Berkman, perhaps most notable for his failed attempt on the life of industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892.2 In his book, Hennacy names Berkman as one of the two great men whom he knew personally (the other being Peter Maurin, one of the Catholic Worker movement’s founders and central figures). It is, at the very least, peculiar that Hennacy should’ve so idolized Berkman, given the former’s commitment to nonviolence and Christian nonresistance. That their bond of friendship formed in the traumatic crucible of a brutal prison may help to explain Hennacy’s admiration. Even more importantly, this prison term saw his conversion to Christianity, what Day later called “a Tolstoyan Christianity.” Tolstoy was to become one of Hennacy’s greatest influences. He consumed every volume of Tolstoy’s collected works, twenty‐two in total, adding notes and commentary to all.3 For the rest of his life, the tenor of Hennacy’s One Man Revolution would remind of Tolstoy’s words: “in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
His conversion to Tolstoyan Christianity led him away from the state socialism of his youth, yet he retained nonetheless his pro‐labor philosophy and with it his fierce opposition to capitalism, associated in his mind with war, materialism, statism, and the separation of working and owning. His people were the poor, the homeless, the drug and alcohol addicted, those without hope or a place in society, disdained or ignored entirely. If indeed Hennacy remained in some sense a socialist, then he was one of a kind virtually unknown even in his own time, a socialist who sought the radical “decentralization of society,” “[s]elf government and individual responsibility,” and “[f]reedom instead of government.” He proclaimed no class war—no war of any kind. Such ideas, perhaps particularly Hennacy’s call for “[m]utual credit and free exchange,” suggest a familiarity with the anarchism of American individualists like Benjamin Tucker, invoked favorably in his book.
Hennacy had become what he called—at points both before and after his later conversion to Catholicism—a “non‐church Christian anarchist.” Hennacy defined anarchism as “voluntary cooperation for good, with the right of secession,” “the ONE non‐violent social philosophy,” and “the antithesis of Communism and Fascism.” Following Tolstoy, the focus of his personal conception of Christianity was the life and example of Jesus, whom he called a “true rebel.” Of particular importance to Hennacy was the Sermon on the Mount, counseling, in Hennacy’s formulation, “the return of good for evil and the turning of the other cheek.” Of Hennacy’s views, Day observed, “he will always call himself ‘anarchist.’ He is a pacifist and conscientious objector to all war and to all coercion.” In the introduction to Hennacy’s Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist, she writes, “His love and peace means rejection of the great modern State, and obedience to the needs of his immediate community and to the job.” Hennacy scorned the naive and uncritical idea of government as founded upon a social contract, instituted to help people and serve the common good, contending “that all government exists not to help people but to continue in power exploiters, bureaucrats and politicians who keep us on the run with their continual depressions and wars.” Each year, on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, as a penance for the U.S. government’s crime, Hennacy would fast one day for every year since the tragedy, often in front of the offices of the IRS. This is one among many examples of Hennacy taking personal responsibility for evils and injustices in which he played no direct or personal role.
This sense of personal responsibility likewise motivated Hennacy’s opposition to voting, which he regarded as trying to avoid such responsibility and as tacitly consenting to a violent and corrupt government. Hennacy’s rejection of politics was total and principled; he argued that “when we take any part in government by voting for legislative, judicial and executive officials we make these men our arm by which we cast a stone and deny the Sermon of the Mount.” Today’s social justice left could learn from Hennacy’s example: rather than calling for an ever more powerful and invasive machinery of government, for more rules, and agencies, and public officials, he took it upon himself to serve the weak, needy, and neglected. He felt that he had a personal responsibility for them and made an individual commitment to real, on‐the‐ground community service. So many of those who today call for the growth of the state in power and scope don’t actually want to help—they campaign for new layers of lifeless bureaucracy precisely so that they don’t have to. Hennacy believed that it was moral cowardice and laziness for one to outsource his responsibility, to leave matters to politicians, shrugging his shoulders and accepting the status quo.
For Hennacy, to support or cooperate with government was to deny Christ—and to pay taxes was to support government. Thus do we find in Hennacy one of the twentieth century’s best examples of a distinctively left‐wing tax resistance, a resistance predicated on the idea that he must do everything in his power to avoid contributing to the evil of war. In a letter to the IRS in 1950, Hennacy positions himself within the tradition of, among others, Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and early Quakers “who refused to pay taxes for war” and flouted the law in order to aid slaves on the run. Decrying the tax‐gatherer as “the least honorable of the human species” (though he carves out an exception for the hangman), Hennacy condemns the state itself as immoral, dedicated to war, and “operat[ing] by the return of evil for evil.” He therefore refused to pay income taxes for several years on end, even writing “not interested” in the form’s field for entering his tax liability.
Again like Tolstoy, Hennacy’s uncompromising commitment to such radical principles and the unorthodox ascetic lifestyle that followed therefrom meant increasingly strained relations with his family.4 Demonstrating a certain lack of self‐awareness, he once complained in a letter to a friend, the anarchist writer and publisher Holley Cantine, that most wives try to “tame” their husbands. For all his deep and sincere care for the poor and downtrodden, his steadfast devotion to a life of material deprivation, he seems to have been unable to appreciate the impact of his decisions on those closest to him. His first wife, Selma, left him with his two daughters in 1938, seeing a war coming and thinking to move before he was again imprisoned for hindering the war effort. She subsequently wrote to him to let him know that if he went to prison again, he would be dead to her and to his daughters.
The next critical episode in Hennacy’s life was his association with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day, who co‐founded the Catholic Worker movement. The two first met when Hennacy was living in Milwaukee and Day spoke at Marquette University; after meeting again years later in Phoenix, Hennacy followed her to New York to aid in her efforts there and write for the Catholic Worker. Day was instrumental in his conversion to Catholicism in 1952, so much so indeed that several who have considered the conversion event attribute it more to Hennacy’s love for Day than to his devotion to Catholic principles and practice.5Michael Harrington, the socialist intellectual who was an editor at the Catholic Worker for a short period in the early ’50s, remarked that Hennacy converted to Catholicism “only because he was in love with Dorothy.” In hindsight, Hennacy’s conversion, with Day as his godmother, seems impetuous and clearly doomed; his whole life and philosophy amounted to bucking against all human institutions. That he should undertake to bear the load of the Catholic Church’s dogmas and traditions is almost inexplicable, especially given the influence of the ardently anti‐clerical Tolstoy. In any case, Hennacy’s attachment to Day and his belief in the fundamental goals of the Catholic Worker movement allowed him to make his own peace with any apparent contradictions between his words and deeds up to that point and the official teachings of the Church. It is probably safe to say that Hennacy was never really a Catholic, at least not in the sense of one who makes a wholehearted commitment to Catholic doctrine and theology.6 His shaky allegiance to the Catholic Church is perhaps evident in, for example, the change of the title of his autobiography from The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist to The Book of Ammon.7
Ever the rolling stone, Hennacy left New York for Salt Lake City in 1961 and, in the fall of that year, established the Joe Hill House, named for the Wobbly activist and songwriter executed in 1915, when he was 36 years old.8 The mission of the Joe Hill House was to shelter migrant workers, a cause near and dear to Hennacy’s heart, as he had been one himself. He said of the House that it was “doing a thing the rest won’t do” by taking care of the transient workers with no place to go and nothing to eat. In a radio interview in 1963, he stated that he set only two rules for the Joe Hill House: “no drinking and no cops.” Though a labor advocate who described himself at various points in his life as a socialist, he dismissed the welfare state as a fraud on the people and damned corrupt union leaders. Such stances align with the above‐mentioned belief that the way to help people is to actually help them, without paying obeisance to leaders, or campaigning for political causes, or obtaining the appropriate permissions. The Joe Hill House embodied this belief. Notwithstanding Hennacy’s “no cops” rule, the city health department finally shut down the Joe Hill House, in its last of several locations, in 1968. Two years later, he suffered a heart attack during a protest in Salt Lake City against the execution of two prisoners. He died in the hospital a few days later on January 14, 1970. In living his One Man Revolution, Hennacy truly personified radical libertarianism, helping others himself and doggedly resisting all government efforts to conscript him into its coercive plans. He believed in nonviolent direct action, in loving and caring for other people, regardless of their flaws, and in meeting evil with good. Hennacy’s example is a challenge to begin with oneself rather than with grand schemes for others: “It is not too late to make a revolution that will mean something — one that will stick: your own one‐man revolution.”
1. Patrick G. Coy, Ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press 1988), page 169, footnote 7.
2. Responding to the assassination attempt in the pages of Liberty, Benjamin Tucker wrote, “And yet, as one member of the human race, I freely confess that I am more desirous of being saved from friends like Berkman, to whom my heart goes out, than from enemies like Frick, from whom my heart withdraws.… The strength of the Fricks rests on violence; now it is to violence that the Berkmans appeal.” Benjamin Tucker, “Save Labor from its Friends,” Liberty, July 30, 1892.Patrick G. Coy, Ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press 1988), page 169, footnote 14.
3. Patrick G. Coy, Ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press 1988), page 169, footnote 14.
4. Patrick G. Coy, Ed., A Revolution of the Heart: Essays on the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press 1988), page 167.
5. See, for example, Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Abridged Edition).
6. Day described Hennacy as, like Tolstoy, “tone‐deaf” to theology.
7. Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Abridged Edition).
8. Hill was convicted of murder in a trial that many believe was fundamentally compromised by hostility toward Hill’s politics and association with the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union. So controversial was Hill’s death sentence that even Woodrow Wilson “twice wrote to Utah’s governor to urge him to spare Hill’s life.” Hill subsequently became a celebrated martyr and hero in radical left‐wing and labor circles.