The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Leggett, William (1801-1839)

William Leggett was a New York newspaperman and the intellectual leader of the laissez-faire wing of the northern Democratic Party in the late 1830s. In his editorials, collected and republished in book form shortly after his death, he embraced libertarian principles to a greater and more consistent degree than did any previous American writer. Starting from a Jeffersonian belief in equal natural rights to liberty and property, and combining it with the Jacksonian view that expansion of government characteristically favors a few privilege seekers over the many, he railed against any expansion of government beyond minimal “night watchman” functions. He was an influential proponent of free banking and of replacing the system of special legislative charters with a general law of incorporation open to all businesses. Initially a moderate on slavery, he soon became a radical abolitionist. In an era sometimes seen as having minimal business regulation, he argued for eliminating existing state restrictions on entry, price, and quality in dozens of businesses, among them securities trading, gambling, butchering, baking, the sale of commodities like coal and flour, ferrying, medicine, and turnpikes and canals. He called for privatizing mail delivery, weights and measures, coinage, wharves and docks, and even the declaration of Thanksgiving Day.

Some historians have characterized Leggett as an opponent of economic development or even as an “agrarian” (despite that his readership consisted mostly of New Yorkers). However, his attack was confined to businessmen who sought government privileges, not business per se. He praised the “active spirit of enterprise,” which he was sure would “not flinch from undertaking whatever works of internal improvement might be needed by the community, without the aid of exclusive rights and privileges.” He favored a general law of incorporation and opposed monopoly charters as a means of “leaving capital to flow in its natural channels, and enterprise to regulate its own pursuits.” If he wrote for workingmen rather than businessmen, it was because he viewed workingmen as the natural constituency for laissez-faire policies in a polity where government intervention was a means for the well-connected aristocracy to exploit the common man.

 

Further Readings

Leggett, William. Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy. Lawrence H. White, ed. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1984. Available from http://www.econlib.org/ library/Leggett/lgtDE.html.

White, Lawrence H. “William Leggett: Jacksonian Editorialist as Classical Liberal Political Economist.” History of Political Economy 18 (1986): 307–324.

Originally published .