Somewhere during the course of his tour—somewhere in the Mediterranean—William Leggett developed a “life-long hatred of authority,” a libertarian spirit within him that revolted against power wherever it existed, wherever people attempted to constrict the liberty of others. Historians tell us the 1820s, 30s, and 40s was the Jacksonian Era, but this week and next we will follow Walt Whitman in declaring this “The Age of Leggett.”
Worton, Stanley. “William Leggett, Political Journalist (1801-1839): A Study in Democratic Thought.” (PhD Dissertation): Columbia University. Columbia University Press. 1954.
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: William Leggett, the man who created the first identifiably libertarian movement in American history, was either born in 1801 or 1802. Historians are divided on the exact date. He spent his youth in Manhattan’s rapidly expanding Market Revolution era neighborhoods and attended Georgetown University at just 14 years old. He studied mathematics, [00:00:30] but when his family moved west to Edwardsville, Illinois, Leggett took to acting to supplement his family income. In his 20s, Leggett wrote and published a small amount of poetry, and his romantic urges pushed him toward the sea. He joined the Navy in 1823, hoping to taste a freer, more prosperous life than what there was on the frontier or in the cities.
He was sorely disappointed though, and the impulsive young man repeatedly disobeyed regulations and even direct orders. [00:01:00] He gained a reputation as sort of a loner, a softy, an emotionally careening, even explosive and possibly dangerous personality. He simply did not belong there. Everything in him rebelled against military life at sea, which was even more restrictive than military life on land. Somewhere during the course of his tour, somewhere in the Mediterranean, William Leggett developed a lifelong hatred of authority, a libertarian spirit within him that revolted [00:01:30] against power where it existed, wherever people attempted to constrict the liberty of others. Historians tell us that the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s was the Jacksonian era, but this week and next we will follow Walt Whitman in declaring this the Age of Leggett. Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony [00:02:00] Comegna.
By 1825, Midshipman Leggett’s libertarianism landed him on the wrong side of a court marshal. He was charged with abandoning his post on the night shift to go drinking through the Port of Gibraltar. Two weeks or so later, he did it again to go fight a duel with another Jack Tar who insulted him. The day after that, Leggett tried to kill himself, and finally [00:02:30] set the court marshal in action. A decade later, his political enemies attacked his poor service record, and in the interest of full disclosure, our hero put his story before the public. Leggett requested documentation of the trial from the Navy and republished it in his New York Evening Post. Leggett described his suicide attempt in detail, counting on sympathy and love from his audience.
Speaker 2:New York Evening Post, 26 July, 1835. I was driven into a temporary [00:03:00] paroxysm of madness, the agonizing emotions, the war of conflicting passions. I beheld myself in a moment cut off from my associated, debarred the use of speech, imprisoned like a felon, while men on all sides were thronging around me to gaze upon the degraded spectacle. Each whispered question of, what has he done? Each glance of commemoration, each expression of sympathy was more galling to me than I could express. My situation aroused a thousand [00:03:30] hideous phantoms, the past, the future, blighted hopes, a sullied name. My gray haired father weeping over the disgrace of his child. A thousand harrowing thoughts of this nature rushed in frenzied exaggeration through my mind. I strove to suppress the rising gust of passion, but the conflict was too strong to be subdued. In a moment of delirious agony, the steel was raised. Thank heaven, the deed was prevented.
Anthony Comegna: Even when he showed up [00:04:00] for duty, Leggett supposedly refused to show respect to his commanding officer, John [inaudible 00:04:05]. Leggett almost threw bits of menacing, threatening poetry at the man. During the trial, Leggett admitted his own breaches of code but condemned the existence of unjust power and privilege throughout the Navy. At the lowest point in his life, William Leggett was becoming a fearless radical. In 1828, Leggett married and moved back to New York City. [00:04:30] He published a literary periodical called The Critic, but he was a notoriously poor businessman, and the operation quickly failed. In 1829, the poet and publisher William Cullen Bryant invited his friend Leggett to join the Evening Post. He refused to write about politics, a subject he found tiresome and about which he knew very little. One short year though and he was churning out some of the most brilliant short pieces of political and economic theory written during his day.
Jackson’s Bank War stirred up a frenzy among [00:05:00] radical Democrats, including those aligned with the Workingmen’s movement in the late 1820s and early ’30s, especially passionate egalitarian young men like Leggett. Once the National Bank was dead, they turned on the state banks with equal rage. Young activists looked to Leggett for inspiration and found it in endless fiery torrents. He read widely and deeply in all things political economy, and by the mid ’30s he was the undisputed intellectual leader of the Jacksonian [00:05:30] left. Contemporaries maligned him as a utopian, a disciple of Fanny Wright, an agrarian, a lunatic, and a dozen other hard names. Historians and friends of Leggett agree, no editor in American history was so hated by his enemies and so loved by his allies.
Historians have generally been on the hate him side of the divide, though mostly they express it by ignoring him entirely, a luxury his contemporaries could not afford. Those who have to remember Leggett have done so by marginalizing [00:06:00] his influence, diminishing his intelligence, or casually dismissing his core beliefs as some libertarian hocus pocus, weird relics of a bygone lifestyle in our pre-New Deal period, but Leggett was in many ways the natural extension of liberal thought, and he lived at the pivot point between ideas and action. He took Locke, Smith, William Cobbett, Jefferson, John Taylor of Caroline, Bastiat, Say, Bentham, and Dugald Stewart, Leggett stripped every line of thinking to [00:06:30] its essential principles, compared them to the facts he observed in nature, and reassembled them into a consistent, recognizably libertarian political philosophy. Unlike so many of his predecessors, he did not equivocate. He did not compromise. He did not make exceptions and justifications for the world as it is. His duty was to always discover and preach the right and the good, whatever his principles led him to believe that was.
[00:07:00] When he looked at English history, he did not identify with the bourgeois corporatists, nor even the charter mongering barons who gave us Magna Carta, and certainly not with the kings and queens. He was always with the peasants, the countryside rebels, and the street level revolutionaries. He was a utopian. He saw no reason that right theory could not be translated into right practice. Nature placed no obvious upper limit on what humans could achieve [00:07:30] if only they would leave each other alone in peace long enough. He believed rights were inalienable and inextricably tied to our concepts of property. Rights were exclusionary claims, and property rights were socially negotiated rules about the exclusive use of scarce material. He was a utilitarian to some degree in that he believed our social rules should be calculated to maximize utility throughout society, but in Leggett’s mind, this meant treating [00:08:00] each individual according to universal standards, recognizing the individual’s absolute right to their own body, their own agency, and the fruits of their labor. Utilitarian outcomes depended upon respect for the individual and the social recognition of a wide array of individual rights.
Should people generally follow moral rules consistent with individual liberty and flourishing, there would be no social classes. Certainly there would be inequality, but not [00:08:30] so much that it would encourage society-wide antagonism. In Leggett’s ideal libertarian world, there would be no one setting themselves up as a privileged class using the power of states or conspiracies to advance themselves. When the rich and the strong used their talents to squeeze wealth and obedience from the weak or the humble, they initiate a slow boiling class war. Smithian economics taught him that nature’s differences were important and special. [00:09:00] They were the sources of the division of labor, specialization, and other useful properties of human productivity. Those instituted by the arbitrary will of powerful men bred resentment, envy, and violence. Most of the human story was dominated by class violence, but every now and then the liberty interest won out and history’s shape changed for the better.
Politics then was tremendously important to him, as was participatory [00:09:30] democracy more broadly. This was not simply the jockeying of politicians and the wrangling of votes, though that certainly was part of it, part of how aristocratic forces corrupted even the democratic process. In Leggett’s telling, political conflicts were microcosmic battles in the larger social war between the classes. Most of the time he was comfortable in Jackson’s democracy. He saw them as representatives of average people hoping to protect what libertarian breakthroughs [00:10:00] history had given them. The Whigs then nearly always represented the forces of aristocracy, the corporatists, the hucksters and speculators, the would be King of America, Henry Clay, the first of his name.
Speaker 2:New York Evening Post, 4 November, 1834. The one party is for a popular government, the other for an aristocracy. The one party is composed in a great measure of the farmers, mechanics, laborers, [00:10:30] and other producers of the middling and lower classes, according to the common gradation by the scale of wealth, and the other of the consumers, the rich, the proud, the privileged, of those who, if our government were converted into an aristocracy, would become our dukes, lords, marquises, and baronets. The question is still disputed between these two parties. It is ever a new question, and whether the democracy or the aristocracy shall succeed in the present struggle, the fight [00:11:00] will be renewed whenever the defeated party shall be again able to muster strength enough to take the field.
The privilege of self-government is one which the people will never be permitted to enjoy unmolested. Power and wealth are continually stealing from the many to the few. There is a class continually gaining ground in the community who desire to monopolize the advantages of the government, to hedge themselves round with exclusive privileges, and elevate themselves at the expense of the great body of the people. [00:11:30] These in our society are emphatically the aristocracy, and these, with all such as their means of persuasion, or corruption, or intimidation, can move to act with them, constitute the party which are now struggling against the democracy for the perpetuation of an odious and dangerous moneyed institution.
The aristocratic argument in favor of the power is founded on the dangerous heresy that the Constitution says one thing and means another, that necessary [00:12:00] does not mean necessary but simply convenient. By a mode of reasoning not looser than this, it would be easy to prove that our government ought to be changed into a monarchy, Henry Clay crowned king, and the opposition members of the Senate made peers of the realm, and power, place, and perquisites given to them and their heirs forever.
Anthony Comegna:The tool of government allowed a curious fight to take place to decide which segment of society could use [00:12:30] constituted force against the others. The war would not cease with any particular event. History would always begin anew when power regained its strength and reconstituted itself in different social institutions. The Jeffersonian champions of democracy once defeated the aristocratic Federalists, but the Whigs claimed their mantle under an even more deceptive name. Should the heroic Jacksonians prevail, the villainous [00:13:00] residuum of the Whig lines would emerge again in the future. Both virtue and vigilance were necessary to maintain liberty against the constant threat of power.
At the beginning of his editorial career, Leggett was a true party man, routinely rushing to defend Andrew Jackson. In 1834, he called Jackson the child, the champion, and the representative of the great democracy of the United States, one of ourselves. He was almost a demigod fighting [00:13:30] on the front lines of the historic battle for liberty. As this kind of youthful romanticism hardened into a passion for true progress, Leggett’s faith in political change wavered and collapsed. Years of witnessing political gamesmanship and graft firsthand inspired him to tease out the philosophy of equal rights as far as it would go. Whenever events called him to choose, Leggett sacrificed pragmatism and partisanship for principle [00:14:00] and consistency.
In 1834, he defended Jackson against South Carolina nullifiers, but in 1837 there was no stronger advocate of disunion than William Leggett. Though he was not always personally committed to the Democratic Party, Leggett in the Evening Post supported Van Buren for president in 1936 but only as a tool for pushing the party in a more radical direction. Partisanship could be useful as a means [00:14:30] toward fighting the class war on monopoly, but he well knew that Democratic majorities and their duly elected representatives also had power. Majorities that misused their power became mere mobs, little different from noblemen in frilly clothes. No one could really be trusted with power over others, not even Jackson’s democracy.
By the mid 1830s, Washington and its local tentacles buzzed with sycophantic office holders willing [00:15:00] to do whatever necessary to remain on the dole. Most Jacksonians wanted to take this political escalator to wealth and privilege every bit as much as Whigs did, and Leggett made it a personal mission to expose the monopoly Democrats that threatened liberty from within its own safe house. If people would only put their theories of equal rights into practice for real, democracy would become more than a scramble for office. To him, democracy was an almost religious [00:15:30] concept. It was a force like gravity. Tyrants of all kinds had fought against the historical tendency to devolve power, but during his own era, there was no real turning back. No one was ever going to become king of America ever again because the people simply would not have it. En masse, they would refuse to be coerced by such a colossal pretender to power.
Leggett’s version of democracy was not a means to exploit [00:16:00] minorities. It was no blank check to violate social rules to benefit a portion of the whole. Democracy, like Christianity, was a way for mankind to atone for the sins of power and cleanse the country’s moral slate. It was a method to do good by agreeing en masse to respect an absolute equality of individual rights and any violation of equal rights entailed the creation of aristocracy [00:16:30] and the destruction of democracy. Leggett’s democratic state would be a sort of formal social covenant solidified with every individual act respecting the rights of others. The state would be entirely negative, conferring no powers and privileges, and protecting equally the equal rights of all. Were that negative barrier breached, Leggett would be forced by his own reasons for maintaining this state to disavow it, reform it, and reconstitute [00:17:00] it, a process Rhode Islanders decided to test for themselves in 1842.
As you might expect then, Leggett’s economic ideas were virtually unqualified laissez-faire. The natural world functioned as a perfect machine, and allowing each piece of the machine to function according to its nature would yield perfection. Theory in practice, nature and prosperity were one and the same, inseparable. [00:17:30] Inequality, poverty, hatred, and violence only disrupted the libertarian equilibrium state of nature when the strong or cunning sought to violate the rules of nature and invade the people’s liberties. Only a purely negative state could refrain from establishing some sort of aristocracy. As it was, Leggett thought Americans would be better off if most government operatives were swept out to sea.
Speaker 2:New York Evening [00:18:00] Post, 10 September, 1835. Regulation of coal. We should be glad to see the whole tree, root and branch, destroyed. We should be glad if the whole oppressive and aristocratic scheme of inspection and gauging, whether existing under the general government, or that of the state, or of the city, were utterly abrogated. We should be glad to see the custom house swept off into the sea and the whole army of collectors, surveyors, [00:18:30] side-waiters, and lickspittles, of various denominations swept off with it, or at least compelled to resort to some other method of obtaining a livelihood. We should be glad if the inspectors of beef, flour, pork, cotton, tobacco, wood, charcoal, and anthracite, and all their brother inspectors, too numerous to mention, were made to take up the line of march and follow their file leaders into some more democratic species of avocation. The land, [00:19:00] freed from this army of incubuses and from the bad laws which give them being, would then blossom as the rose under the genial influence of free trade.
Anthony Comegna:For more gems like that from the man I consider libertarianism’s founding father, you’ll have to tune back in next week for our second portion of the life and ideas of William Leggett. [00:19:30] Liberty Chronicles is a project of Libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review, and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit Libertarianism.org.