Abram D. Smith is a forgotten figure in American history. Smith was born in either Lowville or Cambridge, upstate New York, in 1811, just before the post-war boom years of rapid social and economic change. As a young man, he experienced and contributed to a wave of nationalistic romanticism, enraptured with the wonders of American republicanism and democracy. He was in these regards fairly unremarkable, and yet in September 1838, probably in some Ohio forest, surrounded by blazing torchlight, a circle of revolutionary conspirators called the Brother Hunters elected Abram D. Smith—Mr. Average American—to be President of the Republic of Canada.
“Abram D. Smith: Nullification,” on Classics of Liberty
Bonthius, Andrew. “The Patriot War of 1837-1838: Locofocoism With a Gun?” Labour/Le Travail 52 (Fall 2003), 9-43.
Dunley, Ruth. “A.D. Smith: Knight-Errant of Radical Democracy,” (PhD Diss.). The University of Ottowa. 2008.
Kinchen, Oscar. The Rise and Fall of the Patriot Hunters. New York: Bookman Associates. 1956.
James Gemmel, “Two Years in Van Dieman’s Land”
Benjamin Wait, Letters from Van Dieman’s Land
Music by Kai Engel
Anthony Comegna: Abram D. Smith is a forgotten figure in American history. Smith was born in either Lowville or Cambridge, Upstate New York, in 1811, just before the post-war boom years of rapid social and economic change. As a young man, he experienced and contributed to a wave of nationalistic romanticism, enraptured with the wonders of American republicanism and democracy. [00:00:30] He was in these regards fairly unremarkable and yet, in September 1838, probably in some Ohio forest, surrounded by blazing torchlight, a circle of revolutionary conspirators called the Brother Hunters elected Abram D. Smith, Mr. Average American, to be president of the Republic of Canada.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of Libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] Politically, Smith was a Loco-Foco, a radical anti-privilege supporter of universal equal rights. In their two-year existence as a third-party in New York, the Locofocos successfully became a powerful and influential force within the National Democratic Party. The romantic, passionate and thoroughly American radicalism of the Locofocos was especially [00:01:30] captivating to youths like Smith.
His romantic Loco-Foco love affair with republicanism stitched together a long series of important moments in libertarian history. He and many others took the ideas of William Leggett, Theodore Sedgwick, William Cullen Bryant, a young Walt Whitman, the painter Thomas Cole and other young Americans. He took them nationwide, creating the first libertarian movement in the process.
The budding, young American movement was steeped in what literary [00:02:00] scholars Andrew Lawson calls Loco-Foco Romanticism. Loco Romantics combined the German idealism of Hegel, Fichte and Herder with the American context of a wild democratic frontier in human history. To Loco Romantics, the spirit of liberty pervaded and defined American life, and the United States was destined to lead the forces of liberty into the future. Abram D. Smith always fancied himself one such soldier of history.
[00:02:30] While training for his law degree, Smith displayed this kind of jubilant republicanism by celebrating Independence Day in legendary style. With an adequate supply of food, liquor and firearms, the young man rode to an isolated island in an Upstate New York lake one 3rd of July. Alone with his thoughts and the sky, Smith drank the night away, rising at dawn on the 4th, he fired his holiday salute and continued drinking for several hours.
He then delivered a reading of the Declaration [00:03:00] of Independence, engaged in some general carousing, many alcoholic salutations to revolutionary heroes and a well-deserved and day-long nap in his boat. His was the sort of liberty that has made early America a now mythical place of coonskin caps, jugs of whiskey and a lack of constituted authority as far as the eye could see.
In 1836 or 1837, Smith took his romantic radicalism to the old northwest. The Smiths settled in Ohio, and [00:03:30] Abram threw himself into Democratic politics. He was elected city councilman from Cleveland’s first ward in 1837 and, that summer, delivered speeches from the local courthouse of the ultra Loco-Foco kind in the words of a local paper.
Smith transplanted Leggett’s New York Locofocoism to Cleveland, preaching the radical message to Ohio workingmen. By day, Smith practiced law and attended to his municipal duties, performing respectable middle class work in a bustling [00:04:00] western city. By night, however, he studied the secret codes and hand signals of the Brother Hunters, a vast secret revolutionary society with local branches stretched across the northern border.
Under cover of darkness, Smith escaped his perfectly normal life and stole away to the forests. There, he and his Brother Hunters breathe new life into the revolutionary heritage that so captivated their imaginations. They plotted to violently [00:04:30] overthrow the British Imperial Government in Canada, and the man they chose to lead them as their president, Abram D. Smith, was suddenly anything but average. He was president of the Republic of Canada.
Strung across the northern border in the late 1830s, there was a loose network of Locofoco-minded revolutionaries calling themselves Patriots. Like Smith and his Brother Hunters, most Patriot groups met in secret and solitude, spinning their conspiratorial [00:05:00] webs to fulfill America’s place in history.
From Maine to Ohio, as many as 200,000 Patriots engaged in military drills and preparedness, passed Loco-Foco meeting resolutions condemning British imperialism in Canada and the evils of aristocratical government. They even established newspapers and a bank of issue to fund their cause. The notes would be paid back once Canada was revolutionized. They laid lasting and intense political social networks, and [00:05:30] some even crossed the border to join Canadian forces in ill-fated rebellion.
The rebellions in British Canada came out of the long-term transformation of the economy and the exploitative nature of British Imperial Forces. Inspired by Jacksonian Democracy, especially Loco-Foco radicalism, Republican-minded Canadians protested the legally privileged land monopoly regime in Upper Canada.
Imperial law relegated the choices and the largest tracts of land [00:06:00] to a privileged clique of aristocrats, the so-called Family Compact. The Compact was a small, intimately connected group of leading administrators, office holders and landlords. The members high up in the chain spawned a series of their own local Compacts made up of sheriffs, judges, militiamen and appointed officers. Top to bottom then, a relatively small and centralized clique of Canadians determined the entire colony’s destinies.
The Canadians wanted to sever the colonial relationship [00:06:30] altogether, including very real legal ties to England’s aristocratic, feudal, corporatist past. Their American allies hoped to banish the British Lion from the continent forever and, perhaps, finally welcome Upper and Lower Canada into the great Republican family.
The Canadian rebels, led by William Lyon Mackenzie and Dr. Charles Duncombe, were terribly disorganized and few in number. The homegrown rebellion collapsed in 1837 after a series of British [00:07:00] victories, but the revolution continued. Mackenzie fled to New York, where he dabbled in Loco-Foco social circles and tried to influence American politics to help the cause of Canadian republicanism.
For their own part, the American Patriots and Hunters ramped up recruitment, drilling and planning, all in secret, coordinated with coded letters sent privately through the Patriot presses all across the border zone. The Patriot-Hunter groups became full-blown secret societies, [00:07:30] complete with initiation rituals, oaths of secrecy and members like Smith, who was also a Free Mason.
Speaker 2: Obligations of Three Hunters Degrees, including the Patriot Mason Degree.
The Snowshoe Degree has five points. The first point is you do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God and this lodge [00:08:00] of Hunters that you will not give the secrets of this degree or any secret that may come to my knowledge in the body of this lodge to any person to whom they do not justly and lawfully belong; that I will not write, print, stain, stamp, hue, cut, carve, mark, indent or engrave the same upon anything whereby the secrets of this degree may be unlawfully obtained.
Second point, you do further swear that you will not [00:08:30] give the secrets of a brother Hunter when given to you in charge as such to any person to whom they do not just and lawfully belong.
Third point, you do further swear that you will aid the cause of liberty, equality and fraternity whenever you can do the same without injury to yourself or family.
Fourth point, you do further swear that you will give a brother Hunter timely notice of approaching danger when the same shall come to your knowledge, provided you can do the [00:09:00] same without injury to yourself and family.
Fifth point, that you will attend the lodge when summoned if within three miles and you can do the same without injury to yourself and family, so help you God.
Second Degree, Beaver of Castor Degree, you do solemnly swear in the presence of Almighty God and this lodge of Beavers that you will not give the secrets of this degree to a Snowshoe or any person to whom they do not just and lawfully belong, [00:09:30] so help you God.
Third Degree, [Sheosor 00:09:33] or Grand Hunter Degree, you do solemnly promise and swear in the presence of Almighty God and this lodge of Grand Hunters that you will not give the secrets of this degree to a Beaver or a Snowshoe or any person to whom they do not just and lawfully belong. You do further swear that whatever monies may come into your hands for the Patriot cause, you will apply the same to that purpose, so help you God.
Fourth [00:10:00] Degree or Patriot Mason Degree, you do solemnly promise and swear that you will not give the secrets of this degree to a Grand Hunter, a Beaver or Snowshoe or any person to whom they do not just and lawfully belong, so help you God.
Anthony Comegna: Patriot-Hunters on the American border invaded Canada, only to be defeated at the Battle of the Windmill just outside Prescott, Ontario, in November 1838. 200 American [00:10:30] Patriots battled British Imperial troops for several days and, by the end, a hundred and fifty-seven were taken prisoner, one hundred forty were court martialed, eleven executed, and sixty transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
Loaded on board the Marquis of Hastings, a rotted, barely seaworthy prison hulk, 230 felons suffered scurvy in a four-months-long journey, as horrible as any in the entire history of Britain’s convict labor system. Thirty of these [00:11:00] prisoners died in transit. Their bodies cast overboard to be eaten by sharks and forgotten by time.
The survivors were consigned to the brutal prison labor regime of British Australia. There, they continued the intellectual and social cooperation began in the Loco networks of North America. The convicted Patriot stories quickly became the stuff of legend among sympathizers at home.
Speaker 2: Letters from Van Diemen’s [00:11:30] Land, written during four years imprisonment for political offenses committed in Upper Canada by Benjamin Wait, 1843.
I would answer the questions so frequently asked of what did Canada complain and then proceed.
Canada complained of the absence of all security for life and property, of taxation without representation, of the destruction of the liberty of the press, of packed injuries, of a judiciary bribed by an [00:12:00] entirely dependent upon the Crown of the profligate waste of the public revenues amongst swarms of foreign officials, of an illegal distribution of the public lands among herds of foreign stockjobbers to the injury and degradation of the industrious agriculturalists and immigrant, of education for the rich and none for the poor, of a dominant government established church, of an annihilation of the colonial constitution, of a total want of responsibility in the government [00:12:30] party; in a word, of the existence of an arbitrary, arrogant, vindictive and fraudulent oligarchy, which is now happily exchanged for a more liberal and responsible experiment.
The predilections of my youth were for the law and political life. Therefore, my studies and my attentions were directed there, too, until excessive ambition to progress and sedentary habits ruined my health when I was forced to sit down short of the consummation of my hopes.
[00:13:00] I domesticated, married and was dragged from the felicity of retirement only by the repeated aggressions and unhallowed practices of the despotic lieutenant governor, Sir Francis Bond Head. I had held myself fully devoted to whatever measures were announced by our firm representatives at Toronto. I attended carefully to all the developments of intrigue and deception practiced by the government and detected by the indefatigable McKenzi and his able associates, and felt myself by honor and inclination, [00:13:30] pledged to an early participation in the outbreak, for I was fully convinced it was the only means left to us to break the bonds of tyranny.
At the first intimation of the rising near Toronto, I armed and left my home at York on the Grand River without a regret, all ardency to mingle in the strife for freedom and proceeded towards to a known point of concentration. Indeed, it was highly necessarily for me to be on the move, or at least on the qui vive, for my well-known radical principles [00:14:00] rendered me unsafe at home.
While the circumstance of the absence of my wife and child on a visit at my father’s, 60 miles distant, was to my high tory neighbors, proof sufficient of a premeditated arrangement. My limits will not permit me to go into a detail, and will, therefore, merely add that I arrived in the London District just in time to witness the unhappy dispersion when it became necessarily for everyone to shift for himself.
I therefore retraced my steps, which had to be done [00:14:30] with the utmost care and vigilance. I traveled mostly by night and finally arrived on the frontiers despite the thousand dangers that beset me. After having been twice intercepted, once by Indians, whose chief, a particular friend, let me go, having been attracted by a red rose, the badge of loyalty, which I had providentially picked up and pinned on my cap, and once by a band of drunken volunteer guards from whom, by a daring maneuver, I made a happy escape.
On [00:15:00] Christmas eve, gallantly assisted by patriotic ladies, I launched an old canoe upon the Niagara and crossed to the Land of Freedom from whence I soon found my way to Navy Island where I partook a cheerful Christmas dinner beneath the banner of the sister stars.
At the evacuation of the place, I proceeded with melee as far as Conneaut, Ohio, where, by the virulence of three seated inward inflammations caused by continued exposure, I lay for several weeks, but one remove from the grave.
[00:15:30] From Conneaut, I returned by stage to Schlosser where I happily found my wife and child, who received me almost as one from the dead. In the meantime, Sir George Arthur displaced Sir Francis in Upper Canada and, soon after, the Earl of Durham arrived as governor general of the Canadas.
Consequently, 26, all Canadians, daring fellows ready to be sacrificed in the field or on the scaffold penetrated, doubly armed, without hope of return, to the heart [00:16:00] of the enemy’s country, surrounded on the every side by the regular infantry, lancers, volunteers and Indians, where a few Americans came to us, on a secret mission, the object of which I am not yet at liberty to detail, to which, however, let it suffice that I declare there was nothing in the slightest degree dishonorable or disreputable attached, notwithstanding subsequent surmise and evil report.
After a trifling successful eruption upon a company of insulting orange lancer, [00:16:30] et cetera, far outnumbering us, whom we took, detained a short time, then dismissed, our little band retreated and dispersed when a part were captured and sent with 20 or more of the innocent inhabitants to a jail where we were all separately indicted for high treason by having appeared armed with swords, spears, muskets, bayonets, rifles, pistols and other offensive weapons against the peace of Her Majesty Victoria, by the grace of God, Queen of Great Britain [00:17:00] and Ireland, with intent to do her some grievous harm.
On this indictment, the gallant Colonel Morrow, for whose apprehension, a reward of £250 was paid, was hastily tried, found guilt and murdered on the scaffold with but a few days granted in which to arrange his worldly affairs. He died like a man, honored and mourned, a glorious murder in the cause of truth and the rights of man.
Here, I ought to consider this long introduction as closed, [00:17:30] and the request of my friends briefly complied with. Yet, I must add that the captured innocent citizens were acquitted, and sixteen of the participators sentenced to death upon the gallow. Thirteen of them, however, received an immediate commutation, while three, Messrs. Chandler, McLeod, and myself, with Beemer, who was soon after added were reserved for positive execution, but subsequent particulars will be found at full detail in Mrs. Wait’s letters and my own, which I wrote [00:18:00] from Van Diemen’s Land.
Anthony Comegna: American Loco-Foco filibusters connected the struggling Canada with a wider attempt to rid the world of British aristocracy. Escapees like Benjamin Wait and James Gammell recorded their experiences for Loco-Foco readers in cities like New York. Levi Slamm’s Daily Plebeian regularly published letters from Van Diemen’s Land alongside advocacy for other young American crusades.
At this early stage, most [00:18:30] Locofocos decidedly favored peace as the best means to their end, and they rejected the use of force. The Van Buren administration entirely disavowed the filibustering radicals, trying to avoid a war with Great Britain. Many Locofocos reacted by arguing that friendly relations with Great Britain positively helped Queen Victoria add jewels to her crown.
The violent and destructive counterrevolutionary backlash against Canadian rebels and their sympathizers added to their case. [00:19:00] Loyalists destroyed property and terrorized radicals, prompting 25,000 refugees, including Thomas Edison’s parents, to flee Canada for the United States. Loco-Foco young Americans like John L. O’Sullivan and Levi Slamm welcomed them with open arms.
Abram D. Smith, the president of the Republic of Canada, apparently avoided conflict, transportation and execution, though the impact of his election must have weighed on his spirit [00:19:30] for rest of his days.
Patriots like Smith fought for Loco-Foco anti-monopoly principles. They fought against the world’s most powerful government of the day, the global icon of the money power, the preeminent monarchical, aristocratic corporation mongering organization on the globe, imperial Britain.
Throughout the 1830s, American Locofocos and Canadian radicals exchanged ideas and fused their movements together. [00:20:00] Their Patriot war was consistent with a powerful strain of Loco thinking. It was part of the Loco-Foco political movement, an attempt at Republican revolution.
When seen in this light, it becomes a single battle in the ongoing war between Loco-Foco young Americans and the remnants of corporate feudalism in America. When the rebellion collapsed, Canadian reformers shifted toward national union as a way of reforming imperial policy. Americans, [00:20:30] once again, turned their militant gazes homeward, toward their own remaining aristocracies.
The great irony for militaristic Locofocos was that their activities violated their own theory of social conflict. By empowering the state or using violence to advance the cause of self-government, they only widened and deepened those conflicts. Abram D. Smith and other unrepentant filibustering Locofocos failed to hear this word of advice offered by James Gammell, another [00:21:00] one of the escaped convict laborers who served time with Benjamin Wait in Van Diemen’s Land.
Gammell, unlike Smith, actually experienced war and revolution first hand, not vicariously through some meaningless election to a pretender’s office. After escaping British slavery, Gammell wrote of his motivations and experiences. He was youthful and anxious to make his Republican visions for Canada into reality, but, soon, he found that a few armed [00:21:30] and active people could not truly change a whole society. Even bottom-up organized acts of violence tend to produce more top-down tyranny, more statism, less individual freedom.
The warriors of liberty should not wield the weapons of power, and Gammell advised his fellow Loco filibusters to hang it up and focus on peaceful, intellectual and social change. James Gammell’s horrific experience in [00:22:00] Van Diemen’s Land beat the romanticism out of him, but too few have listened to his hard-earned lesson.
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