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William Leggett’s antislavery wasn’t just spontaneous. His editorial career was spent teasing out the finer points of libertarian theory.

Last week we explored the life and ideas of William Leggett—the founding father of America’s first identifiably libertarian movement. This week we begin with his attack on censorship as a gross abuse of government power, a sure sign that freedom was dying.

Further Readings/​References:

Earle, Jonathan. Jacksonian Antislavery & the Politics of Free Soil, 1824–1854. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2004.

Grimstead, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.

Sedgwick, Theodore III. A Collection of the Political Writings of William Leggett (2 Volumes). New York: Taylor & Dodd. 1840.

White, Lawrence, ed. Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy. Indianapolis: Liberty Press. 1984.

Music by Kai Engel


Anthony Comegna: In August 1835, Charleston, South Carolina Postmaster, Alfred Huger, had a serious problem. The American Anti‐​Slavery Society in New York recently started a campaign to flood the South’s postal system with abolitionist literature advocating the immediate emancipation of slaves. Huger was caught between conflicting obligations. On the one hand, he was a United States Postmaster, a servant of the whole people, not [00:00:30] just the people of South Carolina. The general government required him to deliver the mail safely, at least in theory, but his state government and the angry mob forming outside his post office demanded he prevent incendiary publications from delivery.
When Huger appealed to the national government for guidance, Jackson’s Postmaster General, Amos Kendall, claimed that he could not position himself on either side, and did nothing. Taking Kendall’s lead, Huger also [00:01:00] did nothing when the mob finally stormed the building, seized the abolitionist mails, and burned them in the town square. As passions inflamed against the abolitionists, the Postmaster General enacted an official policy of censorship that quickly became Democratic party orthodoxy. From his editorial chair in New York City, William Leggett was incensed.
Last week, we explored the life and ideas of William Leggett, the founding father of America’s first identifiably [00:01:30] libertarian movement. This week, we begin with his attack on censorship as a gross abuse of government power, a sure sign that freedom was dying.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
Leggett argued that Democrats were artificially containing abolitionism [00:02:00] for the benefit of planter aristocrats violating the rights of white and black Americans alike. The Washington Globe, unofficial mouthpiece of the administration and Democratic party, directly targeted Leggett, and he was publicly read out of the party by the New York County Democratic Organization. Democratic partisans pressured Leggett’s employer, William Cullen Bryant, to fire him or face the complete loss of party patronage, the funds that kept is Evening Post solvent. This viciousness [00:02:30] only encouraged him to double down, and he began to recognize the amount of power and influence exercised by slave holders even over the lives of Northerners. When the people, simply enjoying the free exercise of their rights, could be censored and shut off from society, so long to liberty.
The rift in New York’s democracy between working men and conservatives, which grew during and after the bank war, swelled and split with Leggett’s anti‐​censorship crusade. [00:03:00] Shortly after his excommunication from the democracy, those abolitionists who flooded Charleston with America’s first direct mail campaign sent Leggett the same collection of literature. Leggett did what most people refused to do. He took it seriously and believed that African‐​Americans were also worthy of dignity, respect, and an absolute regard for their natural rights. He absorbed and incorporated abolitionism into his own thought. For this, the slaveholders party of Andrew [00:03:30] Jackson made Leggett a martyr, and he emerged the most passionate, articulate, piercing, anti‐​slavery mind in the whole period.
Leggett’s anti‐​slavery didn’t just happen spontaneously, driven forward by events alone. His editorial career was spent teasing out the finer points of economic and social theory, especially the interplay between the two. This was before political economy was split into politics and economics, and to someone like Leggett, [00:04:00] they were, in many ways, the same discipline. To him, the subjects of corporation and slavery were a similar phenomenon. They were examples of economic arrangements created and protected by the state. They were based in species of artificial rights granted by government to a special subset of the population.
On the one hand, there were the monopoly banks, the privileged contractors, political entrepreneurs who lived and died on their connections to government money and power, the modern era’s iteration [00:04:30] of the old colonial companies and chartered bodies. On the other, they were the country’s most obviously aristocratic people, the planters. The South’s leading men relied entirely upon the state to grant them legal title to their slaves, protect them from rebellions, and ensure a host of legal advantages to buy the support of poor whites. Both species of property were abominations, the creation of artificial men and the dehumanizing of actual people. We can’t be sure [00:05:00] whether he ever harbored racist beliefs, but what is certain is that anti‐​monopoly was a fundamental first step to Leggett’s anti‐​slavery. Once convinced that the creation of artificial corporate rights was illegitimate, Leggett’s consistent mind needed only meet the right argument.
To solve the problem of corporate monopolies, Leggett suggested a sharply limited government with a real general incorporation law. Normally, investors would have to petition the legislature for special grants of [00:05:30] incorporation. The process was shot through with corruption. Leggett instead argued that anyone who wishes should be able to incorporate their business. He would return the state to a purely negative role neither creating nor restricting any private rights, but Leggett also tackled the problem of internal improvements projects. These too were all breaches in the negative state, which always opened new pathways for exploitation and the aggrandizement of power and wealth. Improvements projects wasted [00:06:00] the people’s taxes, promoted private interests with public money, created monopolists with special contracts, and promoted [mail 00:06:08] investment and business cycles. Generally speaking, these sorts of economic interventions were the Whig’s whole platform, but Leggett’s main enemies were the monopoly Democrats who ran Tammany Hall with the same pork projects.
When a reader asked if removing the state would mean no improvements at all, Leggett replied that nature would finally be left to take [00:06:30] its course. People would spend their money how they actually see fit, and the world would adjust around that. Perhaps we wouldn’t even need so many roads if the government hadn’t socialized all the land out West and force‐​pumped development by selling claims for a pittance. Government can build roads and populate the frontier, certainly, just like we can force water to flow uphill by pushing it through a pipe, but there is always dead weight loss when fighting against the tendency of nature. It costs more energy to pump water uphill than allowing [00:07:00] it to take nature’s course downward. If the market demanded improvements, free individuals in pursuit of their own self interests would provide them. Any alternative model promoted the growth of a mushroom aristocracy, corruptly sponging funds from the public treasury and distorting markets.
For the same reasons, Leggett opposed intellectual property and state ownership of public goods like ferries, docks, wharves, piers, pauper asylums, the Post Office, and public schools. Municipal ownership meant [00:07:30] political corruption, alienation of the people from their government, and violations of the laws of trade. Leggett’s laissez‐​fair alternative? Privatize everything and auction all public property to the highest bidders with preemption rights to those who live contiguous with the material for sale.
Leggett was not anti‐​bank, anti‐​commerce, anti‐​industry, or anti‐​property. He did not oppose debt, credit, or paper money as such, but rather the iniquitous methods [00:08:00] by which they were foisted on the public. Like his workingman forebears, Leggett reserved his harshest criticism for The Second Bank of the United States and the wide variety of state banks poisoning the landscape. Unlike many Jacksonians, Leggett always appreciated the inflation‐​checking power of the bank.
The national bank constricted the issuing power of state banks, but state‐​level Jacksonians often controlled those banks. To fund state projects that helped elect them to office, they needed loans from state institutions. [00:08:30] By stimulating state bank reserves, the government artificially boosted investment and consumption, the boom before the bust. When the government involved itself in the economic decisions of individuals, it always created a series of moral hazards distorting the people’s behavior and encouraging waste, fraud, and abuse.
Leggett demanded a complete separation of bank and state. “Church and state,” he said, “has an evil sound, but bank and state grates more harshly [00:09:00] on our ears. At all levels, the state should keep its own treasury and refrain from distorting capital markets.” He even went to the extreme of advocating private coinage. He believed that only the best currencies would be accepted, and it was not necessary for government to enforce a certain money. No bank would enjoy the privileges of government deposits or of breaking contracts and suspending specie payments. His concern always remained the ability of monopoly privileges to create an entrenched [00:09:30] and arbitrary aristocracy and the threat they then posed to the liberties of the people.
One such threat was concentrated in the Postal Service, which Leggett criticized as an engine of corruption and machine for the expansion of power. Echoing Whig critics of executive power, Leggett challenged the president’s appointment powers, saying this single individual controlled far too much about Americans’ communications. When Amos Kendall, Alfred Huger, and that South Carolina mob took advantage of this monstrous [00:10:00] power to silence abolitionist mails in August 1835, they pushed Leggett into the next phase of his anti‐​monopolism.
He became a radical immediatist abolitionist, an outright advocate of slave revolution. One of his earliest editorials about slavery denounced local whites for orchestrating an anti‐​abolitionist riot at the Chatham Street Chapel, and Leggett even urged strict crowd‐​control measures to prevent further harm to the abolitionists and [00:10:30] freemen in the city. At this point, July 8, 1834, Leggett thought the abolitionists were dangerous quislings obsessed with a pet issue. They were fanatics, simple as that, yet he did respect the equal rights of African‐​Americans and immediatists.
Early in his career, Leggett held the common position that slavery was tolerable because freedmen would assuredly flood Northern labor markets and take white men’s jobs. Abolitionist activism [00:11:00] and the slave power’s backlash soon changed his mind and lit a fire in his heart. Leggett turned against the ultimate idol of American life, the union itself, and his romantic vision of Democracy evaporated as abolitionism seized him. By 1837, he considered abolitionist a title of honor. There was no truer or loftier devotee to the great cause of human emancipation than the abolitionist.

Speaker 2: [00:11:30] New York Plaindealer, 14 January 1837, Progress of Fanaticism. “The political braggarts of the South continually hold up secession as a bugbear to intimidate the people of the North from the exercise of one of their most sacred rights. If this vain threat were earnest instead of mere bravado, if the phantasm were corporeal substance instead of shadow, we would rather, far rather encounter it in its most horrid [00:12:00] form than pay the price, which we are told will alone purchase security. We cannot give up freedom for the sake of union. We cannot give up the principal of vitality, the very soul of political existence, to secure the perishing body from dismemberment.
“No, rather, let it be hewed to pieces, limb by limb, than by dishonorable compromise, obtain a short renewal of the lease of life to be dragged out in servitude and chains. [00:12:30] Rather, let the silken tie, which has so long united this sisterhood of states in a league that has made our country the pride and wonder of the world be sundered at once by one fell blow than exchanged for the iron cord of despotism and strengthened into a bond fatal to freedom. Dear as the federal compact is, and earnestly as we wish that time, while it is continually crumbling the false foundations of other governments, may add firmness to the cement [00:13:00] which holds together that arch of union on which our own is reared, yet rather would we see it broken tomorrow into its original fragments than that its durability should be accomplished by a measure fatal to the principles of liberty.”

Anthony Comegna: Leggett violently broke with both major wings of the Democratic party, calling Van Buren dictatorial for preemptively refusing to sign any bills abolishing slavery within the jurisdiction of Congress. He directly compared John C. Calhoun to Satan from [00:13:30] Milton’s Paradise Lost. “Evil be thou my good,” could as well be South Carolina’s state motto.
Leggett anticipated the turbulent, often violent, anti‐​slavery voices of the 1850s by romanticizing and historicizing the slave, identifying him with all Americans, especially those who refuse to subject themselves to the yoke of British neo‐​feudalism. Americans under British kings suffered nothing in comparison with American slaves [00:14:00] laboring for American masters. He boldly and brashly declared support for Northern secession, sympathy for the slave, and a desire to agitate slave revolts.

Speaker 2: New York Plaindealer, 29 July 1837, Abolition Insolence. “If an extensive and well‐​arranged insurrection of the blacks should occur in any of the slave states, we should probably see the freemen of this quarter of the country rallying around that glorious [00:14:30] emblem, which is so magniloquently spoken of in the foregoing extract, and marching beneath its folds to take sides with the slaveholders and reduce the poor Negroes struggling for liberty to heavier bondage than they indulged before. It may be abolition insolence to call this glorious emblem the standard of oppression, but at all events, it is unanswerable truth. For our part, we call it so in a spirit, not of insolence, [00:15:00] not of pride speaking in terms of petulant contempt, but of deep humility and abasement.
“We confess, with the keenest mortification and chagrin, that the banner of our country is the emblem, not of justice and freedom, but of oppression, that it is the symbol of a compact which recognizes, in [palpable 00:15:20] and outrageous contradiction of the great principle of liberty, the right of one man to hold another as property and that we are liable at any moment to be required [00:15:30] under all our obligations of citizenship to array ourselves beneath it and wage a war of extermination, if necessary, against the slave for no crime but asserting his right of equal humanity, the self‐​evident truth that all men are created equal and have an unalienable right of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Would we comply with such a requisition? No. Rather would we see our right arm lopped from our body and the mutilated [00:16:00] trunk itself gored with mortal wounds than raise a finger in opposition to men struggling in the holy cause of freedom. The obligations of citizenship are strong, but those of justice, humanity, and religion stronger.
“We earnestly trust that the great contest of opinion, which is now going on in this country, may terminate in the enfranchisement of the slaves without recourse to the strife of blood. But should the oppressed bondmen, impatient of the tardy progress of truth urged only [00:16:30] in discussion, attempt to burst their chains by a more violent and shorter process, they should never encounter our arm nor hear our voice in the ranks of their opponents. We should stand a sad spectator of the conflict, and whatever commiseration we might feel for the discomfiture of the oppressors, we should pray that the battle might end in giving freedom to the oppressed.”

Anthony Comegna: Leggett’s brand of anti‐​slavery not only surpassed the most fervent of Democrats, Whigs, [00:17:00] and even Liberty party voters, but it took him beyond most anarchists, pacifists, Garrisonians. In 1836, after a trying battle with a chronic chest illness, Leggett resigned his position with The Evening Post to begin his own short‐​lived papers, The Plaindealer and The Examiner. In 1839, Leggett prepared to depart for the United States of Central American as the Van Buren administration’s diplomatic agent, a sop to the Leggett fanatics in new [00:17:30] York, to keep them loyal. It was hoped that a temperate climate would prolong his newly valuable life as much as possible.
Before he could leave his city, William Leggett died at the young age of either 37 or 38. The movement never forgot him and his contributions, though he is all but lost to popular memory today. Those touched by his ideas and passion for liberty were transformed in the process and carried figurative pieces of Leggett with them wherever [00:18:00] they went. In the end, his influence led to the Free Soil and Republican parties, even abolition itself. All can trace direct lines of ancestry to the mind of William Leggett.
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