We often learn that Manifest Destiny was the invention of racists and conquest-hungry imperialists, and there is some truth to that, but much as historians have ignored it and much as we might like to do the same, America’s first libertarian movement was also responsible. Jacksonian radicals called Locofocos provided the ideology that helped transform the United States from a limited republic into a continental empire. Uncomfortable as it might be, we will find that their early libertarianism was a jumping-off point for what only later became a much more typical racist imperialism.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1981.
Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York: Knopf. 1963.
Stephanson, Anders. Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right. New York: Hill & Wang. 1995.
Music by Kai Engel
00:08 Anthony Comegna: In the 1840s, a horrible monster stalked the peoples of the earth. The great Victorian leviathan stretched its tentacles across six of the seven continents, holding terrified and powerless peoples in subjection, by the hundreds of millions. Where Victoria could not conquer by the sword, she chartered private companies to do the dirty work for her. She commissioned pirates or purchased local elites and she paid for it by squeezing her subjects and looting the planet. The nominally free people of America stood as perhaps the first, the last, the only challengers capable of slaying the monster and liberating the world. This was the Locofoco libertarian version of Manifest Destiny and this is how the republic really became the empire.
01:10 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
01:35 Anthony Comegna: We often learn that Manifest Destiny was the invention of racists and conquest-hungry imperialists, and there is some truth to that, but much as historians have ignored it and much as we might like to do the same, America’s first libertarian movement was also responsible. Jacksonian radicals called Locofocos provided the ideology that helped transform the United States from a limited republic into a continental empire. Uncomfortable as it might be, we will find that their early libertarianism was a jumping-off point for what only later became a much more typical racist imperialism. We have already seen concepts of America’s special place in world history, leader among the awakening republican people around the globe. In the original New York Locofoco movement of 1835 to ‘37, radicals laced their park meeting speeches with declarations about the timelessness and universality of their ideas.
02:33 Anthony Comegna: In the Canadian and Rhode Island rebellions, republican young men and women alike tried to beat back old world feudalism, and for a decade before President Polk concocted the bogus Mexican War, Locofoco editor Levi D. Slamm published regular blasts against British imperialism from Ireland to Afghanistan. You’ll remember, I hope, that Slamm was an early Locofoco, a candidate for office in the Equal Rights Party and the man who killed it by refusing to call meetings. He was the New Yorker most clearly involved in Rhode Island’s Dorr War and he opened his home and columns to refugees from Canada. He made England the greatest of all possible evils and in the process helped give birth to a close rival.
03:21 Anthony Comegna: America’s long record of wars over the last century is formidable, lengthy and tragic, but it’s nothing compared to 19th century Great Britain’s. From the 1500s, right the way through to the present day, in fact, it is hard to find a single spot on the earth that was not at some point contested, interfered with or outright conquered by England. Locofocos and radicals of all stripes most often condemned British rule over Ireland, most especially while about a million Irish were starving, thanks to British trade restrictions in the 1840s. The Corn Laws artificially raised the price of bread and the potato famine destroyed Ireland’s main foodstuff. It was a crippling double pincer and Irish fled for America in wave after wave. They found a comfortable home in Jackson’s democracy and Locofocos looked on, disgusted at the 700-year long record of British conquest in Ireland and wondered who would be next?
04:21 Anthony Comegna: Slamm saw an aristocratic government that had managed to make itself the arbiter of all Europe. No revolution would be possible unless it suited British interests. No independence gained without their assent. No conflicts between sovereign powers allowed without giving Victoria her say and no profits made without her getting a cut. Moving south and east, the empire was steadily creeping from its African coastal outposts further inland, conquering native peoples or buying their allegiances for use against other Western powers. In the Middle East and India, Slamm saw some of Americans’ most natural allies in their battles against English despotism.
05:02 Anthony Comegna: Reporting on a recent debacle in Afghanistan, Slamm wrote with empathy and understanding for native peoples. Near the close of the First Afghan War, the British agreed to evacuate Kabul but the Afghans doubted their sincerity. Testing the English promises, Prince and Emir Muhammad Akbar Khan approached the British envoy with a scheme to join their side and help them hold Kabul. The envoy was all for it, so the Afghans knew they could not trust the British. Slamm wrote, “Who can wonder that they seized and slew the principal trader? Who can regret the fearful retribution which was inflicted on the abettors? Westerners should not mourn the death of some imperial agent, they should weep that a professedly Christian people so stained themselves and their civilization with innocent blood.”
05:52 Anthony Comegna: For Slamm, England was the great universal robber, willing to destroy whole civilizations for the sake of its own power. Whatever crimes you could recall from history had their match in British India: Wholesale butchery, duplicity, desolation, intentional famine, and too many others to count. In China, meanwhile, the British were only beginning the game of empire. There, during the same years they were slaughtering and subjugating Afghans, the British were fighting the First Opium War, 1839 to ‘42. In the Chinese people, one of Slamm’s correspondence writers saw on ancient and venerable culture, now made most deadly hostile to everything English. Absent English influence, the writer believed China would be the happiest nation on Earth, better off even than the United States, an over-statement perhaps, but the connection between Chinese and American freedoms was an important one. Slamm’s correspondent asked the editor’s New Yorker Locofoco audience, “What is to be considered safe so long as the flag of the despoiler flies on the Chinese island of Hong Kong? Why may not the same someday be seen on Nantucket or Hempstead Hall? And then Nantucket or Long Island is British ground.”
07:08 Anthony Comegna: The writer concluded with an opinion, no doubt shared by Locofoco universalist radicals nationwide, “John Bull has an awful day of retribution to look to when the world wakes up.” But Victoria’s fury did not stop at bombarding Chinese river villages with iron-hulled gunboats. Slamm lashed out repeatedly at British attempts to gain control of the Sandwich Islands. We now call them Hawaii, especially in 1843, the year a British Naval captain forced the king of Hawaii into handing over his government. The Paulet affair lasted five months in 1843, and featured diplomatic and naval jockeying back and forth between a cast of British and American figures. Then the Hawaiians guaranteed British land rights on the island, and the British relinquished command back to them.
07:58 Anthony Comegna: Slamm was optimistic about the use of American power, but he feared the people’s complacency would allow England to slowly strangle out the world’s most important republic. Let’s not forget the Canadian rebellions failed, and Britain still controlled the northern half of the continent. After their interventions in Hawaii, there were rumblings about British occupation of California, British control over the Oregon territory and British overtures to Texas. While Americans sat back and refuse to annex, he slashed at “the great brigand of the world like Babylon drunk with the blood of nations,” but based as it was in false notions about liberty and power, Britain too was destined for failure.
08:40 Anthony Comegna: Republicanism recognized the fundamental truth of social existence. All people do, in fact, have liberty and responsibility for themselves, and they will exercise their liberties and powers when desirable. All the empire in the world can’t change that. To Slamm’s style of Locofoco young Americans, Manifest Destiny was not jingoistic bluster. It was an empirically observed fact of economic and social history. What seems to historians like mysticism was actually considered metaphysics. Slamm used the imagery of a constantly expanding British Empire to encourage a constantly expanding American one of his own. Without expansions of the republican zone, Victoria would swallow all. He wanted full occupation of the Oregon territory and the annexation of Texas. Otherwise, the US would be surrounded on all sides and war with England would become inevitable. A war with Mexico over Texas could be weathered, but another war with Britain would destroy one country or the other.
09:54 Anthony Comegna: As an editor, Slamm had to tread a fine line between radical factions in his audience. He was obviously pro-Texas himself, and the great majority of letters to the editor on the subject favored annexation. Nonetheless, he also opened his columns to those who wanted to keep the Republic small and truly special. One writer under the pseudonym Junius criticized Slamm for his bias and flatly told his readers, “We do not want Texas. Let them remain as they are, halfway between civilization and brutality. The moment you admit Texas, that moment you admit the most worthless population in Christendom to a participation of the privileges of freemen. Beware, sir! The seeds of destruction to our excellent Republic are in that embrace.” If Britain wanted to continue impoverishing her people and bloating her empire, then let her have it. The empire’s inevitable collapse would only help prove the case for free institutions. For voters who worried that Britain might try their own annexation of Texas, Junius replied, “Let it. Who cares a pin? Let her surround us if she chooses, there is more clear grit in the United States of America that would suffice to conquer 20 British empires. We can out-shoot, out-fight, out-lick and out-kick anything. Let England take all the world, every spot on the earth, save new York, and republicanism would still win out.”
11:19 Anthony Comegna: Junius finished, “Let Texas go to Great Britain if she pleases, she has a right to be a slave in her own way.” In the last days of his presidency, John Tyler signed the bill annexing Texas to the United States of America. Nearly a year later, three months before Congress declared war on Mexico, Abram D. Smith, that radical young Locofoco who was once selected president of the republic of Canada, gave a stump speech in the Wisconsin territory. Styling himself Governor of the People, Smith mixed humor in serious Locofocoism. He saw the American annexation of Texas as a landmark moment in human affairs, a truly voluntary union of sovereign nations and peoples. It was exactly the sort of revolution he once hoped to spark in Canada, but now it was really happening. He gave voice to what Locofoco editor, John L. O’Sullivan, named Manifest Destiny, the unique historical experience and role Americans occupied.
12:27 Speaker 2: Message of His Excellency, A. D. Smith, Governor of the People, delivered at the Capitol, January 20th, 1846: Inextinguishable sovereigns, your executive congratulates you on the choice you have made and takes great pleasure in assuring you that you could not have given better evidences of your wisdom and capacity for self-government. I cannot better give expression to my own feelings and do justice to your character than by the acknowledgement of our gratitude that we have all dwelt in peace and security in spite of judicial and legislative interference. The nominal Governor of the territory has, I am happy to inform you, whenever requested, wisely cooperated with your executive in all great measures of public interest. The other public functionaries are, as usual, noisy and whenever practical, perpendicular. You will observe that your executive has received from the nominal Governor two small appointments to office.
13:33 Speaker 2: Lest this should be deemed by some extraordinary, I deem it my duty to state that I thought it due to His Excellency to accept these appointments not only as a small return for his aid and cooperation in public enterprise, but also to show the world that in his efforts to follow and execute the people’s will, His Excellency has the countenance of your executive. The public debt is not very large, and it is a matter of earnest congratulation that no one knows how large it is. It is a wise maxim of law still in force that he’s that robbed not knowing what he’s lost is not robbed at all. By changing this maxim slightly without doing violence to the measure, we shall find ourselves absolved from all condemnation and obligation, the public faith preserved and private conscience unoffended.
14:27 Speaker 2: Your executive therefore recommends an amendment of the above law, so that it shall read: “He that owes not knowing what he owes is not in debt at all.” This once adopted by your sovereign body as a fundamental principle, all will be relieved from embarrassment and a long agitated and vexed question put forever at rest. In case this measure be adopted, you will see the necessity of communicating your will to the lower house to save them as well from fruitless labor, as from the more vulgar measure of repudiation. Your executive has been advised that annual elections frequently operate to the inconvenience of some of the candidates and instances are not wanting in which one or the other of rival aspirants to the same office have been contemplated by the people.
15:15 Speaker 2: It calls loudly for relief. In one or two instances when the defeated candidate was an office holder, the difficulty has been obviated by refusing to count the votes. But no relief is thus afforded to a candidate who is not an office holder. Some provisions covering the whole ground, some remedy adequate to the evil must be devised. Since your last assemblage, not only this country, but the civilized world has been agitated to a degree scarcely equaled in any age. A new and sublime discovery in the operations of government has burst upon the nations. The sword, at first, the only means known to ensure domestic tranquility, and always the only known power by which extension of empire could be accomplished, has lost its efficacy. The human intellect, emancipated by free government, has demonstrated its energy and presented to an astonished world its first trophy in the bloodless acquisition to the United States of a foreign nation, achieved by moral power alone, a conquest made by the equity of our fundamental laws and the power of the great truths on which our system is based.
16:27 Speaker 2: Were the annexation of Texas the only result to be expected from the operations of this power, sectional interest might well, as it did at first, take alarm, but the mind emancipated, its energies in full exercises passed at once from that result to a still wider field of moral conquest. A magnificent thought at first tremblingly entertained has rapidly swollen into a universal sentiment and already is demanding as a settled policy of the country the union of the whole North American continent with all its dependencies under one free democratic government. This is our destiny. He that rebels against it will be found warring against the inevitable consequences of the intellectual and moral energies of the American people. However vast this idea, it has possessed the public mind and is now fully entertained in all its comprehensiveness and sublimity. No power on Earth can arrest its progress or prevent its glorious results.
17:30 Anthony Comegna: The Republican Revolution was not limited to Texas either. Smith spoke about electrifying the continent, linking the oceans with railroads and reform without end. Battles against British imperialism were worth very little, after all, if states like Rhode Island remained governed by a two centuries dead English king and his charter. If we kept essentially British systems of class governance at home, what’s it all for? We are still serfs one way or another, existing at the sufferance of the Queen and her corporate creatures, really no different than the Afghans or Chinese. Smith concluded his speech with suggestions for governing the Wisconsin territory. Most, clearly jokes. Some, gravely serious.
18:21 Speaker 2: “Intimately connected with and accessory to the glorious destiny that is thus opening upon us is the projected railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean. That stupendous achievement is required by the spirit and capacity of the present age, and is essential to the permanency of the acquisitions in prospect. In case the representatives of the people fail to provide for the construction of the proposed railroad, as is to be expected of them, your executive has taken measures to have the work completed without delay, and to also to establish a magnetic telegraph parallel with the railroad, along in its whole line from South Washington to the mouth of the Columbia. This is designed by your executive as but the beginning of a system of internal improvements. Should he prove equal to your and his own expectations, the world will be electrified by a telegraphic communication connecting, and circumventing all parts of the globe. Commencing at Sheboygan, from thence in its progress dispensing its branches and diffusing its blessing to all intermediate points, and finally, terminating at St Joe.”
19:28 Speaker 2: “The character of a fiscal officer of the territory should be viewed by you in the light of a corporation. Such he is in fact, and however elegant and persuasive the exterior presented or captivating his deportment, the solemn engagements you have assumed forbid your being beguiled thereby. That officer is a corporation within the true intent and meaning of the term adopted and recognized by the competent authority. His commission is a charter and subject to repeal. Your executive has been advised that he has neglected to supply himself with funds to meet and answer the calls soon to be made upon him. This is a non-user. Your executive’s landlord is deeply interested in this matter, and it is presumed that others are equally concerned therein.”
20:16 Speaker 2: “I recommend, therefore, a repeal of that charter. The question has sometimes been mooted how you should demean yourselves towards the members of the lower houses. In behalf of many of them, it may be said in extenuation of whatever errors they may commit, that they know not what they do. From this opinion, your executive must dissent. But as they are soon to be among and of us, the fact that they have for a short time got out of their appropriate places, and probably will not soon err in like men or again, I recommend that they be treated with tenderness and humanity.”
20:52 Speaker 2: “Much inconvenience is felt from the relation of landlord and tenant in the mining region, and it is objected that the lessee is made tenant at will on his failure to pay rent. This evil will be fully appreciated by you. But it ought not escape your notice that the same inconveniences are felt by tenants in other portions of the territory. I recommend the abolition of all tenants from their charge. It is incompatible with the maxim of ancient law, which declares a man’s house to be his castle. Who, let me ask, ever heard of paying rent on one’s own castle? And is not the absurdity equally as glaring in the general government demanding rent for a hole in the ground? In every effort to expunge all such regulations, you will have the hearty cooperation of your executive.”
21:44 Speaker 2: “There is another feature of this subject. The public favors should be equitably distributed. The public goose should be generally picked. It is well known that not more than 10 lawyers have been employed in behalf of the territory. There are a great number of lawyers in the territory as much in want of the necessities of life as the retained advocates heretofore fed. So it is not due as a mere requirement of justice, to say nothing of the dictates of humanity, that additional counsel be employed, and that the old attorneys stand aside ‘til the new ones have at least a few crumbs. I recommend the civilization of the Winnebago Indians. The best mode of accomplishing that object is to require them to attend court in the Third Circuit. Should that fail, let the Washington guards and the Mineral Point dragoons hold a union ball in the most approved wigwam of that tribe. In the one case, official dignity cannot fail to overawe them, and in the other, the splendor of refinement cannot come short of an entire subjugation to all the forms, which the most scrupulous may regard as fundamental.”
22:51 Speaker 2: “The Office of Attorney General is useless and should be expunged, and a quo warranto issued on him to show cause why he should not be compelled to divide the fees among indigent members of the bar. The condition of the capital will require your early attention. The roof is said to be in a leaky condition. The eaves require to be regulated and they’re dropping. You will perceive the advantage of getting the building repaired and completed without any expense to the territory. A large outstanding claim for past labor and material yet exists, but the genius of the lower house has always been equal to its most powerful presentation, and hitherto the treasury has been preserved from any draft to satisfy the demand.”
23:33 Speaker 2: “Sovereigns, you will soon be called upon to adopt a new form of government more commensurate with your amplified character and dignity. This is the most important event that can occur. Take care that in escaping from territorial vassalage, you do not rush into state bondage. You will be called upon to appoint servants to frame for you a constitution. From past experience, you will see how easy it is to be mistaken in that behalf. Whoever you shall choose for this service, let them be instructed to provide the following safeguards to your rights.”
24:08 Speaker 2: “One, no contracts shall be considered binding after either party shall become dissatisfied. Two, Courts of Law shall so offset their judgements that no one shall get more than he loses. Three, chancery shall be abolished and the powers conferred upon the tiger. Four, no charter shall be granted without a vote of the people in their favor and may be repealed at any town meeting. Five, the legislature may borrow money but it shall never be considered that payment thereof is necessary or proper. Six, judges shall be selected by the people of the democratic conventions in each county and shall hold their office for about one term of court. Seven, provision shall be made whereby any public officer defeated in an election may hold over. Eight, abolish all tenantries at will when rent is unpaid. These and a few other specifications of inalienable rights will effectually secure the popular sovereignty.” AD Smith, Madison, January 20th, 1846.
25:25 Anthony Comegna: On top of the heady feeling that Americans were in a world historical crusade against British aristocracy, there was the most incredible, almost magical technological change of the entire century, Samuel Morse’s magnetic telegraph. People worldwide marveled at the implications for human life. The Democratic New York Herald gushed with awe that, “Telegraphs would prove beyond a doubt that people can organize themselves, by themselves, without central direction and yet, it would also draw extended spaces together, forging new national cultures, new social paradigms, and a new global order.” Those who worried that republics could grow too extended and fall apart from excess could now rest easy. Electrical wires would bind any wounds and heal them in time. Some even expected Britain and America to draw closer together in the end and they saw the child eventually absorbing the parent country, a single Anglo-American establishment.
26:31 Anthony Comegna: These people knew they were at a crossroads in human existence. They believed their Republic could now exist as a consolidated nation, a single homogenous mass of individuals sharing in the spoils of liberty without the deep cultural divisions that plagued all extended empires. Anti-expansionism might be well and good for ancient Greece and Rome, but America was what John L. O’Sullivan called “the great nation of futurity.” British feudalism be damned, early libertarianism was on the march.
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