Ep. 92: Profiles in Locodom: William Cullen Bryant

In addition to being a poet, William Cullen Bryant was a mentor for a consistent name on our show, William Leggett. 

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William Cullen Bryant

In today’s episode, we shift to the radical end of the spectrum to investigate the life of another Locofoco archetype: William Cullen Bryant, who played the role of venerable, wise, old sage, whose ancient knowledge and cool demeanor kindled radical flames for generations. We explore his early life that led him to write for the Evening Post. Also, we explain how he formed a mentor relationship with William Leggett, which inspired the Evening Post to turn to radical views of politics.

Who was William Cullen Bryant and what inspired him to start writing? How did Bryant change the Evening Post? How was he able to be a mentor to William Leggett? What were the political views of William Leggett and William Cullen Bryant and how did they portray them through the Evening Post?

Further Reading:

William Cullen Bryant, Poetry Foundation

William Cullen Bryant, written by John Bigelow

Related Content:

Ep. 87: Profiles in Locodom: Fernando Wood, Liberty Chronicles Podcast

William Leggett, Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Property, Real & Imagined: Leggett on the Ownership of Ideas, written by William Leggett

Anthony Comegna: In our last “Profile in Locodom,” we spoke with historian Nicholas Mosvick about Fernando Wood, New York City’s wartime mayor and a fairly archetypical type of Locofoco: Wood was the consummate Wrangler and Operative. His role was the local politician popular enough to whip up a frenzy when need be, shift in between factions, rival political camps, and constituencies. He served as the connective political tissue between radical and moderate Locofocos, ensuring that whenever there was a violent rupture between the two, there was always an open channel for the radicals to return to their natural home in Jackson’s Democracy. Once the dust cleared, the radicals got their anger out, and the conservatives could get over their pride—there were the Fernando Woods standing by, dutiful ushers showing people to their proper seats, putting the party back together again. Well, today we shift over to the radical end of the spectrum to investigate the life of another Locofoco archetype: William Cullen Bryant, who played the role of venerable, wise, old sage, whose ancient knowledge and cool demeanor kindled radical flames for generations, shuttling them back and forth between whatever political group caught their flame at the moment. When the fire sputtered out in one new party, the lights returned to the source of their kindling…and there were the Fernando Woods, happy to receive them.

Anthony Comegna: William Cullen Bryant was born on November 3, 1794 in Cummington, Massachusetts. His father was a lawyer and a Federalist involved in state politics and his mother’s family arrived in America on the Mayflower (which makes me wonder how his ancestors interacted with Stephen Hopkins!). Their lives were humble and simple—log cabin and all—but William was clearly brilliant. He first tasted fame at 13 when he published a poem titled “The Embargo.” It was an unsparing attack on Jefferson and the anti-trade policies killing New England. After a year in the local college he contemplated applying to Yale. But without financial support from his family, Bryant turned toward the law instead, following his father. He practiced for several years, earning a decent living and giving him plenty of time for walks in the western wilderness. Bryant didn’t just walk through a forest—he was a lot like his contemporaries, the Transcendentalists—they mixed themselves with Nature, communed with it, appreciated it while the cities steadily grew and the frontier zone constantly shrunk. Bryant composed his most popular and important poems in those early years, during long walks from place to place, doing the work of a simply country lawyer inspired by beauty around him. It was certainly not something European poets normally did, and it helped enshrine him as America’s first truly original writer.

Anthony Comegna: He reached both popularity and acclaim with his life’s greatest poem in 1817, “Thanatopsis,” from the Greek words for ‘a view or consideration of death.’ Critics were stunned and some apparently refused to believe that an American writer could produce such a poem. Where was the rich and bold ancient history for Bryant to drawn upon? The ruined monuments of bygone eras? Where were the American Colisseums and Parthenons? Where were our statues of great statesmen, kings, and saints? What possible sources of inspiration could a commerce-minded Federalist youth have? The answer was, of course, all around them but it took precious, open, romantic minds like Bryant’s to see America’s greatest contributions to humanity. American art came from log cabins like the one he was born in, it came from the frontier and the constant drama of survival, it came from the glorious and lush wilderness sprawling endlessly and everywhere, and it even came from the great cities where Man vanquished Nature and indulged in his own limitless potential. In America, Man’s struggle for improvement unfolded alongside Nature’s immutable vastness, and the contrast itself was a thing of unmatched beauty. For poets like Bryant, the natural world was the obvious foil to humanity—it’s essentially unchanging perfection stands in great contrast to our own constant activity and movement toward something different, newer, better. Bryant believed that people found their greatest happiness and made their greatest contributions while living humble, simple, peaceful lives conforming as much as possible to natural orders and motions. He was technically a member of New York’s Knickerbocker poets, but he contributed immensely to the growing artistic world of Young America. Bryant the poet gave visual artists like his close friend Thomas Cole imagery and subject matter, his poems helped advance new visual techniques like the panorama, he helped link artists to patrons and publicists, and he personally shepherded them through the constantly changing social world of the country’s leading city.

Anthony Comegna: He made a decent living as a lawyer, but by 1825 he could actually make it as a writer. Encouraged by the famous Sedgwick clan of Massachusetts Federalists, Bryant moved to New York and began working in newspapers and periodicals, including part time work at the Evening Post, which was actually founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801. Bryant worked his way up the paper’s ranks until he purchased a co-owner’s share. From then on, for almost fifty years, he made the Evening Post into one of the country’s most important papers, a vehicle for radicalism in politics and honesty in journalism. Taken as a whole, the Post is the single most important source in the history of Locofocoism. On that note, then, let’s hear a bit about Bryant as writer, editor, and inspiration from his colleague, friend, and biographer John Bigelow.

Speaker: William Cullen Bryant, by John Bigelow, 1890. When Bryant entered the office of the “Evening Post,” he embarked in a profession which was destined to absorb his best energies for the remaining years of a long life. For more than half of our national existence he was the directing mind of that journal. During all this long period he contracted no other business engagements, he was never officially engaged in the administration of any other financial or industrial enterprise, nor did he ever accept any political office. Any yet I do not recall the name of any other American, save Dr. Franklin, who for as long a period was so unremittingly and effectively occupied in shaping public opinion, nor one who ever gave so many hours of conscientious thought to questions involving so exclusively the interests and welfare of mankind. Nowhere else in our literature, I believe, can be found such a continuous, complete, and satisfactory record of the growth and expansion of political thought in the United States as in the columns of the “Evening Post” during the first fifty years of Bryant’s connection with it….

Journalism when Bryant entered the profession was as little like the journalism of 1889 as Jason’s fifty-oared craft “Argo” was like a modern steam packet. The commercial value of news merely as news to the daily press was as much undervalued as anthracite coal for fuel, or electricity for light. The newspaper was usually established in the interest of some prominent party leader, who fought his battles in its columns. The editor was more or less his party’s mouthpiece, and the readers consulted its columns mainly for its political indications. The modern reporter was yet in the chrysalis stage of existence, while the “interviewer” was as one of those remote stars, the light of which had not yet reached our planet….Lacking the literary training and accomplishment of an effective writer, the late James Gordon Bennett had the sagacity to find in news and gossip a cheap substitute for brilliant leaders. These features of the “Herald” newspaper, which he founded, attracted readers from the larger class who had only a secondary interest in politics, and placed his journal upon an independent financial footing which delivered it from the thrall of scheming politicians. It was, I believe, the first politically independent secular journal published in the United States….

Speaker: For the first twenty years of his connection with the “Evening Post,” Bryant had but one permanent assistant in his office, a scanty report of the shipping and financial intelligence being supplied to the “Evening Post” in common with some other papers, each bearing its proportion of the expense. The attraction and influence of the paper depended mainly upon its editorials, which rarely occupied more than a column.

As the “Evening Post” was published in the afternoon, the work on it had to begin at an early hour in the morning. During the first forty years of his editorial life, it was a rare thing for Mr. Bryant, if in town, not to be found at his desk before eight o’clock in the morning. He was not a fluent nor a very prolific writer. Beside his natural fastidiousness, he had a literary reputation to sustain, with which he never allowed himself to trifle. His manuscripts, as well as his proofs, were commonly so disfigured by corrections as to be read with difficulty even by those familiar with his script.

Speaker: Good poets have usually been masters of a superior prose style. Bryant was no exception. Though he neither sought nor expected fame from his prose, he was careful to print nothing that could in any way compromise his reputation as a poet….He never allowed slang or affectations of expression of any kind a place in its columns….In a letter to a young man who had asked his opinion of an article he had written, he has given the following brief exposition of what he regarded as the rudimentary principles of good writing for the periodical press:—

Speaker: “I observe that you have used several French expressions in your letter. I think if you will study the English language, that you will find it capable of expressing all the ideas you may have. I have always found it so, and in all that I have written I do not recall an instance where I was tempted to use a foreign word but that, on searching, I have found a better one in my own language. Be simple, unaffected; be honest in your speaking and writing. Never use a long word where a short one will do as well. Call a spade by its name, not a well-known oblong instrument of manual labor; let a home be a home, and not a residence; a place, not a locality, and so on of the rest. When a short word will do, you will always lose by a long one; you lose in clearness, and lose in honest expression of meaning, and, in the estimation of all men who are capable of judging, you lose in reputation for ability.

Speaker: The only true way to shine, even in this false world, is to be modest and unassuming. Falsehood may be a thick crust, but in the course of time Truth will find a place to break through. Elegance of language may not be in the power of us all, but simplicity and straightforwardness are.” …Bryant’s prose, like his poetry, was always clear. No one could mistake his meaning, nor have the least difficulty in gathering it from his language. Nor did he ever try to leave a different impression from that which his words strictly imported. Though master of a genial humor as well as of a refined irony, he never trifled with serious matters, nor with his readers. He never made sport of the calamities or afflictions even of the most depraved, taught both by what nature discloses and by what she conceals, “Never to blend our pleasure or our pride; With sorrow of the meanest thing that feels….

Speaker: How much Bryant’s example has had to do with the marvelous improvements in the literary quality and moral tone which distinguishes the journalism of today from that which prevailed during the first quarter of the century is only known to those who have been witnesses of the change, and they will soon have all passed away. The number of such as are disposed to disinter the genius and professional virtues which are sepulchered in the files of an old newspaper is very limited. Nor would Bryant have had it otherwise, for he had no desire to be remembered as a “journalist,” profoundly as he was interested in all he sought to accomplish as such for humanity.

Anthony Comegna: In politics, Bryant achieved lasting fame by becoming one of the most important Republicans who was a former Democrat. In fact, I’ll go ahead and argue that Bryant’s great contribution to politics was actually his mentorship over William Leggett—in part because Leggett was such a massive reciprocal influence on Bryant! As you may remember from our shows on Leggett long ago, Bryant gave him his first job at the Evening Post on condition that Leggett not be forced to write about politics. The old poet quite understood—he also greatly preferred spending his time on literature, telling colleagues: “I do not like politics…but they get only my mornings, and you know politics and a bellyful are better than poetry and starvation.” Politics kept papers afloat with sponsors and sales, so together he and Leggett transformed the Post into a vehicle for radicalism—radical thought, radical culture, radical politics. In ways usually overlooked—but extensively detailed here on Liberty Chronicles—their anti-monopoly crusade boiled over from battles about Jacksonian economics into a grand war to extinguish slavery.

Anthony Comegna: Bryant once said that Leggett’s writing “Brought public measures to a rigid comparison with first principles,” and that the reader “found himself seized and carried forward by something of the same warlike enthusiasm which courageous and high spirited men may be supposed to feel in the heat of battle.” Though a sympathetic biographer like John Bigelow had an interest in presenting Bryant as a lifelong abolitionist, he most certainly was not. Like virtually everyone else, he first thought immediatists were reckless, uncompromising rowdies—that is, until Leggett’s battle with the administration over the mails and his excommunication from the party showed the light. During the ERP war on Tammany Hall, Bryant and the Post steered a Middle course. Technically, they remained loyal to the Democracy and Bryant supported Van Buren on the national stage, but the paper continued to advertise Locofoco party meetings and social gatherings, they reported on loco candidates running both with and against the Democracy, and they never stopped agitating radical political issues. You’ll remember that we presented the story as a mixed bag—they won in name only, without actually burying their opponents or rooting out their corruption. Tammany conservatives momentarily capitulated to radical numbers and agreed to nominate joint candidates and foster reunion because they knew if they only stuck around for a new administration, they would be showered with offices and mountains of spoils, and then they’d make the locos howl. But!—that strategy had to await the Polk years. In the meantime, the radicals thought they won. Bryant was able to honestly say that from his point of view, “Tammany Hall has come round to the Evening Post—not the Evening Post to Tammany Hall.”

Anthony Comegna: Very shortly thereafter, perhaps buoyed by the sense of victory, he was among the early Locofocos petitioning Congress to guarantee Republican government in Rhode Island—an incipient Dorr Warrior. Yet he was not *always* a radical. When the Anti-Rent War erupted into violence in 1839, Bryant and the Post condemned the masked villains and their popular resistance to local authorities. Instead of spontaneous resistance to contracts that always threatened to degenerate into street fights with the sheriff, Bryant pushed hard for a statewide movement to amend New York’s Constitution. To draft a statement of their reform goals, the Evening Post enlisted none other than Fitzwilliam Byrdsall, the Equal Rights Party’s Recording Secretary and the first historian of Locofocoism. A new state constitution should control state expenses, limit the state’s ability to contract debt, establish public schools, abolish bank suspension of specie payments, it should limit the powers of city governments, abolish the practice of partial legislation or the conferring of special powers and privileges by law, limit the number of state offices, the governor’s appointment powers, it should mark a clearer separation of powers, and finally call for new constitutional conventions every 10 to 20 years. The tipping point came when Democratic Governor and Van Buren man Silas Wright joined the cause. Bryant’s early career as a Jacksonian radical tempered with essential doses of practicality and simplicity, prepared him well to advance the libertarian interest within Lincoln’s Grand new party—we go back to Bigelow now to see how he connected the dots.

Speaker: Though he had been trained in the strictest principles of New England Federalism, Bryant found when he came to be clothed with the responsibilities of a leader and guide, that his controlling sympathies and instincts were with the Democratic party. Jackson was President. His battle with nullification in the South, and with the Bank of the United States, and his vetoes of road, river, and harbor bills, as being special or local instead of national in their bearing, commanded his cordial approval. He early embraced the conviction which lies at the foundation of the Democratic polity, not that that government is best that governs least, but that that government is best which shall limit its functions most completely to those of an effective police in keeping every man’s hand off of every other man, and off of his property. Whenever government transcended these functions, he thought it required close watching, with all the presumptions against it. This conviction led him early to question the wisdom of granting special charters to banks; to denounce the inspection, conspiracy, and usury laws; to favor the removal of all legislative restrictions upon commerce, and to provide for the expenses of government by a strictly revenue tariff. He assented to and effectively supported the tariff of 1846, framed upon the principle enunciated by Governor Silas Wright—a tariff for revenue, with incidental protection. The formula would have pleased him better with “incidental protection” left out.

Speaker: Whenever he had occasion to speak of slavery, he never was its apologist, nor did he ever neglect an opportunity of rendering any practical assistance to the cause of emancipation; and when the question of extending the territory afflicted with slavery arose, no journal in the country labored more or suffered more in resisting such extension. He never advocated the abolition of slavery by the federal government until it became justifiable and expedient as a war measure. The courts and the laws, if not the Constitution, had placed slavery within the States under the protection of the Constitution in the judgment of the leading statesmen of all parties. Mr. Bryant acquiesced in this judgment as he acquiesced in many other national abuses which he saw no means of remedying. But when…for the purpose of restoring [the southern states’ political power], they endeavored to carry slavery into all the vast unsettled territories of the Northwest, the “Evening Post” did not hesitate to take the attitude of unhesitating and uncompromising opposition, preferring that the question should be settled by the dread arbitrament of war to any responsibility for the surrender of one more inch of American soil to be tilled by the hands of bondmen. War ensued, and while supporting the government in its prosecution with all the vigor of his pen and the weight of his character, true to his Democratic instincts, he denounced the financial policy of the government by which its paper promises were made a lawful tender in discharge of its pecuniary obligations.

Speaker: When Mr. Lincoln, in January, 1863, issued his proclamation of freedom to the slaves in certain States which persisted in their insurrection against the government, Bryant, while disposed to accept it with gratitude as a step in the right direction, found it less comprehensive and definite in its terms than he thought the occasion called for. He did not believe in gradual emancipation as a measure suited to the emergencies of flagrant war. In a speech which he made at a meeting held in behalf of the loyalists of Missouri who were calling upon the nation to protect them, he portrayed the follies of gradual emancipation in terms as nearly approaching to genuine eloquence, probably, as he ever reached.

Speaker: “Gradual emancipation!” he exclaimed. “Have we not suffered enough from slavery without keeping it any longer? Has not blood enough been shed? My friends, if a child of yours were to fall into the fire, would you pull him out gradually? If he were to swallow a dose of laudanum sufficient to cause speedy death, and a stomach pump was at hand, would you draw the poison out by degrees? If your house were on fire, would you put it out piecemeal? And yet there are men who talk of gradual emancipation by force of ancient habit, and there are men in the Slave States who make of slavery a sort of idol which they are unwilling to part with; which, if it must be removed, they would prefer to see removed after a lapse of time and tender leave-takings. Slavery is a foul and monstrous idol, a Juggernaut under which thousands are crushed to death; it is a Moloch for whom the children of the land pass through fire. Must we consent that the number of the victims shall be diminished gradually? If there are a thousand victims this year, are you willing that nine hundred shall be sacrificed next year, and eight hundred the next, and so on until after the lapse of ten years it shall cease? No, my friends, let us hurl the grim image from its pedestal. Down with it to the ground. Dash it to fragments; trample it in the dust. Grind it to powder as the prophets of old commanded that the graven images of the Hebrew idolaters should be ground, and in that state scatter it to the four winds and strew it upon the waters, that no human hand shall ever again gather up the accursed atoms and mould them into an image to be worshipped again with human sacrifice.”

Anthony Comegna: We will have occasion to discuss Bryant more as we go through the show—for one thing, we haven’t finished talking about the war, let alone Reconstruction or the election of 1876. In any case, the patterns he followed later in life were renditions of the same old dual war on privilege and party bosses. Back in the 1840s, Bryant split with the expansionist wing of Locofocoism represented best by Levi Slamm, the Equal Rights Party official who refused to call meetings while Tammany Hall courted radicals back into the fold. The main wedge was of course Texas and the Mexican War. Bryant wanted nothing to do with new Slave territory and he supported Van Buren over Polk. As we’ve said, Polk immediately betrayed New York Locofocos and helped set up the Free Soil election of 1848. Bryant was one of Van Buren’s most important supporters and the Evening Post was unquestionably the most significant Barnburner/Free Soil paper in the country. By 1852, though, Bryant was back with the Democracy—his reasons were simple, practical, elegant: Hale was a feckless candidate with no chance of winning, and those with good ideas owe it to the world to do what they can to affect change where they can, so long as they do no evil and sacrifice no principles in the process. Unsurprisingly, then, Kansas helped sweep Bryant, Bigelow, the Evening Post, most of the old Barnburners, and the whole Locofoco left wing into the new Republican Party of 1856. He then remained both a loyal Republican and a steadfast anti-monopoly man right the way up to 1876. By then, slavery was smashed, never to return, and the Republicans devolved back into the old Whiggery. For Bryant the choice was clear—simple, practical, elegant, natural. Another return to the Democracy, another tipping of the political scales to force systemic change in the parties, a gentle intellectual and electoral push to purify institutions with natural tendencies to calcify. Politics, in a sense, was naturalistic poetry in action—it was man’s struggle for a more moral society writ large, a set of natural processes which worked best when everyone followed their own intuitive, peaceful course through history’s flow.

Anthony Comegna: Yes, Bryant was certainly of a type, and he fit into the political and intellectual history of nineteenth century libertarianism like a puzzle piece. He was the perfect romantic counterpart to a hard-nosed pragmatist like Fernando Wood—While Bryant served to shuttle principled (but still politically engaged) Locofocos from one partisan coalition to another to advance the radical cause, Wood stood at the ready to receive then whenever they shifted back to the D column. Like the ebb and flow of a tide or the life cycle of a forest, Bryant helped push Locofocoism to its upper limits of success, its greatest accomplishments and its most glorious moments; he was also emblematic if it some of its more unfortunate failings—a tendency toward practical coalition building rather than secession from politics altogether; a romantic urge to instruct, shape, influence, and build the world in his own image or according to the ideals he thought he discovered in Nature; and perhaps above all else, Bryant fundamentally believed in the righteousness of democracy—and that remains an otherwise good libertarian’s most common fatal conceit.