America’s Plebs Rustica: Levi Slamm, Class Identity & History
Levi Slamm thought that history was class conflict, and that “To the term aristocrat the time honored name of Democrat has always been opposed.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Levi D. Slamm was one of the most important radical Democratic activists and public intellectuals in antebellum New York City. As one of the first members of the “Locofoco” or Equal Rights Party (1835–1837), Slamm represented Jeffersonian, Paineite radical republican Democrats and the Workingmen’s faction alike. His newspapers, the Democratic‐Republican New Era (1839–1842) and the Daily Plebeian (1842–1845), were among the most widely‐circulated, syndicated, and influential of all locofoco, Democratic outlets in the country. According to his contemporaries and historians alike, Slamm reveled in and took often impure advantage of partisan machinations and manipulations. He used his talents for writing and activism to translate radical ideology into a politically‐relevant movement, though his penchant for partisan unity and compromise often raised the eyebrows of his more curmudgeonly contemporaries. Many charged him with demagogy and desperate office‐seeking, while many more looked to his work as a guide for effective radical activism.
In the first issues of his Daily Plebeian, Slamm introduced the audience to his paper, his purpose, and the position he intended to occupy within American political life. Following the Introduction, Slamm commented on the choice of his paper’s name. He cast American political life as a battle between the great mass of common people (the plebeians) with an interest in maintaining their liberty and those few who would rule over the people through the paper mysteries of bank credit and corporate personhood. He argued here and many, many other places in his body of work, that human cultures virtually all develop social classes based upon the conflicting interests between Liberty and Power. In most cases, Power concentrated in the hands of an elite few while the herded majority either meekly accepted their fetters or revolted to acquire their natural Liberty. Slamm concluded by unapologetically and uncompromisingly declaring his allegiances in the grandest of all historical struggles.
By Levi D. Slamm
New York The Daily Plebeian, 1 No. 6, 2 July 1842
To enter into an explanation of the plan on which this paper will be conducted, and the principles we intend to advocate, would seem almost like the repetition of a thrice‐told tale. To those who have known us, it is hardly necessary to say, that we are willing that our past course shall be considered an earnest–at least in part–of our future career, and that under more favorable circumstances than it has hitherto been our fortune to enjoy, we promise ourselves a more extended sphere of usefulness. To those who know us not, we will sum up our political code in the briefest form. We are the supporters of the principles of Democratic liberty, the opposers of every scheme or device by which that liberty is sought to be abridged, the unyielding opponents of all partial legislation, the denouncers of monopoly in every form, the friends of free trade, the antagonists of all protection–so called–that adds to the wealth of the wealthy and the poverty of the poor, the favorer of that “credit” which is best regulated by the non‐interference of government, and, in a word, the advocate of those equal rights bestowed upon man by his Maker. Such is our creed, comprehensive enough to embrace the interests of all.
Regarding party organization as a means of securing the triumph of great principles, we deem the strictest adherence to its usages as essential to success. We believe that in nine cases out of ten, conciliation of feeling and interest may be effected without a compromise of principle.–Though no abject slaves to party, our journal is in the strictest sense, a party paper.
So much for the political character of the Plebeian. In other respects, we intend it shall be in the best sense, a newspaper, addressing itself to all interests, catering for all sound tastes, giving all information of a local or general nature that the most extended arrangements can secure, agreeable for its variety, useful for its business character, and the welcome inmate in all circles–everywhere.
A word or two upon an important point. It is our wish to regard each and all of our newspaper contemporaries as impersonalities. Whether we can carry those wishes into effect, depends upon their treatment of us. If it be charged that in our past career, we have been somewhat neglectful on this point, we might plead that if personal attack can justify personal replies, our justification is perfect, for in the history of the press, no editor has been more the subject of contumely, vilification and slander, than ourselves. The very climax of the political wit of our opponents was comprised in those cabalistic words “SLAMM, BANG, MING & CO.” It was a ready argument when all other arguments failed, a suit of complete mail with which the veriest pot‐house brawler was duly armed and equipped, a piece of sounding slang ready set to music, and chaunted in full chorus by the sweet‐voice Whig minstrels throughout the land. It seemed to be a sort of political nursery song, the “fee faw fum” by which timid Whigs of tender years were frightened into good behavior. Surely, if personalities could justify a retaliation in kind, we were justified. But as to all that, we have only to say “let by‐gones be by‐gones.” We have no heart‐burnings, no resentments. If to our expositions of the principles to which our life is pledged, we are to be answered by the stereotype, argument of “SLAMM, BANG, MING & CO.,” why let the matter stand before the court of public opinion on its merits. We are not very fearful of the verdict. We shall in our intercourse with our contemporaries guard ourselves against any breach of editorial courtesy, but if attacked by unmanly weapons we shall defend ourselves in our own way.
In good humor with our friends, in good humor with ourselves, with the assistance of most able contributors, with youth, health, some portion of energy, and not a little experience, and with the brightest prospect of enduring success and usefulness, we make our best bow to the public. Jacta est aleo [“The die is cast.”]
Not a few of our best‐natured friends, personal and political, have caviled at the adoption of the name which stands at the head of our paper. We might answer, and our answer would be a good one, that it was our humor to adopt it; that if we prove true to the principles we profess, we can as well advocate them under that title as under any other; and that he who supports or repudiates our doctrines because our name does or does not suit his fastidious taste, must in our opinion be an indifferent democrat, a very shadow‐hunter, a gentleman of the expediency school to whom the form of keeping up appearances in almost everything, and the substance of sticking to principles, next to nothing. We have been told too, that we should have adopted a title which would not conflict with the prejudices of any class, and thereby obtain admission into circles from which our unfortunate name is certain to exclude us. In a word, we have had good advice enough to make our paper the best ever published, and–in the way of small draw-backs–doubts enough suggested by the best of friends, to make us question whether by possibility, we could in our proposed undertaking either advance the great cause to which we are pledged while our mind lasts, or in that attempt secure an honest allowance of bread for us and ours.
In adopting our name, we supposed it to be one identified with the interests of the mass–the people at large, the tillers of the earth, the “huge paws” of the land, the men of honest industry, whose every drop, in a word the producers of every thing that gives us national wealth and national character. Having brushed up our reading, we found we were not altogether at fault in our adoption of the name of PLEBEIAN. We are told by the highest authorities that the “common people,” such as merchants, mechanics, farmers, indeed all the makers of wealth and the agents for its distribution, were comprised in this class. It included every interest save that of the hereditary drones, whose sole business it was to live on the labor of others, and, honest souls! Save them the trouble of making laws, and other trifles of the same character. The same authorities inform us, that the Plebs Rustica, meaning the common farmers of that day, were considered the most enlightened and respectable, or as Cicero expresses it, the richest and most praiseworthy. We quote this merely as a matter of history, not pretending to say whether in this point, the plebeians of that day differed from those of our own. In the course of our limited reading, we find, that from Harrington–the first originator among moderns of the famous idea so ably enlarged upon by Daniel Webster, that all government is founded on property, (and as a consequence that the possession of property can alone secure a political franchise,) down to Burke, the most eloquent tory that ever lived, our poor name has had but one meaning, a meaning so comprehensive that a child can understand it. It comprises every interest out of the pale of the privileged classes, whether such privileges be those of a titled hereditary aristocracy part and parcel of the government, or those of hereditary monopolies, neither part nor parcel of the government, but the excrescences of its rank luxuriance, the parasites that twine themselves around, and feed on its life‐blood. We had armed ourselves with authorities, and entrenched ourselves within whole mounds of quotations, to prove how impregnably right we are in our construction of our name. But it seemed to us, after all, a waste of learning and of words, and we have concluded to spare our readers the infliction of our pedantry.
If it may be urged that in our free and happy country, where all are presumed to be equal, the distinction which our name implies, is unknown, our brief answer is this: To the term aristocrat the time honored name of Democrat has always been opposed. The latter is the supporter of the largest liberty of thought and action, under just and equal laws. The former is the abridger of man’s rights, the doubter of his capacity of self‐government, the supporter of the most odiously absurd doctrine that liberty is a pearl of so great value that its possession should be secured to a few, as it becomes cheap and priceless in the hands of the many. Such there are among us. Such are the principles of the party of which we are the undying antagonists. The political aristocrats of the day are but the inheritors of the principles of the patricians of elder ages. They both have claimed to belong to the “better” classes. They both have claimed a monopoly of all the talents and all the decency, though it has been reluctantly admitted that occasionally a stray brother has been found who rose superior to his condition and became, under proper training, a rather respectable member of society, and a fit associate of even the privileged magnates of the land.
But to be brief. If antiquity can hallow our name, ours is all hallowed. It took its rise at the very foundation of old Rome, and from that day to this has not lost its significance. The Chartists of old England are the present plebeians–God speed their efforts–of that land; the Democrats, the advocates of equal rights and equal laws, are the plebeians of our own. The name is one of honor, as it is synonymous with the name of Democrat, bound with the same associations, awakening and encouraging the same high hopes, pressing onward, and still onward, in its glorious and heaven‐illumined progress of political emancipation.
To our friends–such we know we have–to our enemies–if such there be–let us say, that the name of PLEBEIAN, if it be honorable, shall meet no dishonor at our hands. To all, let us add, that the powers of usefulness can neither be increased nor impaired by the title we have assumed–that if we prove ourselves the honest expounders of Democratic truths, we know that we must secure the confidence and respect of those true hearts whose trust it is our highest hopes to win and to maintain. With every assurance of support from the best and truest of friends–with, we hope, a just appreciation of the rights, duties and responsibilities of the editorial career, and with every confidence of success, we unfurl to the breeze our banner having inscribed upon it THE PLEBEIAN.