The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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The Regionalist: The Agrarian Libertarian of Manhattan
Bill Kauffman - 03/18/09
Wall Street

William Leggett—consumptive duelist, fearlessly radical hero to New York City’s working classes of the 1830s, theater critic turned New York Evening Post editor whose coruscant polemics made him the galvanizing editorialist of his age—ranks near the top of those unbiographied Americans most deserving of someone—preferably a non-nitwit—to write their life stories.

Even as a supporting actor in historical narratives, Leggett is always sharp and compelling, never a supernumerary.

He is the fiery and eloquent editor in Gore Vidal’s novel Burr (1973), a writer with a “furious style,” the 32-year-old star of New York’s literary empyrean, for “as a journalist he has taken all politics and literature for his field, and he is famous.”

In Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (1945), Leggett is hymned for his “lucid, supple, and picturesque” style, his “irony and bloodcurdling invective. . . . His work had a penetration, a courage and, at the same time, a good humor and gusto, which make it memorable in American political journalism.” (Apologies to the late William Appleman Williams for quoting AS Jr. respectfully.)

Historians have sung the praises of Leggett’s purity of purpose, ardency of heart, and “romantic heroism.” To Richard Hofstadter, who probably would have judged a Leggett of later times to be suffering from paranoia, the journalist “preached the bourgeois ideals of personal and property rights, freedom of contract, laissez faire, individualism, and private enterprise with as fine a sense for the needs and desires of the common man” as any figure in our past; to William Trimble, he was “one of the most sincere and brilliant apostles of democracy that America has ever known”; in The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957), Marvin Meyers devotes a chapter to Leggett, of whom he marvels, “There have been plenty of radical libertarians in the American past, but none, I think, surpasses William Leggett. . . .”

Who cannot love a man whose entry in the Dictionary of American Biography reads: “His chief characteristics as a writer were energy and absolute independence; his chief defect was violence.”

William Leggett was a blazing comet who lit the New York sky in that most poetically fertile and politically fervent decade, the 1830s. This was the apex of literary New York, socially if not artistically, as the city’s poets spoke as loudly and persuasively as would the city’s businessmen of later generations. And none spoke so passionately as William Leggett.

The son of a Revolutionary War officer, William Leggett was born in Manhattan in 1801. He removed to southern Illinois in his ephebic years, at the conclusion of which he brought out his Poems (1822), the first piece of literature published in the Prairie State.

At twenty-one, Leggett went to sea, where he quickly became the most contumacious and quarrelsome midshipman in the U.S. Navy. He brawled; he dueled; he wrote naval poetry. He was court-martialed for a series of offenses that included hurling Shakespearean curses “of highly inflammatory, rancorous, and threatening import” at his martinet captain. William Cullen Bryant, who would hire, fire, and finally eulogize his hotspur friend, declared the court-martial a stiffening experience for Leggett: “There are some minds which despotism crushes and breaks; stronger natures find in it a discipline from which they gain new hardihood and energy.”

Discharged, penniless, fair bursting with hardihood, brash as handsome young poets unvexed by doubt are wont to be, Leggett strode into the circle of the Knickerbocker literati as if Washington Irving were saving a seat for him. He published collections of stories and verse set on the frontier and the high seas; he bolted from newspaper to newspaper; he acted, and after failing on stage he founded The Critic, wherein he became one of the nation’s first significant writers on theater. Leggett’s naval stories, which burn with his contempt for authority, have been called the “American link between [Smollett] and Herman Melville”; his frontier fiction marks him as a pioneer realist. The notorious Rufus Griswold, arch-enemy of Poe (if not poesy) and the compulsive anthologist of antebellum American verse, deemed Leggett’s naval and Illinois stories “probably the most spirited and ingenious productions of their kind ever written in this country.”

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