The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 20, 2018

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

Then the political bug bit. William Leggett, bellicose litterateur, discovered the cause of the Common Man. With verve, fanaticism, and style, he would spend the rest of his short life launching wit, calumny, and anything else that might stick against monopolists, English actors, and promoters of internal improvements.

In 1829, William Cullen Bryant, that erstwhile boy poet of the Berkshires, took Leggett on as an editor and partner of the New York Evening Post, from which perch his incendiary editorials helped define the politics of his era.

Newspaper editorialists of the 1830s were not style-less hacks drooling hackneyed phrases onto their pages. They were often literary men, equally at home with the caucus or the canto. The wall separating distinguished prose from politics had yet to be erected. In the old America, writers and poets received diplomatic appointments (Washington Irving to Spain, John Howard “Home Sweet Home” Payne to Tunis, Nathaniel Hawthorne goin’ down to Liverpool) that gave sinecure a good name.

Leggett was more than an agitated polemicist. He was, or so it has seemed to his readers then and even more so through the years, the last American revolutionary standing fast by the principles of 1776.

It was William Leggett’s fate to hold high the banner of liberty in an age when finance capitalism was advancing upon the agrarian republic. He liked not what he saw.

“Walk through Wall Street,” commanded Leggett, and you will “see a street of palaces.” But if the tourist “investigates the source of their prodigious wealth, he will discover that it is extorted, under various delusive names, and by a deceptive process, from the pockets of the unprivileged and unprotected poor. These are the masters in this land of freedom. These are our aristocracy, our scrip nobility, our privileged order of charter-mongers and money-changers. Serfs of free America! Bow your necks submissively to the yoke, for these exchequer barons have you fully in their power.”

The lords of Wall Street, he fumed, were “low-minded, ignorant and rapacious.” They were “aristocrats, clothed with special immunities, who control, indirectly, but certainly, the political power of the state, monopolise the most copious sources of pecuniary profit, and wring the very crust from the hard hand of toil.”

Early communists mistook Leggett for an ally, but in fact his economic view was that if we but “leave trade to its own laws, as we leave water to the laws of nature, both will be equally certain to find their proper level.”

The problem, however, was that Wall Street was not on the level. It was the product of “special privileges” to the “opulent,” especially charters of incorporation that gave favored corporations legal advantages—such as limited liability and perpetual life—not available to mere persons. Leggett was sure that one dose of radical liberty would fell Wall Street.

“Ostentatious luxury” and “this insane desire of acquisition and display,” fed by chartered corporations and banks, were destroying the land even before the last of the Revolutionary veterans had died off. So in the midst of the most bustling and burgeoning city in America, a place “characterized by an unparalleled fierceness in money-chasing,” as Leggett’s fellow newsman and warm admirer Walt Whitman remarked, mercurial William Leggett was formulating the last-ditch theoretical defense of the republic of liberty.

Historians have been drawn to Leggett not least by the paradox he presents: how could a man who started from a laissez-faire philosophical base—whose strictures upon government regulation of the economy make Milton Friedman look like a Swedish socialist—come to conclusions so harshly critical of capitalism? Leggett forces upon us an unsettling question: Was the flaming promise of the American Revolution really doused so quickly?

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