The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 17, 2018

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

Leggett’s libertarian sympathies made him an early advocate of (voluntary) labor unions, the abolition of capital punishment, and the enshrinement of restitution as a bedrock principle of criminal justice. Most strikingly, they brought about his conversion from an early indifference to, even grudging acceptance of, American slavery to a position close to the prophetically bloody ground occupied by Nat Turner and John Brown.

For at a time when virtually all New York City Democrats sought conciliation with slave-owners, William Leggett was an abolitionist. This was no cheap moral posturing, no withdrawal from that bottomless reservoir of sanctimony Edmund Wilson charged the North with possessing; no, Leggett’s stand came at the cost of an expected congressional nomination. Yet Leggett was also an anti-imperialist who denied that the federal government had any right to abolish slavery in the Southern states. Rather, he enthusiastically urged slaves to breathe deeply the Spirit of ’76 and rise in revolt, overthrowing their masters. If the enslaved Africans wanted freedom, they would have to seize it themselves.

Radical Democrats of libertarian bent, most of them young New Yorkers, were known as “Loco Focos,” which would be spat as an epithet at equalitarians until the Civil War. Organized as a Democratic faction called the Equal Rights Party, the Loco Focos earned their name on an October night in 1835, when the Equal Rights men sought to take control of New York City’s Democratic Party from Tammany Hall. Sensing defeat, the Tammany minions dimmed the gas lights, plunging the meeting into darkness. Responding to the shout “Let there be light!” the quick-thinking radicals struck Loco Foco matches, and the name stuck. The faction, like the matches, burned brightly, if briefly. (One of the Democratic oligarchs targeted by the Loco Focos bore the splendid name of Preserved Fish.)

William Leggett has been called “the prophet of the Loco Foco movement.” In their pertinacious defense of the small producer, the neighborhood shop, and the self-employed artisan, Leggett and the Loco Focos represent the purest Jeffersonian response to the assaults of capitalism and its handmaiden state. They were “urban agrarians,” in Carl Degler’s aptly oxymoronic phrase. Their championship of the small against the big, the local against the national, the near-at-hand over the abstract, makes them an ancestor, albeit an unacknowledged and unknown ancestor, of those libertarians and greens of localist cast.

To The New York Times, chief organ of the Democratic establishment, the Leggett-inspired Loco Focos were “infidels,” “scum,” and “the Guy Fawkes’ of politics.” Leggett, no adept at cheek-turning, gave as good as he got. While remaining a Democrat, he became his party’s most vituperative critic, damning other Democrats as “a set of creeping, dissembling creatures who have grown fat on the drippings of unclean bank legislation.”

When Bryant left the Evening Post for Europe in June 1834, placing Leggett in charge, the Loco Foco unleashed a torrent of abuse that is still unmatched in New York journalism. Editors at rival newspapers he denounced, one by one, as “a detestable caitiff,” “a craven wretch, spotted with all kinds of vices,” and “a hireling slave.” (You know, I think they’re still working there. . . . ) Leggett’s invective-laced editorials cost the Evening Post most of its friends among New York’s ruling class and almost all its patronage and advertising. Mocked as “deranged” and ready for Bedlam, Leggett left the Evening Post and founded the New York Plaindealer, wherein he attacked banks, tariffs, Washington Irving (for his “unmanly timidity” in bowdlerizing a Leggett poem), and all who would discourage the flowering of a free, refractory, native American culture.

The Plaindealer folded. Leggett fell ill, despondent, suicidal. He survived for some months on the eleemosynary of his dear chum Edwin Forrest, America’s premier actor and Leggett’s beau ideal of the stage, a cultural patriot who was always somersaulting and playing lusty Indians and aiming to liberate American theater from prissy English conventions. (Forrest’s partisans within the gangs of New York would later destroy the Astor Place Opera House in an anti-English riot that left twenty-two amateur theater critics dead.)

Hoping that a change of climate might revive Leggett’s failing constitution, his friends lobbied President Van Buren to appoint the firebrand as diplomatic agent to Guatemala. Though Leggett had recently characterized the president as “cringing,” “indecent,” and other adjectives that job-seekers are usually advised not to apply to potential employers, the Red Fox of Kinderhook turned the other cheek and Leggett got his appointment. The shock of receiving a government post may have proved too much for the libertarian. Leggett died before going on Uncle Sam’s payroll. Fittingly, “bilious colic” was the cause of death. He was thirty-eight.

Upon his death he was eulogized in verse by Bryant and Whittier, among others. Walt Whitman never ceased to praise “the glorious Leggett,” the primary shaper of Whitman’s laissez-faire political philosophy, avowing him the equal of “the great Jefferson.”

William Cullen Bryant commemorated his deceased colleague:

The words of fire that from his pen
Were flung upon the fervid page,
Still move, still shake the hearts of men,
Amid a cold and coward age.

In our colder, even more cowardly age, as Americans forfeit traditional liberties as casually as a horseplayer discards a losing pari-mutuel ticket, may Leggett’s “words of fire” light our deepening American night.

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