The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

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.”

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?

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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