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FREE FERRIES AND AN AGRARIAN LAW - William Leggett, Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy 
Democratic Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, Foreword by Lawrence H. White (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984).
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FREE FERRIES AND AN AGRARIAN LAW
October 10, 1835.
Title added by Sedgwick.
The American, some few days since, in an editorial article, expressed itself in favour of the establishment of free ferries at the public expense. A correspondent of that paper, a day or two afterwards, proposed the establishment, at the public expense, of free carriages to carry people about the city. Both propositions were serious, not ironical. We have not the papers at hand in which they were contained, but believe we do not mistake the purport of the two articles. Now it seems to us that, the epithet agrarian, which the American has sometimes applied to this journal, was never so much deserved by any political theory we have advanced, as it is by that paper for the projects referred to. Let us confine ourselves, however, to that which was editorially asserted, namely, the one relative to free ferries, for which we may justly hold the American responsible. This, we certainly think can be demonstrated to be agrarian, according to the sense in which that term is employed by politicians of the present day.
The agrarian law of Rome was a law to provide for the equitable division of conquered lands among those who conquered them. It was not altogether unlike our laws for the distribution of prize money; though far more just than they, according to our recollections of its provisions. But the charge of agrarianism, as applied reproachfully at the present day to the radical democracy, imputes to them a desire to throw down the boundaries of private right, and make a new and arbitrary division of property. This charge so far as relates to this journal, and so far, as we sincerely believe, as it relates to any considerable number of individuals, of any name or sect, in our country, has no foundation in truth. Of our own political doctrines we can truly say that they are in every feature the very opposite of agrarianism. They rest, indeed, on the basis of inviolable respect for private right. We would not have even the legislature take private property, except for the public good, directly, not incidentally; and then only in the clearest cases, and by rendering the most equitable compensation. We would never have it delegate that power to any private corporation, on the ground that the public good would be incidentally promoted by the doings of such a body.
But the American, in becoming the advocate of free ferries, leans to agrarianism, in the popular and justly odious sense of the word. It takes the property of A. and gives it to B. It proposes to bestow a valuable gratuity on such persons as have occasion to use the ferry, and pay for this gratuity, for the most part, with money filched from the pockets of those who never step foot in a ferry-boat. Is this not clearly unjust? Is it not to some extent, an agrarian scheme?
The American may answer us that it is but an extension of the same power, the rightfulness of which nobody ever calls in question, which is exercised by all municipal corporations in constructing streets at the public expense, for the gratuitous accommodation of all who choose to use them. Even this power in its nature is agrarian, and is submitted to by universal assent, not because it is right in principle, but because its conveniences overbalance the theoretic objections. But there is a point where the objections equal the conveniences, and to insist on any scheme which lies beyond that point, is to run the risk of being called, with justice, agrarian. Every body has more or less occasion to use the streets; and therefore every body ought to contribute towards the expense of making and preserving them. This expense is taken out of the general fund derived from taxes. The burden of taxes falls, directly or indirectly, on every body, and if not in the precise proportion of relative advantage from the use of the streets, still the difference is too slight to awaken complaint. But the case is widely different with regard to ferries. Thousands of citizens never use them at all; yet according to the agrarian scheme of the American, they would be required to pay as much for supporting them as those who cross the river a dozen times every day. They would find their advantage, the American might argue, in the greater cheapness of market commodities, the increased number of customers to the city traders, and the general improvement of the city. But this advantage would not be diffused equally, and whatever is done by legislation should tend to the equal benefit of all.
But where would the American stop? If free ferries are of advantage, why would not free markets be also? And free warehouses? And free dwelling houses? And free packet ships? And in short free from every thing? The arguments by which alone the American can support its theory of free ferries, are equally pertinent and cogent in defence of a literal commonwealth. Who would have thought to see the American turn so ultra an agrarian?
Now, our theory with respect to ferries is liable to no such objections. It is precisely the same as our theory with respect to banks, with respect to railroads, and with respect to every other branch of trade and enterprise. Our theory is the free trade theory. It is simply to leave trade alone to govern itself by its own laws. Ferries are as much a matter of trade, as Broadway stages,1 or Broadway shopkeeping. Leave the subject open to unrestricted competition. Leave men to run boats where they please, when they please, and how they please, with no other restraint upon them than such municipal regulations as may be requisite for the preservation of public order—some simple rules, such as “turn to the right, as the law directs.” When this course is pursued, we shall have ferry boats where they are wanted, and as many as are wanted, and no more. People will not run more boats than yield a fair profit on investment, and where competition is free there will certainly be as many. The ferries, then, between New-York and Long Island, and between New-York and New-Jersey, will be as well conducted, and as well supplied with boats, as are the ferries now between New-York and Albany.
This is our scheme: how does the American like it? The difference between us is that we are for leaving ferries to the regulation of the laws of trade; the American is for controlling them by Agrarian law.
[1 ]That is, stagecoaches.—Ed.