Julian, George Washington (1817-1899)

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Source: Editorial in Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 [1978]

Editorial: George Washington Julian (1817–1899)

George Washington Julian (1817–1899) exemplified most of the principles of nineteenth century radical individualism. Julian was strongly influenced by Jean-Baptiste Say's Treatise on Political Economy, as well as by reading Gibbon, Hume, Locke, and Godwin. To find political organizations that expressed his principles, Julian became active in five different political parties, as well as most reform movements including women's suffrage.

Although strongly committed from his earliest career to free trade, hard money, and free banking (principles favored by the Democrats), Julian supported the “Conscience Whigs” because they opposed slavery's extension by the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. During 1848 he became active in the Free Soil party—which had absorbed the Liberty party and whose leader, Gerrit Smith, had campaigned on a “strict construction” platform against federal or state government's intervention whether to uphold slavery, build public works, or maintain public schools. This was the spirit, welcomed by Carl Schurz, “to break every authority which has its origins in the life of the state, and, as far as possible, to overturn the barriers to individual liberty.... Here in America you can see every day how slightly a people needs to be governed.”

One barrier to individual liberty that was stressed in political contests in the nineteenth century was the “Rag Money Monopoly” of government privileged banks. William Leggett demanded the separation of banking and the state and attacked the “lordlings of the Paper Dynasty.” George Henry Evans and the Jacksonian workingmen's movement had opposed “the granting of ALL PRIVILEGES, and especially the privilege of making paper money.” After the veto of the Bank of the United States, Evans hoped that “the determination of the people to put an end to the most powerful... of the Rag Money Mills, is an indication of their determination to put an end to the whole system.” Radicals, such as Julian, emphasized their hard money principles in the debate between the “Bank Men” and the “Hard Money Men” in the new Republican party.

Julian, elected as a Free Soil congressman from Indiana in 1849, became associated with Rep. Joshua R. Giddings, who had been expelled from the House earlier for saying the federal government should have nothing to do with slavery. Giddings advocated armed resistance to slave-catchers and to federal marshalls arresting citizens for attempting to free a fugitive slave from custody. In 1852, Julian became the Free Soil candidate for vice-president on the platform “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men.” Free Soilers and Jacksonian Democrats formed the Republican party on the basis of hostility to federal government powers. Disunionist sentiment among northern radicals grew in the 1850s. William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Philips had declared that “disunion is abolition.” Abolitionists, as leaders of the American peace crusade, felt that there must be no coercion to keep the south in the union. Instead of waging war against the seceded South, Philips in a major Boston address in 1861 advocated “Northern competition emptying [the South's] pockets; educated slaves awakening its fears; civilization and Christianity beckoning the South into their sisterhood.” In the face of conservative expectations that a communal blood sacrifice would smother economic individualism, radical individualists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, hoped that peaceful southern secession would further the abandonment of the “machinery of government.” Emerson looked forward to the day when “the civil machinery that has been the religion of the world decomposes to dust and smoke before the new adult individualism.”

During the decade that Julian served in Congress following his return in 1860, he sustained the Jacksonian interest in land reform. Based upon the Lockean concept of land ownership, Julian insisted on selling public lands to private individuals rather than leasing them, which tended to encourage a feudal land system rooted in government privilege. He opposed federal land grants to railroads and to the states for schools and colleges, and criticized the substitution of the sale of public lands for taxation to pay off the public debt. However, Julian was not an agrarian idealist, but was a forward looking advocate of the working-man, especially against agrarian inflationary demands. Julian opposed paper money because its inevitable depreciation in value robbed the worker of the purchasing power of his wages; he likewise rejected tariffs and taxes because they unjustly transferred the workers' income to industrialists.

In his last political campaign (1896), Julian supported the Gold Democrats as the successors to the Jacksonian radicals, who had earlier advocated hard money. Addressing the Sound Money League, Julian attributed the recent depression to the soft money which the Civil War legal tender acts introduced.

Radical individualism, of which George Washington Julian was a leading exponent, represented the significant intellectual and political movement in nineteenth-century America. The rediscovery of America's ideological tradition, and its increasing relevance for late twentieth-century America, has renewed interest in the many radical individualists. Julian, Leggett, Garrison, Lysander Spooner, Adin Ballou, William Graham Sumner, Randolph Bourne, H. L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock are finding disciples among “new philosophers,” “new economists,” and spokesmen for contemporary liberalism.