Liberty Matters

Searching for Liberty in the Age of Jackson

I would like to thank Liberty Matters for the opportunity to discuss William Leggett, and Dr. Magness for an excellent summary of Leggett's life, his anti slavery stance, and his critique of state intervention in the economy. Magness does credit to Leggett's positions and offers some useful suggestions for problematizing an emerging literature that, under the title of a "new history of capitalism," has sometimes tended to conflate capitalism and slavery. As someone whose early work lies at the fringes of that debate, I am eager to see how that part of the conversation plays out and will add my two cents in a moment.
To begin, however, I would like to amplify Magness's point about Leggett's uniqueness in his own day and by extension the challenge for those seeking to understand capitalism or find intellectual coherence within Jacksonian-era political economic thought. Leggett's commitment to radical laissez-faire principles led him to believe that government activity should be strictly limited to defending property and public safety. He opposed the common practice of state-declared days of Thanksgiving.[31] Officials stymieing of white abolitionists' free speech led him towards an antislavery position, but he evidenced real sympathy for the "poor bondsman." These ideas resonated with British abolitionists and free-traders like Cairnes, the Mills, Cobden, and Bright. They also foreshadowed later Republican criticisms of a Slave Power. As Magness notes, however, in 1830s America these stances led to shunning by the Jacksonian establishment. Leggett might, then, be understood and appreciated as something of a political outlier.
Majorities in both parties believed in some legitimate role for government economic intervention. Even Jacksonian party founder Martin Van Buren helped usher through high tariff rates in the late 1820s, if for partisan rather than principled ends. Federal funding for internal improvements actually grew during Jackson's presidency. Whigs and Democrats alike made compromises that continued the ultimate abuse of government power—local, state, and federal laws sanctioning and even expanding slaveholders' professed "right" to own other persons as property. That Leggett bucked that trend is admirable; that he was alienated in his own day for doing so is revelatory. Alas, racism and self-interest made it hard to find mainstream heroes consistently voicing the liberal cause.
Leggett wasn't always seen as an outlier. He—and the ideas he represented—seemed more typical as told by 20th- century consensus and progressive-era histories written by author s less concerned with slavery. Leggett's vehement opposition to bank privilege and his support for the laboring class fit rather neatly into progressive narratives, which highlighted class conflict. Leggett's call for "a combination of the laboring classes in vindication of their political principles, or in defense of their menaced rights,"[32] positioned him nicely for a leading role in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s 1945 The Age of Jackson. For scholars more struck by the era's consensus, like Louis Hartz, Leggett illustrated a "common liberalism" that stressed individualism and property rights. Hartz also identified Leggett as an archetypal American who attacked "parasitic 'aristocrats' and exploitative 'capitalists.'"[33] For Hartz, as for Schlesinger, Leggett appears as a democratic critic , rather than a promoter, of "capitalism," a characterization that might usefully raise the question of what it means to be pro- or anti capitalist in the 1830s, the 1940s, or today.
To that point, let me accept Magness's invitation to explore Leggett's financial policies and war on government banks, the positioning of which offers a wider lens on competing understandings of commercial society. It is also the area where Locof ocos like Leggett most moved the needle. Leggett's desire for a strict "separation of bank and state" paralleled his support for hard- money policies, which he believed (hinting at Hayek) would minimize the speculative boom- and- bust cycles experienced in 1819. For Leggett, removing bank-issued paper and preserving "real money" (aka specie) would aid the laboring man, giving him a fighting chance against the "monopolists," the worst of which were the "lordings of the Paper Dynasty."[34] Locof ocos failed to win many elections, but their fiscal and banking platform gained traction within the Jacksonian party. It fueled suspicion against banks generally, the National Bank particularly, and it gained a widespread following amongst both farmers and the urban working-class , especially after panics in 1837 and 1839 had deepened Jacksonian suspicions of banks. Leggett wouldn't live to see it, but the Independent Treasury created in 1840 embodied the type of separation of bank and state that he had called for.
What is striking is the extent to which most subsequent supporters of expansive commerce, let's call them "capitalists," viewed these positions as anti development. Loco Focos' hard- money arguments (whatever their merits) have routinely been discounted as naive or worse yet, retrograde. Leggett's Whig enemies tended to see them as such. As admirer Daniel Walker Howe suggests, bank boosters (Whig and Democrat) saw government investment (in the form of capital) and paper money as necessary to expand economic opportunities, especially at a time of high trade deficits and amidst fears of specie shortages typical in the early republic. Federal and state banks were, as Whigs stressed, key for economic modernization and for creating jobs for those without land holdings. And as Howe tells the story, the Whig belief in partnerships between the state and private sector largely prevailed, though perhaps not as effectively as they might have, he suggests, had Whigs held the rei ns longer. For Howe, Leggett appears only briefly, his alienation as evidence of the Jacksonians' deep commitment to racial slavery.[35]
One of Howe's many critics , historian Sean Wilentz, takes a far more sympathetic view of Leggett and his allies, including William Gouge (whose 1829 anti bank tract proved influential). For Wilentz, Locof ocos offered "an alternative road to the future," one that "was commercial and expansive but also more democratic, less prone to sharp reversals of individual and collective fortune, and intended to protect the acquisitive interests and prosperity of the industrious many against the political abuses of the privileged few."[36] These rival accounts might lead us to consider what political economic vision did prevail if not Leggett's nor, completely at least, the Whigs'. To what might we attribute the fairly impressive growth per capita that the United States witnessed in the decades before the Civil War, and did it expand or curtail individual freedom and for whom?
These questions seem especially salient with the return of the same subjects (financial systems, protectionism, and discourse about slavery's legacy) during our own populist moment. Comparisons are confounded by some inaccurate, partisan deployments of the past. Populist Republicans (especially Steve Bannon) have curiously—and erroneously— trumpeted Jackson as a promoter of the American System: a would-be supporter of high protectionism, strong borders, and anti-immigration policies. In truth, antebellum tariffs were mechanisms for special privilege but not purely partisan ones, as an insightful new book by Daniel Peart points out.[37] Typically, Jacksonians widened international trade through treaty and supported revenue-only tariffs. They were also pro-(white)- immigration, and borders and port entries were about as free as they could be, except for persons of color. It all makes one wonder if maybe Henry Clay's portrait ought to replace Jackson's in the Oval Office. Conversely, Democrats, though with decreasing enthusiasm, given the flattening of both men into caricatures of "Indian-hating, slaveowners," continue to hold Jefferson-Jackson dinners, seizing onto those men's reputations for democracy even as the modern party turns towards increasingly government-centered solutions that those men would have abhorred.
The question of intellectual heirs brings to mind Magness's intriguing proposition that the Locof ocos' break with "Bank" Democrats fueled the party realignment and rise of the Republicans. I would be curious to hear more about what Magness has in mind. My first thought is: probably not. The Locof ocos' hard- money and anti bank position got traction within Jacksonian Democrats in a way that fueled the rise of the Whig Party, which in the 1840s was Lincoln's party. Lincoln, it must be noted, celebrated Henry Clay as his political hero primarily because he believed the American System would benefit small-town Illinois. The GOP is rightly seen as a fusion between anti slavery free- soil Democrats and Whigs, but as Magness right ly points out, most scholars see the Whig influence as prevailing in shaping Republican political economy. (The 1860 Republican platform called for higher tariffs and federal construction of internal improvements.) The war itself brought about a robust partnership between the government and private sector, including national banking reform that Leggett might have had some serious problems with. Republican utilization of government intervention continued in the decades after the war, with northern Democrats urging the need for retreat. That laissez-faire initiative was partly out of legitimate economic concerns about corruption and high taxes, and some "Liberal Republicans" shared them . Indeed, it would be especially interesting to project Leggett's views into the late 19th century, often perceived as the high point of laissez-faireeconomics. Of course, the Democrat s' post war call for government nonintervention also came, rather unapologetically, from a desire to see white Democrats return to power in the South. There, something short of real freedom continued to define the lives of former slaves, whose access to democratic practice and private property remained cruelly narrow despite slavery's legal end.
This brings me, rather circuitously I admit, back to the point that Magness initially guided us towards: the extent to which the early 19th-century story of capitalism is the story of American slavery. It seems appropriate to highlight what the new scholarship on American slavery has added to our understanding of the period. Neither Hartz nor Schlesinger saw slavery as a central factor in the American political story, and most subsequent Marxist and neo classical approaches to the field tended to see it as an outdated or even unprofitable system. Whatever its economic inefficiencies, in 1860 four million enslaved African-Americans were valued at an estimated $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion , second only to the value of farm land nationally.[38] Capital in slaves easily exceeded the wealth Americans invested in manufacturing, railroads, bank capital, and home productions COMBINED! These are astonishing figures, and this before we even explore the fact that slave-grown commodities, most notably cotton, made up over half of all U.S. exports. Nor was slavery's economic wealth or profits limited to the South, as northern businesses, especially those in Leggett's hometown of New York, financed, shipped, and even insured slaves and the ill-gained fruits of their labor. We don't have a clear sense of the precise amount of U.S. wealth accumulation or economic growth directly or indirectly traceable to slavery, and I don't think it responsible (as some commentators have asserted) to assume that most of it was. (If the Civil War was a type of economic verdict, then it turns out free- labor capitalism was far more stable, powerful, and profitable than slave capitalism.) Still, the point of new scholarship is to demonstrate that much American wealth was attributable to slavery, and for those of us who think that liberty matters, this fact makes knowing and sharing Leggett's ideas all the more important. 
If Leggett's radical laissez-faire positions had prevailed more widely and Americans had seen slaveholding as inarguably the most egregious form of special privileges that governments had ever granted and protected, perhaps gradual- emancipation laws might have spread deeper into the South. They didn't, of course, because southern slaveholders like Jefferson and Jackson co-opted the language of liberalism too, telling northerners that the federal government had a constitutional duty to protect their physical well-being and private property rights. The economic and political power that slave capitalism welded unquestionably aided that effort. Yet I would join Magness in rejecting the proposition that abolition, and certainly Republican anti slavery, should be seen as anti capitalist in inspiration. That may have been true for failed entrepreneurs like John Brown. But when anti slavery Republicans gained political traction, they did so not by targeting capitalism or commercialism generally, but rather by specifically providing free- labor and free- soil grounds. They stressed that slavery's existence required positive laws that violated the natural order, which was freedom. That argument, which I do think Leggett would have wholeheartedly endorsed, proved crucial to halting the Slave Power's geographic spread. And yet what remains unclear to me is how Leggett would have felt about the actions eventually needed to destroy it. A government that strictly protects all people's liberty and property (including their labor) from inception might never need robust power to undo the mistakes of the past. And yet, the Civil War seemed to suggest that bigger government was necessary to destroy the S lave P ower that it had helped create and sustain. If so, that elevates Leggett's central point: the initial granting of special privileges can generate lasting and highly undemocratic ends. But it also raises some vexing questions about how to undo the legacy of decades, or in slavery's case centuries, of legalized unfreedom and inequality.
[31.] Editor: "Thanksgiving Day," Plaindealer, December 3, 1836 <>. See "William Leggett argues that Thanksgiving Day is no business of the government (1836)" in Quotations on Liberty and Power <>.
[32.] "Rich and Poor," Evening Post, November 4, 1834, in William Leggett, Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy, f oreword by Lawrence H. White (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1984). <>.
[33.] Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945; Boston: Little, Brown and Co, 1988); Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (1952; Orlando: Harcourt Books, 1991), pp. 108, 99.
[34.] "Rich and Poor. "
[35.] Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[36.] Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln  (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), p 441.
[37.] Daniel Peart, Lobbyists and the Making of US Tariff Policy, 1816-1861 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
[38.] Jenny Bourne, "Slavery in the United States," EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 26, 2008. <>. Also James L. Huston, Calculating the Value of Union: Slavery, Property Rights, and the Economic Origins of the Civil War (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 28.