Liberty Matters

Assessing Leggett’s Political Progeny and Their Enemies

I want to thank my fellow participants in this discussion for offering insightful commentary on the multifaceted editorial writings of William Leggett, and specifically for taking up my challenge to investigate the political legacy of his brief but fiery career in journalism. I will first attempt to synthesize some themes that have emerged and then offer additional thoughts on how each reveal important dimensions of his understated role in American political history.
All three essays touched upon the political successes of Leggett's efforts to achieve what Larry White refers to as Leggett's "ideal" of the "complete separation of government from money and banking." While he never achieved a permanent divorce of the two, the success of the Jacksonian bank war and its less-examined offshoot, the independent-treasury movement of the 1840s, reflected a significant shift in economic policy that persisted until the Civil War era. Indeed, it was this area where Leggett "most moved the needle," as Brian Schoen put it.
In a sense, Leggett's victory reflected a broader sentiment of his day, as economic writers on both sides of the Atlantic sought to understand the causes of large-scale economic fluctuation, or what we might refer to as business cycles today. While the tools they used differed, early 19th-century thought frequently turned in a diagnostic direction that associated the existence and degree of political corruption in a society with economically destabilizing tendencies. Apart from his biting attacks on the Bank of the United States, Leggett knew one such example from the "free banking" period in Scotland, as Larry points out. Directing his readers to this subject, he noted the juxtaposition of economic instability in England with the comparatively insulated and self-regulating Scottish experience:
Yet Scotland is the only paper money country which escapes commercial revulsion. Bankruptcy has swept through England on more than one memorable occasion, with the desolating fury of a tornado, prostrating the loftiest fabricks, and shattering the firmest institutions. But the storm hurtled over Scotland without injury, for she was ensconced behind the impregnable barriers of free trade. The foresight of individual enterprise had descried, in good season, the gathering of the tempest, and was prepared for its rudest assault.[39]
Though he did not specify the exact occasion, Leggett likely had recent memory in mind. Barely a decade earlier the novelist Sir Walter Scott mounted a vigorous and successful defense of the Scottish banking system against political intrusions from London, stressing its comparative stability as its greatest asset on strongly parallel grounds in the wake of a banking crisis in 1825 and 1826. After documenting the infrequency of Scottish bank failures relative to England, Scott explained the similar political origins of a pending attempt to place private bank issuances in Scotland under a common restriction:
I am aware it may be urged, that the restrictions imposed on those English provincial Banks are necessary to secure the supremacy of the Bank of England; on the same principle on which dogs kept near the purlieus of a royal forest, were anciently lamed by the cutting off of one of the claws, to prevent their interfering with the royal sport. This is a very good regulation for England, for what I know; but why should the Scottish institutions, which do not, and cannot, interfere with the influence of the Bank of England, be put on a level with those of which such jealousy is, justly or unjustly, entertained?[40]
The Scottish system endured the regulatory threats of 1826. Yet in both countries the tangible victories of the present proved fleeting. Britain, through Peel's Act of 1844, consolidated bank-note-issuing authority under the Bank of England. Peel's Act and the Scottish Banking Act in 1845 effectively barred new Scottish bank entry into the market for private issuances a year later, although existing banks retained the ability. Thus within only six years of Leggett's death, the example he championed to the world succumbed to political capture and regulation.
In the United States, Leggett's cause gave way to the creeping intrusions of politics – first through the mounting pressures of bimetallism in the late 19th century, which eventually wrecked the economic consensus of the Democratic Party between 1896 and 1912, and finally with the vigorous reassertion of the central banking that we know today under the Federal Reserve. Leggett's most tangible victory in his own time is, curiously, also the area of his political philosophy from which we have drifted the furthest today.
Continuing the theme I raised in the opening essay, Brian Schoen turns his attention to the question of slavery and particularly its economic dimensions. As Brian notes, the slave system comprised an immense share of wealth in the United States, hence the ongoing historiographical debates over its relation to capitalism.
Leggett's entrance into this debate as a laissez-faire economic voice as well as an abolitionist placed the two institutions – slavery and capitalism – on an adversarial footing, at least in his mind. Brian raises the question of whether such a framing makes Leggett an outlier to historical observation, noting the economic realities of slave-based production extending far beyond the fields of the plantation and into shipping, finance, trade, and industrial production. Yet as he also notes, there's much to credit in the centrality of the Republican free-labor message as an economic answer to slave production – a message that is both consistent with and partially derivative of Leggett's editorializing two decades earlier.
Allow me to throw another complication into the mix, proslavery anticapitalism.
The association of the southern export economy with capitalistic concepts such as free trade may itself constitute an economic outlier of sorts, in that it emerged as a rhetoric of convenience amidst the nullification debates of the late 1820s. Both the nullifiers' embrace of free trade and the oppositional northern Whig doctrine of antislavery protectionism can be traced in part to the tensions that slavery presented with a conscious policy of national industrial development. The American System's stated objective of inducing import substitution by way of protectionism carried with it the prospect of economically invigorating southern raw-material production to fuel the beneficiary factories of the northeast. To an antislavery Whig, such policies carried an implicit need to either tolerate the chattel labor force of the South or adopt further policies intended to ween plantation agriculture from slavery. (Compensated emancipation paired with colonization became the favored route, as per Henry Clay's formulation.)
Many southerners responded to the rise of antislavery pressures, incorporated as noted into pro-industrial economic policy, by embracing the export orientation of the cotton trade. Thus Robert James Turnbull's famous series of letters to the Charleston Mercury in 1827 outlined a political economy of slavery and free trade, linking the two to a simultaneous rejection of American System doctrine.[41]
Yet such pairings were each premised upon proactive government policies – for the Whigs, the adoption of a managed manumission over time to counter the slavery-entrenching tendencies of enforced national economic self-sufficiency, and for the slaveowners the need to direct public resources to the enforced maintenance of their tyrannical labor system as both a means of absorbing its costs and as an entry barrier against a free-labor alternative (or, more immediately pressing, seeing as competitive labor systems did not directly emerge in the southern economy, the political threat to slavery's subsidized position that northern free labor ideology represented).
Such tensions suggest an underdeveloped area of historical inquiry where slavery and economics are concerned, as they also portend the emergence of a radically proslavery yet anticapitalist ideology in response to free-labor abolitionism. The late antebellum period, it so happens, incubated one such ideological strain.
Within a decade of Leggett's death, some of the most virulent proslavery rhetoric and theorizing to emerge from the South adopted a position on capitalism that may be characterized only as unambiguously adversarial. George Fitzhugh, the radical slaveowner and disciple of Thomas Carlyle's condemnation of the "dismal science," constructed his "sociological" defense of the southern economy by assailing the "unrestricted exploitation of so-called free society," specifically, the same free labor that Leggett and his successors championed, which Fitzhugh aimed to show was "more oppressive to the laborer than domestic slavery."
Fitzhugh's tirades singled out the doctrine of economics, a "system of unmitigated selfishness" and individualism from which arose "laissez-faire, free competition, human equality, freedom of religion, of speech and of the press, and universal liberty." Such concepts, he maintained, were "tainted with abolition, and at war with our institution."[42] In fact, Fitzhugh opened his first book with a thorough denunciation of Adam Smith's doctrine of free trade, declaring it antithetical to slavery:
Political economy is the science of free society. Its theory and its history alike establish this position. Its fundamental maxim Laissez-faire and "Pas trop gouverner," are at war with all kinds of slavery, for they in fact assert that individuals and peoples prosper most when governed least.[43]
One would be hard pressed to identify a more diametrically opposite counterpart -- indeed a more slavery-worshipping, protectionist, and illiberal foil -- to Leggett. And yet just as Leggett is largely omitted from modern accounts that stress an alleged unity of capitalism and slavery, Fitzhugh's vicious and narrative-confounding attacks on the doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism find no home in the intellectual history of the same purported link. In addition to neglecting (or at times butchering) the empirical economic literature on the slave economy's operations, recent historical work on the intellectual dimensions of the slavery-capitalism relationship border on negligent.[44] Directing greater attention to the starkly conflicting visions of Leggett and Fitzhugh presents necessary grappling for intellectual historians of slavery and capitalism to undertake, one that will likely chafe with many of their own ideological priors.
I will leave the development of these thoughts to the discussion should others choose to pick them up, and offer them here as a line of inquiry to be pursued rather than an attempt to answer such a sweeping set of themes. But a related final note warrants investigation in the form of Leggett's direct political progeny.
Anthony provides us an insightful account of Leggett's immediate heirs, tracing his progeny through the Locofoco supporters of the Canada rebellions of 1837, the Dorr rebellion in Rhode Island in 1841, and the ongoing political realignments of the 1850s. The "dormant beast of domestic insurrection" in the second case reflects a populist democratizing strain of thought in Leggett's heirs, as well as the somewhat chaotic political decoupling of the expansion of political participation from the principles of abolition due to the perceived prospect of the former's national appeal. The failure of the Dorrites' charter presaged further splintering and general ineffectiveness that would come to characterize the Locofoco movement until the Civil War, although a silver lining may be found in the transmission of Leggett's crusade against public corruption into strains of both major political parties to emerge from that conflict.
Partisan realignment remains a fascinating extension of Leggett's influence precisely because it followed such a messy course – including in the Republican Party, where antislavery principles took root but the accompanying doctrines of laissez faire did not. Or perhaps a more nuanced take would note that laissez-faire doctrine was sacrificed to assemble the electoral coalition that would hold enough of a line on slavery while also winning a national election. In any case, the GOP emerged from the war as the party of banking and tariffs – albeit one with a restless minority of free-trade New Englanders, which both wrestled with the party apparatus and at various points in successive elections – 1872 and 1884 in particular – evinced a willingness to bolt.
That the market-liberal strain persisted is its own testament to the movements Leggett sparked, and indeed no less a source than Abraham Lincoln both recognized and grappled with their place in his own coalition. In a candid private interview with his campaign biographer, Lincoln in 1860 confided his awareness of the trouble with holding the Republican coalition together, given his own Whiggish economic views in a party that did not entirely share them. Standing on the opposite side of the platform debate was William Cullen Bryant, Leggett's newspaper patron and primary political heir. As a surviving note from the interview attests:
Mr. L[incoln] says, "the Tariff subject must be touched lightly. My speeches in favor of a Protective Tariff would please Pennsylvania and offend W.C. Bryant in the same degree. It is like the case of three men who had nothing to cover them but a blanket only sufficient to cover two. When No. 1 pulled it on, off No. 3."[45]
Lincoln of course managed to hold his coalition together without pulling off the metaphorical blanket, yet an unexpected push by a group of former Whigs-turned-Republicans in early 1861, exploiting the absence of southern senators amidst the secession crisis, gave them the upper hand in the GOP on economic matters. The cause of free trade would revert to its Democratic base after the war, including taking more than a few Republicans with it and leaving others – Senator Charles Sumner among them – in tension between their personal economic ideals and the electoral fortunes of the party in power.
Political principle, no matter how coherently argued on paper, is a fragile thing in the halls of government. Yet something tells me Leggett would not have been surprised by such developments, viewing them instead as another deserving object of the fury of his pen.
[39.] White, p. 169.
[40.] Walter Scott, "The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther," in The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott (Edinburgh: Robert Caddell, 1849), Vol. XXI, p. 294.
[41.] Robert James Turnbull, The Crisis, or Essays on the Usurpations of the Federal Government (Charleston, SC: A.E. Miller, 1827).
[42.] George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857), pp. 79-81, 88.
[43.] George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or, the Failure of a Free Society (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1854), p. 7.
[44.] For a devastating critique of the misuse of economic data across several recent works in the New History of Capitalism genre, see Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, "Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism" Explorations in Economic History 67 (2018): 1-17.
[45.] James Q. Howard's Biographical Notes, May 1860, in Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.