Liberty Matters

How William Leggett Saved Me from the Alt-Right

I first encountered William Leggett somewhere in my undergraduate readings on Jacksonian America—and there's no telling exactly where. Leggett does show up in many of the most popular and important books about his era, but rarely does he receive more than a stray listing or two in an index, perhaps a paragraph. However I first saw it, his name did not register with me, and neither did his Locofocos. It was a solid two years into my readings and a trip all the way to Alabama for a certain summer program in Austrian economics until I found the greatest remnants of William Leggett collected altogether , right there in one volume by Larry White. I was looking for a research topic for my undergraduate h onors t hesis, and after passing up volumes on the Anti-Corn Law League, the Levellers, and Lysander Spooner, there was Leggett beckoning to me from the shelf. I picked up Larry's book, immediately consumed his preface, and knew that I'd found my subject.
I wrote a short " intellectual biography" of Leggett, detailing his ideas and his mistreatment in the historiography. The few historians who had ever paid attention to this man profoundly misunderstood him, and only this Larry White guy knew what Leggett was actually talking about. Someone had to put Leggett's legacy right, and I made it my mission to tell the rest of the story. I graduated, started my master's and doctoral work, and continued to tease out the grand history of l ocofocoism. Only one nagging issue held me back.
For my MA I wanted first to answer a burning question which had lingered from my days as a young and learning Austro -libertarian: i f the Confederate secession was not really about slavery (something my libertarian " tutors" taught me to assume), then where were all the hard core Jeffersonians in the South circa 1860? Before I followed up with Leggett's disunionist abolitionism, I had to find out whether my beliefs about southern intellectual history were correct.
Well, I was wrong. I quickly discovered that by 1860, there were practically no thoroughgoing Jeffersonians left in the South. I found that for at least 30 years the politically powerful and their poor white allies prosecuted intellectual and political campaigns to defend, justify, protect, and empower the slave system. Figures like Calhoun pioneered the "positive good" school, and his successor James Henry Hammond identified a permanent "mudsill" class. Everywhere for two generations, southerners praised slavery, its supposedly divine origins, its tremendous power and wealth, and its civilizing effect on African savages. I even found newspaper editors flat out saying Jefferson's "Declaration" might as well have been written by Satan himself. I was frankly flabbergasted. I wrote up my findings in my MA thesis and figuratively moved back to New York for my dissertation. I could rest easy now with the knowledge that the homeland for prewar radical liberalism was most likely Leggett's city.
And the more I read from Leggett and his radical intellectual children, their uncompromising efforts to abolish slavery and exploitation of all kinds, their constant search for revolution and reform—the more completely I fell in love with them and their movement. I make no pretension to objectivity when talking about "my Locofocos." My work on the South left me deeply disenchanted and worried that there were no Jacksonian threads connecting radicalism from colonial America to modern libertarianism. But now the Locofocos had shown me the light: I felt like I'd found Nock's Remnant.[46]
Yet as I discovered the full story of locofocoism, I also found that the vast majority of Locofocos were not like William Leggett. Most people—even most "radicals," I fear—are pragmatists at heart and will happily sacrifice abstract principles for immediately identifiable gains. I realized that this is what actually killed the Locofoco movement, and this is why so few people today have ever heard of it . And as the next few years passed (2012-2016) and libertarian after libertarian peeled away to join the gelling alt-right, I saw history replaying in real-time . At that point it was a race to finish the dissertation and start deploying this example as a warning before it was too late.
Libertarian, like Locofoco, has been subject to a new destructive and deadly "triangular contest." There are, of course, the Democrats; there are the big-government Trump Republicans; and we libertarians are stuck in the middle, trying to find our way to influence and impact. The more we break ranks and join the political fight, the deeper we dig our movement's grave. If we hope to save the meaning of the very word libertarian and live up to Leggett's example, we have to insist on the fundamental, universal equality of individual rights, a true brotherhood of all peoples standing up to the slaveocracy.
[46.] Albert Jay Nock, "Isaiah's Job," The Atlantic Monthly (1936). Online at <>.