Liberty Matters

Radicalism and Revolution

William Leggett was “fire in motion.” He began his editorial career without much interest in politics, a good Jacksonian Democrat and devotee of the Founder’s Cult rejoicing in the Revolution and its resultant constitutional compact. His story of motion, though, cannot be ignored. Any presentation of Leggett which does not conclude (as his own life did) with radical, anti-Constitution abolitionism is a misreading of the man’s life and work. The most important moment in William Leggett’s life—next to when his suicide attempt was averted—was when he converted to abolitionism and realized the feebleness of the Revolution he once worshipped.
After his conversion, Leggett became maybe the most radical (white) abolitionist to that point. He flew past even William Lloyd Garrison by preempting his call for disunion:
We cannot give up Freedom for the sake of Union. We cannot give up the principle of vitality, the very soul of political existence, to secure the perishing body from dismemberment. No! rather let it be hewed to pieces, limb by limb, than, by dishonourable compromise, obtain a short renewal of the lease of life, to be dragged out in servitude and chains.
Later that Summer, Leggett unflatteringly compared the Revolutionaries and Jacksonian era slaves:
[O]ur federal union [is] a cloak for slavery and a banner devoted to the cause of the most hateful oppression. The oppression which our fathers suffered from Great Britain was nothing in comparison with that which the negroes experience at the hands of the slaveholders. It may be ‘abolition insolence’ to say these things; but as they are truths which justice and humanity authorize us to speak, we shall not be too dainty to repeat them whenever a fitting occasion is presented. Every American who, in any way, authorizes or countenances slavery, is derelict to his duty as a christian [sic], a patriot, and a man.
Leggett anticipated Lysander Spooner, positively casting his lot with potential slave rebellions. In the event, Americans would be called upon to defend the flag and put down the slave. Leggett refused:
It may be ‘abolition insolence’ to call this ‘glorious emblem’ the standard of oppression, but, at all events, it is unanswerable truth. For our part, we call it so in a spirit, not of insolence, not of pride speaking in terms of petulant contempt, [emphasis added] but of deep humility and abasement. We confess, with the keenest mortification and chagrin, that the banner of our country is the emblem, not of justice and freedom, but of oppression…We should stand a sad spectator of the conflict; and whatever the commiseration we might feel for the discomfiture of the oppressors, we should pray that the battle might end in giving freedom to the oppressed.
That’s what a libertarian radical sounds like–but maybe you’re not a libertarian radical and Leggett went too far for your liking. In my view, Leggett stands as a soul once-devoted to the cult of American exceptionalism who was able to snap himself into reality and recognize the horrific and historical costs of state-building in all its forms.