How the Abolitionist Grandfathers of Modern Libertarianism Won by Losing—and Lost by Winning
It started in January on the rim of the Mediterranean, in Sicily. A month later, Paris was at the barricades. Throughout 1848, no fewer than four dozen revolts cascaded across continental Europe. New ideas raced across the land: The rebels divided themselves between liberal internationalists, nationalists of varying stripes, and socialists. Most of the old regimes managed to survive, but only decrepit Spain, autocratic Russia, and frigid Scandinavia avoided any revolt at all.
It was a revolutionary year in the United States too, though we’re usually left out of the story.
Our spark was lit in the brief period between the Sicilian and French revolts, when the Senate ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This ended the Mexican War and formally seized more than half of Mexico, expanding the U.S. by more than 330 million acres. Southerners had formed a majority of the conquering army and its officer corps, and now the second sons of the great planters were itching for their chance to take some slaves out west and become the nabob labor-lords of those fresh new states-in-waiting. It was the poison pill that ultimately led to civil war.
In the shorter term, it led to the American rebellion of 1848. Unlike the uprisings in Europe, this one played out within the political system—at least temporarily.
For decades, Martin Van Buren had built and maintained the Jacksonian coalition—the alliance at the core of the antebellum Democratic Party—by promising Southerners that Northerners would stay out of their domestic affairs if Southerners would support “plain republicanism” for white men. This alliance was America’s status quo, our Old Regime. And in 1848, the radicals of the Free Soil movement mounted a full-on assault both on the supposed rights of planters to their chattel and on a host of economic privileges held by well-connected businesses. By proclaiming that state-granted privileges of any sort were anti-democratic, anti-republican, corrupting, impoverishing, and morally unjustifiable, the Free Soilers set the intellectual and political conditions for a wholesale abolition revolution. The chief force holding back the wave of change was the duopoly held by the two major political parties, especially Van Buren’s Democrats.
Who knew, then, that the very man who would blow up the system was Martin Van Buren himself?
Match: A Slow-Burning Locofoco Revolution
To understand the American rebellion of 1848, you first must look at the politics of the 1820s and ’30s. Van Buren cut his political teeth then, using his cunning to build an alliance between Southern planters, Northern yeomen, and urban labor. After the election of 1828, he rode Andrew Jackson’s coattails to high office. He became President Jackson’s secretary of state and then vice president, and in 1836 he was elected president himself.
The Jackson circle’s most famous crusade was the Bank War, a quest to shutter and kill the Second Bank of the United States. While it was not quite the same as a modern central bank, the Bank of the United States’ job was to regulate the currency by expanding and contracting the national money supply. Jackson did not make much of the bank question until Henry Clay, the speaker of the House and one of the country’s leading anti-Jackson men, decided to push a bill to renew the Bank’s charter early, making it a campaign issue when he ran for president in 1832.
Jackson responded with a blast against the Bank, charging it with centralizing control of the economy in the hands of a privileged elite. With power over the banking system, well-connected persons could ensure that their own speculations paid a bundle, while the common man (who paid higher prices) and the small investor (unable to withstand market corrections) were left holding the bag. Effectively, the president said that such a system necessarily transferred wealth from the poor to the rich. Jackson vetoed the bill, and Clay lost his gambit and the election.
But Jackson and many of his top state-level supporters had another, rather different reason for opposing the Second Bank: It restrained the number of notes the state-chartered banks issued, and many of those state banks were run by Jacksonians. Remove those constraints, kill the national bank, shift the government Treasury into the state banks, and you open a credit bonanza that high-level Jacksonians could dole out to supporters. During his brief stint as governor of New York, Van Buren himself implemented the Safety Fund system—essentially a state bank bailout scheme. Beneath the veneer of Jacksonian democracy lurked a new class of exploitative political entrepreneurs: Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” armies of Democratic state officials, and swarms of federal appointees scattered in key places across the Union.
Most Jacksonians followed in lockstep with the president, but a group of New York City radicals broke ranks and pioneered a different sort of politics. Two newspaper editors—the proto-progressive George Henry Evans and the proto-libertarian William Leggett—began arguing that the war on the Bank of the United States should extend to state-chartered banks as well. These, they said, were also unjust extensions of government-granted monopolistic privilege; killing only the great national monster would allow many smaller horrors to fructify and worsen.
Their opposition to monopolistic privilege didn’t stop at the banks. In those days, most businesses were not corporations; they were partnerships, sole proprietorships, cooperatives, or some other unincorporated, nonchartered form. To get the advantages bestowed by corporate status—to be an artificial person whose owners enjoyed limited liability and other legal benefits—one needed a specific grant from the state legislature, a process that created notorious opportunities for corruption. Evans and Leggett condemned the entire process as a medieval remnant of Old World government that was poisoning our democratic institutions.
From 1828 to 1835, the editors emerged as the city’s leading radical intellectual figures. They built their anti-monopolist politics around the idea of universal equal rights, and they extended these claims to all men, regardless of class and race.
Their agitating came to a head in August 1835, when a mob in Charleston, South Carolina, burst into a post office, confiscated sacks of abolitionist mail, and burned them in the town square. The local postmaster, Alfred Huger, looked the other way and then asked for guidance from the Jackson administration. Postmaster General Amos Kendall—the main author of Jackson’s Bank veto—refused to oppose the mob, initiating a de facto policy of mail censorship in the interest of a privileged planter elite. In this touchstone event, radical Northerners’ fears of monopolies (including the government’s monopoly on the post) merged with their developing fears of the slaveowners’ power.
Leggett lashed out at this violation of Northerners’ equal right to the national mail, denouncing both the mob and the Jackson administration. The abolitionists responded by sending Leggett a bundle of the same materials burned at Charleston. He threw
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