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Sunday, June 1, 1986

Book Review: Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy by William Leggert

Compiled, edited, and with a foreword by Lawrence H. White Liberty Press, 7440 North Shadeland, Indianapolis, IN 46250 • 1984 • 412 + xx pages, $12.00 cloth; $6.00 paperback

William Leggett, spokesman of the radical, laissez-faire wing of Jacksonian democracy, deservedly continues to attract the attention of modern libertarians. Less than forty years of age at the time of his death in 1839, Leggett in the last decade of his short life became a freewheeling journalist and newspaper editor, serving from 1829 to 1836 as William Cullen Bryant’s assistant, and then partner, on the New York Evening Post. Leggett’s own forthright editorials in support of equal rights and minimal government caused his newspaper to lose most of its political patronage advertising. Although Leg-gert therefore, not surprisingly, left the Post, he continued to write in two new periodicals of his own, which he promptly established, the New York Examiner and the Plaindealer.

Lawrence H. White’s new Leggert collection draws much of its material from those Plain dealer editorials which were not included in the original Collection of the Political Writings of William Leggett, published in 1840. White’s selections accordingly provide a fuller account of Leggett’s running literary battle against all economic monopolies, his support of the divorce of government and banking, and his advocacy of free trade. These causes reflected in large part the national policies of the Jacksonians. And one of Leggett’s key editorials, “True Functions of Government,” appropriately began with a quote from the President’s message, vetoing the recharter of the Bank of the United States: “There are no necessary evils in Government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.” “Governments have no right,” Leggert added, “to interfere with the pursuits of individuals, as guaranteed by those general laws, by offering encouragements and granting privileges to any particular class of industry or any select bodies of men, inasmuch as all classes of industry and all men are equally important to the general welfare and equally entitled to protection.”

On the state level, Leggett’s considerable influence among his fellow New York democrats left a legacy of free banking legislation and a general incorporation law. As a follower of the Jeffersonian agrarian or Jacksonian small capitalist philosophy, Leggett believed in the natural right to property, not its abolition. Equal rights for all, within the limits of the General Law, and laissez-faire were the best guarantee of personal liberty. Experience taught that strong governments used their powers to enact special legislation in order to reward the wealthy and take away from the poor. “The remedy,” Leggett wrote, “is easy. It is to confine government within the narrowest limits of necessary duties.”

No less important to Leggett than equal opportunity in the sphere of political economy were the rights of free speech and free discussion. Here he believed government had the duty to protect such unpopular minorities as the abolitionists in their crusade against slavery. And he also espoused the right of the laboring classes to combine against the power of corporate privilege and monopoly. For the immigrants coming to America, “as the boasted asylum of the oppressed to all the world,” Leggert urged a warm welcome rather than hostility and intolerance. Ever consistent in his attacks upon special privilege, Leggett opposed government subsidies for public works, including education, roads, and canals, as well as the protection of authors and inventors via copyright and patent laws.

White’s compilation offers an attractive, readable account of Leggett’s vigorous libertarian philosophy. His foreword tells the story of a brief career for which Leggett’s own clear prose is the best epitaph. []

(Arthur Ekirch teaches history at the State University of New York at Albany.)