Swans Commentary » swans.com July 31, 2006  



Mark Lause's Young America
Land, Labor and the Republican Community


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Lause, Mark A.: Young America: Land, Labor and the Republican Community, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2005 ISBN 0-252-07230-8 (paper), ISBN 0-252-02980-1 (cloth), 240 pages


(Swans - July 31, 2006)   There is a tendency to look at American working people as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution. This was especially pronounced after the 2004 elections, when despairing liberals felt that "red state" voters chose George W. Bush against their own class interests. Oddly enough, their disgust with the American blue collar worker was reflected in Bertolt Brecht's poem The Selection, with the substitution of the word "liberals" for "government":

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Against this understandable tendency to blame the people, labor and left historians in the U.S. have worked hard to correct the record. Following the example of Howard Zinn, the dean of this school, they uncover instances of working people acting on their own class interests and for the interests of humanity as a whole.

The latest addition to this very necessary literature is Mark Lause's Young America: Land, Labor and Republican Community. This is a study of an obscure political party from the 1840s that was in the vanguard of the fight against the concentration of land ownership, slavery, and for a kind of utopian socialism that predated the more orthodox Marxism of later years. If it is obscure, it is no fault of the actors who deserve a more prominent place in the historical panorama. We have to thank Mark Lause for rescuing them from obscurity and demonstrating our kinship with them. As we struggle against the rich and powerful in the 21st century, we can draw inspiration from our forerunners in the struggle.

The "Young America" in Lause's title refers to the newspaper of the National Reform Association (NRA), whose initials ironically are the same as the arch-reactionary National Rifle Association of today. Although, as one begins to familiarize oneself with the earlier NRA, little doubt will remain about how distinct they were from each other!

Unlike the political parties of today (with the exception of the Greens and smaller socialist groups), the NRA was made up of and led by ordinary working people and small businessmen. In the winter of 1843-44, three men in the printing trades came together to launch the new group.

Born in Great Britain, George Henry Evans was a veteran labor editor who had once published Free Enquirer, a paper strongly influenced by the Owenites in Great Britain. Robert Owen had pioneered communes in Great Britain and even inspired followers in New Harmony, Indiana to begin work to realize their ideals. Even Friedrich Engels understood Owen's importance, despite his disagreement with the utopian underpinnings:

His advance in the direction of Communism was the turning-point in Owen's life. As long as he was simply a philanthropist, he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honor, and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he came out with his Communist theories that was quite another thing. Three great obstacles seemed to him especially to block the path to social reform: private property, religion, the present form of marriage.

Evans sought out John Windt, a blacklisted union organizer, who he collaborated with for fifteen years, and Thomas Ainge Devyr, a veteran of the Chartist movement in Great Britain. Devyr was also an advocate for tenant farmers in the United States. One of the lessons of Lause's study is that land hunger in the U.S. at this time was as pronounced as it was in Latin America. Despite the reputation that it has for providing ample and cheap land for immigrants, the U.S. was plagued by the sort of landlordism that kept people in poverty. The main goal of the NRA was to achieve a sweeping land reform that would establish the material basis for true democracy. It was the age-old Jeffersonian hope mixed with the yearnings of utopian socialism.

For some of us, including myself I am afraid, the image of pioneers grabbing land from the American Indian and living happily ever like the characters in "Little House on the Prairie" is just as much of a fiction as the smarmy television show. In actuality, the "land question" burned with urgency in the U.S. throughout the period in which the NRA took root. Along with the demand for a "ten hour day" (!) and land reform, the NRA sought to redress imbalances that had been present since the dawn of the republic. Cloaked under the high-flown words of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. retained many feudal-like characteristics, not to speak of slavery itself.

Lause explains the economics of land hunger as follows:

The two-party electoral system had never resolved the conflict within the American elite between those eager for the most rapid settlement and those viewing the public lands as a source of revenue. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established a rectangular survey grid with six-mile-square townships, each with 36 sections, each a mile square or 144 quarter-sections of 160 acres each. It also authorized the sale of land by at least a section at $1 per acre, which restricted sales to those with at least $640, roughly two years' income for a skilled worker. The Land Act of 1796 doubled the price to $2 per acre, but the Harrison Land Act promised a more rapid settlement by reducing the minimum sale to 320 acres and requiring only half the price as down payment; in 1804, Congress further halved the minimum to 160 acres. Legislation in 1820 eliminated the credit provision but halved the minimum again to 80 acres and cut the price to $1.25 per acre, which made public land available to any purchaser with $100. These solutions satisfied few.

Once land reform had redressed these injustices, the next step would be to restructure the workplace. Although the NRA lacked the kind of understanding of capitalist society found in the Marxist classics, they instinctively understood the need for challenging the existing order. Influenced by utopian socialist conceptions popular at the time, they defined a "National Reform Village" that went beyond experiments like Brook Farm and implied a restructuring of society as a whole. Access to land would leave each citizen "at full liberty...to turn his attention to agriculture, manufactures, trade or science." Indeed, the lack of a blueprint for a future society except in broad brushstrokes such as a "phonetic newspaper" was consistent with Marx's own stricture about socialism being a product of specific conditions that could not be predicted in advance, including the all-important question of economic development. Lause puts it this way:

In part, National Reformers rejected schemas for the future society as elitist. They believed it should be "not the men of genius, the poets, the philosophers, the orators, the legislators, the statesmen, who originate reforms for the good of the mass. They come from the workmen at the bench, who muse as they labor on the ideas which animate the efforts of the statesmen, and strike out the spark of immortal truth." Their own organizations were but the seeds of a future, a broadly based popular movement that would convince "the working classes" of the necessity "for the weak to be combined for mutual support, rather than divided for mutual destruction," as one National Reformer argued. In the interim, Agrarians engaged in what Hine called "the rationale of reform -- contact of mind with mind, opinion with opinion assured that the true will gradually supersede the false, the virtuous displace the vicious." The solutions demanded a mass movement rather than a mere political association for political reform.

American workers have not only been represented by pundits such as Thomas Frank as not understanding their own class interests; they have also been regarded after past Republican victories as being racist to the core. The phenomenon of "Reagan Democrats" and Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" have been understood as confirmation of some sort of universal principle that a white skin is sufficient to drive workers, no matter how impoverished, into the arms of their employer.

Once again, the example of the NRA serves to undercut that perception. As early opponents of the slave system, these workers understood that as long as Blacks were slaves, they too would be unfree -- a sentiment that Karl Marx shared with respect to the Irish struggle. As he put it, Ireland's freedom was a precondition to the emancipation of the English working class. You could not have one without the other.

At the outset, the NRA did not place any special emphasis on abolition despite being in favor of it. That would change as the crisis around the "peculiar institution" began to deepen. Unlike many early abolitionists, the NRA did not base themselves on Christian ideas about the equality of races. As socialists, they were suspicious of any religious inspiration, even when it was benign. For them, opposition to slavery went hand in hand with opposition to class domination of all sorts. Slavery was merely the most pronounced form of exploitation that white workers suffered as "wage slavery." They were also opposed to early abolitionist romanticizing of "free labor," as if mere emancipation would suddenly transform the slave into a fully realized human being. Alas, the sorry spectacle of the end of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow demonstrates how right they were.

The solution for White and Black alike was radical land reform that would give all men "equal use of the elements." Unlike some abolitionists whose idea of "free soil" meant blocking the introduction of slavery into the Western states, the NRA was for land distribution everywhere in the republic. As their study of the problems of slavery deepened, the NRA began to discover that bondage was not a unique American problem. For them, it encompassed "the serfs of Russia, the Ryots of India, the Peons of Mexico, the Chattel Slaves of Brasil and our Southern States, and the landless Wage Slaves of Great Britain and the United States." Their sympathies went out to indigenous peoples as well, who suffered even greater isolation and hatred than the slaves in some ways. They protested Indian removal to reservations at home and U.S. involvement in suppressing a Mayan rising in the Yucatan. At a New York City meeting, they clapped heartily for a declaration that "the Indians have a right somewhere, and it was certainly time now that their oppression should cease."

Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist recruited to the party, proclaimed that they stood for "the greatest of all Anti-Slavery measures. Abolish Slavery to-morrow, and Land Monopoly would pave the way for its re-establishment [as the end of Reconstruction would sadly demonstrate]. But abolish Land Monopoly -- make every American citizen the owner of a farm adequate to his necessity -- and there will be no room for the return of slavery."

Eventually, the NRA -- along with other democratic-minded groups and individuals -- was subsumed into Lincoln's Republican Party as part of its radical wing. Not only did the Republican Party symbolize the abolitionist hopes of the NRA, its leader could also be seen as being more significantly in favor of working class aspirations than the average politician, especially in light of his comment that "The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds." The story of how these hopes were betrayed by Republican and Democrat alike is of course the subject of another article or book. The abiding lesson perhaps for the Civil War period and for contemporary times is the need to remain independent of both capitalist parties.


· · · · · ·
Lause, Mark A.: Young America: Land, Labor and the Republican Community, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2005 ISBN 0-252-07230-8 (paper), ISBN 0-252-02980-1 (cloth), 240 pages

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Published July 31, 2006