Benjamin Ricketson Tucker
The following article was written by Kenneth Gregg and published at CLASSical Liberalism, April 17, 2005.

Following the military defeat of the Southern Jeffersonians in the Civil War and the war reparations placed upon their property and livelihood, the American political world was left to the Hamiltonians for a generation. There were few options left. Jeffersonians in the North were tagged as Copperheads and rebel sympathizers. Southern Jeffersonians were disenfranchised in more ways than one. Tariff increases initiated by the Republican Party sent long-time Jeffersonian strongholds into bankruptcy. Many would later attempt to rebuild the lost economy of the South with the few scraps left by the carpetbaggers of the North; others left for the West in the hopes of finding better opportunities. The power gained by the Republicans was to give political control of the South and most of the other states within the Union to the G.O.P. With this free hand, there was little opposition to the special grants and privileges which were sought by their supporters and interests.

The next political battle the Jeffersonians were to undertake was much later against the Tariff. This effort energized a new generation of Jeffersonians. Tariffs, by the late 1870’s not only eliminated the federal debt but filled the coffers of the federal government with a surplus unheard of by any of the previous administrations. Indeed, it was an embarrassing surplus with little reason to exist. There were interest groups fighting over control of this surplus, including railroad interests, Northern banking interests and ex-soldiers and soldier wives’ pension demands.

Much of the later American designs in the Pacific and elsewhere were a consequence of this surplus as Republicans fought to gain additional territory through military occupation and continued increasing control over lands reserved for Indians. Imperial designs were made upon Spanish claims.

As the Republicans understood, tariffs are a natural income for a nationalist state. It places control at the border as to what products may or may not enter. It is only a national state dominated by special interests which inherently benefits from these taxes. What is the proper revenue for local needs and focuses on benefits accrued from individuals within states and local jurisdictions for a republican state allied with other republican states in a federal system? Of necessity, it must be a form which, if not a voluntary payment, is of a nature which is controlled by the polity closest to the individual, wherein choices are made on the smallest level possible. Tariffs were certainly not the answer

The growing Free Trade Movement sought an end to the tariffs and corruption in state and federal governments by every means available to them, leading to several outcomes. The first and most important was the rise of the Democratic Party with Grover Cleveland [PDF] at its helm. The next most important were the rise of the “Mugwumps” within the Republican party. For many Jeffersonian radicals, neither went far enough or sufficiently effective in their efforts and looked for alternatives.

The first major movement of the radical Jeffersonians evolved from the insights of a young journalist and firebrand, Henry George. With the publication of Progress and Poverty, as well as number of other books, pamphlets, essays and articles, a new movement arose with ideas for a dynamic capitalist free society, the single tax movement. The idea of limiting all government to a single tax based upon land value was debated across dinner tables and lecture halls throughout the country. It would preserve the Jeffersonian ideal by its primary emphasis upon providing income for cities and local communities (as land taxes have always done) and little for the higher levels (state and federal) save for what would accrue for a frugal government willing to provide for state and national concerns. This paleolibertarian notion was the direction of political activism for radical libertarians for generations.

Following the Civil War came a growing preoccupation with public corruption, beginning to overshadow concerns among reformers with Reconstruction itself. Their enthusiasm for the Republican party began to evaporate during Grant’s administration. Tucker described his only sojourn into politics in The Life of Benjamin Tucker, Disclosed by Himself, In the Principality of Monaco, At the Age of 74:

Four years of Grant and corruption had disgusted me with the Republican party, and the chance of seeing an honest man in the White House in the person of Horace Greeley, whom I had so long admired, made me eager for the fray. In Theodore Tilton’s …establishment of his new paper, The Golden Age, I found an immediate opportunity for participation, as Tilton, in his youth a Tribune reporter under Greeley, had espoused the cause of his old employer, and was devoting both pen and tongue to his election. …I had still a few weeks in New Bedford, and it occurred to me that a part of that time might well be devoted to a canvass for subscriptions to The Golden Age. Less than a week’s work in the city resulted in a list of respectable propositions, — about thirty names, I believe, — and without previous consultation with the management of the paper, I dispatched both the addresses and the money…, they rose promptly to the occasion. Straightway came a letter … urgently inviting me to take the agency for the entire State of Massachusetts. My refusal [was] based on the ground that I was soon to accompany my parents to Vermont…However, even in hopelessly Republican Vermont, I had one opportunity, while at Bellows Fall, to lift my feeble voice in the good cause…

The stagnation of party politics in the mire of narrow partisanship and repeated scandals during the “Great Barbecue” of the Gilded Age cleared the way. The abolitionist, freethinker and father of the mutual insurance industry, Elizur Wright, spoke to black voters in the 1872 election that the Party of Lincoln had only freed the slaves as a wartime “expedient…It is you[r] obvious policy not to wed yourselves for better or worse to either party…but to go for that which best deserves and most needs your help…The great question now before the Republican party, and all the rest of us is whether after our bloody cutting out of cancer [slavery], we are to rot by the cancer of our corruption.” While he supported Grant’s troops ordered to combat the KKK, he would later say, “What is the use of keeping people’s throats from being cut, if they are to be perpetually robbed?” (p. 180-81).

By July 4, 1876, Wright would found, with other former abolitionists (such as Moses Harmon), the National Liberal League which supported black emancipation, women’s rights, but above all they identified themselves as individualists threatened by the imposition of state-enforced Christian dogma: “The platform of the coming millions is the individual,” as Wright would say (p. 182). The League’s stress was upon personal rights, civil liberties and freedom of thought. Anthony Comstock’s crusade against vice and obscenity was to become their most noted battle front, with Ezra Heywood, who was arrested for the publication of his essay, Cupid’s YokeD.M. Bennett, editor of freethought periodical, The Truthseeker, was also arrested by Comstock for mailing a copy of Cupid’s Yoke through the U.S. Postal Service.

Ezra Heywood, an elderly abolitionist and opponent of the Civil War (he had opposed the violent methods used by Lincoln as well as that of the Confederate States of America), was highly regarded as a “gentle anarchist” who was fighting a battle for freedom of information, and the rights of consenting adults to their own personal relationships. An ardent feminist as well (and married to a strident feminist, Angela Heywood), he believed that men had reduced women to such socioeconomic dependence that, in order to live, women were forced to chose between selling their labor for next to nothing or selling their bodies into unwanted unions. This Heywood believed to be an insufferable injustice and devoted his writings to free love as a form of freedom from another type of slavery, as he explained in Uncivil Liberty as well as in Cupid’s Yoke.

Here is the point where the subject of this article comes in, for he meets Ezra Heywood in 1873 at the National Free-Love Convention held in Ravenna, Ohio. Benjamin Tucker, who had become one of the controversial feminist Victoria Woodhull‘s “boy-toy” at the age of 19. As a long-time friend, J. William Lloyd would describe Tucker as a:

Well-groomed, fashionably dressed, with a neatly trimmed dark beard (beards were fashionable then), a swarthy complexion, flashing black eyes, a frequent if perhaps slightly nervous laugh, and a charmingly genial manner, which I never knew him to lose… Handsome, a brilliant translator, an editor of meticulous care and finish, a trenchant reasoner, with a faith and enthusiasm for his “ism” that had no bounds, he was like a strong current that swept us along… Tucker’s manner of writing was what chiefly attracted attention to him. No more fiery and furious apostle ever put pen to paper. A veritable baresark of dialectics. He was dogmatic to the extreme, arrogantly positive, browbeating and dominating, true to his “plumb-line” no matter who was slain, and brooked no difference, contradiction or denial. Biting sarcasm, caustic contempt, invective that was sometimes almost actual insult, were poured out on any who dared criticize or oppose… this swashbuckler, on paper, when you met him in person, was the most genial, affable, and charming gentlemen that you could possibly imagine, kind, gentle and always smiling. I discounted this as toward myself but I could not learn that anyone had ever had a hard spoken word from him, and I have never to this day heard of one who had. Face to face this tiger was a dove.

Benjamin R. Tucker was to become America’s greatest expositor of the philosophy of “unterrified Jeffersonianism” (as he called it), most commonly known as anarchism. Child of a Quaker father. a Jeffersonian Democrat and Painite Unitarian mother activist, both of old Yankee stock, he grew up as a child reading Darwin, Spencer, Buckle, Huxley and Tyndall, and listened to speeches by such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Carl Shurz and Charles Bradlaugh. When he moved in 1872 to Boston to study at MIT, he would meet and become friends with other American radicals like Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, Stephen Pearl Andrews and, of course, Ezra Heywood. As a matter of course while beginning his career as a journalist, mainly with the Boston Globe, he would work with journalists, many sympathetic with his views, and become familiar with other writers who would come into his circle of friends as he began publishing, editing and writing in the radical press of this time.

In 1892 in “Why I am an Anarchist” in The Twentieth Century, a New York weekly edited by Hugh O. Pentecost, Tucker said that anarchy is,

The realization of liberty. Destroy the banking monopoly, establish freedom in finance, and down will go interest on money through the beneficent influence of competition. Capital will be set free, business will flourish, new enterprises will start, labour will rise at a level with its product. And it is the same with the other monopolies. Abolish the tariffs, issue no patents, take down the bars from unoccupied land, and labour will straightaway rush in and take possession of its own. Then mankind will live in freedom and in comfort. That is what I want to see; that is what I love to think of. And because Anarchism will give this state of things, I am an Anarchist.” (reprinted in Man! An Anthology of Anarchist Ideas, Essays, Poetry and Commmentaries edited by Marcus Graham, London: Cienfuegos Press, 1976. p. 136)

Tucker’s beliefs were set down in the first issue of Liberty in August 1881:

Liberty insists on the sovereignty of the individual and the just reward of labor; on the abolition of the State and the abolition of usury; on no more government of man by man, and no more exploitation of man by man; on Anarchy and Equity.-Liberty‘s war-cry is ‘Down with authority’ and its chief battle with the State-the State that corrupts children; the state that trammels law; the State that stifles thought; the State that monopolizes land; the State that give idle capital the power to increase, and through interest, rent, profit and taxes robs industrious labor of its products.

Tucker is best known as the author of Instead of a Book, By a Man Too Busy to Write One and Individual Liberty, both collections of essays culled mainly from Radical Review (1877-1878) and Liberty (1881-1908). Tucker’s free-wheeling, laissez-faire, free market anarchism tinged with free love, Stirnerism with a good dose of humor, was analyzed, criticized, commended and blackballed, but it could not be ignored. His periodicals included discussion, propaganda, literary writings of note, debates, essays. The periodicals were brilliantly edited, typed in the best formats of its day, with beautiful artwork and photos. It would be in his periodicals that libertarians would know what is available and what were the issues were being debated.

A generation of radicals grew up reading his periodicals, books and essays in America, Europe and elsewhere. His staff of associates and writers were the best that Liberty produced. He popularized Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and printed G.B. Shaw prior to any other American publisher. When Liberty stopped publishing in 1908 when Tucker’s bookstore burned down, he would continue to write and communicate with others until his death in Monaco.

His impact was considerable, both within his own generation, and to the generations of libertarians that have come afterward as Rudolf Rocker points out in Pioneers of American Freedom (Los Angeles: Rocker Publication Committee, 1949. pp. 118-154)

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