Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community.
The current leadership of the Republican Party in the United States would find Mark Lause's book enlightening. Among other things, it exposes the mid-nineteenth-century radical roots of the party. Many modern-day Republicans might even be aghast to learn that known communist Alvan Earl Bovay was at one of the party's first meetings in 1854, where he and others sought to create "a new party of social reform," one that would institutionalize Jeffersonian ideas for the growth and well-being of the American republic (p. 1). These new Republicans were offspring of the pre-Republican party known as the National Reform Association (NRA) whose leaders wanted to end the practice of states seizing lands for payment of debt, allow free settlement on federal land for the landless, and limit the amount of land any one individual could own. Clearly over the past century and a half something has changed within the Republican Party.
Lause's focus, however, is not on the evolution of the Republican Party, but its origins within the context of republicanism in a very contested time. He shows how land reform resonated with agrarian radicals, urban labourers, and European immigrants. Having emerged from the ideals of urban workers alienated from land through industrialization in the early 1840s, these people with diverse interests joined forces in the early 1850s and pressured state and federal governments, hoping they would change government's approach to social problems. The agitators grafted land reform onto the decade's ascendant notion of free labour, intending to help those in the free states that would emerge before the Civil War understand reform's centrality to their ideology. Indeed, Lause argues that the goals of the National Reformers and, thus the proto-Republicans, were "remaking the social structure, eliminating slavery, and assuring the fullest liberty to each and every individual" (p. 3). Land reform and access to land for the landless were critical to the success of all three.
Lause's narrative shows that ascendant nineteenth-century capitalism had moved labourers into factories, and that agrarian workers rented lands to produce goods for markets. Neither had much hope of owning land. During the course of the next thirty years, reformers like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were making inroads into the consciousness of workers, aided by newspaper editors such as George Henry Evans and, later, William Lloyd Garrison. Men and women in cities and on farms responded by forming various labour and land reform organizations that by the 1840s developed into the NRA.
This new organization founded its concerns in the ideology of the American Revolution, claiming it was working people whose blood brought the United States out of European bondage. With such a claim to virtue, they worked to combine concerns about industrial and agricultural monopoly. At first, its leaders sought allies within the factional Democratic Party. Ultimately they were spurned and sought non-partisan solutions to social problems. And they looked to solve every problem imaginable. They claimed to welcome "Christians, Mormons, Infidels" as well as abolitionists and those advocating temperance, free trade, and free soil. One NRA leader, Joshua King Ingalls, sought to fuse "friends of Equality, Liberty, and Justice, male and female," with "Friends of Universal Freedom, Universal Education, Universal Homes, Universal Plenty, Universal Labor and Universal Happiness" (p. 45). With the help of labour unions and other radical urban and agricultural organizations, the NRA transformed into what Lause calls "working class republicanism" (p. 118). By means of massive petitioning campaigns, lobbying efforts, and old-fashioned agitating, these politically savvy radicals led a comprehensive, if not massive, movement aimed at social reform, one infused with the recognition of class identity as well as racial and gender inequity.
Lause's narrative is based largely on "movement sources," limited in scope and availability. He admits, for instance, that "no general records of [the NRA's] formal membership survive" (p. 3). He also admits that the several hundred thousand people who were urban reform radicals "would have made the influence of such a labor movement marginal" in times other than the years before the Civil War. Those shortcomings notwithstanding, by examining the complex dynamics of a widely divergent set of ideals and those who articulated them, Lause offers correctives to assumptions that such reformers were merely socialists or communists. In the end, however, Lause's book most vividly leads to his antithesis--an understanding of the ways in which the United States emerged economically and socially the way it did. Lause's reformers scared the rank and file of Americans, particularly those in the emerging middle class, and led them directly into the hands of the elite economic power structure of which reformers eloquently, if ineffectively, warned.
David R Dewar
University of Kansas
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|Author:||Dewar, David P.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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