Amos Gilbert, A Sketch of the Life of Thomas Skidmore, With Appended Selections from Skidmore's Rights of Man to Property!, Introduced, annotated & edited by Mark A. Lause (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, 1984).
Mark A. Lause
The Hard-Earned Obscurity of
The appearance of this title will certainly provoke the question "Who is Thomas Skidmore?" even among some of its most radical readers. The answer that he was the principal organizer and the chief theorist of the New York City Workingmen's Party will often lead to another: "What was that?" The very predictability of these questions gauges the weakness of radical labor today.
Conversely, one scholar has called Skidmore "one of the most arresting figures involved in the American labor movement of the early nineteenth century" and "the most interesting and provocative of what was a strongly non-conformist group."1 Another described his major work, The Rights of Man to Property! as "probably the single most comprehensive statement" of antebellum
American radicalism,2 and one recent anthologist treated Skidmore as "clearly the most radical American social thinker of his day."3 Such estimates of a man's importance rarely fall to more obscure Americans than Thomas Skidmore.
Certainly, in this hierarchical world, most of us are born to obscurity, but the right combination of a sense of justice, intellectual honesty and courage can lead to a deeper sort of obscurity -- one that is earned instead of merely inherited. After all, the past twenty years of research on immigrants, blacks, women and the unskilled shows that a general neglect censors history as effectively as direct government intervention. The case of Thomas Skidmore shows that the same can apply to a skilled white workingman who might be a bit too far ahead of his time.
Nor was it simply a matter of Skidmore's being an advanced thinker, although he clearly was one. He advocated citizenship for the American Indians a century before it was attained,4 but the authorities had used the intervening hundred years to pursue a policy of extermination so vigorous that it felt secure in granting the few impoverished survivors access to the court and the
ballot box; there arose neither the question of economic equality nor a more substantial citizenship of any sort. The apologists for the American status quo who define blacks as "free" leave no room in their world-view for a man who decried abolitionism as a half-way measure unless it included a redistribution of land and wealth as well as the demise of white racism.5 The same politicians who managed to reduce the struggle for women's equality to a mere piece of paper -- the so-called Equal Rights Amendment -- to which they could pay lip service while consigning it to oblivion -- also oversee the funding for new textbooks; they have little desire to perpetuate the memory of an advocate of women's equality6 who early attacked the shellgame of politics. The portrait of this early labor organizer and advocate of expropriation of the capitalist class -- a man whose ancestry included some of the first white settlers in New England -- does not fit the "free enterprise" ideology that suppresses contemporary critics as "unAmerican." The powers-that-be do not welcome the wisdom of this critic of war and war-making7 into the nightmarish realities of the modem nuclear world. When he tried to extend arguments in defense of the unrestricted use of unlimited amounts of property to their ultimate absurd conclusions, he wrote about the destruction of the planet's resources8; what seemed the greatest absurdity in the 1820s has become the
reality of western society in the 1980s. Much of what makes Skidmore such an interesting thinker is precisely that which has consigned him to obscurity.
Indeed, most of what we know about Skidmore's life comes from this short sketch by Amos Gilbert, serialized in the Owenite Free Enquirer of New York City during the Spring of 1834.9 Beyond the annotation of this little piece with some additional information, we should here remedy the three major deficiencies of the essay that may blunt its appeal for contemporary readers. First, Gilbert's readers had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Workingmen's Party that few have today. Second, Gilbert understated the indigenous roots of Skidmore's radicalism in the broad social and cultural milieu of his early life in post-Revolutionary, rural New England. Finally, the burden of an additional century and a half of history requires some further comment on the meaning of Skidmore's life and career.
The Workingmen's Party
The story of Thomas Skidmore and the Workingmen's party has been told before10 but remains too little known outside of scholarly circles. In the
Spring of 1829, the New York City building trades were rife with rumors that the employers planned to extend the ten-hour working day. Workers in other crafts realized that the issue affected their futures as well. A series of mass meetings were held to determine a strategy for defeating the attempt. Should they employ the strike or boycott (then tactics of desperation, usually ending in disaster)? At that point Thomas Skidmore, as one of their number, suggested a series of "Agrarian Resolves," expressing their discontent. He participated in the writing of the draft and apparently delivered the report of the steering body -- the Committee of Fifty -- to another mass meeting of New York City Workingmen. Years later, the secretary of that meeting recalled "the eager and impassioned manner in which that sturdy Agrarian, after dropping his coat and neckcloth (quite a revolutionary scene it was!) thundered out, to my great astonishment, the sentiments it contained; a manner seldom found, except when a man is presenting to the public the legitimate offspring of his own brain."11
Through that summer, Skidmore worked on his a book expanding upon those themes. In August, it appeared with the explicit title of The Rights of Man to Property! Being a Proposition to Make it Equal Among the Adults of the Present Generation: And to Provide for it Equal Transmission to Every Individual of Each Succeding Generation, on Arriving at the Age of
Maturity. Addressed to the Citizens of Netv-York, Particularly, and to the People of other States and Nations, generally.
In October, as the elections approached, the Committee of Fifty reassembled to call a series of mass meetings. Following the example of their peers in Philadelphia,12 they launched an independent political movement. Their very first campaign convinced the voters to send a carpenter to the state assembly. Skidmore and all but one of the other candidates came within sixty-five votes of the victor's total. In short, much of the enfranchised work force -- probably the majority of the organized working class -- had struck out on an astonishingly successful political course of their own. Their principal spokesman's book agitated for: a state convention to displace the constitution and its institutionalized "checks and balances" on democracy; the full political, social and economic equality of women, blacks, and Indians; and the confiscation and redistribution of the wealth of the state.
Two considerations explain the subsequent history of the party. On the one hand, the panic among the city's rulers after the election clearly intimidated many adherents of the party. Even those Workingmen who tended to agree with Skidmore sought a more popular way of expressing their discontent, something more easily attained than the Agrarian revolution. Robert Dale Owen -- the son of Robert Owen, the British communitarian thinker --
provided them with such an issue in the demand for free, public education.
At the same time, the party participated in a political system of loose power blocs consisting of diverse and interchangeable elements concerned primarily with winning elections. Failing to distinguish itself from other political formations in that system, the Workingmen's Party subjected itself to an influx of office-seekers and aspiring politicians. Notably, several locally prominent National Republicans ("Whigs") entered the party seeking a popular base to counter that of the Democratic Tammany Society.
These two tendencies converged on the question of disassociating the party from "Skidmorania." Significantly, they did not launch a direct attack upon agrarianism, but rather proposed the reorganization of the party, replacing regular public meetings called by a Committee of Fifty with permanent ward committees.
Writing as "Marcus," Skidmore bearded the lion in his den, submitting a lengthy "Plan of Organization" to the Evening Journal, the organ of the new Whig forces in the party.11 "It is the crime of Tammany and other politicians," he warned, "that the few rule the many; that the smaller rules the larger; that the part controls the whole. Let us not be guilty of the same thing." He did not oppose the permanent ward organizations under discussion, but argued that nominations, for example should come only from "a great general meeting of mechanics and workingmen, without any regard to wards, to the occupation of candidates or to any other circumstances, except that
they be men who live by their own useful industry, and are esteemed to be men of talents and integrity." "In their hands, if anywhere safety is to be found, is our cause safe," he argued.
Finally, a December meeting engineered by newly joined Whiggish "Workies" and original members nervous about Skidmore's overt radicalism dissolved the Committee of Fifty, and the former even shouted down Skidmore's attempt to speak. With the breakdown of democratic discussion, the Workingmen's Party split, and the dynamic of such procedures set it on the course to a second split which, by the Summer of 1830, separated the Evening Journal (whose "Workingmen's Party" tended to nominate the same candidates as the Whigs) and the Daily Sentinel faction (which tended toward the Jacksonian Democrats).
Skidmore and his adherents, meanwhile, formed what must have been the first revolutionary workers' party in American history. By mid-January, a few "original workingmen" met at the Military Hall in the Bowery to call a larger meeting for January 27 of those who "hold fast to the principles of free, equal, and open nominations" by convention.14 The Evening Journal reported simply the meeting on the 27th as "the last efforts of the Agrarian faction, backed by the combined forces of the Aristocrats, Tammanyites, Federalists, &c," but the Agrarians claimed that the journal faction had violated their "rights and common decency" by attending and blocking the conduct of any business. Finally, though, on February 23, "a numerous meeting of Mechanics and other Working
Men" declared the December proceedings null and void, and filled the vacancies on the Committee of Fifty.
Skidmore sought to build this "Poor Man's Party" in various ways. He delivered a series of lectures at the Military Hall on Wooster Street.15 Moreover, that spring, he launched the daily Friend of Equal Rights. The Agrarians also ran candidates of their own in 1830 and 1831, with Skidmore himself campaigning for the U.S. Congress. Regularly getting no more than a handful of votes, they surely expected no electoral upsets, but instead used their candidacies to raise issues that would otherwise not have been raised.
The Agrarians in particular hoped to address the Sentinel faction -- those original Workingmen who had tended to shy away from Skidmore's overt revolutionism. They regularly placed advertisements for their meetings in the Daily Sentinel, particularly after its break with the Evening Journal. Furthermore, some of the men for whom the Agrarians campaigned -- like George Bruce and Frederick S. Cozzens -- also ran for office on the tickets of the Sentinel faction. Skidmore personally had an ongoing debate with George Henry Evans -- the editor of the Sentinel and the Workingman's Advocate. Evans frequently mentioned the Agrarians in his newspapers and had to bear the consequences directly. Flustered, Evans at one point announced that Skidmore did not "know how to receive, or to reply to a civil article. Since abuse is the weapon he resorts to, he may henceforth have all the fighting to himself."16
Skidmore unfortunately did not live to see the impact of this strategy on Evans and the other "Workies" of the Sentinel faction.
The Rural New England Roots of Skidmore's Agrarianism
Skidmore's native Fairfield county covers the southwest corner of Connecticut on the Long Island Sound with rural upstate New York just to its west and the back country of western Massachusetts not far to its north. It is geographically the farthest extension of New England into the cultural and social world of the Mid-Atlantic, and the commercial values of the port prevailed at Stamford, Norwalk, Fairfield and Bridgeport on the Sound.
Skidmore, however, was the product of Newtown township -- a society generally based on subsistence agriculture.17 Among the whites, only those on the frontier lived a more primitive life -- or one less characterized by industrial social relations. Rugged terrain and the eighteenth century level of technology preserved the county's northeastern corner on the Housatonic river as a bastion of traditionalism. Only a little over 2400 people lived there at the time of the Revolution and it stagnated to such an extent that it failed to reach 2900 by 1810.18
The center of local life was a village just north of the geographic center of the township on "a considerable ridge, extending from the mountainous district to the north and west."19 Sloping gradually to the south and more sharply to the east and west, the prospect permitted a view of eight or nine miles. The village, consisting "principally of one street," had about fifty buildings (one-eighth of the township's total) clustered on either side of the Bridgeport Road for about a mile. Two or three stores, workshops, the Episcopal and Congregational churches, and two schools were among them. Public houses and taverns also flourished but without the intemperance that characterized habits further south.
The area's isolation clearly slowed its development. Stratford entrepreneurs bought the land from local Indians in 1705. Within seven years they organized a township and began encouraging settlement, but the process was slow. When colonists elsewhere began clamoring against the British Stamp Act, residents of Newtown had only begun discussing their need for a local meeting hall.20 This general parochialism and the unusually strong influence of the local Anglican church with its Loyalist minister produced more than the area's share of Tories. The hanging of a British spy in the village in 1777 and the march of the French allies through the village a few years later brought the Revolution to that part of the county.21
The history of Skidmore's family was closely interwoven with that of the area.22 His great grandfather (a descendant of an immigrant who had reached America in 1635) had been among the first white settlers there. By 1719, the family had taken up residence in "Land's End" -- that "mountainous district" northwest of the village. When the Revolution came to Newtown, Thomas' father, John Skidmore, stood among the earliest of the residents to take an "oath of fidelity" to the new government.23
The achievement of national independence released the commercial and industrial potential of the New World. This swept such subsistence farming areas to the periphery of American concerns, compelling them to accept the developing market economy. Skidmore was born in a society steeped in resistance to that assimilation into the new commercial order. Only a few years before his birth, farmers and country mechanics rose with arms in hand to stem the growing power of land speculators, bankers and lawyers in their communities. Although centered in western Massachusetts, what became known as "Shays' Rebellion" also moved hundreds of men south along the Housatonic in Litchfield County, Connecticut. Many citizens sympathized with the rebels there -- and probably
across the river in Newtown township of Fairfield county as well. Connecticut authorities invaded Litchfield county during May 1787 to dissolve a paramilitary organization at Sharon planning to aid the jailed "Shaysites" just across the Massachusetts line in Great Barrington.24 Indeed, the government did not finally decide the fate of some of the rebellion's leaders until the year before Skidmore's birth, and the animosities and resentments smouldered through the world of his childhood and youth.
"Antifederalism" -- opposition to the ratification of the Federal Constitution -- expressed much of that resentment. A former cobbler in upstate New York spoke for many in the adjacent back country of New England when he labelled the establishment of the United States government a victory of city merchants and land speculators over poor farmers, mechanics and laborers.25
Some rural New Englanders carried these attitudes to their most radical conclusions. In 1796, David Brown -- an itinerant laborer and Revolutionary veteran from Bethlehem in Litchfield County -- began publicly attacking the new government as representing a new aristocracy based on wealth which was crushing "the labouring part of the community."26 At the same time, William
Manning -- a veteran "Minute Man" and farmer of
North Billerica, Massachusetts -- wrote that,
although work was "the soul parrant of all
property," "the Few" with wealth had come to
rule "the Many" who did the actual labor; he urged
the formation of a "Labouring Society" capable of
publishing a magazine and organizing a movement to secure justice, even speculating that it might be built on an international scale.27
Brown and Manning expressed a village radicalism that many citizens of New England felt. After all, only an unusually historically-minded group of descendants preserved Manning's manuscript and only Federal prosecution documented the concerns of David Brown. Thomas Skidmore probably knew of such ideas; his father's cousin Abel Skidmore actually moved in 1805 to Bethlehem where the story of its only living citizen of national repute must have been fresh in the minds of the residents.28
In Thomas Skidmore the rulers of the young United States confronted Shays' revenge, the spectre of their past victims.
The Significance of Skidmore's Life and Career
Gilbert was dead wrong about Skidmore's "failure." Skidmore's ideas and the movement they inspired had a far-reaching impact on his contemporaries. Indeed, he was the progenitor of an important trend. "From about the year 1829 to 1841," recalled one American observer, "there was in our politics a large infusion of Socialism." "Of late years, we have heard much of Socialists, Communists, Fourierites, and so forth; but the word Agrarians comprehends all these," he wrote.29
Across the western world, thinking people responded to Skidmore's Agrarianism.30 His ideas became particularly important in the development of radicalism in New York's young labor movement. Gilbert's own sketch marked an initial, posthumous reassessment of Skidmore by former adherents of Evans' Sentinel faction. Several years later, Evans himself accepted Skidmore as a prophet of a new, democratic social order.
Evans and other former militants of the Sentinel faction reorganized in the 1840s around a new form of "agrarianism." In brief, they argued for
the free and equal distribution of the public lands of the west to landless Americans. Those who desired could then pool their assets to establish communities or cooperative industries, leading to a new egalitarian society. But this "new agrarianism," as historians have termed it, fed upon more immediate struggles: against chartered monopolies (like banks) and great land grants (like those to the railroads); in defense of squatters; and in Labor's efforts to form producers or consumers cooperatives or to win a shorter working day. Evans' National Reform Association, organized early in 1844, as well as George Lippard's Brotherhood of the Union, formed five years later, represented the organizational continuity of Skidmore's agrarianism into the Civil War years and beyond.
These ideological heirs of Thomas Skidmore persisted. Through the International Workingmen's Association -- the "First International" -- of the 1860s and early 1870s into the Single Tax movement of Henry George, the old Agrarians continued to assert an egalitarianism that both insisted upon the extension of democracy into economics and embraced all regardless of race or sex. Their long years of struggle helped prepare the way for the radicalism of the present century.
Even more importantly, though, the political legacy of Thomas Skidmore still persists, often among those who have never even heard his name. We hope that in letting them know who he was we are also helping to let them know who they are -- part of a long line of fighters for human liberation constantly emerging from American conditions.
That vested interests of the mass media -- the newspapers, radio and television -- regularly
ignore or misrepresent the efforts to create a more livable world should never be any deterrent. After all, in a nation where the powers-that-be got where they are the way they did (and stay there the way they do), to be obscure is no vice and to earn obscurity is to enter into the best of company.
It is a pleasure to present the life of a man whose obscurity was so well earned.
Mark A. Lause
While most of the research for supplemental data on Skidmore's life and times was done at the Newberry Library at Chicago, the assistance of the New York Historical Society, the Connecticut State Library, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the DuPont Library of the Hagley Mills Foundation were invaluable. My thanks to the underpaid, overworked but ever-helpful staffs of these institutions.
1 Edward Pessen, "Thomas Skidmore: Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement," New York History, XXV (July, 1954), 280, and his Most Uncommon Jacksonians: Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement (Albany, 1967), 57.
2 Staughton Lynd, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (2nd ed.; New York, 1969), 88.
3 The Perfectionists: Radical Social Thought in the North, 1815-1860, ed. Laurence Veysey (New York, 1973), 83. Selections from Skidmore's book have been published in other collections varying from The Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy: Representative Writings of the Period, 1825-1850, ed. Joseph L. Blau (Indianapolis and New York, 1954), 355-64 to Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International -- A Documentary History, ed., Albert Fried (Garden City, New York, 1970), 124-32.
4 See Rights of Man to Property! (New York, 1829), 130-33, 146, 158, 160, 298, 357. For some selections, see the appendix.
5 Skidmore's general view of racism is clear in passages cited Ibid. For specific references to blacks and slavery, see-also 27, 54-55, 159, and, for the insights of a former resident of North Carolina into the future plight of Reconstruction, 270.
6 Ibid, 139, 141, 159-60, 235.
7 Ibid, 282-83.
8 Ibid, 117-18.
9 Specifically, the issues of March 30, April 6, and April 13, 1834, 179-80, 186-87 and 199-200.
10 Among those works discussing Skidmore and the Workingmen's party, in addition to those previously cited, are Walter Hugins' Jacksonian Democracy and the Working Class: A Study of the New York Workingmen's Movement, 1829-1837 (Stanford, 1960), 82-84 and David Harris' Socialist Origins in the United States: American Forerunners of Marx, 1817-1832 (Assen, 1966), 91-139. See also John R. Commons, et. al., History of Labor in the United States (2nd ed., 4 vols.; New York, 1946), I, 234-37 and 237f. Among the party's neglected supporters were the free blacks, particularly of the Fifth Ward.
See Hanes Walton, Jr., The Negro in Third Party Politics (Philadelphia, 1969), 7, citing Dixon Fox's "The Negro Vote in Old New York," Political Science Quarterly, XXXII (January, 1917), 264.
11 Letter of Robert Dale Owen to the [Washington, D.C.| Madisonian, February 13, 1838.
12 The best sketch of the origins of the Philadelphia movement remains that of Louis Arky, "The Mechanics' Union of Trade Associations and the Formation of the Philadelphia Workingmen's Party," Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. LXXVI (April, 1952), 142-76.
13 The plan, in seven numbers, is in the Evening Journal, November 24, 26, December I, 3, 7, 10, 12, 1829.
14 For accounts of meetings of the group, see Ibid, January 26, 28, February 25, 1830.
15 See the advertisements in the Ibid. February 11, 12, and 13, 1830.
16 Daily Sentinel, July 16, 1830.
17 See the discussion of "subsistence agriculture" in Jackson Turner Main's The Social Structure of Revolutionary America (Princeton, 1965).
18 D. Hamilton Hurd, History of Fairfield County, Connecticut, With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia, 1881), 459, 64. See also John C. Pease and John M. Niles, A Gazetteer of the State of Connecticut and Rhode-Island (Hartford, 1819), 183.
19 For descriptions of the village in Skidmore's day, see Pease and Niles, 183-84; Hurd, 461.
20 Hurd, 40.
21 Charles P. Smith, The Housatonic, Puritan River (New York, 1946), 81; Samuel Hard, Old Connecticut: Historical Papers on People, Places, Traditions, and Early Anglicanism, ed. Kenneth W. Cameron (Hartford, 1976), 34.
22 See Emily C. Hawley, A Geneological and Biographical Record of the Pioneer Thomas Skidmore (Scudamore) of the Massachusetts and Connecticut Colonies in Nav England and of Huntington, Long Island, and of His Descendants through the Branches Herein Set Forth (Brattleboro, Vt., 1911 and 1912), 19-23, 25, 98, 101, 104-05, 172.
23 For John Skidmore's oath of August 25, 1777, see Ezra Levin Johnson, Newtown's History and Historian, ed. Jane Eliza Johnson (Newtown, 1917), 122.
24 For an excellent overview, see David P. Szatmary's Shays' Rebellion: the Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (Amherst, 1980), particularly 116-17.
25 Staughton Lynd, "Abraham Yate's History of the Movement for the United States Constitution," in Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution: Ten Essays (Indianapolis, 1967), 218-20.
26 On Brown, see James M. Smith's Freedom's Fetters: the Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (2nd ed.; Ithaca, New York, 1966), 257-70, and John C. Miller's The
Crisis of Freedom: the Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (Boston, 1951), 114-20.
27 William Manning, The Key of Libberly, Shewing the Causes why a free Government has always failed and a Remidy Against It (Billerica, Massachusetts, 1922 [originally written, ca. 1798]).
28 Commemorative Biographical Record of Fairfield County, Connecticut, Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citiztnis, and Many of the Early Settled Families (Chicago, 1899), Part I, 433-34; Hawley, 161.
29 "Agrarianism," The Atlantic Monthly, III (April, 1859), 394, 396.
30 See, for example, Thurlow Weed Barnes, The Memoirs of
Thurlow Weed (Boston, 1884), 562, or Thomas Cooper's "Agrarian and Educational Systems," Southern Review (August, 1830), 1-31, whose views were essentially the same as those of the English observer, Thomas Hamilton, Esq. who discussed the Agrarians in his Men and Manners in America (2nd ed.; London, 1843), xx-xxi, 161-62. Karl Marx drew on both of these sources for his comments in The German Ideology (3rd ed.; Moscow, 1976), 514. For this curious influence of Skidmore on Marx, see Lewis S. Feuer's Marx and the Intellectuals: A Set of Post-Ideological Essays (Garden City, New York, 1969), 202-04. Skidmore's movement also inspired a vivid foreshadowing of a working class insurrection in "Three Hundred Years Hence," Illinois Monthly Magazine, I (November, 1830), 49-55.