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Josiah Warren: The First American Anarchist

Tags BiographiesFree MarketsU.S. History

02/25/2011Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "The First American Anarchist"]

Josiah Warren (1798–1874)

On an evening in 1871 or perhaps 1872, a young MIT student named Benjamin R. Tucker attended a lecture somewhere in the Boston-Cambridge area, a lecture at which he met a much older man named Josiah Warren. Tucker was only 17 or 18 at the time, and his encounter with Warren, who was in his early 70s, was a fateful, even a life-changing one.

After devoting a half dozen years to further thought about the ideas Warren introduced to him that evening, young Tucker embarked upon an ambitious program of publishing, involving both books and periodicals, that occupied him for the next 30 years. During those years, through his publications, he succeeded in creating and then leading what I have often described here on Mises.org as the first, the original, American libertarian movement.

Josiah Warren never lived to see any of this. He died in 1874, not long after his fateful meeting with the young Benjamin Tucker. He was 76 years old at the time of his death, which took place in Princeton, Massachusetts, a small town 15 or 20 miles north of Worcester, around 50 or 60 miles west of Boston as the crow flies.

Tucker, at this time, was still only 19 years old. Yet the theories he built the first libertarian movement around in the 1880s and '90s were, essentially, the theories he first heard enunciated when he was a student at MIT in the early 1870s — the theories he first heard from the lips of Josiah Warren. Tucker worked on those ideas extensively during the three decades of his publishing career; he expanded upon them, worked out their implications, and found ways to popularize them. But they remained, fundamentally, Warren's ideas.

Josiah Warren was born in Boston in 1798. An apparent natural talent for music showed itself early on, and he was playing professionally in local bands by the time he was in his mid-teens. At 20, he married and decided, as his biographer, William Bailie, puts it, to

set out from his native place to improve his fortunes in the West. In those days the city of Cincinnati was quite on the verge of civilization, with the vast unknown beyond; and when Warren reached it he decided to settle there and pursue his vocation as an orchestra leader and teacher of music. His talents soon gained him an honorable professional repute which extended beyond the city; but he had other interests.

This, if anything, is an understatement. In addition to his lifelong enthusiasm for music, Warren was an inveterate tinkerer. He seldom came upon any machine or device or system that he didn't think he could improve in some way. And, often enough, he was right. Still, Bailie reports that Warren "devoted his leisure time to mechanical pursuits" for about five years after his arrival in Cincinnati in 1818 before he enjoyed a major success. This came with his invention of

a lamp for burning lard that would furnish a cheaper and better light than tallow, which was then selling at a high price. So successful was this invention, which Warren patented in 1823, that he was soon running a lamp manufactory in Cincinnati.

Then one day in 1825, when Warren was 27 years old, Robert Owen came to town. Owen was a British industrialist and social reformer, born in Wales in modest circumstances in 1771 and now, in 1825, in his mid 50s. He was a self-made man, having worked his way up from clothier's apprentice to the fabulously wealthy owner of an international textile business.

Always an enthusiastic reader, Owen became devoted in the 1790s, when he was in his 20s, to the ideas of the English utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. But as the years went by, he found himself drifting more and more away from Bentham's views and toward communism. He came to believe that the introduction of labor-saving machinery into the workplace was the chief cause of economic misery and that the best remedy for this situation was to be found in a mode of society in which workers would feel united and would experience solidarity with their fellows, while machinery was de-emphasized. And his way of uniting workers was by arranging for them to live communally.

Robert Owen stands near the beginning of a long line of businessmen who believed their skill at commerce suited them well to the task of figuring out a way to fix what was wrong with human social relations in general. He knew exactly how everything about the ideal community should be done, right down to the population density. He believed, as the Wikipedia article on Owen summarizes it, that

communities of about twelve hundred persons each should be settled on quantities of land from 1000 to 1500 acres … all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community; their parents would have access to them at meals and all other proper times.

All property in these communities should be communally owned, Owen believed. Work and consumption should both be based on the precept "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" (though that exact phrase had not yet been coined).

Owen underwrote the cost of launching such a community in Scotland and then undertook an American lecture tour he hoped would drum up enthusiasts for the very similar utopian community he had decided to found in New Harmony, Indiana, down in the extreme southwest corner of the state, practically in Kentucky, practically in southern Illinois. And, as I've indicated, when his lecture tour brought him to Cincinnati, he addressed an audience that included a young musician and tinkerer named Josiah Warren.

Warren was mightily impressed by Owen. Up to this time, he seems not ever to have entertained the notion that his passion for tinkering might be extended to so vast a canvas as all of human society. But after all, if he could improve a machine, a device, a system, then why not try his hand at improving society? First, he decided, he should give Robert Owen's ideas a fair trial. They certainly sounded persuasive. And so it was that in 1825, at the age of 27, Josiah Warren, the successful inventor and commercial exploiter of a popular lamp, sold his factory after only two years of operation, packed up his young family, and took his place as one of 900 or so Owenites who had decided to become part of the founding population of New Harmony, Indiana.

The utopian community failed pretty quickly. In fact, according to James J. Martin, in his classic work Men Against the State,

failure of its main objective was admitted less than a year and a half after the first confident measures toward central organization had been taken. Numerous reasons have been advanced for this: the absence of Owen at critical times, preoccupation with the externals of organization, and petty strife. More important perhaps was the fact that too much of the tangible and material portion of the venture represented something for which the rank and file of the community felt no attachment, it being the contribution of the leader and not the product of the labor of the group.

This last observation of Martin's is closely related to Warren's own ideas about why New Harmony had proved a disaster. As Martin writes, "Warren made a quick and incisive deduction as to the cause of the debacle which placed him at once in a camp far removed from that in which the faithful Owenites would henceforth gather. He felt that the common property scheme of the New Harmony colony" virtually guaranteed

the submergence of the individual within the confines of the community. The consequences of such a procedure, said Warren, were inevitable. Not only was individual initiative stifled by failure to provide a place within the structure for personal rights and interests beyond the sphere of religious matters, but the elimination of individual property rights resulted in almost total dissipation of responsibility for the occurrence of individual incapacity, failure, and short-comings of other kinds.

Reflecting on his experience at New Harmony some years later, Warren wrote that "it appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us … our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation." He concluded that

society must be so converted as to preserve the sovereignty of every individual inviolate [and] it must avoid all combinations and connections of persons and interests, and all other arrangements which will not leave every individual at all times at liberty to dispose of his or her person, and time, and property in any manner in which his or her feelings or judgment may dictate, without involving the persons or interests of others.

And so it was that in May of 1827, a sadder, wiser, but not at all discouraged Josiah Warren, still not yet 30 years old, returned to Cincinnati. He set about making arrangements to earn his living as a musician and music teacher, as he had before, but now social reform was in his blood, and within only a few weeks he plunged headlong into another utopian experiment based on the ideas of Robert Owen. This one was a retail store at the corner of 5th and Elm Streets in what is now downtown Cincinnati.

All the goods offered for sale in Warren's store were offered at the same price the merchant himself had paid for them, plus a small surcharge, in the neighborhood of 4 to 7 percent, to cover store overhead. "Cost the limit of price" was one of Warren's favorite slogans. But, you ask, was this meager 4–7 percent markup also supposed to include the store's profit? No, it wasn't. The store didn't make any profit at all in the conventional sense.

Let William Bailie explain in a little more detail how Warren's store worked. Bailie notes that the people in and around Cincinnati in the waning years of John Quincy Adams's presidency called Warren's establishment

the "Time Store," not because it gave credit or sold goods on installments, but on account of the peculiar and original method adopted to fix and regulate the amount of the merchant's compensation. This was determined on the principle of the equal exchange of labor, measured by the time occupied, and exchanged hour for hour with other kinds of labor. Let us illustrate. A clock hangs in a conspicuous place in the store. In comes the customer to make his purchases. All goods are marked with the price in plain figures, which is their cost price, plus a nominal percentage to cover freight, shrinkage, rent, etc., usually about four cents on the dollar. The purchaser selects what he needs, with not over-much assistance or prompting from the salesman, and pays for the same in lawful money. The time spent by the merchant in waiting upon him is now calculated by reference to the convenient clock, and in payment for this service the customer gives his labor note, something after this form: "Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, thirty minutes in carpenter work — John Smith." Or, "Due to Josiah Warren, on demand, ten minutes in needlework — Mary Brown." The store-keeper thus agreed to exchange his time for an equal amount of the time of those who bought goods of him. Profits in the customary sense there were none."

This is a very close approximation to what we see happening in retail establishments in Eric Frank Russell's libertarian science fiction novel, The Great Explosion. The people running those fictional retail establishments call themselves "Gands" and claim to base their political economy on the works of Mohandas K. Gandhi, but all I can say is, you could've fooled me. I can't help but wonder whether Eric Frank Russell read an account of Josiah Warren's life and ideas before writing The Great Explosion.

In any case, Warren's "Time Store" was a success in the sense that, for more than two years, it paid its own bills and those of Warren's family and, after it had closed its doors, its proprietor, according to Bailie, "found himself financially in the same position as at the beginning." He chose to close the "Time Store" despite the fact that it was prospering, because he wanted to devote his own time and his other resources to the establishment of a utopian community, something like New Harmony but based on his principle of individual sovereignty rather than on "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Warren attempted to create several such communities during the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, the best known of which, Modern Times, was located on Long Island, about 40 miles from New York City. None of them was an unqualified success. William Bailie comments that though Warren's utopian communities could be said to have failed,

it should be understood that they did not fail in the sense that New Harmony, Brook Farm, and numerous other socialistic experiments failed. The pioneers of Modern Times had no trouble over property or forms of government. Each owned his house and land, and by mutual understanding political authority was dispensed with. None felt responsible for the behavior of his neighbors, and only aggressive or invasive conduct was [resisted] by combined action. The main cause of the nonsuccess of the village was the scarcity of employment other than that of agriculture. Capital was needed to start factories for the manufacture of articles for which there was a demand in the outside world. The pioneers had but little resources.

There was an attempt, Bailie reports, by one Edward D. Linton, to "set up a paper-box manufactory which promised to furnish the demand for labor that was no less desirable for the prosperity of the place than essential to its growth in numbers." But "this enterprise was checked by the disastrous financial panic of 1857 which, in New York City alone, where the product of Mr. Linton's factory was marketed, threw upwards of twenty thousand persons out of work." And "before the effects of the ensuing industrial depression had cleared away, the country was in the throes of civil war, and all hope of regenerating society for the time being was dissipated." In the end, of course, "the original aims of the pioneers were gradually lost sight of in the inevitable struggle for existence."

George Woodcock, the noted historian of anarchism, who calls Josiah Warren "the first American anarchist," writes that Modern Times "maintained its mutualist character for at least two decades, eventually turning … into a more or less conventional village with cooperative tendencies."

Woodcock's opinion of Warren's importance in the history of anarchist thought is widely shared. Peter Marshall, the prominent English historian of anarchism, calls him "the first real American anarchist," and William O. Reichert, in his book Partisans of Freedom: A Study in American Anarchism, describes Warren as the "chief architect of libertarianism." And we have seen the impact Warren had during his last years on a young and impressionable Benjamin R. Tucker, and what ultimately came of that.

William Bailie notes that "Warren throughout his life remained obscure. He studiously avoided publicity and believed that his principles would in the long run be accepted on their merits, regardless of his own part in their discovery or propagation." He "looked upon governments as enemies to all permanent social progress" and believed that "only from individuals [could] come the impetus to reform."

Warren believed that "statute laws are at best hindrances, and must be swept away, not by violence, but by the slowly evolved sense of justice and equity which [would] eventually undermine all surviving forms of authority." Also, Warren believed in the benefits of the diversity that would be an inescapable product of any truly free society. "Differences," he wrote,

like the admissible discords in music, are a valuable part of our harmony. It is only when the rights of persons or property are actually invaded that collisions arise. These rights being clearly defined and sanctioned by public opinion, and temptations to encroachments being withdrawn, we may then consider our great problem practically solved. With regard to mere difference of opinion in taste, convenience, economy, equality, or even right and wrong, good and bad, sanity and insanity, — all must be left to the supreme decision of each individual, whenever he can take on himself the cost of his decisions; which he cannot do while his interests or movements are united or combined with others. It is in combination or close connection only that compromise or conformity is required. Peace, harmony, ease, security, happiness, will be found only in Individuality.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.