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Joseph Labadie: An American Original

Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Joseph A. Labadie."


It was 77 years ago, — on October 7, 1933, to be exact — that Joseph A. Labadie died. He died, at the age of 83, in Detroit, Michigan, where he had lived almost his entire adult life. Labadie was born in 1850 in a portion of southwestern Michigan that was inhabited at that time mostly by the few remaining members of the Potawatomi Indian tribe who had not been, as Labadie's biographer, Carlotta Anderson puts it, "callously rounded up by the United States government" a decade or so before and "herded west across the Mississippi River."

Anderson writes that Labadie himself was "of French and Native American heritage." His "French ancestors were already in the New World by 1667; they owned land on the Detroit River prior to 1749." His parents were first cousins. Both bore the surname Labadie. Both

were descendants of Antoine Louis Descomptes dit Labadie, one of the most prominent and prolific French settlers in 18th-century Detroit. A prosperous fur trader, variously credited with having fathered either 23 or 33 children (depending on whose count is accepted) from three wives, he was jocularly acclaimed for bringing the area a tremendous impetus in both industry and population. Joseph's father came down the family line from Antoine Louis's second wife, a full-blooded Ojibway, daughter of the chief of a band whose hunting grounds were along the Detroit River.

His mother "was raised in the spacious frame house her father … built on the vast Labadie estate in East Sandwich, on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, on land conveyed by the Ottawa chief Pontiac in the mid eighteenth century." When his parents met, his father was working as a carpenter and house painter, but only off and on, when he had to. The work he liked best was traveling with the Jesuit missionaries in the western part of the state, serving as an interpreter between the Jesuits — whether English-speaking or French-speaking — and the Potawatomi Indians of southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana.

Both French and English were spoken in Labadie's childhood home, which was sometimes out in the woods of southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana, among the Indians of that region; sometimes in South Bend, Indiana; and sometimes in Canada, along the southern bank of the Detroit River. So it's a good bet that his parents, when they gave him his full name, probably thought of it as it would be if pronounced in the French style: Charles Joseph Antoine Labadie. It was he himself — or so it would appear — who Americanized it to plain "Jo Labadie" (though he did retain a bit of exoticism by habitually spelling his first name just "Jo," with no terminal "e").

"Labadie had no schooling," Anderson reports, "except a few months in a parochial school near South Bend, Indiana, when his father briefly worked as a carpenter for the University of Notre Dame." He seems to have learned to read and write at home, presumably from his mother. After that, he seems to have taken charge of his own education, which he conducted mostly by independent reading. He left home at 14 and spent a couple of years apprenticed to an uncle in the jewelry business, learning the trade of watchmaking, before returning to South Bend and starting a new apprenticeship, this time in a printing shop.

After fulfilling the terms of his new apprenticeship, he took off for five years of wandering through Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts. He picked up work where he could, often, Anderson reports, "by standing in front of a newspaper office, prepared to fill in if one of the regular printers failed to show up." He spent a year as a printer for the New York World during this time, but most of his gigs were shorter lived, lasting only a few weeks or months before he moved on to see what lay beyond the next horizon.

He returned to Michigan in 1872 and took up residence on the American side of the Detroit River, in the city of Detroit, then a bustling, prosperous town of about 85,000 souls. He worked as a printer for diverse publications and job-printing establishments around the town for the next two decades. In the process, he immersed himself in politics, and specifically in the 19th-century American labor movement.

At the very first newspaper job he had held after leaving South Bend for his five years of travel, at the age of merely 18, he had helped found the local typographical union. And he continued his labor organizing and labor agitation in the years that followed, most notably after his return to Detroit in the early 1870s. Carlotta Anderson says that "by the late nineteenth century, he had become Michigan's most influential labor agitator."

Now, union activism may seem an odd sort of project for any sort of libertarian to choose to undertake. If Labadie had had a firmer grasp of economics, he would have seen the long-term futility of such activism; he would have seen that unions can never improve working conditions or wages beyond the level the market would attain anyway. But, as one of Labadie's friends said at his funeral, "Jo was a man who could see something good in every movement that was opposed to the present system." According to Anderson, Labadie

was a crusader for the Socialist Labor party, the Knights of Labor, the Greenback party, the American Federation of Labor, the single-tax movement … and the eight-hour movement. Above all, for fifty years he promoted his brand of non-violent anarchism in pursuit of liberating the individual.

In his effort to promote these various causes, Anderson writes,

Labadie prolifically wrote, edited, and published for the radical and daily press; was a popular speaker at demonstrations, meetings, rallies, and forums; and maintained a lively and often contentious correspondence with such figures as Emma Goldman, Eugene V. Debs, Samuel Gompers, Albert and Lucy Parsons, Benjamin Tucker, Joseph Buchanan, Alexander Berkman, Terence Powderly, and Henry George.

As is doubtless clear from that list of Labadie's enthusiasms — the Socialist Labor Party, the Knights of Labor, the Greenback Party, the American Federation of Labor, the single-tax movement, and the eight-hour movement — he did not begin the political part of his career as any sort of libertarian. Throughout the 1870s and into the early 1880s, up to the time he was nearly 35 years old, he regarded himself as what we would call today a state socialist. According to Anderson, he advocated policies like "prohibition of child labor before the age of fourteen [and] equal pay for equal work for both sexes." He advocated government "sanitary inspections of factories, setting up [government] bureaus of labor statistics … and a graduated income tax." As his early enthusiasm for the Greenback Party suggests, he advocated government inflation of the currency in order to produce what he thought would be "prosperity."

But Labadie's primary focus was never on particular policy issues. It was always on broad theories of politics and economics — the bigger picture — and on the need for workers to educate themselves. Anderson reports, for example, that Labadie believed

a main objective of the Knights [of Labor] was education — bringing working people together into a labor fraternity for the purpose of discussing "social science" and their rights and duties to each other. "No one would ever think of putting a law case into the hands of anyone who had never studied law," Labadie argued. "No one can ever hope to win the case of social progress … unless they know … the laws of political economy." With only a few months of formal education behind him, Labadie himself was reading the writings of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ferdinand Lassalle, Thomas Paine, and François Guizot.

That's what Labadie was reading in the late 1870s. A few years later, in 1881, he began reading a brand-new paper published in Boston by a man named Benjamin R. Tucker, who described himself as an anarchist. Tucker's publication, a fortnightly, was called Liberty. Carlotta Anderson reports that "Labadie was a reader of Liberty from its first issue." By 1882, a year later, Labadie was telling an audience of 5,000 at a Detroit labor rally that "Tom Paine said that government, even in its best state, was an evil." According to Anderson, he told the same audience that legislatures and other lawmaking bodies were for "those not big enough to take care of [themselves]."

The following year, 1883, saw Labadie making opening remarks at a controversial Detroit appearance by the notorious German immigrant anarchist Johann Most, who openly advocated violence to achieve anarchist objectives. Anderson writes that

Labadie, who believed in non-violent methods, was not himself a fan of Most. But he asked the audience to abandon preconceived notions and its fear of agitation, for "where there is agitation there is always hope for a better future." The truly dangerous members of the community, he warned, were those seeking to prohibit Most's speech.

Another year and it was 1884, the year Labadie decided Tucker and the individualist anarchists were right: individuals should be free to, in Labadie's words, "do their own business at their own cost." His former colleagues in the Socialist Labor Party were critical of his change of heart, of course. One party publication dismissed anarchism as "a cheap bait for dupes to swallow" and contrary to the laws of nature. But Labadie, unsurprisingly, stuck to his guns. "Only dead men and fools," he said, "never change their minds."

Labadie changed his mind once again during the first few years of the 20th century, when he again followed Benjamin R. Tucker, this time in abandoning the concepts of natural law and natural rights. "Labadie had previously cited [these] as the basis for his philosophy," Anderson writes. But "along with Tucker, he now rejected such quasi-religious 'myths,' replacing them with the concept of 'egoism' … derived from the views of German philosopher Max Stirner." Tucker's and Labadie's new view held that

self-interest was the only motivating force in human conduct. … There was no absolute "right" or "wrong." Individuals were free to seek happiness however they liked, but since they would bear the social consequences of their acts, they were likely to find it useful to live in harmony with others and enter into contracts or cooperative arrangements to safeguard their own interests.

Ironically, the same year Labadie decided he was an individualist anarchist — 1884 — was the year he accepted his first government job. This one, as a clerk with the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, lasted only a year. During that year he lived in Lansing, the state capital, where he also moonlighted as labor-page editor of a local paper, the Lansing Sentinel. The second government job Labadie accepted was offered to him a decade later, in 1894, by the city of Detroit, which wondered if he might be interested in supervising work gangs of men laying pipe for the local water department. This job lasted 30 years. Anderson speculates that it might have been offered to Labadie at the behest of some of his former colleagues in radical politics who had moderated their views, become city officials, and learned of their old friend and comrade's financial situation. Anderson reports that "although desperate for cash, Labadie … hesitated" to accept the city's offer.

He foresaw that working for the government would be a serious embarrassment for an anarchist. Anarchist leader Benjamin Tucker, however, saw no harm in it and noted [in a letter to Labadie] that "I make it a point to get all that I can out of my oppressors, provided I do not thereby too seriously impair my power of struggle against them."

Labadie did come in for some criticism and ridicule for his decision to accept a civil-service job, but not as much as he had feared. By 1894, when he took the job, he was 44 years old and had lived in Detroit for more than 20 years. During all that time, he had been more or less in the public eye — as a labor agitator, labor organizer, editor and writer for radical papers, and speaker at demonstrations, rallies, and meetings of various kinds. In 1884, the year of his conversion to individualist anarchism, Labadie had begun writing an occasional column, which he called "Cranky Notions" and which unflinchingly promoted individualist anarchism.

"Cranky Notions" had started out in a Detroit weekly called the Labor Leaf. By the early '90s it was running, not only in Benjamin R. Tucker's Liberty, but also in the Detroit News. Labadie had gradually built a local reputation of a sort. And it was a good sort. People liked Jo Labadie. By 1894, according to Anderson, they "were coming to regard Labadie as a sort of charming eccentric, cantankerous and irreverent, but venerable." He was, she reports, "commonly referred to as 'The Gentle Anarchist'" and "enjoyed his status as a town character, one of Detroit's municipal attractions." On two occasions, high ranking officials in the city government became enraged to discover that a city employee was writing articles and columns arguing for the abolition of all government, and had Labadie fired. In both cases, a storm of popular protest forced his reinstatement and caused significant political problems for the officials responsible.

Though he devoted much of his life to writing, editing, publishing, and political activism, it isn't really for any of these activities that Jo Labadie should be remembered fondly by libertarians in the 21st century. Rather it was his tendency never to throw anything away. Anderson reports that

Labadie's biography can be written in vivid detail … because of the wealth of material he and his wife saved. The conviction that he was engaged in events likely to transform the social and economic system imbued him with an acute sense of history. He was also an irrepressible pack rat.

According to one of Labadie's lifelong friends, he "seldom if ever [threw] away any printed matter having to do with labor conditions and radical propaganda, no matter how trivial it might seem to be." And his wife Sophie enthusiastically aided and abetted him in this vice; Anderson writes that over 55 years of marriage, she "carefully preserved every scrap of paper concerning Jo" and "conscientiously stored all the labor or radical materials that came into Jo's hands." As a result, as Anderson puts it,

the story of his life, deeds, and thoughts is abundantly revealed through the treasure trove of letters, periodicals, clippings, manuscripts, booklets, photos and circulars once stored in his attic, and now housed in the Labadie Collection of the University of Michigan. His stockpile of documents of social protest has proved a boon to scholars, enabling them to study the early labor movement in detail and draw on rich source materials representing a multitude of radical causes.

The two largest and most important collections of books, periodicals, and papers relating to the libertarian tradition in the United States are the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan and the collection on "American Individualism" at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. My own experience talking with libertarians over the years is that most of them, like most Americans generally, know at least a little bit about Herbert Hoover, for whom the Hoover Institution was named. But not many know as much about Jo Labadie. Here's hoping this modest piece wins him a tad more fame.

This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Joseph A. Labadie (1850–1933)."

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