Mises Daily

Voltairine de Cleyre: Penitent Priestess of Anarchism

[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Voltairine de Cleyre.”]

The libertarian movement of today dates from the early 1940s, the period of US participation in World War II. It underwent a very sudden and very substantial spurt of growth during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and has grown steadily ever since. There was an earlier libertarian movement in the United States, however, one I briefly mentioned a couple of months ago, when observing Benjamin R. Tucker’s 156th birthday.

This “first libertarian movement,” as the late Samuel Edward Konkin III used to like to call it, was largely Tucker’s creation, centered around his fortnightly paper Liberty, which he published from 1881 to 1908, and his book store, Benj. R. Tucker’s Unique Book Shop, which he operated at 502 Sixth Avenue near 30th Street in Manhattan for a couple of years during the first decade of the 20th Century.

The libertarian I’d like to discuss today was something of a star in that first libertarian movement, though her works and even her name are pretty close to forgotten today. Voltairine de Cleyre was born November 17, 1866, just after the end of the American Civil War, in a town called Leslie, in rural Central Michigan, about 20 miles south of Lansing. She was the elder of two daughters born to a French immigrant named Hector de Claire, who tried to earn a living as a tailor (without much luck), and his hapless wife, Harriet.

Hector regarded himself as a liberal and a freethinker — and by “liberal,” of course, I mean classical liberal: this is the 1860s, remember. As a youth in Northern France, he had read and deeply admired the works of Voltaire. He decided to name his first-born daughter after the eminent French author. He taught her to read and write both French and English, and he noticed, not only that Voltairine had high intelligence and an unusual talent for schoolwork of all kinds, but also that she was, as they used to say back then, “high-spirited.”

In 1878, when Voltairine was 12 years old, her father found himself face-to-face with an unexpected opportunity: if he were willing to move to Port Huron, a busy lumbering and shipbuilding town about 120 miles east of Leslie, he could make a lot more money. His tailoring services were more needed there, by far, and more appreciated. The problem was that his wife would not accompany him. Presumably, she found the bucolic atmosphere of a farm town more to her liking than a bustling lakeport many times larger.

In any case, Harriet remained in Leslie with Adelaide, her younger daughter. Hector moved to Port Huron with Voltairine. He and his wife seem to have agreed that this arrangement would be best, given the circumstances. On what Hector could earn in Port Huron, he could support two households; and he could exert his authoritative influence to try to curb what he called Voltairine’s “restless” nature and her marked tendency to “willfulness.”

Within a year, Hector had decided to enroll his elder daughter in a highly rated convent school, the Convent of Our Lady of Port Huron in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, just across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, Michigan. Hector seems to have been motivated in part by a simple desire to expose his intellectually gifted daughter to the best schooling he could afford. But it is clear from letters he wrote to his wife that he also believed a few years behind the convent’s walls would cure the now-13 -year-old Voltairine of what he considered the “impudence and impertinence, so very prominent in her.”

Then too, he told his wife in another letter, the convent would “refine her, so she has manners and knows how to behave herself and cure her of laziness, a love of idleness, also love of trash such as Story Books and papers.” In addition, he hoped, it would “give her ideas of proprieties, of order, rule, regulation, time and industry, as I doubt not you know she needs.”

Voltairine resisted her father’s decision with all the energy and wiles she could muster. She wrote letters — first mournful, then increasingly angry — to her mother, first begging, then demanding, rescue. When it didn’t come, she took matters into her own hands, running away from the convent, swimming across the river to Port Huron, then hiking nearly 20 miles west toward her mother’s house, before making the mistake of contacting some family friends, whom she hoped would offer her something to eat and a place to spend the night. Instead, they contacted her father and sent her back to the convent.

Once there, she seemed to settle down and make the best of her situation. She excelled at her studies and graduated with honors four years later, at the age of 17. But inwardly, she never surrendered. She continued to regard herself as a prisoner, and as soon as she regained her freedom, after her graduation, she began working to undermine the institution that had imprisoned her for so long.

Freethought, de Cleyre wrote, was “the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject.”

She returned to Central Michigan, moved in with her mother, and began writing for a weekly freethought paper called The Progressive Age. Before long she had joined the editorial staff of the paper. And as soon as her income was sufficient to support her, she left her mother’s house for the last time and moved to Grand Rapids in Western Michigan. One thing led to another: her articles in The Progressive Age led to speaking engagements, and not many months had gone by before Voltairine de Cleyre (as she began spelling her name shortly after she began publishing), a mere girl of 19 or 20, was traipsing around Western Michigan lecturing on Tom Paine and atheism, among other topics.

Her biographer, the late Paul Avrich, reports that “for small fees she addressed the local free thought circuit in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and other Michigan towns.” He notes that, “being a former pupil in a convent, she was a particularly effective speaker, as she could talk from firsthand experience, like the runaway slaves who addressed abolitionist gatherings before the Civil War.”

Voltairine’s speaking engagements led to further speaking engagements, and to opportunities to write for other publications. According to libertarian psychologist Sharon Presley, who coedited a recent anthology of Voltairine’s writings, these other publications included The Freethinkers’ Magazine, Freethought, and The Truth Seeker. And “as her reputation grew,” Presley writes, “her lectures, including frequent tours for the American Secular Union, a nationwide freethought organization, took her to many Midwestern and Eastern states.”

By this time it was late 1887 and Voltairine was 21, a rising young star in the freethought movement. Today, those who know about freethought at all usually associate it with organized atheism, with Robert G. Ingersoll as the Madalyn Murray O’Hair of the 19th century. But in fact there was much more to freethought than that. As another expert on Voltairine’s life and work, the late Eugenia DeLamotte, has pointed out, freethought was

an eclectic movement that included atheists, agnostics, and deists as well as religious thinkers (Unitarian, transcendentalist, sometimes Quaker) who shared a scorn for religious dogma as a source of truth or authority; a rejection of biblical miracles and the divinity of Jesus; an aggressive, activist commitment to separation of church and state; and an insistence that human progress depends on the exercise of each individual’s reason with regard even to subjects held most sacred.

There were many freethought periodicals and institutions in 19th century America that specialized in only one of these issues. DeLamotte notes, for example, that the American Secular Union, which employed Voltairine de Cleyre as a lecturer early in her career, placed its main “focus on separation of church and state.”

Voltairine’s personal definition of freethought was direct and to the point. Freethought, she wrote, was “the right to believe as the evidence, coming in contact with the mind, forces it to believe. This implies the admission of any and all evidence bearing upon any subject which might come up for discussion.” DeLamotte commments that “among the many subjects that came up routinely in late-nineteenth-century freethinking circles were marriage, sexuality, birth control, women’s rights, race relations, labor relations … and the relation of the individual to the state.”

Little wonder, then, that, as Paul Avrich puts it, “between the anarchist and free thought movements there was a close and longstanding affinity. Both shared a common anti-authoritarian viewpoint and a common tradition of secularist radicalism stretching back to Thomas Paine,” who was, of course, well thought of by “atheists and anarchists alike. Nearly all anarchists were freethinkers, and many … first came to anarchism through the free thought movement, in which they constituted a militant left wing within the local clubs as well as the regional and national federations.”


By 1888, when she was 21 years old, Voltairine de Cleyre was ready to become one of those anarchists who had first come to anarchism through the freethought movement. The specific event which precipitated her involvement with anarchism as a cause was the Haymarket affair of 1886–1887. As Avrich tells the story,

The Haymarket affair, one of the most famous incidents in the history of the anarchist movement, began on May 3, 1886, when the Chicago police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing and wounding several men. The following evening, the anarchists held a protest meeting near Haymarket Square. Toward the end of the meeting, which had proceeded without incident, rain began to fall and the crowd started to disperse. The last speaker, Samuel Fielden, was concluding his address when a contingent of police marched in and ordered the meeting to be closed. Fielden objected that the gathering was peaceful and that he was just finishing up. The police captain insisted. At that moment a bomb was thrown. One policeman was killed and nearly seventy were injured, of whom six later died. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least four workers and wounding many more.

“Who threw the bomb,” Avrich continues,

has never been determined. What is certain, however, is that the eight men who were brought to trial … were not responsible. Six of them, in fact, were not even present when the explosion occurred, and the other two were demonstrably innocent of throwing the bomb. Moreover, no evidence was produced to connect the defendants with the bombthrower. Yet all eight were found guilty, the verdict being the product of perjured testimony, a packed jury, a biased judge, and public hysteria. In spite of petitions for clemency and appeals to higher courts, five of the defendants were condemned to death and the others to long terms of imprisonment.

One of the five who had been condemned to death committed suicide in his prison cell the night before his scheduled execution. The remaining four men who had been sentenced to death were hanged as scheduled.

Finally, in 1893, after spending seven years behind bars, the three remaining Haymarket anarchists were officially granted a pardon by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who destroyed his own political career by issuing that pardon. Avrich reports that Altgeld, in his message explaining the pardon, “criticized the judge for conducting the trial ‘with malicious ferocity’ and found that the evidence had not shown that any of the eight anarchists were involved in the bombing.”

In effect, though Altgeld didn’t put it in these words, the court convicted the men for espousing an idea — the idea that human life would be better without the State — an idea that was widely believed to have influenced whoever did throw that fateful bomb at the Chicago police. The four who were executed were put to death for having committed what George Orwell would call, many years later, a “thoughtcrime.”

The execution horrified Voltairine de Cleyre — the more so because she herself, not yet converted to the anarchist cause at the time the original bombing took place, had called for just that fate to be imposed on the suspects in the case. “At the time of the explosion in May 1886,” Avrich writes, she was nineteen years old.” She had not yet left her mother’s house for the last time.

Glimpsing the newspaper headlines — “Anarchists Throw Bomb in Crowd in the Haymarket in Chicago” — she joined the cry for vengeance. “They ought to be hanged!” she declared, words over which she agonized for the rest of her life. “For that ignorant, outrageous, blood-thirsty sentence I shall never forgive myself,” she confessed on the fourteenth anniversary of the executions, “though I know the dead men would have forgiven me, though I know those who love them forgive me. But my own voice, as it sounded that night, will sound so in my ears till I die — a bitter reproach and shame.”

She “dedicated a poem to Governor Altgeld when he pardoned [the last three Haymarket anarchists], and yet another after his death in 1902. She wrote a poem to Mathew M. Trumbull, a distinguished Chicago attorney who had defended the anarchists in two incisive pamphlets and appealed to the state for clemency.” Nor was this all. “Nearly every year,” Avrich writes, “she took part in memorial meetings to her comrades, delivering moving and deeply felt orations, the most powerful of her career.” She moved to Chicago near the end of her life, died there, and was buried there, next to the Haymarket martyrs.

In a word, she did penance. She devoted the rest of her life to penance for what she regarded as her unforgivable act of prejudgment. Her penance was writing for periodicals, delivering orations and lectures, and otherwise working to propagate the doctrine the martyrs had espoused, the doctrine of society without the State.

She seems to have been that type of personality — the type of the penitent, the devotee, the true believer, the ascetic. So perhaps it was inevitable that she would choose a career as a penitent. It was, in any case, a practical choice. If there was anything other than writing and speaking that she could truly be said to know how to do it was penance. She had learned that at Our Lady of Port Huron. As she herself put it in 1903 in her essay “The Making of an Anarchist,” “By early influences and education I should have been a nun, and spent my life glorifying Authority in its most concentrated form, as some of my schoolmates are doing at this hour within the mission houses of the Order of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.”

Crispin Sartwell, who co-edited an anthology of Voltairine’s writings a few years ago with Sharon Presley, argues that in fact Voltairine “internalized the convent’s modesty and asceticism,” whatever her disagreements with its dogma. “Most pictures of her in later life,” he points out, “show her in plain, high-necked garb that could almost be a habit. And her life of extreme frugality and devotion to her calling mirrored that of the nuns who helped raise her. She was often referred to by her acquaintances in religious terms as a priestess … or as the bride of her cause.”

Whatever her personal motives might have been, however, this much can be said with confidence: once Voltairine joined the libertarian cause, she quickly became one of its best known exponents. She had been a 14-year-old prisoner in a convent school when Benjamin R. Tucker launched his paper Liberty and the first libertarian movement. Within a decade she was writing for Tucker and had become one of the luminaries of his movement.

Eugenia DeLamotte reports that while most of Voltairine’s lectures were delivered “in the eastern and midwestern United States … she lectured also in England, Scotland, and Norway — sometimes to small audiences, but often to hundreds; sometimes to over a thousand.” According to Paul Avrich, one appearance she made, “before the Social Science Club” of Philadelphia, was attended by an “audience of 1,200 [that] gave her a magnificent reception.”

DeLamotte mentions one “1908 anarchist demonstration,” also in Philadelphia, at which Voltairine addressed what a local newspaper reporter described as “some two thousand workers.” Avrich mentions a rally she addressed in London at which she herself estimated that “ten thousand people packed together with upturned faces” were in attendance. And he reports that when Voltairine died in Chicago late in June of 1912, at the age of only 45, “two thousand mourners” turned out to witness her interment.

Voltairine never wrote a book, but certain of her essays are really neglected classics. Her essay “Anarchism and American Traditions,” for example, appeared originally in 1908 and 1909 in the pages of Mother Earth, Emma Goldman’s anarchist magazine. It is a true gem. I know of no better brief treatment of the issues around which it is so cunningly, artfully constructed: the ways in which anarchism is implicit in the writings of the American Founders, the absurdity of public education as a safeguard or cornerstone of a free society, the problem of widespread indifference to liberty. It is eminently quotable. It rings with a stirring spirit of defiance. It is fiercely intelligent. Whether incorporated into a course in “civics” or “political science” or simply included, with other readings, in a survey of American history, this piece should be required reading for every American high school student.

Of course, the essay is not perfect. In its last few pages, for example, it contains a few dubious and, at best, ambiguous economic references. Voltairine, like Tucker and many of his associates, was a mutualist. She also entertained some somewhat fanciful ideas about the supposed economic benefits of small settlements producing everything for themselves. But all libertarians of this period are a bit screwy in their economics — Austrianism had not yet been fully developed, much less spread to the English-speaking world.

And Voltairine showed that her heart was in the right place when she argued for an idea that had already come to be called “anarchism without adjectives.” She wrote in 1901, for example, that “there are … several economic schools among Anarchists; there are Anarchist Individualists, Anarchist Mutualists, Anarchist Communists and Anarchist Socialists. In times past these several schools have bitterly denounced each other and mutually refused to recognize each other as Anarchists at all.” A “far more reasonable idea,” she proposed, is

that all these economic conceptions may be experimented with, and there is nothing un-Anarchistic about any of them until the element of compulsion enters and obliges unwilling persons to remain in a community whose economic arrangements they do not agree to.

A larger problem with a piece like “Anarchism and American Traditions” is that it is not in any sense an original piece of work. It expounds no ideas save those its author has learned from others. The plain fact is that, as Eugenia DeLamotte observes, “de Cleyre was not one of the great original theorists of anarchism at its most general level, although many of her lectures are brilliant and cogent syntheses of ideas drawn from her extensive reading of anarchist theory.”

As a libertarian, Voltairine’s strong suit was not original thought. It was distilling and packaging the original thought of others. She was, in Friedrich Hayek’s sense of the word, an “intellectual,” that is, a professional “secondhand dealer in ideas.” Such figures rarely command much fame outside the compass of their own lifetimes.

“Journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators” — Hayek ticked them off, the common types of intellectuals. How many of them enjoy any sort of renown beyond whatever they enjoy during the years when their own generation is in the ascendant? However great their skill with words, however great their skill at distilling and packaging, they are easily, and soon, forgotten. The fact that, nearly a hundred years after her untimely death, Voltairine de Cleyre should have a full-length biography devoted to her (though, alas, it is currently out of print) and at least three annotated collections of her work vying for readers’ attention, suggests that she may have already achieved a degree of immortality never realized by most of her fellow intellectuals.

This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Voltairine de Cleyre (1866–1912).”

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