Thomas Skidmore (reformer)

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Title page of Thomas Skidmore's seminal 1829 book, The Rights of Man to Property! 29-skidmore-rightsofman-tp.jpg
Title page of Thomas Skidmore's seminal 1829 book, The Rights of Man to Property!

Thomas Skidmore (August 13, 1790 – August 7, 1832) was an American politician and radical political philosopher. Skidmore is best remembered as the co-founder and leader of the Working Men's Party in New York when it first emerged in the fall of 1829. He was forced out of the organization shortly after its initial electoral campaign by moderate leaders of the party on the grounds of Skidmore's excessive radicalism and unbending personality. Skidmore went on to establish an even less successful political organization in 1830, known as the Agrarian Party.

Political philosophy sub-discipline of philosophy and political science

Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.

Working Mens Party (New York)

The Working Men's Party in New York was a political party founded in April 1829 in New York City. After a promising debut in the fall election of 1829, in which one of the party's candidates was elected to the New York State Assembly, the party rapidly disintegrated into factionalism and discord, vanishing from the scene in 1831.

Contents

Skidmore was the author of three books, including an ambitious and controversial 1829 political treatise written against the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, The Rights of Man to Property! This work depicted a two-class society consisting of a propertied ruling class and a propertyless majority inevitably subjected to a sort of economic slavery which made true liberty impossible. It advocated a constitutional convention to abolish debt, end the right of inheritance, and bring about the equalization of productive and personal property of the nation among its adult citizens.

Thomas Jefferson Third President of the United States

Thomas Jefferson was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, and Founding Father who served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. Previously, he had served as the second vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a proponent of democracy, republicanism, and individual rights, motivating American colonists to break from the Kingdom of Great Britain and form a new nation; he produced formative documents and decisions at both the state and national level.

Liberty Ability of individuals to have agency

Broadly speaking, liberty is the ability to do as one pleases. In modern politics, liberty is the state of being free within society from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behavior, or political views. In philosophy, liberty involves free will as contrasted with determinism. In theology, liberty is freedom from the effects of "sin, spiritual servitude, [or] worldly ties". Sometimes liberty is differentiated from freedom by using the word "freedom" primarily, if not exclusively, to mean the ability to do as one wills and what one has the power to do; and using the word "liberty" to mean the absence of arbitrary restraints, taking into account the rights of all involved. In this sense, the exercise of liberty is subject to capability and limited by the rights of others. Thus liberty entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom. Freedom is more broad in that it represents a total lack of restraint or the unrestrained ability to fulfill one's desires. For example, a person can have the freedom to murder, but not have the liberty to murder, as the latter example deprives others of their right not to be harmed. Liberty can be taken away as a form of punishment. In many countries, people can be deprived of their liberty if they are convicted of criminal acts.

Biography

Early years

Thomas Skidmore was born on August 13, 1790 in rural Connecticut, in the town of Newtown, located in Fairfield County. [1] Intelligent and literate from an early age, Skidmore began teaching at the local school at the age of thirteen, continuing in that capacity for five years. [2] During this interval Skidmore moved from town to town in pursuit of employment, including stops in Princeton and Bordentown, New Jersey; Richmond, Virginia; and Edenton and Newbern, North Carolina. [1]

Connecticut U.S. state in the United States

Connecticut is the southernmost state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. As of the 2010 Census, it has the highest per-capita income, Human Development Index (0.962), and median household income in the United States. It is bordered by Rhode Island to the east, Massachusetts to the north, New York to the west, and Long Island Sound to the south. Its capital is Hartford and its most populous city is Bridgeport. It is part of New England, although portions of it are often grouped with New York and New Jersey as the tri-state area. The state is named for the Connecticut River which approximately bisects the state. The word "Connecticut" is derived from various anglicized spellings of an Algonquian word for "long tidal river".

Newtown, Connecticut Town in Connecticut, United States

Newtown is a town in Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States. It is part of the greater Danbury metropolitan area as well as the New York metropolitan area. Newtown was founded in 1705 and later incorporated in 1711. As of the 2010 census, its population was 27,560. The western half of Newtown is one of the most affluent areas in Connecticut.

Fairfield County, Connecticut County of Connecticut in Connecticut

Fairfield County is an affluent county in the southwestern corner of the U.S. state of Connecticut. As of the 2010 census, the county's population was 916,829, estimated to have increased by 3.6% to 949,921 in 2017. The most populous county in the state, the county population represents a little over 25% of Connecticut's overall population and is one of its fastest-growing counties. The closest to New York City, the county contains four of the state's largest cities – Bridgeport (1st), Stamford (3rd), Norwalk (6th), and Danbury (7th) – whose combined population of 433,368 is nearly half the county's total population.

After his time as a teacher, Skidmore relocated to Wilmington, Delaware, and then Philadelphia, to try his hand as an amateur inventor. [3] There he worked on a variety of ideas, including improvements in the gunpowder and paper manufacturing processes. [3]

Wilmington, Delaware Largest city in Delaware

Wilmington is the largest and most populous city in the U.S. state of Delaware. The city was built on the site of Fort Christina, the first Swedish settlement in North America. It is at the confluence of the Christina River and Brandywine River, near where the Christina flows into the Delaware River. It is the county seat of New Castle County and one of the major cities in the Delaware Valley metropolitan area. Wilmington was named by Proprietor Thomas Penn after his friend Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, who was prime minister in the reign of George II of Great Britain.

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has had the same geographic boundaries as Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

Gunpowder explosive once used as propellant in firearms

Gunpowder, also known as black powder to distinguish it from modern smokeless powder, is the earliest known chemical explosive. It consists of a mixture of sulfur (S), charcoal (C), and potassium nitrate (saltpeter, KNO3). The sulfur and charcoal act as fuels while the saltpeter is an oxidizer. Because of its incendiary properties and the amount of heat and gas volume that it generates, gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms, artillery, rockets, and fireworks, and as a blasting powder in quarrying, mining, and road building.

Skidmore moved to New York City in 1819, where he would spend the rest of his life. [3] He married in 1821 and worked in the city as a machinist, [3] gradually becoming involved in labor politics. [2]

Machinist person who machines using hand tools and machine tools to create or modify a part that is made of metal, plastics, or wood

A machinist is a person who machines using hand tools and machine tools to create or modify a part that is made of metal, plastics, or wood.

Political career

Skidmore's nemesis in the ranks of the Working Men's Party was Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877), an advocate of communal education of children. Owen-Robert-Dale-1840s.jpg
Skidmore's nemesis in the ranks of the Working Men's Party was Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877), an advocate of communal education of children.

In 1829, he emerged as an important public figure at the center of the nascent New York City Working Men's Party, which fought for a ten-hour working day, the abolition of debtors' prison, universal public education, and expanded political suffrage, among other things.

Debtors prison Prison for people unable to repay a debt

A debtors' prison is a prison for people who are unable to pay debt. Through the mid-19th century, debtors' prisons were a common way to deal with unpaid debt in places like Western Europe. Destitute persons who were unable to pay a court-ordered judgment would be incarcerated in these prisons until they had worked off their debt via labour or secured outside funds to pay the balance. The product of their labour went towards both the costs of their incarceration and their accrued debt. Increasing access and lenience throughout the history of bankruptcy law have made prison terms for unaggravated indigence illegal over most of the world.

Suffrage right to vote

Suffrage, political franchise, or simply franchise is the right to vote in public, political elections. In some languages, and occasionally in English, the right to vote is called active suffrage, as distinct from passive suffrage, which is the right to stand for election. The combination of active and passive suffrage is sometimes called full suffrage.

Skidmore's political ideas were radical for his time and brought him into conflict with others in the Working Men's Party of more moderate views. His thinking on inheritance and redistribution was high on the party's agenda during the successful electoral campaign of 1829, which won 31% of the vote and elected two state legislators under the party's banner. [2]

Soon however, the combative Skidmore provoked a reaction leading to his exclusion from the Working Men's Party. Previously critical of influential party leader Robert Dale Owen and others for their promotion of policies not of direct benefit to the working class, Skidmore found himself isolated in December 1829 when Owen joined prominent party politicians Noah Cook and Henry Guyon in seeking his removal for excessive radicalism. [4]

Skidmore's cause was not aided by his prickly personality, which political opponents of the day characterized as arrogant, overbearing, and intolerant of dissent. [5] Political allies made these character traits into a virtue, casting Skidmore as self-assured but unwilling to accede to the ideas of others which he believed to be incorrect. [5] "All else is quackery," Skidmore is remembered as saying of perspectives which diverged from his own. [6]

Ouster and establishment of a new party

As the year 1829 drew to a close, a meeting of "mechanics and other workingmen" was held in New York City on December 29 to set the future policy of the party. [7] The meeting was chaired by prominent local politician and Skidmore foe Henry G. Guyon, who refused to allow Skidmore to speak. [7] When Skidmore attempted to address the meeting without official sanction, he was howled down. [7] Skidmore's agrarianism-oriented program was defeated and the communal education policies assigned primacy in the revised Working Men's Party program. [7]

Denied access to the floor at the December 29, 1829, meeting and thereby effectively "read out" of the party, [8] Thomas Skidmore and his co-thinkers called a preparatory meeting soon thereafter, with a formal organizational meeting for a new political organization following on February 23, 1830. [9] About 40 party adherents were in attendance to hear a long argument between Skidmore and Working Man's Advocate publisher Evans in which Skidmore charged that the official party had come to be dominated by the wealthy, while Evans accused Skidmore of having made himself "obnoxious to the great body of workingmen." [9]

Skidmore's new grouping was known as the Agrarian Party, which also called itself the "Original Working Men's Party," which nominated a full ticket for state and city office as well, including running Skidmore for United States Congress and his right-hand man, Alexander Ming, Sr., tapped for State Assembly in the election of 1830. [10] The party nominated an individual from Orange County for Governor, but he decline and no replacement was chosen. [10]

The result of the 1830 election was a crushing blow for the Working Men's Party dominated by Owen and Evans and Skidmore's Agrarian Party alike. [10] The Working Man's Party had split again into a National Republican proxy "Clay Workingmen" and an Owen-Evans minority. [10] Both were soundly demolished by the Tammany Hall Democrats, with Skidmore's Agrarian Party scarcely registering a pulse.

Ideas

Skidmore's primary contribution to the political movement of the late 1820s and early 1830s was primarily that of a political writer. [11] He published three books during the short interval between his emergence as a political figure in 1829 and his premature death at the age of 41 in 1832. Regarded as the most important of these was his first book, The Rights of Man to Property! [11]

Influenced by the most radical thinking to emerge from the French Revolution of 1789-1794, Skidmore's book was a challenge to the views of Thomas Jefferson regarding the "rights of man" and Jefferson's call for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for what he believed to be a shortsighted omission of the role of property in subverting political and judicial equality between citizens. [11]

Anticipating the views of Karl Marx and others, in his 1829 book Skidmore depicted the world as one divided into two fundamental classes:

"...proprietors, and non-proprietors; those who own the world and those who own no part of it. If we take a closer view of these two classes, we shall find that a very great proportion even of the proprietors, are only nominally so; they possess so little, that in strict regard to truth, they ought to be classed among the non-proprietors." [12]

Such a situation was self-perpetuating and held the majority of citizens in a sort of economic thralldom in which true liberty was not possible, Skidmore argued. He wrote:

"Let the parent reflect, if he now be a man of toil, that his children must be, 99 cases in 100, slaves, and worse, to some rich proprietor... Let him not cheat himself with empty pretensions; for, he who commands the property of the State, or even an inordinate portion of it, has the liberty and the happiness of its citizens in his own keeping.... He who can feed me, or starve me; give me employment, or bid me wander about in idleness; is my master; and it is the utmost folly for me to boast of being anything but a slave." [13]

To alleviate this fundamentally flawed state of affairs, Skidmore argued for the end of the right of inheritance and for the strict leveling of property among adults. [2] His program was straightforward: all property in the United States should be divvied up and redistributed, in equal shares, to American citizens. From that point on, Americans would own their share as private property, and would relinquish it only when they died. Private inheritance would be abolished, and the wealth of the deceased would be pooled into a fund and reserved, in the future, for young people when they reached the age of 18. Upon reaching that age, all Americans would inherit a generous sum of money, understood as their birthright, to get them started in adult life.

The mechanism for change advocated by Skidmore was the convocation of a constitutional convention that would in one swoop abolish all debts and expropriate all property — productive and personal — on behalf of the state. [11] Every citizen, regardless of gender or race, would be allotted an equal share of the combined property of the nation, with the system made permanent by the equal distribution of the property of the deceased to those attaining the age of majority. [11]

In addition to his redistributive ideas, Skidmore was an advocate state aid for child-rearing, the abolition of private charity, and argued for the elimination of banks and corporate charters. [11]

Death and legacy

During the last months before defeat in the election of 1830 and his untimely death in the summer of 1832, Skidmore published a newspaper called The Friend of Equal Rights, wrote letters to the editor of various New York City newspapers, and gave public lectures in an attempt to gain popular support for his deeply-held political and economic ideas. [14]

Thomas Skidmore died August 7, 1832, during the cholera epidemic that swept through the city in that year. [2] He was one week shy of his 42nd birthday at the time of his death.

Skidmore's 1829 book has been called the "first American synthesis of egalitarian and producerist ideas" and notable for its early advocacy of the idea that the producers of wealth were entitled to the whole value of that product — a fundamental economic article of faith which drove the 19th Century international socialist movement. [11]

Footnotes

  1. 1 2 Edward Pessen, "Thomas Skidmore, Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement," New York History, vol. 35, no. 3 (July 1954), pg. 280.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Matthew S.R. Bewig, "Thomas Skidmore (1790-1832): Working Men's Parties," in Eric Arnesen (ed.), Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-class History: Volume 1, A-F. New York: Routledge, 2007; pg. 1259.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Pessen, "Thomas Skidmore, Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement," pg. 281.
  4. Bewig, "Thomas Skidmore," pp. 1259-1260.
  5. 1 2 Pessen, Uncommon Jacksonians, pg. 61.
  6. Amos Gilbert, "Thomas Skidmore," Free Enquirer, March 20, 1834; quoted in Pessen, Uncommon Jacksonians, pg. 65.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Frank T. Carlton, "The Workingmen's Party of New York City: 1829-1831," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3 (Sept. 1907), pg. 405.
  8. Edward Pessen, Most Uncommon Jacksonians: The Radical Leaders of the Early Labor Movement. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1967; pg. 62.
  9. 1 2 Carlton, "The Workingmen's Party of New York City," pg. 406.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Carlton, "The Workingmen's Party of New York City," pg. 412.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Bewig, "Thomas Skidmore," pg. 1260.
  12. Thomas Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property! New York: Thomas Skidmore, 1829; pg. 125.
  13. Skidmore, The Rights of Man to Property! pg. 388. Hyperbolic italicization in original removed and spelling modernized.
  14. Pessen, "Thomas Skidmore, Agrarian Reformer in the Early American Labor Movement," pg. 282.

Works

Further reading

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