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James Alexander and Social Reform

Interesting excerpts from Gary Steward’s fine work on Old Princeton.

While Alexander’s program for social reform consisted primarily in energetic efforts to more broadly spread the gospel and Christian truth, others took a more radical approach. One such group who did not do so was the utopian socialists, which included Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Francis Wright. The followers of the utopian socialists attempted to implement their vision of collectivist communalism in numerous locations in antebellum America. Built upon a secular and humanistic set of ideals, close to fifty Owenite and Fourierite communities were started, directly involving thousands of people. In 1844, Alexander wrote to Hall about this movement: “[Arthur] Brisbane, the Fourierist, and some aids, are looking out for a farm of a thousand acres in this neighbourhood [of Princeton], whereon to exemplify their socialism.” Later that year, Alexander reported: “Parke Godwin, the leading Fourierite, is an alumnus of the College and Seminary. Cooke represents the scheme as becoming formidable, from the numbers taken in.” While many were temporarily enamored with the utopian schemes of Owen and others, including even president John Quincy Adams, Alexander viewed them as a serious threat to the social order. By broadening the basic social unit to encompass a community of workers, Alexander felt that the utopian socialists were introducing ideas that would ultimately be destructive to the family. Writing to Hall, Alexander stated: “These Fourier-systems would make every one live in public, and obliterate little family circles, and all that we call Home.” This, along with the radically secular philosophies they promoted, brought his strong disapproval, and he rejoiced to see most of them fail before the end of his life. …

Like the utopian socialists, trade unionists promoted a form of economic collectivism as a means of reforming society. This too caused Alexander great concern. In 1830, he wrote Hall:

The movements of the Jacobin party calling themselves . . . the “Working Men,” give me unfeigned alarm, more than any threats of disunion, or violence of mere party rage. If we love our country, something must be done. It will not do to despise so formidable an array. They are indeed, with us, not the dregs, but in the exercise of their elective franchise, the primum mobile of this nation. The Godwinism, Owenism, sans culottism, (aut quocunque gaudent nomine,) [or whatever name they delight in] which possesses them, may ruin us. Could not a series of “Letters to Working Men” be put in some popular journal commending honest labour, asserting the rights of mechanics, etc., but unveiling the naked deformity of this levelling system? Could not you serve your country, by doing something of the sort? It would be arduous, but by so doing, you would deserve well of posterity. No better work, I truly think, could just now engage any honest patriot.

In 1836, Alexander mused to Hall: “It occurs to me that a tract might be written in the dialogue form, after the model of [Hannah] More’s Village Politics, against the trades unions; but how could it be circulated?”

In answer to his own question, Alexander began writing a series of newspaper articles to the working classes under the pen name Charles Quill. A selection of these articles was republished in 1838 in book form as The American Mechanic.

Continuing to write as Charles Quill, Alexander playfully informed Hall of his articles: “By recourse to the ‘Newark Daily’ you will see some able papers, by a great political economist [Charles Quill], on Trades Unions.” The following year, Alexander wrote to Hall of his ongoing work along these lines: I should like to advise with you a little about the sequel to the American Mechanic, which I have been preparing. . . . The plan is just the same, but I have pitched the tone of it two or three degrees higher, as to style, allusion, etc. Still I wish it to be a book for the working classes. I feel encouraged to bestow such little labours as I may be able to put forth, more and more on the working classes, the rather because they are the great object of the infidels, socialists, agrarians, Owenites, Wrightites, and diabolians generally. By writing as Charles Quill, Alexander encouraged “the working classes” to advance their position through noncommunal and noncoercive ways.

By Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a writer and editor from Lincoln NE and a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He curates the Notes section of Mere Orthodoxy and serves on the editorial board of the journal Fare Forward.

His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, and Front Porch Republic.

Jake lives in his hometown of Lincoln NE with his wife and two kids. He is also the creator of the Inside Channel, a soccer magazine and email newsletter.