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The New England Labor Reform League


IN GRAPPLING with the same strategic questions that confront modern libertarianism, the 19th-century movement evolved a remarkable organization that engaged in both education and grassroots activism.

The New England Labor Reform League (NELRL) sprang from an 1869 gathering of labor radicals in Boston. The leading force in its founding was the editor and writer Ezra Heywood, who lost no time in establishing an anti-statist publishing arm called the Cooperative Publishing Company. The company issued the Leagues Declaration of Sentiments, which stated the NELRLs mission:

Free contracts, free money, free markets, free transit, and free land by discussion, petition, remonstrance, and the ballot, to establish these articles of faith as a common need, and a common right, we avail ourselves of the advantages of associate effort.

The mission statement reflected the main difference between socialist and libertarian labor reformers of the 19th century. Both types of radicals condemned usury the act of profiting through capital or capitalism such as the charging of interest or rent. But the NELRL argued that the solution to this evil lay in the unrestricted functioning of the free market and free competition.

For example, without governmental enforcement of a monopoly on currency, the NELRL believed, private banking would emerge and the act of charging interest would disappear from society. With the active involvement of the then-renowned banking radical William B. Greene, the right to issue private currency became a lynchpin of the NELRLs social program. Other goals included the abolition of tariffs and class laws and the privatization of railroads.

Another difference between socialist and libertarian labor radicals lay in the latters primary stress on voluntary association. In this, the ordering of goals in the mission statement may be an indication of the NELRLs priorities: free contracts, free money, free markets. If its vision were proven wrong that is, if people were willing to pay interest in the absence of state-controlled money, then the right of free contract would prevail. In other words, if a man willingly paid interest on money even though other private currencies were available, no one would interfere with his foolishness.

That stand also reflected another policy that distinguished the NELRL from many other labor-reform organizations: it advocated strict nonviolence. As Heywood later declared in his pamphlet The Great Strike,

We reject the philosophy of strikes, oppose trades-union monopolies of labor, and discard every other style of associative or legislative intrusion to settle this question…. Asking no favors for labor but that it be left alone, I seek to abolish capital … by unrestricted enterprise, by peaceful methods of evolution.

Libertarian luminaries were drawn to and enriched by this social vision. Indeed, it was at an NELRL meeting that Benjamin Tucker who later became the editor of Liberty, the most influential libertarian periodical ever published became acquainted with three of his mentors: Greene, Lysander Spooner, and Josiah Warren.

The NELRL was not merely a forum for discussion, however. The organizations primary concern was for working people who barely made a living wage because the state gave privileges to a money class at their expense. Just as working peoples needs were desperate and material, the NELRLs strategies were aggressive and practical. The members of the NELRL, acting both collectively and as individuals, pursued innovative approaches to social change. The following is a mere glimpse into the rich activism that revolved around the NELRL.

Education and intellectual activism

The Word: A Monthly Journal of Reform (18721890, 18921893), edited by Heywood, was one of the three main libertarian periodicals of the 19th century. The Word began as a vehicle to report on the NELRLs activities, as well as those of the national American Labor Reform League which organized as a result of the NELRL. The Word soon included accounts of the other organizations that sprang up and functioned in parallel, sharing many members with the NELRL. These groups included the Anti-Tax League, the Union Reform League, and the New England Free Love League. (Free love, as the term was used in the 19th century, was the movement that sought to remove the state from all personal relationships, such as marriage and divorce, leaving such matters to the conscience and contracts of those involved.)

By publishing accounts of members activities, along with their letters, The Word created a community. By regularly reviewing radical literature that Heywood had received the month before, it provided that community with a broad awareness of social reform. Over time, The Word began to focus increasingly on free-love issues such as birth control.

The Free Love League naturally intersected with the labor movement at several points. For one thing, a lack of access to birth-control information and devices was seen as a major cause if not the major cause of womens economic subjugation. For another, a married woman was often forced by law to turn wages over to her husband and to enter into contracts only through his signature: fairness for working women required the repeal of existing marriage laws.

Meanwhile, as The Word established a community and defined its focus, the Cooperative Publishing Company provided an outreach that was aimed mainly at common people such as factory workers. Its publications did not talk down to its audience, however, but included sophisticated texts such as Spooners No Treason and Greenes Mutual Banking.

The companys method of marketing constituted a form of activism in and of itself. At a time when women reformers were expected to take a backseat in public to their male counterparts, the company organized Lady Agents. These were saleswomen who toured the countryside with the companys publications, which they sold in person. The Lady Agents entered factories and argued with employers that they should be able to sell labor and birth-control tracts to the workers on their off-time. They tried to persuade newspaper editors to advertise their publications and the speeches they arranged. Riding the rails around New England, the Midwest, and into Canada, the Ladies were in danger of being arrested at each stop. Indeed, Josephine S. Tilton, Heywoods sister-in-law, was arrested in Newburyport, Massachusetts, for selling a birth-control tract.

The adventures of the Lady Agents were chronicled by The Word through the letters they wrote home to Heywood. J. Flora Tilton, another sister-in-law, reported, I blush with indignation when a man will say to me, as one did the other day, I own my wife, and she has the privilege of being ruled…. In all my travels I never met with men that seemed so low and ignorant in regard to women and their relations to society as I did in Ohio.

The Word also followed accounts of the Lady Agents that were rendered by newspapers in the towns they visited. For example, in October 1877 The Word reported that the authorities in Prince Edward Island had confiscated an assortment of literature from Josephine S. Tilton, including Benjamin Tuckers periodical Radical Review. The material was burned in the public square.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Mayflower reported a conversation between an Agent and the newspapers editor whom she had visited. The editor remarked upon the free-love pamphlets being offered for sale. With how many different men have you held the relations usually sanctified by marriage? he asked and observed, The womans face was scarlet. She responded, You are insulting me. To which he replied, Not at all; we are simply asking questions to see how far your practice and precepts join hands.

Despite the hardships of the road and rudeness of many encounters, the Lady Agents sold hundreds of thousands of tracts.

Grassroots activism

At the same time, the members of NELRL both individually and collectively pursued real-world solutions to the current problems confronting working people. One of the best examples was Boffins Bower on Washington Street, Boston, the creation of Jennie C. Collins, who attended the NELRL. (It was named after a locale in Charles Dickenss novel Our Mutual Friend.) Boffins Bower was an establishment where poor women were given food, clothing, and shelter.

The 1884 annual report of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on working-class women in Boston. It stated,

There are [working women] … who have no home but the boarding house, and no friends to depend upon for aid, sympathy, or moral encouragement, and it is among this class of shop girls chiefly, that the aid and assistance of the benevolent and charitably inclined people of our city should be directed. It is among these that Boffins Bower exerts a great influence, and with whom the name of Jennie Collins is a household word.

The report went on to state that Boffins Bower was a place where such women can go if they are in need of a meal which they can get without lowering themselves by begging. Moreover, Collins found employment for hundreds of women every year thus allowing them to escape harsh alternatives such as prostitution.

Boffins Bower was financed through donations from businesses and Collinss own earnings from lectures and writings, especially her book Natures Aristocracy; or, Battles and Wounds in Time of Peace. A plea for the oppressed. There she eloquently described the plight of Bostons shopgirls:

They stand on their feet until their bones ache, and measure silks until their fingers are numb, puzzle their head through ten hours of constant mathematical calculation, and go home at night tired and disheartened, having earned just enough, perhaps, to pay their board. They live in a world of plenty, and yet have nothing.

The poverty of Collinss background made her understand that poor women must not be humiliated or demeaned in the process of assisting them. The second volume of History of Woman Suffrage (by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage) describes her fundraising lecture:

She tells her stories with such a tender, natural pathos that few eyes are dry during her speeches. She makes no pretense, but gives most unmistakable evidence of a rich nature that has been repressed and tortured.

The Word, reporting on Collins as the most eloquent woman in New England, cited her as an example of what an intuitive, sympathetic, alert woman can do. Heywood called Boffins Bower one of the institutions born of Labor Reform Conventions. He attested to the excellence of its meals, of which he and his wife Angela once partook at Collinss invitation.

Civil disobedience

Another form of grassroots activism favored by those associated with the NELRL was civil disobedience, especially in the area of freedom of speech. For example, Sadie Bailey, who frequently contributed small sums of money to The Word, was ordered to surrender $10,000 worth of books and the plates of her novel Irene, or the Road to Freedom to the New York Vice Society. Instead, she posted large advertisements in her windows and sold Irene to all comers. The Word proclaimed the book to be one which marriagists and libertarians should own and lend.

Heywood himself became the foremost practitioner of civil disobedience. In November 1877, while delivering a speech, he was dramatically arrested by Anthony Comstock himself, the driving force behind the Comstock obscenity laws that ravaged late 19th-century radicalism. Heywood was charged with violating postal statutes that prohibited the mailing of obscene material. The material in question advocated birth control.

This was the first of three similar prosecutions that Heywood endured and it led to the first of two imprisonments. Sentenced to two years at hard labor, Heywoods conviction prompted such a backlash of protest that a petition for the repeal of the Comstock laws received 70,000 signatures the largest petition in U.S. history to that date. Six months after his imprisonment, Heywood received a full pardon from President Hayes.

Arrested again in 1882 for circulating obscenity (again, birth-control information), Heywood successfully defended himself, delivering a four-and-a-half hour speech in the process. His 1890 prosecution for postal obscenity did not have such happy consequences. He was sentenced to two years, which he served in their entirety. Petitions to President Harrison were ignored.


When speaking of past strategies, one question inevitably arises: Were they successful?

It is difficult to assess the impact of any of the strategies sketched above. For example, it is impossible to know what the women helped by Boffins Bower went on to accomplish. It is impossible to measure how much Heywoods resistance to the Comstock laws weakened them. The working men and women who purchased material from the Lady Agents cannot tell us the effect it had on them.

Some things can be judged, however. For about a decade, the Cooperative Publishing Company was the foremost source of anti-statist literature in America. For more than two decades, the NELRL provided a center for libertarian labor radicalism and free love. The NELRL was the training ground for young idealists such as Benjamin Tucker, who went on to become one of the foremost individualists America has produced. The NELRL also inspired the creation of dozens of voluntary organizations, such as the influential American Labor Reform League on which luminaries such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton served.

One of the greatest successes of the NELRL has yet to be realized, however. Namely, its history is rich proof that 19th-century libertarianism was in the forefront of fighting to better the economic and political circumstances of working people. Socialism is usually credited with being the working-class movement, the ideology that cared (and cares) for the poor against the alliance of big business and the state. Left-wing radicals still draw credibility and prestige from a faux history that paints their forerunners as the social conscience of America.

By contrast, libertarianism is often portrayed as heartless, concerned only with the interests of business and commerce. History contradicts this view. Or it would, if it were allowed to speak. Libertarians should learn from socialists: they should embrace their past and use the richness of their own history to advantage.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).