- Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community
In prose that is at times frustratingly vague but always impassioned, Mark Lause has produced a work of impressive intellectual breadth and chronological scope. Young America follows the sometimes byzantine story of working-class land reform activism and ideology from its roots in the early-nineteenth-century trade unionism of New York City craftsmen to its signal achievement, the 1862 Homestead Act. A concluding chapter treats the continuation of radical land reform agitation in Gilded Age agrarian insurgency. Throughout the book, Lause offers useful insights into how working-class agrarianism intersected with broader social and political movements.
Lause begins with the emergence by the 1830s of a radical agrarian ideology, dedicated to a policy of free homesteads for landless workers and strict limits on the amount of land any individual might own. At its most grandiose, agrarian radicalism sought nothing less than the wholesale reorganization of capitalism's property relationships and social ethics. Early land reform agitation culminated in the founding of the National Reform Association (NRA) in 1844 by a tiny band of radical workers in New York City. Though only a relatively small number of Americans directly associated themselves with the NRA, Lause meticulously documents the interconnections between it and virtually every major and minor radical reform impulse of the day, [End Page 93] including abolitionism, free soilism, antirentism, trade unionism, immigrant German socialism, American Fourierism, and the free-love movement. The research is painstaking and the presentation at times tedious, but the diligent reader is rewarded with a rich compendium of radical political and social activism before the Civil War. Lause makes clear his own political commitments and, with the determination of a brother-in-struggle, presents valuable information on scores of obscure men and women whose lives and radical commitments have remained largely anonymous.
Lause's most ambitious purpose is to situate the land reformers' activism and thought at the center of Civil War–era politics. He is less successful here, in part because he rarely systematically explores the connections between land reform agitation and major party politics. Thus his arguments about the significance of the NRA and agrarian ideology to the rise of the Republican party is, while intriguing, ultimately unconvincing. Perhaps Lause might have done more to separate land reform as a popular impulse from its more radical organizational and ideological dimensions. Then too, as Lause notes, working-class agrarianism originated in freethinking rationalism and republican deism, its most fervent adherents remaining by turns skeptical and hostile toward evangelical Protestantism. This alone would seem to have created a serious disconnect between radical ideology and the outlook of many ordinary Americans. Certainly aspects of land reform—homestead exemption laws; free homesteads to western settlers—resonated with the broad American mainstream, but the unpopularity of the radicals' free thought and socialist meditations perhaps explains why the NRA as an organization remained marginal.
Whatever its weaknesses, Young America contributes substantially to our knowledge of antebellum radicalism and illuminates new paths for future scholarship. Lause's book should reawaken interest in the complex relationship between Civil War–era politics and radical social movements.