- Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community, and: For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s
Mark A. Lause and Ronald P. Formisano make two important contributions to the political history of the early republic and continue the important trend of examining vital arenas of political action in the so-called “golden age of democracy” beyond party and electoral behavior. Lause’s more focused and deeply researched study, Young America, makes a fine contribution to antebellum reform, labor, and political history by offering a comprehensive look at the origins, operation, and legacy of the National Reform Association (NRA). Born in 1844 in the back of a New York City print shop and led by free-thinker George Henry Evans, the NRA quickly emerged as a nationally prominent movement that advanced land reform as the essential solution to growing socioeconomic dislocations and working-class strife in urbanizing and industrializing America. Eschewing the two-party electoral system, the NRA instead adopted a “nonpartisan strategy” (17) that privileged public-policy objectives. Three measures to democratize landholding—state legislation exempting homesteads from being seized for debts, a federal homestead act, and most radically, limitations on the amount of land any individual could own—guided the movement and allowed it to build often surprising bridges between varied reform and political movements. Through alliance-building and local organizing, conventions, congresses, and conferences, the embrace of third parties, and national petition drives, the [End Page 156] NRA gained widespread support for key pillars of its agenda by mid-century. The NRA’s success, Lause contends, influenced the political realignments of the 1850s and the rise of the Free Soil movement and the Republican Party and provided crucial underpinnings to the Republicans’ Homestead Act of 1862.
According to Lause, scholarly reliance on how contemporary politicians disparagingly viewed the NRA has caused historians to misunderstand the movement and overlook its importance. In three sections, each comprising three short chapters, Lause works his readers hard, relying rather heavily on direct quotations from “movement sources” (2) to make the case that the NRA was an influential player in the late antebellum political environment. Section One locates the NRA’s origins in the Workingmen’s Party and Locofoco Democrats of the 1820s and 1830s and charts its quest to build a broad coalition among disparate groups like Rhode Island’s Dorrites, Upstate New York’s Anti-Renters, Mike Walsh’s Spartan Band, urban workingmen’s associations, New England Fourierists, and Robert Owen’s communitarians. The NRA’s land reform proposals united these groups behind a common agenda, and its call for citizens to “Vote Yourself a Farm,” Lause argues, was the lynch-pin converting American socialism from a communitarian to a political orientation. Section Two unearths the NRA’s democratic ideology and political tactics and exposes, among other things, National Reformers’ distrust of centralized government and their populist hope that America’s working majority would use their right of democratic self-government to regain their right to the soil. Readers interested in the relationship between labor politics, race, and slavery should consider Lause’s recovery of the NRA’s antislavery stance and his contention that key portions of the NRA “challenged the assumptions of white supremacy” (72). Section Three gauges the impact of National Reform, which lasted, Lause contends, well beyond the association’s formal demise in 1849. Land reformers joined abolitionists to bolster the Free Soil response to the western lands question and helped reframe slavery’s expansion as a working-class issue. Their efforts and ideas reverberated in debates over Kansas–Nebraska and shaped the Republican Party’s adoption of land reform as a pillar of its platform.
Overall, Lause’s most important contribution is establishing the NRA as an important link between two eras of political labor reform: on the one hand, the...