William Leggett (writer)

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William Leggett
William Leggett.jpg
Born(1801-04-30)April 30, 1801
New York City
DiedMay 29, 1839(1839-05-29) (aged 38)
NationalityUnited States
OccupationPoet, fiction writer, journalist

William Leggett (April 30, 1801 – May 29, 1839) was an American poet, fiction writer, and journalist.


Leggett attended Georgetown College in 1815–16. In 1819, after his father's business failed, he moved with his family to Edwardsville, Illinois. In late 1822, he returned to New York to take up a naval commission as a midshipman. He served in the United States Navy in the West Indies and Mediterranean.

In January 1825, Leggett was imprisoned by his captain for dueling on duty. Several months later, a court martial convicted him of several offenses. His sentence of dismissal from the navy was reduced to time served, but he resigned his commission on April 17, 1826.

After his resignation, Leggett returned to New York to become a theater critic at the New York Mirror and assistant editor of the short-lived Merchants' Telegraph. In November 1828, he founded the Critic, a literary journal that lasted only until June 1829. In the summer of 1829, however, William Cullen Bryant invited Leggett to write for the New York Evening Post. There, in addition to literary and drama reviews, he began to write political editorials. Leggett became an owner and editor at the Post in 1831, eventually working as sole editor of the newspaper while Bryant traveled in Europe in 1834–5.

Leggett's political opinions proved highly controversial. He was a Jacksonian Democrat, but he often attacked fellow Andrew Jackson supporters for failing to carry their egalitarian principles far enough. He also became an outspoken opponent of slavery. Because the resulting struggles threatened both Leggett's health and the financial survival of the newspaper, Bryant returned from Europe, and Leggett left the Post. Leggett founded The Plaindealer in 1836 and the Examiner in 1837, but both publications lasted only a few months. Their failure left Leggett in poverty.

Leggett had suffered poor health since contracting yellow fever in the navy. He died at his home in New Rochelle, New York on May 29, 1839, just before he was due to begin serving as the American minister to Guatemala under Martin Van Buren. He is interred at New Rochelle's Trinity Church. His monument there was carved by John Frazee.


He is best known as an unflinching advocate of laissez-faire, and a leader of the Loco-Focos faction of city Democrats. He insisted:

Governments have no right to interfere with the pursuits of individuals, as guaranteed by those general laws, by offering encouragements and granting privileges to any particular class of industry, or any select bodies of men, inasmuch as all classes of industry and all men are equally important to the general welfare, and equally entitled to protection.[1]

Leggett was remarkable among the journalists of his day as an unflinching advocate of freedom of opinion for his political opponents as well as for his own party. Bryant wrote a poem to his memory,[2] beginning "The earth may ring from shore to shore." Bryant describes Leggett as fond of study, delighting to trace principles to their remotest consequences, and having no fear of public opinion regarding the expression of his own convictions. It was the fiery Leggett that urged on Bryant to attack William Leete Stone, Sr., a brother editor, in Broadway. Soon afterward he fought a duel at Weehawken with Blake, the treasurer of the old Park Theatre. To the surprise of all New York, Leggett selected James Lawson, a peacefully disposed Scottish-American poet, who was slightly lame, as his second; and when asked after the bloodless duel for his reasons, he answered: "Blake's second, Berkeley, was lame, and I did not propose that the d--d Englishman should beat me in anything."

William Cullen Bryant, in his obituary, wrote:

As a political writer, Mr. Leggett attained, within a brief period, a high rank and an extensive and enviable reputation. He wrote with great fluency and extraordinary vigor; he saw the strong points of a question at a glance, and had the skill to place them before his readers with a force, clearness and amplitude of statement rarely to be found in the writings of any journalist that ever lived. When he became warmed with his subject, which was not unfrequently the case, his discussions had all the stirring power of extemporaneous eloquence.

His fine endowments he wielded for worthy purposes. He espoused the cause of the largest liberty and the most comprehensive equality of rights among the human race, and warred against those principles which inculcate distrust of the people, and those schemes of legislation which tend to create an artificial inequality in the conditions of men. He was wholly free – and, in this respect his example ought to be held up to journalists as a model to contemplate and copy – he was wholly free from the besetting sin of their profession, a mercenary and time-serving disposition. He was a sincere lover and follower of truth, and never allowed any of those specious reasons for inconsistency, which disguise themselves under the name of expediency, to seduce him for a moment from the support of the opinions which he deemed right, and the measures which he was convinced were just. What he would not yield to the dictates of interest he was still less disposed to yield to the suggestions of fear.

We sorrow that such a man, so clear-sighted, strong minded and magnanimous has passed away, and that his aid is no more to be given in the conflict which truth and liberty maintain with their numerous and powerful enemies.[3]


Leggett's writings include Leisure Hours at Sea (1825); Tales and Sketches of a Country School Master (1835); Naval Stories (1835); and Political Writings, edited, with a preface, by Theodore Sedgwick (1840).[4] Tales and Sketches of a Country School Master includes "The Rifle" (originally in The Atlantic Souvenir, Christmas and New Year's Offering [1827], an early pre-Poe use of elements that would appear in detective fiction.

His main editorials have been collected as Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy (1984)

In popular culture[edit]

  • Leggett appears in the novel Burr by Gore Vidal as a mentor to the main character, aspiring journalist Charlie Schuyler.
  • A poem was written by John Greenleaf Whittier commemorating "Leggett's Monument" as a symbol of his consistently outspoken nature and the callousness of society to his opinions.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Doctrine of Equal Rights 1834
  2. ^ In Memory of William Leggett
  3. ^ Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829–1861 (1994), p. 95.
  4. ^ Bryant and His Friends, James Grant Wilson (New York, 1886)

Further reading[edit]

  • Hofstadter, Richard. "William Leggett: Spokesman of Jacksonian Democracy." Political Science Quarterly 58#4 (December 1943): 581–94. in JSTOR
  • Degler, Carl N. (1956). "The Locofocos: Urban 'Agrarians'". Journal of Economic History. 16 (3): 322–33. doi:10.1017/S0022050700059222.
  • Leggett, William. (Edited and foreword by Lawrence H. White) Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy (1834). Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1984.
  • Procter, Page S., Jr. (1950). "William Leggett (1801–1839): Journalist and Literator". Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. 44 (3): 239–53. doi:10.1086/pbsa.44.3.24298608. S2CID 163387900.
  • Simeone, James. "Reassessing Jacksonian Political Culture: William Leggett's Egalitarianism." American Political Thought 4#3 (2015): 359–90. in JSTOR
  • Sklansky, Jeffrey. "The Melodrama of Panic: William Leggett and the Literary Logic of Jacksonian Political Economy." Presented at the Program in Early American Economy and Society. Philadelphia: Library Company of Philadelphia, 2007.
  • White, Lawrence H. (2008). "Leggett, William (1801–1839)". In Hamowy, Ronald (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE; Cato Institute. pp. 289–90. doi:10.4135/9781412965811.n175. ISBN 978-1-4129-6580-4. LCCN 2008009151. OCLC 750831024.
  • White, Lawrence H. (1986). "William Leggett: Jacksonian Editorialist as Classical Liberal Political Economist". History of Political Economy. 18 (2): 307–24. doi:10.1215/00182702-18-2-307.

This article was based on one in Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, edited by James Grant Wilson, John Fiske and Stanley L. Klos. Six volumes, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1887–1889, now in the public domain.

External links[edit]