Josiah Warren, “Social Reform in America” (1862)

[one_third padding=”0 10px 0 0px”]

There is little doubt that the “J. W.” who wrote this letter was indeed Josiah Warren. The details are quite clear and one of the regular contributors to The Working Man was Warren’s friend A. C. Cudden. The letter is not, in itself, particularly remarkable. By this period in his life, Warren’s concerns were well defined. But the context is quite interesting, as the letter appears in the midst of events of some importance in anarchist history. In the previous issue, The Working Man had welcomed Mikhail Bakunin to England (with Cuddon signing as Chairman of the deputation) and Bakunin’s reply appeared in the issue following.

[/one_third][two_third_last padding=”0 0px 0 10px”]

(To the Editor of the Working Man.)


Sir,—I seize the first fitting opportunity to reply to your respected courtesies and attentions, for which I feel so much obliged. Your letters, and the papers you have sent, were exceedingly interesting to me, as, of course, they must of necessity be. Like you, I dare not trust my head an inch beyond my hands and feet (i.e., I dare not trust any untried theory); nor does it seem very profitable for other people to attempt it. When, in 1827, I first conceived the principles of equity, and designed to illustrate them by the working of a family store, I talked incessantly for six weeks to my most sympathising friends in order to get them to appreciate the subject, and to assist me in working it out; but the whole of that labour was entirely thrown away; but as soon as I commenced the store single-handed—individually—it explained itself, and more than itself. The working of it—the facts of it—explained the principle of Equity as no words could; and I saw that it was the incompetency of language that had neutralised all my efforts at theorising. Precisely the same thing occurred previously to starting the same kind of store in New Harmony in 1842. The working of the store itself was the only thing that preserved one from being set down as an insane visionary. But you may judge something of its practical effects by a remark of Robert Dale Owen, who (though he did not understand the principles) said, “There is no disputing that you have produced a great revolution in the country.” The thing looks ludicrous enough when I ask myself how long I should have had to talk or write before the same results would have been attained by theory alone! You may wonder what I am coming to, or driving at. It is this. I said, on reading your articles in the Working Man, “Glorious, hearty fellows! they will do all that can be done by words; but I hope they will not expect too much from them, and be disappointed, and become discouraged.” After all, words have had their day, and done all they can do; there is a power in simple facts that as far transcends them as the hurricane transcends in power the breathing of a child. I have been on this ground ten years, and have, on all occasions (which I thought demanded it), applied and shown up the principles for which the place was laid out, yet, I really believe that they are better understood in Boston, in New York City, and elsewhere, where I have never been, than they are here, and, perhaps, it is fortunate for them that I am not in London! Notwithstanding the almost imperceptible progress of our subject theoretically, the fact that the place is still in existence—that it has not been annihilated by abuse and misrepresentation—is a fact of great power. It brings to us many persons who are enquiring and looking for something better than they find around them; and others at a distance have their eyes turned this way, ready to see anything that may be developed worth seeing. Now, all we have to do is—to do! The great question is—What can we do with so few in number? What we cannot do would be too long a list to write.

J. W.

Long Island, New York.

J. W., “Social Reform in America,” The Working Man 2 no. 23 (March 1, 1862): 80–81.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.