George Schumm, “Benj. R. Tucker—A Brief Sketch Of His Life And Work” (1893)



BENJ. R. TUCKER, whose portrait is the frontispiece of this issue of the Magazine, was born in South Dartmouth, near New Bedford, in Massachusetts, April I7, 1854. His parents were in comfortable circumstances, and belonged to the enlightened portion of the community. In politics, his father was a Jeffersonian Democrat; in religion, both his father and his mother were radical Unitarians and as such members of W. J. Potter’s church. Mr. Tucker’s maternal grandfather was a great admirer of Thomas Paine. Thus it will be seen that the radicalism of the foremost champion of individualistic Anarchism is largely a natural inheritance.

Altogether nature dealt generously by Mr. Tucker, having endowed him with physical and intellectual gifts far above the ordinary. When only two years of age he could read English fluently. One of the books he used to read at that time was the Bible, and that he did so intelligently is made plain by an incident that occurred in his fourth year. Visiting, one day, an Episcopalian aunt, he was given a prayer-book and asked to read from It. He did so until he came to a passage which he said was wrong because it was different in the Bible. He was assured that he must be mistaken, and asked to go on reading. But he maintained that the passage in the prayer-book was wrong and that he was right, and insisted on verifying his statement by the Bible. His aunt brought him a Bible and he proved his assertion.

This incident was fairly prophetic of the small boy’s future career, though probably no one saw any prophecy in it at the time. The truth is that since then Mr. Tucker has challenged many commonly-received opinions of the deepest import in religion, political science, and philosophy, and has triumphantly maintained his position by reference to the bible of fact, logic and science.

Mr. Tucker early came under the influence of that liberal preacher and teacher, W. J. Potter, for many years President of the Free Religious Association, and though he soon outgrew him and caught a glimpse of a larger, truer, and more beautiful life, he may still be largely indebted to him for what he now is.

At school in the Friends’ Academy at New Bedford, as I learn from Mr. John Tetlow, at present principal of the Girls’ Latin School at Boston, but who was his teacher at that time, Benj. R. Tucker was one of the brightest pupils, always pursuing his studies with the greatest interest. While Mr. Tetlow would disclaim all responsibility for his former pupil’s present views. he tells me that he thinks of him with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction.

It is to be feared that if I had sought a report from Benjamin’s Sunday-school teacher it would not have turned out equally creditable to him; yet his conduct in connection with his Sunday-school life credits him with such an early maturity of thought and with such strong and healthy qualities as at once place him outside of the common herd—a position he has ever since maintained. At about the age of ten, his interest in the Sunday-school began to wane and he neglected his lessons. Mr. Tetlow, who was also his Sunday-school teacher, noticed his neglect, and one day said:

“Benjamin, how long did you study this lesson?”

“Five minutes,” came the prompt reply.

“How many hours do you spend over your week-day studies?”

To which again came a prompt reply, the pupil mentioning a number of hours, when Mr. Tetlow asked him if he did not think that he ought to devote at least as much time to things of so much greater importance than his week-day studies as he was giving to these. But Benjamin could not view it in that light, and when he was twelve years old he absolutely refused to attend Sunday-school any longer. He had returned from a summer’s vacation, and with his parents attended Mr. Potter’s morning sermon. At the close of the sermon announcement was made of the opening of the Sunday-school in the afternoon. The boy decided not to go, and, in order to avoid trouble at home, went to an aunt’s to dine and spend the afternoon. But his father came after him and brought him to his mother, who pleaded with him and entreated him to go to the Sunday-school. But the boy remained firm and would not even yield to his mother’s tears: he never again went to Sunday-school. It may be interesting to remark here that a few years later, when the Sunday-school had steadily declined and the question came before the trustees whether to continue it or not, Mr. Tetlow rose and moved to abolish it, on the ground that it was not accomplishing anything and was of no use.

At the age of 16, Benjamin gave some more evidence of possessing a mind and a will of his own. He had finished his studies at the academy, and his parents desired him to enter Harvard College. But, like Thoreau, our young friend held colleges in small esteem and refused to comply with the wishes of his parents. Great pressure was brought to bear on him, but all effort on the part of his parents and relatives was wasted. At this point, at the request of an uncle of the young man, his teacher, Mr. Tetlow, came to plead with him. But Mr. Tetlow says he soon discovered that his pupil knew so much better what he wanted than he, and that his pleadings and arguments made no impression on him whatever, that he gave up all effort to persuade him to enter Harvard. By way of compromise Benjamin decided to go to the Institute of Technology at Boston.

Thus we find, even at this early age, Mr. Tucker endowed with a rare and strong individuality. He had the desire and the force of character to live his own life. He was even at that time a law unto himself. If he approved of a certain course of conduct, it mattered little to him how others would view it; nor could anything, neither threats nor soft words, make him depart from it. As was said of Shelley, so one may say of him with perfect truth, that like a wild horse of the pampas he would have whinnied his disdain of any man that would catch him with a bribe of oats.

He came to Boston and spent two years at the Institute of Technology. As one of his fellow-students there says, he always stood well in his classes, though he never distinguished himself in any. He was more interested in public lectures on the issues of the day, and in reading of his own choice, than in his studies at the institute. He had begun to take an interest in public questions at the age of 14, but his method of benefiting mankind at this time was the method of compulsion. Force was to be used in the realization of his ideals. Thus he was a prohibitionist, a woman-suffragist, an eight-hour man, and a dabbler in politics generally. His religious radicalism found its limit in the Index, of which he was an enthusiastic admirer during its first year. Through the Investigator, though this paper itself had little influence on him, he learned that there was another side not dwelt on by the Index: materialism and atheism. He was led to read a number of philosophical works, and ended by being a materialist and an atheist. After settling these problems for himself, he became more and more absorbed by the political and social questions agitating the public mind.

In 1872, at a convention of the New England Labor Reform League at Boston, he met Josiah Warren and Col. William B. Greene. It was at that convention, and especially through the words of Josiah Warren, that his eyes were opened to the value of liberty as a solution of industrial problems. He read Warren’s “ True Civilization,” and accepted its fundamental teaching. Through Col. Greene he came to know and admire the great French economist and philosopher, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the father of Anarchism. He thought it a great pity that the luminous researches of Proudhon in the realm of sociology should remain a sealed letter to the English-speaking race, and thus asked Col. Greene one day: “Why don’t you translate ‘What is Property?’” To which Greene replied: “Why don’t you?” To translate Proudhon is a difficult task, but Mr. Tucker undertook it, and in 1876 “What is Property?” appeared in English in splendid style.

In 1872, Mr. Tucker began to take part in a presidential campaign. championing the ticket of Greeley and Brown. He started a Greeley and Brown club in New Bedford, which was composed of elderly men, but which the newspapers greatly ridiculed, because it had been founded by a minor. Before the close of the campaign, at the above-mentioned labor convention, Mr. Tucker caught a glimpse of the new light and began to see through the sham and trickery and mexpediency of politics. He never again participated in a presidential campaign.

In 1874, he visited England, France and Italy, spending six months abroad.

In 1877, when Ezra H. Heywood was imprisoned in Dedham jail for sending “Cupid’s Yokes” through the mail, Mr. Tucker came to his rescue by assuming the editorship of the Word, at Princeton, Mass. In the dissensions that arose at that time within the Liberal Leagues in regard to the law against obscene literature, the so-called Comstock law, Mr. Tucker and Mr. Heywood stood apart from the two main contending parties. While the conservative wing championed a national law against obscene literature so modified that it might not be turned against reformatory discussion, and the liberal wing demanded the abolition of the Comstock law, but favored State legislation against obscene literature, Mr. Tucker in the Word demanded the absolute repeal of all laws against obscene literature.

In 1878 he published at New Bedford a quarterly magazine, The Radical Review, of which only four numbers were issued, but among whose contributors were some of the foremost writers and thinkers of the country. In this quarterly was also published a translation of the first volume of Proudhon’s “System of Economical Contradictions, or the Philosophy of Misery,” which appeared in book form in 1888. After the suspension of The Radical Review, Mr. Tucker entered the staff of the Boston Globe. With this paper he remained ten years, though he never did any editorial work for it. During this time he also published Liberty, which he founded in 1881, and which at present he publishes from New York every week. Other works, such as the fortnightly Transatlantic, the translation and publication of Tolstoi’s “ Kreutzer Sonata,” Claude Tillier’s “My Uncle Benjamin,” and Zola’s “Money,” I merely mention to show what an exceedingly busy man Mr. Tucker is. In the spring of 1889 he projected a German edition of Liberty under the name of Liberia. Of this paper only eight numbers were issued, but if it accomplished nothing else it inspired the gifted young German poet and novelist, John Henry Mackay, to write “Die Anarchisten: Ein Kulturgemalde aus dem Ende des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts,” a book which eloquently and lucidly sets forth the principles of Egoistic Anarchism. Somewhat over a year ago Mr. Tucker went to New York, where he publishes Liberty, and where he has just issued a volume entitled “Instead of a Book. By a Man too Busy to Write One. A Fragmentary Exposition of Philosophical Anarchism.”

The work in which Mr. Tucker is chiefly interested, and which he is carrying on through Liberty, is the moral and industrial emancipation of the working people. He is a bitter enemy of authority, and offers liberty as a solution for the prevailing social ills. In order to secure- an equitable distribution of wealth and place the workingman in the full possession of his product, he would destroy all sources of income except labor, such as interest, rent, and profits which rest on legal privilege and monopoly. This brings him into direct conflict with the State, whose overthrow he expects will one day be accomplished by the organization of passive resistance to compulsory taxation. He would disintegrate and abolish all authoritarian institutions and place society in a fluid condition. The existing rigid arrangements in State and society he would replace by the régime of contract. ‘

I will not undertake to detail the full sweep of this programme; enough to say that it promises to revolutionize all human relations and to inaugurate an era of the most favorable conditions of orderly progress.

Mr. Tucker is an all-round man—Atheist, Anarchist, Egoist, Free Lover-— not, like so many reformers, radical in one direction and reactionary in another. It was with a view to these latter among the American people that Karl Heinzen long ago wrote in one of his brilliant essays that “one experiences a pang of regret on seeing such men, with the step of intellectual giants, walking along the path of liberty to—day, and to-morrow weakly turning from the highway and throwing themselves on their knees in a chapel of superstition or seeking refuge in a home for minors. With all their talent and all their freedom of thought they have no conception of what we Germans understand by radicalism: that sovereign position of the human mind in nature, that cosmic all-sidedness, that proud independence in the laying bare of the roots of all knowledge, and that comprehensive view and consistency which seek to grasp all the laws of development in their connection, and thereby to bring the process of development itself into harmony.” True as this indictment against the American reformer generally is, it does not apply to Mr. Tucker; for he possesses all the attributes therein denied to most reformers in an eminent degree. I even fear that from his standpoint he might draw up a similar indictment even against so great and broad a thinker as Karl Heinzen himself. And when Emerson, in his essay on “Politics,” says that there never was in any man sufficient faith in the power of rectitude to inspire him with the broad design of renovating the State on the principle of right and love; that all those who have pretended this design have been partial reformers, and have admitted in some manner the supremacy of the bad State; that he does not call to mind a single human being who has steadily denied the authority of the laws, on the simple ground of his own moral nature; and that such designs, full of genius and full of faith as they are, are not entertained except avowedly as air—pictures, I might, if he were living to-day, direct his attention to Mr. Tucker as to one who, if on somewhat different grounds, entertains the design of reforming the State altogether, not as an air-picture, but soberly and seriously, who never admits the supremacy of the bad State, and who has now for many years steadily and consistently denied the authority of the laws.

Mr. Tucker is an indefatigable worker, and very fertile in devising ways and means for floating his ideal enterprises.

As he is one of the clearest and boldest of thinkers, so he is also one of the clearest and tersest of writers. There is rarely any ambiguity about anything he writes, but his meaning usually leaps straight to the eyes. He has the faculty of saying more in a paragraph than most people can say in an entire essay.

He is well poised and self-centered, and easily holds his own in the storms of thought. As a logical reasoner and a controversialist he has few equals.

Personally he is one of the pleasantest of men, without, however, being what we call a “good fellow.” He has a most equable temper, though, as one of his friends says, “you wouldn’t think so to judge by his writings.” But in the many vexations and disappointments that must be his, he rarely loses it. He is so wedded to his work, however, that his friends do not often get the pleasure of meeting him.

George Schumm, “Benj. R. Tucker—A Brief Sketch Of His Life And Work,” The Freethinkers’ Magazine 11 no. 7 (July (E. M.) 293 (1893)): 436-440.

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