William Leggett (New York City, 1802—New Rochelle, New York, May 29, 1839) was an American author. His father, Major Abraham Leggett, was a soldier of the Revolution.
Leggett was educated at Georgetown College, Washington, D.C., and in 1819 moved with his father to Illinois. He entered the navy as a midshipman in 1822, but resigned in 1826, and became editor of the "Critic," a weekly literary journal which soon united with the New York Mirror. In 1829 he became an editor of the New York Evening Post, and was attached to that journal till 1836. At the outset he stipulated to William Cullen Bryant, the senior editor, that he should not be required to write political articles, as he had neither taste nor fixed opinions regarding politics; but before the year had passed he appeared to have found his true vocation in discussing them, and wrote vigorous editorial articles in favor of free trade and against the United States bank. In 1835 the meetings of the Abolitionists in New York were dispersed by mobs. Leggett denounced these proceedings, and defended the right to free discussion in regard to slavery as well as all other subjects. Retiring from the "Post," he began the publication of "The Plaindealer" in 1836, which attained a large circulation, but was discontinued in less than a year through the failure of its publisher. After this, his health being greatly enfeebled, Leggett left literary work and retired to New Rochelle, New York. He was appointed in 1839 by President Martin Van Buren diplomatic agent to Guatemala, but died before the day of sailing.
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. The Doctrine of Equal Rights 1834
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, In Memory of William Leggett, 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 L. Stone, 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. [Selected Editorials of William Cullen Bryant, 1829-1861 (1994), p 95.]
His writings include "Leisure Hours at Sea" (1825); "Tales of a Country School Master" (1835); "Naval Stories" (1835); and "Political Writings," edited, with a preface, by Theodore Sedgwick (1840). See "Bryant and His Friends," James Grant Wilson (New York, 1886).
His main editorials have been collected as Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy (1984)
- Carl N. Degler, "The Locofocos: Urban "Agrarians" Journal of Economic History Vol. 16 (September 1956); pp 322-333. online at JSTOR
- White, Lawrence H. "William Leggett: Jacksonian Editorialist as Classical Liberal Political Economist", History of Political Economy 18.2 (1986) pp. 307-24.
- Democratick Editorials: Essays in Jacksonian Political Economy (1834)
- This article was originally taken from 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