Lewis Masquerier and the Urban Origins of an 1845 Plan for “Rural Republican Townships”

By Sean Dwyer Griffin

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In my last post, I promised to follow up on the career of Lewis Masquerier, the enigmatic National Reformer and Greenpoint resident whose name appeared at the top of an 1854 antislavery petition. A transplanted Kentuckian, Masquerier was an unlikely candidate to represent either the antislavery cause or the brand of utopian urbanism that would win him a fleeting recognition in the mid-1840s. But his eccentric career offers a fascinating glimpse into the many roots and diverse branches of mid-nineteenth century reform.

As I detailed in my previous post, the National Reform Association was the leading land reform organization in the United States before the Civil War. Recent works, like Mark A. Lause’s Young America, have brought renewed scholarly attention to the NRA and its role in the development of both working-class reform and free-soil antislavery, but its ideological origins remain obscure. As Lause and others have shown, the National Reformers wove together several strands of republicanism, agrarianism, and democratic radicalism; but less obvious have been the group’s ideological precedents in the “utopian socialism” represented by the followers of the English textile mill owner and reformer Robert Owen. Masquerier’s career embodies a direct link between the Owenite reformers of the 1820s and 30s and the working-class land reform movement of the 1840s.[1]

Beginning in the mid-1810s, the “utopian” ideas of Robert Owen gained increasing numbers of adherents among the swelling ranks of wage workers on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite being a successful factory owner and capitalist himself, Owen’s attacks on the wasteful competition and deplorable work conditions engendered by the advent of industrial capitalism endeared him to many labor reformers. Although the precise nature of Owen’s proposals for accomplishing the “New Moral World” (the title of one of his early works as well as the main Owenite periodical in the 1830s) remained vague, by the mid-1820s they had come to include at least some form of common ownership of property and the reorganization of labor on the basis of “co-operation.” Both, Owen believed, could be best achieved in intentionally planned communities that combined agricultural labor with manufacturing, located well away from the corrupting influences of cities.

British architect Stedman Whitwell’s never-realized design for Robert Owen’s communitarian experiment at New Harmony, ca. 1825

British architect Stedman Whitwell’s never-realized design for Robert Owen’s communitarian experiment at New Harmony, ca. 1825

A more modest plan for an Owenite cooperative village at New Harmony, from William Herbert, A Visit to the Colony of Harmony, in Indiana (London, 1825)

A more modest plan for an Owenite cooperative village at New Harmony, from William Herbert, A Visit to the Colony of Harmony, in Indiana (London, 1825)

In the United States, the enthusiasm for Owenite community-building arguably peaked with the formation of the short-lived New Harmony community in Indiana in 1825–27. But even in the early 1830s, as workers in Britain organized cooperative “labour exchanges” and an Owenite national trades union, correspondents to the Philadelphia Mechanics’ Free Press continued to urge the formation of “colonies” of workers organized “upon a semi-co-operative principle.”[2] Meanwhile, the relocation to Manthattan of two leading Owenites, Frances Wright and Robert Dale Owen, injected a fresh infusion of Owenite ideas into the New York workingmen’s milieu. Wright and Dale Owen opened a “Hall of Science” on Broome Street for the promotion of rational secularism and Owenite cooperation, and soon became embroiled in a dispute which split the New York Working Men’s Party into two factions, pitting their plan for a system of “state guardianship” against Thomas Skidmore’s even more radical call for a “general division” of property.[3]

George Henry Evans, the publisher of the Working Man’s Advocate and later the guiding light behind the National Reform movement, not only sided with the Owen/Wright faction during the dispute among the Working Men, but joined the New York branch of the main Owenite organization shortly after its formation in 1840.[4] But it was Lewis Masquerier who probably did the most to inject a strain of Owenite utopianism into the land reform movement that took shape over the next decade.

Masquerier was born near Paris, Kentucky in 1802. Later in life, he would claim that his father had been a French republican descended from Huguenots, who had traveled to Haiti to aid the revolution there before escaping to Philadelphia. The younger Masquerier was trained as a lawyer, but preferred to work as a writer, printer, and linguist; he invented a phonetic alphabet, and gave lectures on the topic after moving to New York around 1835. In 1840 he wrote to the main Owenite organization in Britain to request a charter for a New York branch, and thereafter became the New York correspondent for the official Owenite publication, the New Moral World.[5]

More than anyone else, it was Masquerier who gave shape to the precise dimensions of the “rural republican townships” that National Reformers imagined would fill in the vast geography of the public lands. Although he later expressed an antipathy for “New York cities”—urban conglomerations marked by anarchic development and vast extremes of wealth and poverty—Masquerier’s thinking on the reorganization of society was forged in the metropolis, and his agrarian vision was a uniquely urban one.[6]

Masquerier’s plan for National Reform townships arguably had more in common with New England town democracy than the Kentucky frontier. Extending Jefferson’s land survey to impose a vast, geometrically precise grid onto the as-yet-uncharted topography of the West, the National Reform plan he devised would carve the wilderness into “rural republican townships” of six miles square, divided into individual farms of 160 acres each. The Village at the heart of Masquerier’s township plan would be include a square mile in the center for “a Park, Public Edifices & Lots for Persons not engaged in Agriculture.” Political meetings as well as “all public business” would be transacted in a Town Hall, situated so that every inhabitant of the township would be within an hour’s walk, the better to encourage direct participatory democracy. Eight “principal streets,” four of them following the cardinal points and four more forming diagonal spokes, would radiate out from the park, connecting them with other townships, “so that the state and county seats of government could be reached by the nearest possible routes.” The streets themselves would be wide enough to accommodate a railroad line as well as pedestrian and horse-driven traffic. Cross-streets running at right angles would bend at narrow alleys, forming a sixteen-sided area subdivided into lots of increasing size from two to ten acres.[7]

The National Reform township plan, from Principles and Objects of the National Reform Association, or Agrarian League (New York, 1845).

The National Reform township plan, from Principles and Objects of the National Reform Association, or Agrarian League (New York, 1845).

“Diagram of the Proposed Village,” Principles and Objects of the National Reform Association, or Agrarian League (New York, 1845).

“Diagram of the Proposed Village,” Principles and Objects of the National Reform Association, or Agrarian League (New York, 1845).

This township plan, National Reformers claimed, would provide for 140 families of farmers, as well as sixty or more engaged in other occupations, for a total of 200 families, or about a thousand individuals. Given the unknown and possibly unlimited potential to improve the land, as well as the presumed “advantages of co-operation,” the Reformers speculated that a single township might eventually be able to support four or even eight thousand people, with “families to the third and fourth generation voluntarily remaining on the homestead.”[8] “Mutual mercantile agencies” for trade with the old existing cities, as well as “various other plans of co-operation” could be “at once established in the Agrarian Township, and these would lead gradually to more extensive plans of Association.” Agricultural and industrial work could be combined in the same township, with the result being that “all doing their share of work will produce more property in half the day with the other half recreation.” The ultimate outcome would be “to make the whole land a city of farms,” with “each state and township... organized into a paradise of landed and self-ruling democracies.”[9]

The National Reform program for criss-crossing the landscape with “rural republican townships” was visionary, even utopian. But from the perspective of the late 1840s, it may not have seemed much more so than another reform that many National Reformers would embrace in the years to come: the movement for the abolition of slavery. Masquerier described slavery as “the most heinous crime [next] to that of murder,” and in subsequent years, the National Reformers would do much to cement an antislavery political alliance with the Liberty and Free Soil parties.[10] In 1854, in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Masquerier’s signature would appear at the head of a list of some fifty-two citizens of Greenpoint, Brooklyn—then a rapidly-industrializing enclave of shipbuilders and other small craftsmen—protesting the Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas-Nebraska’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise.[11]

Lewis Masquerier’s signature at the top of a “Memorial of some democratic citizens of Greenpoint and Bushwick, N.York, demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law and the restoration of the ‘Missouri restriction,’” 1854. Records of the Thirty-third Congress, First Session, National Archives.

Lewis Masquerier’s signature at the top of a “Memorial of some democratic citizens of Greenpoint and Bushwick, N.York, demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law and the restoration of the ‘Missouri restriction,’” 1854. Records of the Thirty-third Congress, First Session, National Archives.

Masquerier would go on to enjoy a fruitful if erratic later career, submitting a utopian-inspired plan for the design of Central Park in 1857. His wife, Anna Tabor Masquerier, was an educator who was credited with opening the first school in Greenpoint before the arrival of a public school on Java Street, on the same block as the Masqueriers, sometime in the 1840s.[12] In a lengthy and rambling treatise on “Sociology,” written towards the end of his life in 1877, Masquerier renounced the “communism” of the early Owenite communities. Celebrating the fact that “the ownership of man’s body [was] now abolished,” Masquerier called for the abolition of additional forms of “slavery,” and the creation of a political party dedicated to a “Land, Labor, Women’s Right, and Temperance Movement.”[13]

Masquerier would enjoy one final moment of notoriety. In June, 1888, a still-sprightly Masquerier, now in his eighties, gave a public dedication for the tombstone he designed for himself and his wife at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills cemetery. Topped with a replica of the Statue of Liberty, the tombstone was covered with symbols from the phonetic alphabet he had created decades earlier, as well as a plan for one of the 40-acre homesteads he believed should be given free to all citizens.[14]

Masquerier used the occasion to deliver a short speech on land reform, which the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported (perhaps generously) was attended by “thousands of spectators.” Less than a year later, Masquerier lay interred, along with his wife, beneath the monument he had erected to the ideals of National Reform.[15]

Sean Dwyer Griffin is a PhD Candidate at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.


[1] Mark A. Lause, Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community (Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press, 2005). See “Appendix A,” in Lause, Young America, 139-55. Lause bases the estimate of 55,000 signers based on a representative sample.

[2] See Mechanics’ Free Press, 22 May 1830; 29 May 1830; 5 June 1830; 12 June 1830.

[3] Significantly, Evans sided with the Owen/Wright faction in the dispute. Wilentz, Chants Democratic, 180–83, 192–208; John R. Commons, ed., A Documentary History of American Industrial Society, Volume V (New York: Russell and Russell, 1958), 149–82.

[4] Gregory Claeys, “Lewis Masquerier and the Later Development of American Owenism, 1835–1845,” Labor History Vol. 29, No. 2 (1988), 230–40. Evans announced the formation of the Owenite group in the Radical, Vol. 1, No. 1 (January 1841), 11. For Evans on the Owenites, see “The Community System,” Radical I, No. 1 (Jan, 1841), 11; “On the Formation of Rational Communities,” Working Man’s Advocate 20 July, 1844.

[5] Claeys, “Lewis Masquerier,” 231–32.

[6] Lewis Masquerier, Sociology, or, The Reconstruction of Society, Government, and Property, Upon the Principles of the Equality, the Perpetuity, and the Individuality of the Private Ownership of Life, Person, Government, Homestead, and the Whole Product of Labor... (New York, 1877), 19, 73-74; 132; Lause, Young America, 18.

[7] Masquerier, Sociology, 5-6.

[8] National Reform Association, Principles and Objects, 3-4.

[9] “A Member,” Principles and Objects of the National Reform Association, or Agrarian League (New York: 1845), 5-6; Masquerier, quoted in Lause, Young America, 26; “Rural Republican Townships,” Working Man’s Advocate, March 22, 1845, p. 3; Masquerier, Sociology, 13, 76–77.

[10] Masquerier quoted in Lause, Young America, 73;

[11] “Memorial of some democratic citizens of Greenpoint and Bushwick, N.York, demanding the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Law and the restoration of the ‘Missouri restriction,’” Records of the Thirty-third Congress, First Session, National Archives.

[12] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 10 November 1946; William L. Felter, Historic Green Point (Brooklyn, NY: Green Point Savings Bank, 1916), 46.

[13] Lause, Young America, 127; Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), 112, 116; Masquerier, Sociology, 73–79.

[14] New York Times, 6 June 1887; Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 24 May, 1887, 9 January 1888.

[15] Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 9 January 1888.