PART I || ALBERT PARSONS
1 || AN AMERICAN BOYHOOD
Anarchism in the United States has often been dismissed as an alien phenomenon, a doctrine imported from Europe with few native roots or adherents. There was nothing alien, however, about the protagonist of our story. Of Puritan ancestry and southern upbringing, Albert Richard Parsons could hardly have been more American. The scion of a prominent New England family, he could trace his forebears to the earliest settlers of colonial Massachusetts. Five Parsons brothers, refugees from religious persecution in England, were passengers on the second voyage of the Mayflower
, which landed in 1632 on the shores of Narragansett Bay. Over the next hundred and fifty years, Albert Parsons proudly noted, they and their descendants took “an active and useful part in all the social, religious, political, and revolutionary movements in America.”1
The first of Albert Parsons’s ancestors to achieve distinction was the Reverend Jonathan Parsons of Massachusetts. A graduate of Yale University and pastor of the Congregational church of Newburyport, he emerged as a kind of national patron saint, after whom Americans were typified abroad as “Brother Jonathan,” a forerunner of “Uncle Sam.” Jonathan Parsons, like his anarchist descendant, was a passionate and eloquent speaker. Employing the revivalist techniques of George Whitefield, the famous English evangelist, he toured the northeastern colonies, preaching to large and enthusiastic audiences. In June 1775 he created a sensation when he delivered an emotional harangue against British tyranny and raised a company of volunteers in the aisles of his church who fought in the battle of Bunker Hill.2
Brother Jonathan was only one of the Parsons clan to distinguish himself in the revolutionary struggle. His son, Samuel Holden Parsons, a graduate of Harvard, was a member of the Committees of Correspondence and one of the first rebel leaders to propose the convening of a Continental Congress. He rose to the rank of major general during the Revolutionary War. After assisting in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga, he fought in the battles of Long Island, Harlem
Heights, and White Plains, and served under General Washington in New Jersey. Then, placed in command of the Connecticut division of the Continental Army, he defeated the British at Norwalk. At the end of the war he became the first judge for the Northwest Territory, where he was drowned in 1789 when his canoe overturned in the rapids of the Big Beaver River.3
Another Samuel Parsons, Albert’s great-great-granduncle, served as a captain in the revolutionary army and lost an arm at Bunker Hill. But it was after the major general that Albert’s father, also Samuel Parsons, was named. Unfortunately, scant information about him has come down to us. That he was a Universalist and temperance reformer indicates that, in some measure at least, he shared his son’s nonconformist tendencies. Otherwise little is known of his political beliefs, to say nothing of his background and social position. A native of Portland, Maine, he married into the Tompkins-Broadwell family of New Jersey and, in 1830, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where he established a shoe and leather factory. It was here, on June 20, 1848, that Albert Parsons was born, the youngest of ten children.4
By the time Parsons came into the world, his father was one of the leading citizens of the community, a “public spirited, philanthropic man,” who held the highest office in the temperance movement of Alabama.5
Parsons’s mother, the former Elizabeth Tompkins, was a woman of “great spirituality of character,” as her son describes her. A devout Methodist, she came, like her husband, of pioneer American stock, her ancestors also having distinguished themselves in the War of Independence. A distant uncle, in fact, had been a trooper in General Washington’s bodyguard, serving at Trenton, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Valley Forge.6
Parsons was always proud of the role played by his forebears in the Revolution. “My ancestors,” he declared during the Haymarket trial, “had a hand in drawing up and maintaining the Declaration of Independence. My great great grand-uncle lost a hand at the battle of Bunker Hill. I had a great great grand-uncle with Washington at Brandywine, Monmouth, and Valley Forge.”7
That he himself had inherited their bravery and reforming passion would be demonstrated on many occasions during his lifetime. Little wonder, then, that he should have been characterized as a “Puritan fanatic in zeal, courage, and enthusiasm, spirituality, and tenacity of principle and purpose.”8
Yet there was little in Parsons’s early childhood that betokened his future radical career. His first years were spent in a comfortable and loving environment, and he might have followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a respected businessman, had tragedy not intervened. When he was barely two years old, his mother fell ill and died; and less than three years later his father followed. An orphan at five, Parsons went to live with his eldest brother, William Henry Parsons, a married man nearly twenty years his senior, who, after serving under Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War, had established himself in Tyler, Texas, as an attorney and the proprietor of the Telegraph
, a local Democratic paper.9
Tyler, surrounded by unexplored hills and forests, offered Parsons—described by one resident as a “sprightly lad” and “splendid little fellow”10
—a playground full of excitement and adventure. His stay was cut short, however, when William, in 1855, gave up the Telegraph
and moved his family to Johnson County, deeper in the interior of the state. This gently rolling region, with its thick woods and winding streams, sat on the edge of the Texas frontier, where buffalo, antelope, and Indians were still common. The family, occupying a small ranch, remained there about three years before moving to Hill County and taking up a farm in the valley of the Brazos River, so remote from the nearest house that they could not hear the barking of their neighbor’s dog or the crowing of his rooster.
Life on the frontier gave full scope to Parsons’s venturesome character. In later years he would cherish the memories of his boyhood on the Texas range, where he acquired a love of nature and became an expert horseman and a crack shot with rifle and pistol. Like his years in Alabama, however, this idyllic period ended abruptly. In 1859, when Parsons was eleven, William, restless and tired of the farmer’s life, moved his family to the town of Waco, where he resumed the practice of law and dabbled in business and real estate. On arriving in Waco, Parsons left his brother’s household and moved in with his sister, Mrs. A. J. Byrd, who saw to it that he got some formal schooling.
A year later, when Parsons was twelve, his brother arranged for his apprenticeship on the Galveston News
, the largest and most influential daily in the state. Parsons, apart from serving as a “printer’s devil,” became a carrier for the paper and quickly learned his way about town. In a matter of months, he tells us, he was transformed “from a frontier boy into a city civilian.”11
Parsons’s employer, Willard Richardson, was a leader of the proslavery movement in Texas. Born in Massachusetts but educated in South Carolina, Richardson was an unswerving disciple of John C. . Calhoun and a strong advocate of states’ rights, favoring secession to preserve the South from northern domination. Tall and spare, with a mop of greying hair, “Old Whitey” was as unfailingly courteous in his demeanor as he was forceful in expressing his opinions. He was the idol of every secessionist in the state, including Parsons’s brother, for whom, as an owner of slaves, the chief issue between North and South was “the purity of blood and supremacy of a distinct race of Anglo-Saxons upon this continent.”12
William was therefore delighted when Richardson, in addition to accepting Parsons as an apprentice, took the boy into his home and treated him as a member of the family.
Parsons, as both ward and employee of Richardson, gained valuable knowledge of the profession that would occupy him in his adult life. With an alert and eager mind he picked up many of the subtler tricks of the journalist’s trade and came to see how the printed word could be used to influence a wide public. In later years, when he edited socialist and anarchist publications, he would put the lessons he learned in Galveston to good use.
Parsons, however, did not remain long with the Richardsons. Barely a year after he started his apprenticeship, the War between the States erupted. The boy was seized by a thirst for adventure. Though small in size and only thirteen years old, he ran off to join a local company of Confederate volunteers known as the Lone Star Grays. That the future champion of freedom and equality should have fought on the side of the South is one of the ironies of history. Yet it is not so strange as it might seem. Although of old New England stock, he had been born in Alabama and raised in Texas, a southerner through and through. Everyone he knew, including his brother and employer, was a partisan of the Confederacy. Beyond this, he was driven by a craving for excitement that remained with him all of his life. Those were stirring times, he remembered, and “my young blood caught the infection.”13
As a member of the Lone Star Grays, Parsons took part in only one engagement. Together with his company he boarded the steamer Morgan
in the Gulf of Mexico and assisted in the capture of General David E. Twiggs, whose Union soldiers had evacuated their forts on the Texas frontier and were attempting to escape to the North. The
whole episode was very brief—a mere “run-away” adventure, as Parsons described it.14
On returning to Galveston he received a “pulled ear” from Willard Richardson for having enlisted without his permission. Parsons, however, was undaunted. Having tasted the excitement of combat, he yearned to travel to Virginia and join the forces of General Robert E. Lee. Richardson admired the boy’s courage, but, mindful of his size and age, scoffed at the idea. “It’s all bluster anyway,” he insisted. “It will be ended in the next sixty days, and I’ll hold in my hat all the blood that’s shed in this war.”15
This merely convinced Parsons that he must not hesitate, that he must “go at once, before too late.”16
For a second time, therefore, he took French leave of his employer. He did not, however, make the trek to Virginia. Instead, he joined an artillery unit at nearby Sabine Pass, where he served as a powder monkey for the cannoneers and drilled with a company of infantry commanded by his brother, Captain Richard Parsons, who was to die at his post of yellow fever.
After twelve uneventful months at Sabine Pass, Parsons’s term of enlistment expired. Still thirsting for action, he joined his brother William, now a Confederate general, who commanded a Texas cavalry brigade on the west bank of the Mississippi River.17
Already an expert rider and marksman, Parsons became, in spite of his youth, a member of the McIngley Scouts, a unit of his brother’s cavalry, and took part in a number of important engagements, from the defeat of General Curtis on the White River to the defeat of General Banks on the Red River, which ended the fighting west of the Mississippi.
Parsons served under his brother until the end of the war, fighting for the doomed cause of the slaveholding South. After the surrender of the Confederacy, he was mustered out of the army. Barely seventeen years old, he had left his childhood behind him. An “excellent scout,” in his brother’s estimation,18
he had seen a good deal of action and matured quickly during his four years of service, acquiring a reputation for resourcefulness and courage that would cling to him for the rest of his life. The war had done its part in strengthening his character and in awakening him to the issues of the day. But, by interrupting his apprenticeship, it had left him at loose ends. What was he to do? What career might he follow? Too old to return to his work as a newsboy, he had neither the training to enter a skilled occupation nor the money to resume his education, his sole
possession being an army mule. Finding no better alternative, he decided to return to Waco, where he had lived before the war.
On reaching his destination, young Parsons traded his mule for forty acres of corn standing ready for harvest. To help with the reaping, he hired some former slaves and paid them the first wages they had ever received. Parsons made enough on the sale of the corn to cover six-months’ tuition at Waco (now Baylor) University, which was directed by Rufus C. Burleson, a well-known Baptist clergyman and educator. Apart from penmanship, composition, and declamation, he studied moral philosophy and political economy, the only higher education he ever got. At the end of the fall semester, he returned to the trade he knew best and worked at a Waco printing office, taking further courses at the university when time and money allowed. Besides this, being “bright and quick-witted,” he was able, while on the job, to pick up “a good deal of general information on current topics.”19
It is unfortunate that we should know so little of this critical period of Parsons’s life. For it was during these postwar years that he set out on the path of social and political reform that would ultimately bring him to the scaffold. At first, he showed little sign of becoming a radical. Owing to his charm and good looks and to his family’s prestige and connections, he was a popular figure among Waco’s respectable citizens. Though small and slightly built, he was handsome, high-spirited, and impeccable in dress and grooming, with clear-cut features, fine dark eyes, straight black hair, and a dark mustache turned up at the ends. He was “a well-disposed, well-mannered young man,” a Waco friend later recollected, “a little wild, as most of us were in those days—in fact, as wild as a buck; but I never heard of his doing anything desperate. He moved in the best society the place afforded, and his pleasant ways made him welcome wherever he went. He was not at all reckless or quarrelsome, but was as clean grit as any man that ever drew breath in Texas.”20
Before long, however, Parsons struck out in a new direction that put an abrupt end to his popularity. After returning to civilian life, he found himself questioning the values and attitudes on which he had been reared. He could no longer accept the conventions—secession, slavery, white supremacy—which he had formerly taken for granted and for which he had risked his life on the side of the Confederacy. On the contrary, he was soon defending the principle of equal opportunity regardless of race or social background. And in
1867, at the youthful age of nineteen, he started a weekly called The Spectator
, in which he advocated acceptance of the terms of surrender and supported the new constitutional amendments securing the civil and political rights of colored people.
Why had he adopted this course? According to his own testimony, he was following the example of General James Longstreet, one of the most distinguished officers in the Confederate army, who, at the conclusion of hostilities, had become a supporter of Reconstruction. Still more, he was influenced by his brother William, who himself had shed his secessionist beliefs and become a Radical Republican, espousing the cause of the liberated blacks. In addition, Parsons tells us, he had been moved by the memory of “old Aunt Esther,” a former slave and house servant of his brother’s family, who had raised him as an orphan “with great kindness and a mother’s love.”21
By taking up the cause of her people, he was atoning, in some measure, for his service in behalf of the Confederacy, which he had come to regard as a mere adventure, an escapade of immature youth.
Perhaps, too, his months of study at Waco University, by stimulating him to think more...