Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist
Reviewed by Beth Taylor
In the nineteenth century, Jeremiah Hacker was a well-known radical activist in Portland, Maine. Born into a large Quaker family, he was a teacher, a preacher, and a journalist who used his newspaper, The Pleasure Boat, to rally readers around his many causes. At home, he was a subsistence farmer and a family man.
In his lectures and newspaper, Hacker used “friendly persuasion” to present his arguments: The way to end poverty and crime was to give every person their own land to farm. All forms of slavery and exploited labor should be abolished—and abolitionists should refuse to buy cotton and indigo dyes produced by slaves. Women deserve equal pay and fair marriage laws to protect what should be legally theirs. Capital punishment should be abolished and prisons should be reformed so they become places of education instead of abuse. All wars are wrong, including the Civil War—and peace activists should not pay taxes to the government that produces those wars. Alcohol should be banned—and the temperance movement should march less so they can care more for “the women and children who were made poor by the intemperance of their relations.”
Most fundamental, Hacker argued that each person should follow their individual guiding Light instead of organized religion—including the Society of Friends—and live a moral life so no government or legislation was necessary. Organized institutions of any kind, in Hacker’s mind, could only be divisive and flawed. In this way, he became known as one of the “pioneer Freethinkers.”
Not surprisingly, while New England Quakers were dividing themselves between Orthodox Gurneyites and plain-living Wilburites (their version of the Mid-Atlantic’s Orthodox–Hicksite split), Hacker was “written out” of his monthly meeting after he argued that Quakers of his time had strayed from the spirit and intention of George Fox. Quaker elders, he claimed, ruled their meetings in the same way “hireling priests” ruled their flocks: using fear and intimidation. In “An Epistle of Love to the prisoners on board the wreck of the old ship Quaker,” Hacker implored Friends to save what was true in their faith by destroying the structure of the religious institution. He claimed the effect of all religious institutions was to “nurse hypocrisy . . . and to trample down the true seed of spiritual Israel.”
Considered a cranky but wise man, Hacker found his audience as he traveled throughout Maine and the Northeast, offering his arguments and newspapers on street corners and in town halls. As one listener in Lincolnville, Maine, declared, “I have never heard so much truth in a meeting before, and hope you will be faithful to your calling, for thousands are suffering for want of these truths.”
The Pleasure Boat became popular in part because Hacker reported individuals’ struggles and asked his readers to get involved. He described destitute widows, children begging on the street, ex-prisoners needing work; and then he asked his readers to offer aid, homes, or work for the individuals. He asked children to donate their old clothing and toys to poor children and to save their spending money to buy bread for widows instead of candy for themselves. If he did not hear offers from readers after a few weeks, he criticized them for their lack of response.
Hacker’s efforts were not in vain. Through his newspaper, he matched several incarcerated children with foster homes. In 1853, his writings and acts on behalf of children aligned with the creation of the State Reform School for Boys in Maine. And his lobbying for land reform as a way to address poverty helped instigate the Homestead Act of 1862, through which federal land (much of it stolen from Native Americans, of course) was made available to two million people over the next century. Nonetheless, he would have been lost to history if not for some of his readers, in states across the country, who followed his advice and had his newspaper issues bound for the historical record.
Enter Rebecca Pritchard, a journalist and “full-blown history buff” who has worked for the Maine Historical Society and now lives with her family in Bar Harbor, Maine. She stumbled across Hacker’s newspapers in an archive, and, in his voice and stories, she found “the latest news from almost 200 years ago.” In Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist, Pritchard brings alive Hacker’s responses to the issues of the United States as they played out in Portland, Maine. She places him appropriately within the context of nineteenth-century reformers and radicals. But also, through his observations and arguments, she reminds us of the timelessness of his appeals.