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Fairfield County’s Forgotten Revolutionary

| by Andy Piascik

( August 22, 2013, New York City, Sri Lanka Guardian) Thomas Skidmore’s name does not appear in many history books, certainly not mainstream ones. There are no schools or parks named after him and, though historian Mark Lause for one has done an excellent job of documenting Skidmore’s life’s work, it is unlikely there ever will be. And though he wrote with great insight about freedom and other weighty subjects, finding any of his published works is difficult. Yet Skidmore deserves to be remembered, celebrated even, for his lifelong belief that the ideals of the American Revolution were important ones, important enough that they be extended not just to an elite few but to everyone.

Skidmore was born in Newtown, Connecticut on August 13, 1790. A voracious reader and extremely bright, he was appointed to the position of teacher at the Newtown district school when he was just twelve years old. At 18, he took a teaching job at a military academy in Weston.

While Skidmore came of age, the contradictions of the American Revolution continued to blaze. The elite class of propertied white males had won the day, but their hold on power in the decades after the Revolution did not go unchallenged. Skidmore was influenced, for example, by tales he heard growing up of Shays Rebellion in neighboring Massachusetts. He saw the limits of the Revolution as well as its promise and possibilities.

Skidmore was strongly influenced by the international radicalism of the time. Foremost among his literary influences were the English revolutionaries Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. As a young man, Skidmore also admired Robert Owen, the social reformer who founded several utopian communities in the United States. Eventually, Skidmore soured on Owenism. He agreed with the value of building alternative institutions to foreshadow how human beings might live more freely, but felt Owen placed too much emphasis on this and not enough on engaging society as it is in order to transform it. He also believed the Owenite communities replicated many of the hierarchies of mainstream society.

Skidmore was appalled by the twin holocausts of U.S. history: the genocidal war against Native Americans and the African slave trade. In his writings and in the organizations he joined, he worked for full rights for people of all colors. His calls for liberation and equality for women were similarly unequivocal and visionary.

The foundation of Skidmore’s work was his linkage of human freedom to cooperative economics. He called for the producers, black and white, slave and wage-slave, male and female, to seize the means of production. This put him at odds not just with the ruling class, but with liberal abolitionists and others who did not share his view that tyranny was inextricably connected to the concentration of wealth in a few hands.

While still a young man, Skidmore moved to New Jersey. He eventually settled in New York City and all available evidence indicates that he never again lived in Connecticut. In 1829, he published Rights of Man to Property in which he critiqued the limited vision of human freedom of Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the American Revolution. It was the best known and most influential of his works and served as an inspiration to labor militants throughout the 19th century.

It was also in 1829 that Skidmore was part of a group that founded the Workingmen’s Party in New York City. They envisioned an organization led by workers and farmers working to build a society where land and industry would be cooperatively owned and goods would be shared based on need. Though the Workingmen’s Party lasted only several years, the dream of Skidmore and the other founders has taken shape in many organizations n the decades since, from the Industrial Workers of the World to the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to groups of our own time.

Thomas Skidmore died in 1832. He is very much in the tradition of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Geronimo, Victoria Woodhull and other great 19th century American revolutionaries. His visionary call for liberation, his recognition that no one can be free if their neighbors are not, his critique of the totalitarian nature of capitalism, all ring as true today - perhaps truer – than in his time. When we get to higher ground, his life will be celebrated in the manner it deserves.

Fairfield County (Bridgeport) native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author who writes for Z Magazine, The Indypendent and many other publications. He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

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