William Batchelder Greene

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William Batchelder Greene (1819-1878) was a 19th century individualist anarchist, Unitarian minister, soldier and currency reformer in the United States. He was the son of Democratic journalist and Boston post-master Nathaniel Greene. He is best known for the works Mutual Banking, which proposed an interest-free banking system, and Transcendentalism, a critique of the New England philosophical school. In 1850 and 1851, he organized citizens of Brookfield, Warren and Ware, Massachusetts to petition the state's General Court for a charter to establish a mutual bank. "Upon all the petitions, the Committee on Banks and Banking, after hearing the arguments of the petitioners, reported simply, Leave to withdraw"! (The Radical Deficiency of the Existing Circulating Medium 1857). Similar attempts by the New England Labor Reform League in the 1870s met with similar results. Greene's mutualist banking ideas resembled those of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as the "land banks" of the colonial period. He had an important influence on Benjamin Tucker, the editor of the anarchist journal, Liberty.

According to James J. Martin, in Men Against the State, Greene did not become a "full-fledged anarchist" until the last decade of his life, but his writings show that he had by 1850 articulated a Christian mutualism, drawing heavily on the writings of Proudhon's sometimes-antagonist Pierre Leroux. (see Equality 1849, Mutual Banking 1850)

The existing organization of credit is the daughter of hard money, begotten upon it incestuously by that insufficiency of circulating medium which results from laws making specie the sole legal tender.The immediate consequences of confused credit are want of confidence, loss of time, commercial frauds, fruitless and repeated applications for payment, complicated with irregular and ruinous expanses. The ultimate consequences are compositions, bad debts, expensive accommodation-loans, law-suits, insolvency, bankruptcy, separation of classes, hostility, hunger, extravagance, distress, riots, civil war, and, finally, revolution. The natural consequences of mutual banking are, first of all, the creation of order, and the definitive establishment of due organization in the social body, and, ultimately, the cure of all the evils. which flow from the present incoherence and disruption in the relations of production and commerce. (The Radical Deficiency of the Existing Circulating Medium 1857).


William Batchelder Greene was born in 1819, in Haverhill, MA, the son of Democratic newspaper editor Nathaniel Greene and Susan Batchelder Greene, the grand-daughter of a well-known Baptist minister. He attended many of the best schools in Haverhill and Boston, spent some time in Paris, and then returned to attend West Point. He did not graduate, due to health problems, but did join the US Army not much later as a 2nd Lt., and fought in the Second Seminole War. While there, he learned a good deal about corruption and the darker side of human nature. His religious skepticism did not sustain him, and he struggled until he experienced a profound conversion experience, and turned from reading Shelley to the study of the Bible.

When serious illness again forced him to abandon military pursuits, he returned to Massachusetts, set on becoming a minister. He attended the Andover Theological Seminary, while cultivating contacts in transcendentalist circles. He became acquainted with Anna Blake Shaw, one of the belles of Boston, and in time they were married. His initial theological researches convinced him he was more a Unitarian than anything, and he was allowed to enter Harvard's theological school as a senior. He completed his dissertation on "The Scholastic Philosophy in Connexion with Christianity" in 1845 and was almost immediately installed as minister of the Unitarian church in Brookfield. The Brookfield years were the most productive of his life. He published numerous works on philosophical and theological issues. His friend and mentor, Orestes Brownson, introduced him to the work of Pierre Leroux, and he was also introduced to the writings of the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. By 1849, his attention was focused largely on social and economic issues, and in that year and the following one, he published two works, Equality (1849) and Mutual Banking (1850), which adapted Proudhon's plan for a mortgage-backed currency with similar projects of American origin, and tied these economic elements to a new Christian Mutualism that mixed Unitarian and Saint-Simonian elements. He was in Brookfield until about 1853, the year I represented the town in the state Constitutional Convention, in which he was an advocate of women's right to vote. That same year, he met Kossuth, the Hungarian revolutionary who inspired so many American radicals, including his friend Josiah Warren.

He spent much of the 1850s in France, where I made the acquaintance of Proudhon, and worked on a treatise on the calculus. The Greenes, with their two surviving children, William and Bessie, made their home there, as did a number of American radicals, distressed by the direction America was taking in the years between the passage of the fugitive slave law and the opening of the Civil War. Anna continued to be active with the New England antislavery women, and they returned periodically to Boston. On one such visit, in 1857, Greene published a new, combined edition of his mutual bank writings, The Radical Deficiency of the Existing Circulating Medium, less theological in content and more directly related to the conditions created by the financial panic of that year.

In 1861, they returned to Massachusetts, and Greene took command of the 14th Mass. Volunteer Infantry, which quickly became the 1st Mass. Heavy Artillery. They were stationed around the Long Bridge, defending the capital. They saw little combat, but were instrumental in preventing further Confederate advance in the aftermath of the Second Bull Run. Not for the last time, Greene found the commander on the other side was an old West Point acquaintance. He became entangled in political maneuvers, while attempting to defend his men, and resigned his commission, though he was active through much of the war, serving as an aide to Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler and taking part in the creation of the "galvanized Yankee" regiments. His health again suffered from the conditions.

In the years after the war, he took up writing again. By the early 1870s, a new generation of reformers was beginning to be active, many of whom had taken up the anarchist philosophy of Proudhon and Warren. He served as a sort of elder statesman in the movements that they pursued, all the while pursuing my own studies in the philosophy of history, the Kabbala, and the nature of political institutions. Anna was involved in philanthropic work in Boston, and Bessie joined her friend Susan Dimick in founding the Society for Helping Destitute Mothers and Infants. In 1875, Bessie and Susan, along with another friend, were lost in the wreck of the Schiller. William Batchelder, Jr. had moved to England, and William and Anna joined him. He corresponded with friends in New England to the extent that his failing health allowed. He died, of infection and circulatory complications, in 1878.

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