Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901): Australian Echoes of an American Reformer

Stephen Holt

Stephen Holt’s aritcle on Ignatius Donnelly is reproduced from an article which appeared in the National Library of Australia News, April 2001, vol. XI, no. 7. The pictures do not appear here.

In 1901, on the very same day that Australia became a Federation, a former United States congressman died in Minnesota.

Although it would appear hard to imagine two more seemingly unrelated centenaries, there is in fact a strong connection, since the broader political views of the congressman in question—Ignatius Donnelly—embodied an American brand of iconoclasm that also appealed to many pre-Federation Australians. Using a wide array of original and published material available in the National Library of Australia, it is possible to chart Donnelly’s powerful influence on Australia’s political culture at a crucial stage in its development.

The Minnesota equivalent of King O’Malley, Ignatius Donnelly is the subject of an impressive modern biography by the American historian Professor Martin Ridge. Much of the original documentation relied on by Professor Ridge is deposited in the Minnesota Historical Society where it has been reproduced on microfilm. This invaluable scholarly resource now forms part of the National Library’s Newspaper and Microform Collection. Comprising more than 160 reels of microfilm, it amply documents a robust political and literary career which eventually resonated from Minneapolis to Melbourne.

Part spruiker and part sincere reformer, Donnelly tapped into the strong human desire to become, and remain, an independent property owner. Born in Philadelphia in 1831, he studied law but graduated as a land speculator when he founded Nininger City in Minnesota in 1856. This real estate venture, though touted as another Chicago, soon failed. Donnelly, a born orator, then turned to politics. A Democrat and then a Republican, he served three terms in Congress before being squeezed out in a factional feud.

When the American economy went into overdrive after the Civil War, Donnelly renounced the Republican Party, experience on the Potomac leading him to proclaim that Washington was now dominated by ‘the few who seek to grasp all power and wealth’. He embraced third party politics, serving intermittently as a pro-reform state legislator in Minnesota where he targeted predatory banking, milling and private railroad interests.

Donnelly was an author as well as a politician. The National Library holds various editions of books that he wrote in the 1880s in an effort, which for the most part succeeded, to generate income by popularising ‘unusual and unproved theories’. In Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), he set out to prove the existence of a large, long vanished, mid-Atlantic island from where, he argued, human civilisation spread to other continents. In The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the so-called Shakespeare Plays(1888), Donnelly, ever the heretic, demonstrated to his own satisfaction that Francis Bacon was indeed the true author of the works usually attributed to William Shakespeare.

Mounting agrarian discontent in the 1890s reinvigorated Donnelly’s career as a third party activist. He helped form the Farmer’s Alliance and then the People’s Party (the ‘populists’) to promote monetary reform, a graduated income tax and low interest rates. He drafted the new Party’s platform and also proclaimed the gospel of discontent in two novels, Caesar’s Column: A Sensational Story of the Twentieth Century (1891) and The Golden Bottle; or, the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (1892). The National Library holds various editions of both works.

Caesar’s Column was intended to serve as a rallying call against the evil consequences of a growing concentration of wealth. Projecting ahead to 1988, it imagines Europe and the United States of America in the clutches of an ‘unbridled plutocracy’ of monopolists and bankers. This avaricious elite flaunts its wealth on Jules Verne-like technological marvels while employing a privatised army to control an impoverished and, to add spice for late nineteenth-century readers, racially mixed workforce.

The narrative in Caesar’s Column culminates with Donnelly depicting scenes of looting and carnage instigated by an underground resistance group known as the Brotherhood of Destruction. A few survivors attain redemption by renouncing the evil practice of living off other peoples’ interest payments.

The Golden Bottle, Donnelly’s second major political novel, dwells on the reinvigoration of agrarian life brought about by the removal of the threat of mortgage foreclosures on farms. Donnelly’s two political novels seized the popular imagination at a time when increasingly complex economic conditions made future prospects seem harsh and impersonal. Caesar’s Column in particular touched a sensitive nerve, selling hundreds of thousands of copies throughout the world. Significantly, some of Donnelly’s keenest readers were to be found in pre-Federation Australia where an angst-ridden, and therefore receptive, climate of opinion flourished. The Commonwealth of Australia, it should be remembered, was not created at a time of carefree optimism. The 1890s in Australia witnessed a series of violent industrial disputes and banking crises. The then dreaded continent of Asia was a focus of fear and insecurity.

Against this gloomy background Donnelly loomed large as a credible prophet of doom in the eyes of many an Australian battler, both in the bush and in the cities. He showed how distress and uncertainty could inspire a forceful political program. The rise of the populist movement in the United States of America was paralleled in Australia by the formation, in the same decade, of Labor parties in each of the colonies. Donnelly, a populist champion, did much to colour the literary aura that energised the Australian labour movement in the days of its fearful innocence.

Donnelly’s influence in Australia can be traced in the National Library’s collection of trade union newspapers from the 1890s and in other contemporary texts available to antipodean readers of a dissenting bent. In Sydney the Bulletin hailed Caesar’s Column as ‘luridly fascinating’. The Worker, published by the Associated Workers of Queensland, publicised the ‘chief principles’ of The Golden Bottle while the Hummer, its Riverina counterpart, featured an article by a contributor (Tom Stanton) who praised Donnelly’s ‘earnest’ and ‘glowing’ denunciation of ‘ever-increasing poverty and despair’ and ‘the soulless worship of Mammon by the powerful minority’. Readers were advised that copies of Caesar’s Column were on sale at the Hummer’s office in Wagga.

In 1893 the trade union press in Sydney published a contribution from the young Henry Lawson who noted that future leaders of mass discontent were likely to be more inspired by Caesar’s Column than by the New Testament. Lawson also published a sketch in which a slovenly farmer in western New South Wales is shown trying to keep abreast of ‘all the great social and political questions of the day’ by reading Donnelly.

Donnelly died in Minneapolis on 1 January 1901, but his imported vision lived on in the young faraway nation that came into existence on the same day. His influence spread from trade union newspapers to shape the policies advocated by the Australian Labor Party (ALP). In 1911, for example, his fears about malignant financial cliques formed part of the background to the decision to establish the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

World War I led to a further upsurge of concern directed at the alleged manipulative role of international financiers, with criticism led by Frank Anstey, a mentor of John Curtin. The National Library holds wartime and postwar editions of Caesar’s Column put out by Coles Book Arcade in Melbourne. The decision to republish would seem to suggest that, because of disenchantment with the War, Donnelly’s dissenting message attracted renewed attention.

A sample of the National Library’s holdings of works on Australian labour history indicates that in our own day Donnelly tends to attract the interest of scholarly critics of the ALP as opposed to the eager grassroots readership of more heroic times.Humphrey McQueen’s spirited tract, A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism (1970), cites the widespread working-class fondness for
Caesar’s Column as proof of the early Australian Labor Party’s non-Marxist proclivities, with Donnelly’s influence having helped to confirm it in the belief that the real foe of socialists in Australia was not capitalism in general but rather a tiny band of financiers. Peter Love, in his book, Labour and the Money Power: Australian Labour Populism 1890–1950 (1984), shows how the populist creed of Caesar’s Column led on to Jack Lang’s Depression-era crusade against the Bank of England before petering out in the Chifley government’s failed attempt in the 1940s to nationalise Australia’s private banks.

Mainstream Australian politicians have long since ceased to be haunted by Donnelly’s dystopic visions, but the old fears that were once stoked are far from dead, having now dramatically resurfaced among grassroots activists.

Although his name would mean nothing at all to most of its youthful supporters, Ignatius Donnelly in fact presented a late nineteenth-century formulation of the same fears that agitate the current anti-globalisation movement. A century ago, readers of Caesar’s Column were likewise presented with a menacing picture of a growing gap between plutocrats and their victims as a ‘vast conspiracy against mankind … organised on two continents’ sought ‘possession of the world’. The clash between protesters and the police, at the meeting of the World Economic Forum at the Crown Casino in Melbourne and at similar multinational conferences, would fit neatly into one of its opening chapters.

A hundred years after his death, Ignatius Donnelly remains a strangely relevant figure. He dramatised questions of power and dispossession that, in a reworked form, remain a matter of major concern to many people today. It is altogether fitting, given his formidable antipodean impact, that the National Library of Australia should hold such an impressive array of material illustrating his ideas and their influence.