Jo Labadie and (Radical) Michigan History

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May 1, 2012 by The Editor

Joseph Labadie, circa 1880

I imagine Michigan schools have updated their history curricula since the 1970s (I hope so), but I would be surprised if instruction in Michigan History extends much beyond what it did during my elementary education. As little as there was in general, our units in state history included even more miniscule content on the French-Canadian contribution to Michigan’s exploration and development as part of colonial New France.

I remember learning about fur trappers and voyageurs who would ‘portage’ their canoes overland to the next body of water. We visited Fort Mackinac and Fort Michilimackinac, a benefit of proximity. We learned about major early explorers, namely Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet, and maybe others. But overall, the character of Pasquinel (played by Robert Conrad in the great 70s miniseries ‘Centennial’ after the book by James Michener) remains more vivid in my memory than my grade-school history lessons.

It goes without saying that we did not learn about Joseph Antoine “Jo” Labadie the Michigan-born printer, poet, labor-leader, socialist, anarchist, and agnostic. Labadie was born in 1850 at Paw Paw, Michigan to French-Canadian parents. His forebears arrived in Detroit shortly after its founding in 1701 and he also claimed Ojibway ancestry.

As a teenager Labadie needed to help support his family. He was apprenticed to a printer, an occupation he would practice for 25 years. Lacking a strong formal education, he nonetheless developed himself intellectually. In his twenties, he began a lifelong friendship with Judson Grenell a coworker, socialist, and social reformer. Labadie himself became a socialist around 1877 and together with Grenell began to print political tracts. He was later a Detroit mayoral candidate of the Greenback Party before ultimately becoming an anarchist. Labadie also penned verse and printed his own poetry in the Labadie Print Shop.

Arguably, Labadie’s most significant legacy is due neither to his poetry nor his activism, but rather to his lifetime collection of materials related to the radical, labor, and social movements of his time. In 1912 he donated his library of pamphlets, journals, personal papers, and ephemera to the University of Michigan where it eventually became the nucleus of the Joseph A. Labadie Collection, the oldest collection of radical history materials in the world. Through the efforts of curators Agnes Inglis and Edward Weber* the Labadie Collection grew over the decades to include the social movements of the late 20th century and continues to grow under the curatorship of Julie Herrada. See the Labadie Collection website for more information.

Lumbering scene from a series of paintings by Robert Thom depicting Michigan historical scenes for Michigan Bell. With thanks to Daniel O’Connell of the ‘King’s 8th Regiment‘ through whom this image came to my attention.

I am not a Labadie scholar so I cannot speak with any authority on his motivations in life or on what inspired him to become the public intellectual and activist that he was. However, one poem of his that I found while browsing the Labadie Collection indicates to me that his experience of the 19th century Michigan wilderness and his relation to fellow French-Canadians who labored there in the lumber industry, must have played a role in forming his later views on politics and society. I am not sure if this poem is published and it appears to be a fragment, but I transcribe the digital image in full here:

I was born and raised in

the Wilderness,

grew up with the trees & the

flowers of the forest.

Was comrade with the axeman,

the lumberman, the field maker.

I saw the giants of the woodlands

go down before the axeman’s

gleaming blade, sawed into logs &

lumber by the singing saw.

And saw today a lodge of logs where yesterday

the echoes of the choppers

filled the wilderness with the wail

of the wounded…

According to the biographical information found in Jo Labadie and His Gift to Michigan, Labadie’s father was an unreliable (if agreeable) parent, eventually leaving the family to settle further north in Michigan. To read a bibliography of French-Canadian history is to be reminded repeatedly that many early French-Canadians were, first and foremost, explorers and traders. They traveled far and wide. Often living apart from ‘civilization’ they formed new traditions and lived according to their own standards, rather than those of the King or the Church. It is not difficult to see Labadie’s own life trajectory as a link in that chain of ethnic heritage. However his background may have formed him, he was an individualist whose story deserves to be told. His life gives us a unique perspective onto two different, yet interconnected and important stages of Michigan history.

Jo Labadie’s life and work are documented in the rich collection of the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan. A biography was written by his granddaughter Carlotta Anderson entitled All-American Anarchist: Joseph A. Labadie and the Labor Movement published by Wayne State University Press in 1998.

*I was fortunate to meet Ed Weber during my time working for the University of Michigan Libraries. I interviewed him and published a biographic sketch of his life and work in “Between the Lines” an Ann Arbor LGB newspaper, in the March 1993 edition.

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