The two great armies in what is called “The War of Ideologies”, the forces of the Left and of the Right, although they threaten to pull down the whole of our civilization in a universal conflict, do not impress us Americans so much by their differences, as by their likeness.1
You will not be surprised to learn that I collect articles, books, and digital reproductions of any historical distributist pamphlets, books, or essays that I can get my hands on. I’m not a hoarder. Far from it. But if I spot old copies of the Catholic Land Federation’s Cross and the Plough or bound editions of Land and Home by the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, it is likely that a noise will emanate from my otherwise silent wallet. Over the years, I can proudly say that few popular pieces of Distributism’s history have escaped my clutches with the exception of The Game, published by St. Dominic’s Press, Aidan Mackey’s The Distributist, and a little booklet that puzzles me to this day.
After wrapping up our successful 2013 Chesterton conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, Dale Ahlquist and I hopped in our rental car and took off for New Jersey, but not before we took a side trip to Boston College. Singing along to encores of Robert Preston’s song “Chicken Fat” (don’t ask), we arrived at our destination and bolted from our vehicle to the college’s special collections library, thirsty for any elusive G.K. Chesterton finds: drawings, uncollected essays, photos, and so forth. I can’t recall everything we found in the stacks of files plopped on the desks in front of us, but what I do remember is the priceless look on Dale’s face when he uncovered the original manuscript to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and my surprise as I gazed upon the obscure document I had hoped to find: A Declaration of the Independents by The Distributist League of New England.
Distributists do not propose to redistribute the property of others by confiscation or by force…. A Distributist society of free citizens can only come into being when that is ardently desired by an effective proportion of people. This can only come about by persuasion.
Not to be confused with A New Declaration of Independence by the Southern Agrarians, this peculiar 44-page booklet had been on my radar for a number of years. As it dangled in front of me, I almost expected it to disappear into thin air, either before I could rummage through its exquisite defense of Distributism or in a moment of fictional self-awareness about my motives to uncover information about this enigmatic “league”. I was not looking forward to walking away empty-handed, but to finally completing my quest and nailing down the mysterious authors of this mysterious book.
Sadly, the book’s title page only led to disappointment. “Published for The Distributist League of New England by Sower Press. Scotch Plains, New Jersey.” Full stop.
(Foiled, but never beaten, in the many months that followed I did what any self-respecting detective does: I smoked my pipe. I researched. I drank. And then I smoked some more.)
Sower Press was a modest publishing house that couldn’t stay put. From East Orange to Matawan, Keyport to Scotch Plains, owner Thomas Barry moved the location of his press around the way a television pirate buries his treasure. Barry quickly gained a reputation for publishing rural Catholic literature: pamphlets, prayer cards, and books. Barry’s notable publications include The Catholic Attitude to Machinery by Douglas Marshall, An Artist’s Notebook by Sister Mary of the Compassion, O.P.,2 tracts for The Confraternity of Saint Thomas Aquinas (a chastity youth league), and a reprint of The Sun of Justice by Harold Robbins3—praised by Dorothy Day as “the best thinking ever done on Distributism.”4
A few months after locating the book I tracked down Steve Barry, one of Thomas’ eight children, who provided me with more insight into his father’s associations:
He talked quite a bit about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin; he got to know them in the early ‘30s when he was just getting out of high school. We used to visit a farm (a cooperative founded by Dorothy) on Staten Island when I was younger, and I remember Day visiting our house in Cape May County.
Although Steve could not tell me whether his father collaborated on the title, I quickly dismissed Thomas Barry as the sole author. The book was “published for the Distributist League of New England”—an odd choice of words if he wrote it himself. His friends Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin ran Catholic Worker out of New York, and Dorothy’s daughter Tamar and her son-in-law David, a book agent and owner of The Distributist Bookstall, worked out of their farm in Easton, Pennsylvania.5 A Declaration of the Independents was a “restatement of the distributist program in American terms,” as Hennessy described it, and if it started in traditional New England, then well, there should be a New England connection. And it starts with Arthur Graham Carey.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1892, Arthur Graham Carey served as editor of the Catholic Art Association’s Catholic Arts Quarterly (later rebranded Good Work), alongside Ade Bethune—the famous illustrator and oft-contributor to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper. Carey also penned articles for Hilaire Belloc’s The Weekly Review, Herbert Agar’s Free America, and American Review. For this last publication, Carey wrote a beautiful obituary following the death of Arthur J. Penty.6
Carey commissioned Thomas Barry for several projects, including a prayer card for Eric Gill when he passed in 1940. According to David Hennessey, “the printing was done by another of [Gill’s] ardent admirers, Thomas Barry of The Sower Press.”
Another Barry-Carey-Gill connection is Fr. Thomas Phelan who corresponded with all three men during their lifetimes. Fr. Phelan served as president of the Catholic Art Association and was pastor of Christ Sun of Justice in Albany, New York, where he worked alongside Carey who designed the Chapel and Cultural Center. The acquired corpus of Eric Gill’s “Spoil Bank Crucifix” from Ditchling and Ade Bethune’s Rose Window are displayed at the Rensselaer Newman Foundation, as is the foundation’s seal which was designed by Carey and carved in England by the Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic.
After months of searching dusty library shelves, I finally found evidence of Carey’s authorship of A Declaration of the Independents in an old volume of American Ecclesiastical Review.7 But this only solved part of the mystery. Was Independents a collaborative manifesto for a larger association of distributists? Were Carey’s contemporaries, people like Ralph Adams Cram, the famous Anglo-Catholic architect,8 Bethune, or the agrarian homesteader Ralph Borsodi, likely candidates?
Perhaps we may never learn the identities of the original New England leaguers. Or maybe you can help us unravel this mystery. If you have any information or leads about The Distributist League of New England, please use our contact form and drop us a line.
Until we uncover who they are, let us bathe in their message to us:
We will begin to have a Distributist society when we sufficiently want it, and we will keep it only so long as we sufficiently value what we have…. Distributists, therefore, set themselves primarily to persuade their fellow citizens that the worship of bigness and power, and the trend to centralization and collectivism is not the road to happiness.
- The Distributist League of New England, A Declaration of Independents (Scotch Plains, N.J. : Sower Press, 1938).
- December 30, 1948.
- Published by Sower Press in 1938.
- Dorothy Day, “Distributism Versus Capitalism,” in The Catholic Worker (October 1954).
- As Dorothy describes it, “My son-in-law, David Hennessy, of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, who has a toehold on the land, has also been deluging me with pamphlets. He has one of the best libraries in the country on the subject, and deals with the books and pamphlets which discuss Distributism. He will help with this series, and send literature to those who ask for it.” “All the Way to Heaven is Heaven,” in Catholic Worker (June 1948).
- “Arthur J. Penty: 1875-1937,” in The American Review (March 1937): 550-558.
- Vol. 123.
- Cram penned the Introduction to Catholicism, Capitalism or Communism? by Fr. Jeremiah C. Harrington.