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A prophet of globalisation: Ignatius Donnelly

By Stephen Holt - posted Saturday, 15 September 2001

On the very same day in 1901 that Australian became a federation a former United States congressman who insisted that Francis Bacon had written the plays of Shakespeare died in Minnesota.

Initially it would appear hard to imagine two more seemingly unrelated centenaries. There is a powerful connection though since the congressman in question - Ignatius Loyola Donnelly – enjoyed a strong antipodean following. Without ever setting foot in Australia, he helped to colour the political culture that took hold after federation.

Donnelly’s support for Francis Bacon, while not without influence on the Australian literary scene of the day (the novelist Joseph Furphy referred to Donnelly when describing Shakespeare as a "vile old impostor "), formed part of a wider heretical bent that extended far beyond the byways of Elizabethan literature to take in a dark populist vision of the future that seemed all too plausible to many Australians, particularly those of a pro-Labor disposition.


Ignatius Donnelly was tireless in tapping into the powerful American - and Australian - dream of being a small independent property owner. Born in Philadelphia in 1831, he studied law before seeking wealth through land speculation. He set up Nininger City, Minnesota, which was boosted as a future Chicago but went bust in 1857 and never recovered.

A fluent public speaker, Donnelly gravitated to national politics during the heady prelude to the Civil War. A Democrat and then a Republican, he served three terms in Congress before being squeezed out in an internal party feud.

When the American economy moved into overdrive after the Civil War Donnelly gradually renounced the GOP, experience as a Washington lobbyist convincing him that American politics was now dominated by a struggle "between the few who seek to grasp all power and wealth, and the many who seek to preserve their rights as American citizens and freemen". He embraced third party politics, serving intermittingly as a state legislator in Minnesota where he campaigned for anti-monopoly laws and other forms of public intervention directed against predatory banking, timber, milling and railroad interests.

A bibliophile as well as an orator, Donnelly generated income by writing books which championed "unusual and unproved theories". In Atlantis (1882) he posited the existence of a large, long vanished, mid-Atlantic island from where, he argued, civilization had radiated to the other continents. A second book attributed deposits of gravel on the earth’s surface to an earlier contact with a mighty comet. In The Great Cryptogram (1888) he demonstrated to his own satisfaction that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare’s plays.

In the early 1890s, responding to mounting agrarian discontent, Donnelly helped to form the People’s party and advocated paper money, a graduated income tax and low interest rates. He was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate but had too be content with a failed bid for the vice presidency.

The gospel of discontent was proclaimed in two novels published by Donnelly. Caesar’s Column presented the populists’ vision of hell and The Golden Bottle portrayed their version of heaven. As might be expected, Caesar’s Column was the more gripping read. Projecting ahead to 1988, it imagines Europe and the United States in the clutches of an "unbridled plutocracy" of monopolists, financiers and bankers. This avaricious elite flaunts its wealth on Jules Verne-like technological marvels and a private army while ruthlessly manipulating and exploiting a debased and impoverished working class.


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 solemnly renouncing the sin of usury. The resulting reenchantment of the United States with the disappearance of mortgage foreclosures on farms is the theme of The Golden Bottle. Following the nightmare of Caesar’s Column Donnelly’s countervailing dream of a universal republic of small proprietors was intended to seem all the more alluring.

Donnelly’s novels seized the popular imagination at a time when, as now, future economic prospects for "plain people" seemed increasingly harsh and impersonal. Caesar’s Column in particular sold hundred of thousands of copies throughout the world.

Australians were some of Donnelly’s keenest readers. The decade before federation was marked by violent strikes, banking crises and unstable employment. Against this backdrop Donnelly loomed large as a credible prophet of doom. He helped to colour the literary aura that energised the Australian labour movement in the days of its youthful innocence.

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This article is an adaptation of an essay that first appeared the National Library of Australia News. Click here to read the full essay.

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About the Author

Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian.

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