Populism, Plutocracy, and the Destruction of New York: Ignatius Donnelly and the Politics of ‘Caesar’s Column’

We are delighted to share this piece by Invasion Network member Antony Taylor (Sheffield Hallam). It is based on a paper first delivered at the ‘War of the Worlds’ workshop in Lancaster (September 2017).

Before Los Angeles was routinely subject to destruction in fiction and cinema, most fantasies of urban collapse in the United States concentrated on the most advanced city of the financial and commercial age: New York. Representations of New York as a city of sinful luxury, corruption and self-indulgence prompted almost biblical depictions of the demise of the proud and haughty imperial heartland of high finance. The destruction of New York was the set-piece moment in H.G. Wells’ War in the Air in 1908.[i] Many of the anxieties represented by the tendency to imagine the destruction of advanced urban cultures arose from the populist and radical movements of the 1880s that inspired frenzied speculation about the dangers confronting the republic from unconstrained urbanisation, and the new ‘robber barons’ of the banks, railways and finance sector.[ii]

There is a long tradition of dystopian writing in the United States that draws on the notion of dangers and corrupting influences imperilling the purity of the republic. Focussed around revolution and internal subversion it provided a genre that attracted a number of prominent authors. Jack London, Sinclair Lewis, and Philip Roth are all examples of novelists who worked within this tradition to produce important books reflecting contemporary panics and anxieties about the direction of travel of American society.[iii] These were often novels of internal subversion, rather than invasion fiction per se. Conventional accounts like Hugh Grattan Donnelly’s The Stricken Nation (1890) imagining, a British reoccupation of the United States found little echo in popular culture.[iv] Until the military rivalries of the Great War era, most military threats to the US were still construed as domestic, rather than external in nature. Speaking in 1861, Abraham Lincoln noted that ‘danger cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher’.[v]

1889 was the centenary of the inauguration of George Washington as president, leading to a period of introspective about the health, stability and vigour of the republic. During this period, John Ames Mitchell, produced the jeremiad, The Last American, (1889) imagining a New York brought low by an unspecified catastrophe. Edward Bellamy trod similar territory with his image of a futuristic (and utopian) Boston arranged around a nationalised capitalism in Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888). Amongst the most significant future fiction to emerge from this period was Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column, written in 1889, imagining the world of 1988, which presented a vivid vision of a looted and devastated city, reduced to ruins by its own citizenry.

Donnelly’s career was characterised by many of the traits that feature in the profiles of authors of popular fiction. In common with other writers in this genre he followed the same arc of financial, political and social adventurism. With a background in unsuccessful land speculations in Minnesota and a career in the Granger, rural co-operative, Greenback and Populist movements of the eighteen-nineties, Donnelly was the author of numerous quack quasi-scientific tracts, notably, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882) and The Great Cryptogram (1888) that claimed Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. These eccentric interests led to his sobriquet, ‘King of the Cranks’.[vi] His greatest success came with Caesar’s Column for which he claimed a world-wide sale of 700,000 copies. Donnelly wrote Caesar’s Column under the name of Edward Boisgilbert, rather than his own, but was revealed as the author soon after its publication. Describing technological marvels, including airships, futuristic architecture, and hand-held communications devices, the work is highly derivative of the fantastic fantasies of Jules Verne. It is speculated that it may have influenced George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893) that imagined a Europe brought to the brink of destruction by a fleet of aerial anarchists.[vii]

Caesar’s Column was the most successful novel to emerge from the US populist movement. Described by Richard Hoftstadter as ‘nihilistic and sadistic’, it envisaged a New York dominated by ruthless plutocrats and bankers wielding control over the population through an aerial zeppelin fleet called ‘the Daemons’.[viii] The frequent resort to anti-semitic stereotypes and tropes and the plot device of the trafficking of women places it in a strong populist tradition and has contributed to its unpleasant reputation.[ix] The novel explored the widening gulf between the propertied and excluded in New York, leading inevitably to social disorder on the French revolutionary model. At the heart of the plot is the shadowy anarchist organisation, ‘the Brotherhood’ that orchestrates the distress emerging from poverty and discontent to foment urban revolt and the butchery of the city’s financier elite. The plot was propelled as much by the fear of restless migrant hordes as by a dislike of plutocratic wealth. Ravening dispossessed migrants, led by the Italian migrant, Caesar Lomellini, loot the city; the presence of the uncontrollable, disaffected migrant poor is a threatening and subversive element throughout the narrative, with strong elements of the New York ‘sunshine and shadows’ literature typified by Jacob Riis that chronicled the injustices dealt out to the urban excluded.[x] Haussmannite projects to renovate New York on the Parisian model in the eighteen-seventies and eighteen-eighties also enabled Donnelly to make significant references to the Paris Commune in his account.[xi] The novel is coloured by an intense dislike of urban civilisation and its sophistications and injustices. Donnelly believed that urbanisation led to degeneration and had unleashed the same ungovernable forces that overthrew Atlantis and Rome.

The novel focusses on the construction of a grisly monument to the rising comprising the bodies of dead plutocrats in Union Square (shown in the cover illustration below). This image provided a commentary on the cult of memorialisation in 1889, on the role of Union Square for workers’ demonstrations since 1882, and the fashion for vertical build in New York. The levelling of the city also drew on images of the constant infrastructural changes in New York relating to Henry James’ vision of the city as a place of endless reinvention and ‘restless renewals’.[xii]


In Donnelly’s fantasy of a dystopian New York, brought low by its own inhabitants, the renovation of society was by a retreat to the rural. Like many populists he believed that true virtue resided with those who tilled the soil.[xiii] Indeed, the highpoint of his political career was the drafting of the preamble to the People’s Party platform in Omaha in 1892.[xiv] Many of the themes of this address are repeated in the novel. Rootless international wealth and unconstrained migration of the poor, he believed, threatened Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a society based around the values of small yeoman proprietorships. Caesar’s Column ends with the hero escaping with George Washington’s beautiful descendant, Estrella, to establish an ideal rustic commune in Uganda. Widely read in settler/colonial society, especially Australia, and New Zealand, Donnelly’s novel became a key text for critics of urban society at the fin de siècle. In the Australian colonies it provided a metaphor for the wave of strikes in the maritime and mining industries that were a feature of the ‘nervous nineties’ during a period of trade contraction. Peter Love sees the novel as an influence on William Lane’s notorious story of a race war against the Chinese in Australia, White or Yellow? The Story of the Race War of A.D. 1908 (1888).[xv] Caesar’s Column attracted far less attention in Britain during the same period, despite its possible roots in and partial inspiration by Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) which imagined a London so torn apart by internal tensions, disparities of wealth and power and environmental damage, that in a far distant future, the capital has collapsed into a bog.[xvi]

Expressive of the urban crisis at the end of the nineteenth-century, and drawing on populist arcadian notions of a return to the land as a solution to the increasing complexities of urban civilisation, Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column paved the way for other futuristic treatments of the destruction and devastation of the great cities of Europe and the new world. Awash with images of barbarian hordes, and ruthless, sadistic cosmopolitans divided by an unbridgeable gulf, the novel shared with the invasion narrative the vision of urban civilisation under siege, and expressed strong anxieties about hidden ‘fifth columnists’ promoting insurrection from within. Brutal and apocalyptic it might be, but its vision of urban culture as a blight was shared by a generation of progressives and social planners who sought the renovation of urban culture, through philanthropy, public works, or local government reform. Not strictly an expression of the genre of ‘invasion panic’ fiction, and, in part, transcending genre altogether, Donnelly’s novel, nevertheless, shared with the invasion narrative images of great cities laid low by a riotous population unleashed by the pressures of misgovernment, tyranny, conquest or subversion.

[i] H.G. Wells, The War in the Air (London, 1908 [Penguin, 1967]), pp 120-140.

[ii] Max Page, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (Yale University Press: New Haven, 2008), pp. 34-46. For Los Angeles as ‘doom city’, see Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), ch. 6.

[iii] Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908); Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

[iv] “Henry Grattan Donnelly”, The Stricken Nation (1890). The Stricken Nation is republished in its entirety in I.F. Clarke’s The Tales of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997), pp. 162-192. There is little information relating to the author of The Stricken Nation. Hugh Grattan Donnelly is not the same person as Ignatius Donnelly, although, given that the book was published the year after Caesar’s Column, the author may have been paying a back-handed compliment to Ignatius Donnelly. My thanks to Michael Matin for these insights.

[v] www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/lyceum.htm

[vi] Martin Ridge, Ignatius Donnelly: Portrait of a Politician (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), ch. 16.

[vii] Nicholas Ruddick, ‘Introduction’, Caesar’s Column: A story of the Twentieth Century (Middletown, CT., Wesleyan University Press, 2003 [1889]), xxxiv-xl. For airships and the technological imagination, see Peter J. Bowler, A History of the Future: Prophets of the Future from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), ch. 7.

[viii] Quoted in Allan M. Axelrad, ‘Ideology and utopia in the works of Ignatius Donnelly’, American Studies, vol. 12 (1971), p. 49.

[ix] Ignatius Donnelly’s novel Dr Huguet (1893), about a white man who changes colour, becomes Black, and experiences discrimination at first-hand, has sometimes been held up as a text that exonerates him from the charge of racism displayed elsewhere in his books, but was probably really about that period in the history of the populist movement when it sought alliances with non-white farmers.

[x] Andrew Lees, Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820-1940 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp. 127-8.

[xi] Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 821-22.

[xii] Quoted in Page, The City’s End, p. 23

[xiii] Donnelly was also the author of The Golden Bottle, or the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas (1892), which imagines a utopia where the populists have won and farmers thrive.

[xiv] Robin Archer, Why is there no Labor Party in the United States? (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 211.

[xv] The Bulletin, 21 July 1894, p. 6, John Docker, The Nervous Nineties: Australian Cultural Life in the 1890s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), ch. 9 and Peter Love, Labour and the Money Power: Australian Labour Populism, 1890-1950 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1984), pp. 10-14.,

[xvi] Mike Davis notes the overlaps between Donnelly and Jefferies’work: Davis, The Ecology of Fear, p. 290. There is a reference to Caesar’s Column in Land and Labour, 1 September 1891, p. 6.

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