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The Fresh Air following Revolution

July 7, 2010

Tags BiographiesFree MarketsU.S. HistoryEntrepreneurshipInterventionism

Murray Rothbard, celebrated as a libertarian author and economic historian, has, with the assistance of historian Leonard P. Liggio, embarked on the ambitious task of writing a multivolume survey of American history. In our age of professionalization and specialization, this is obviously a most difficult endeavor. Mastery of the secondary works, let alone the primary source materials, is more than enough for a lifetime's labor. Thus the longer, detailed histories of the American past are now customarily joint works, to which different authors contribute their separate volumes. Professor Rothbard and his publisher evidently hope that, without any sacrifice of scholarly standards, his history will appeal to a general audience. This commendable goal, the projected series's first volume — which deals with the American colonies in the 17th century — achieves in part. Rothbard's narrative approach, clear style, and fresh comments from a libertarian point of view will interest many readers. They may, however, become lost in the heavy detail that the author seems to feel is necessary to convince fellow scholars. Since the latter have monographs aplenty to turn to, this reviewer is somewhat disappointed that Rothbard has not given freer rein to his own philosophy to write a more succinct, less factual, and more interpretive book on the model, for example, of Charles and Mary Beard's Rise of American Civilization. Rather surprisingly, in view of the fact that Rothbard's previous work extends broadly over the social sciences, and especially economics, his history stresses mainly the American political story.

 

Within this context of narrative political history, the author offers, however, more than a conventional account of American colonial origins. America as a New World gave settlers the chance "to experience a revolution — a breeze of fresh air upon the stagnant social structure." Britain's conquest of Ireland in the 16th century furnished a model for planting American colonies, and the English conclusion that the "wild Irish" were no better than "Savages," Rothbard points out, offered "a significant preview of English treatment of the American Indian." "The cleansing acid of profit" enabled the colonists to resist incipient feudalism and land monopoly in their new settlements, but monopolistic British trade policies helped to fasten the canker of slavery upon Virginia and sister colonies.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the Whig tradition of limited government stood in opposition to the Stuart kings. Revolts like Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, whatever Nathaniel Bacon's own goals, were in Rothbard's view significantly libertarian. His sympathies lie with those who opposed authority: Bacon, Jacob Leisler, Roger Williams, and the Quakers.

Whenever anyone in the American colonies in the 17th century decided to embark on a policy of tyranny and religious persecution, the first group to bear the brunt was usually the hapless Quakers — of all sects the least devoted to idolatry of church or state.

In contrast to his admiration for early American dissenters, Rothbard is uniformly hostile to the Massachusetts Bay Puritans, to Governor Andros and the Dominion of New England, and to the authoritarian Dutch and English regimes in New York province. He points out the failure of the various official attempts to enforce monopoly, subsidize industry, or limit trade. The maximum-wage and -price controls in Massachusetts — still cited today as precedents for economic planning — Rothbard demonstrates were dismal failures that accentuated shortages of both labor and goods. He also makes the important point that the merchant class was never monolithic or susceptible of the simplistic analysis of later Marxist historians. "The merchants, or capitalists," Rothbard writes, "being the peculiarly mobile and dynamic groups in society that can either flourish on the free market or try to obtain state privileges, are, then, particularly ill-suited to a homogeneous class analysis."

Rothbard is justly critical of New England's aggressive "hard-line policy of total victory" in King Philip's War, a struggle in which 6 percent of those of military age — about one thousand men — were killed, one-half the New England towns were damaged, and a total of 90,000 pounds was spent. The war meant not only the virtual extermination of the Indians in the area, but also repressive measures against whites. In Massachusetts, Rothbard notes,

All men driven from their homes by the Indians were to be conscripted automatically for military duty in the places of their refuge. All trade with the Indians, not on government account, was forbidden on penalty of confiscation of all the trader's property. And, finally, no person in Massachusetts was to leave the town of his residence without getting the permission of the local military committee. It would not be surprising if some of the more reflective citizens of Massachusetts began to wonder who their enemy was, the Indians or their own government.

Massachusetts citizens could contrast such repressive war measures with the situation of their brethren in Pennsylvania, who enjoyed the peaceful fruits of William Penn's original fair dealing with the Indians. In Pennsylvania there was also a unique period in 1688, in which, with no governor or deputy of the proprietor in residence, the populace "had happily lapsed into an anarchism that precluded taxes, quitrents, and political power."

In the conclusion to this important work, Rothbard notes that the revolutions which swept the colonies at the end of the 17th century were "in opposition to the tyranny, high taxes, monopolies, and restrictions imposed by the various governments." They were not "against England per se, but against the oppressions of the state, dominated by the English government." Rothbard adds that they "failed largely because the domestic oligarchs were propped up and reimposed by the English power."


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