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Preface by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.

I have lost track of how many volumes of new material by Murray N. Rothbard have been released since his death in the early days of 1995. Rothbard has achieved in death more scholarly output than many scholars can hope for in a lifetime.

The reader can learn about the background to this volume and the Conceived in Liberty series as a whole in Patrick Newman’s capable introduction. How this book finally came to light after its recovery had seemed hopeless—Rothbard’s indecipherable handwriting an apparently insuperable stumbling block—makes for a delightful story.

When I got my hands on the manuscript for volume five of Conceived in Liberty, I did something unusual: I skipped ahead immediately to Rothbard’s treatment of Shays’ Rebellion. Historians got this one wrong for a very long time. The correct understanding had to wait for 2002, with the release of Shays’ Rebellion: The American Revolution’s Final Battle, by Leonard Richards.

For obvious reasons, most people who participate in political rebellions do not go out of their way to keep records of their involvement. It turns out that Shays’ Rebellion was a rare exception: participants were required to sign loyalty oaths, which were kept on record. Richards found these records, and used them to learn about the people involved: their towns, their families, their debt level (if any), and so on.

What he found: historians’ standard morality play of Shays’ Rebellion—that it was a revolt of desperate debtors against their creditor tormentors—was false. More than anything else, the Rebellion had been a tax revolt.

So I had to know: what was Rothbard’s interpretation of this event?

Answer: Rothbard managed to intuit the true nature of Shays’ Rebellion even without the benefit of this later research. It was not a revolt of debtors, he declared, but rather a tax revolt—precisely what everyone else had to wait until 2002 to discover.

I was astonished—though, having read Rothbard for decades now, not altogether surprised.

Rothbard found that the program of the rebels was, for the most part, a libertarian one. He likewise observed that a great many wealthy people, not in debt, took part in the rebellion, which further undermined the cartoon version that was to be found in school textbooks.

So when readers encounter in these pages Rothbard’s treatment of this episode, I hope this historiographical background will enhance their appreciation of the author’s cogency and insight.

This was hardly unusual for Rothbard, I might add, who had a knack for seeing through the cartoonish narratives that dominate the standard tale of American history. In his work on nineteenth-century monetary history, for example, he was aghast at scholars who thought the fight over money and banking could be reduced to agrarians who hated banking per se versus wise industrialists who understood and appreciated it, or that it was “capitalists” who favored national banks that enjoyed government privilege.

A glance at the treatises of the great opponents of national banks made clear that they were supporters of hard money who favored as little government involvement in money and banking as possible. It wasn’t that they opposed banking per se. They opposed inflationist banking, which they (correctly) believed led to the boom-bust cycle. These, and not the cronies who wanted privileged, inflationist banks, were the genuine capitalists. Hence it was the hard-money, sound-banking Jeffersonians, and not the special-privilege, often inflationist Hamiltonians, with whom supporters of laissez-faire should sympathize —the very opposite of how the uncomprehending textbook treatment (which portrays Hamilton as the very embodiment of “capitalism”) would have it.

In the present volume, therefore, we should not be surprised to find Rothbard berating historian Bray Hammond for falling precisely into this error in his coverage of the Bank of North America, and failing even to consider the economic arguments of the bank’s opponents. For Hammond, it is enough to describe them as “agrarians,” and leave the impression that their complaints about the bank were merely political rather than economic.

Of course, a substantial portion of this book involves the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, which the eminent Judge Napolitano, in his foreword, commented on. Instead, allow me simply to point out how rare it is to encounter a volume in which the ratification of the Constitution is treated as something other than a great triumph, with the events leading up to it carrying a glorious inevitability.

Schoolchildren are duly informed that the situation under the Articles of Confederation was untenable, and that the Constitution established a superior system in its place. This is obviously a matter of opinion, but it is presented essentially as fact in every textbook and classroom in America.

Of course, even if every accusation against the Articles were true, someone might still note that the Constitution has had its own share of problems. It has allowed (as in, been unable to prevent) such overwhelming enormities in the ensuing two and a half centuries, as government has grown to levels unimaginable to everyone at the ratification debates and positively unthinkable under the Articles, that perhaps by comparison the Articles may not have been so bad after all.

No such arguments are to be heard, except from the occasional libertarian gadfly.

I once heard Rothbard say he never earned much money from his books. Unlike the right-wing radio hosts who earn small fortunes year after year churning out volumes of no significance at all, Rothbard wrote for the ages. He was building an intellectually fulfilled libertarian movement. For Rothbard that meant foundational works of economics, history, and philosophy.

The release of volume five of Conceived in Liberty, assumed to be lost to the world forever, is an occasion for rejoicing, if somewhat surreal: Rothbard’s familiar voice here returns to us from beyond the grave. May it not only inform us, but also inspire us, especially our rising young people, to carry on the libertarian project Rothbard began.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
Orlando, Florida
April 2019

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