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A Rothbardian View of American History

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Tags Free MarketsU.S. HistoryHistory of the Austrian School of Economics

05/11/2007David Gordon

Rothbard ranged far beyond economics in his historical work. In a four-volume series, Conceived in Liberty, (1975-–1979) he presented a detailed account of American colonial history that stressed the libertarian antecedents of the American Revolution. His fundamental thesis emerges in his discussion of seventeenth-century developments. He states:

"The noted historian Carl Becker once raised the question about the extent to which the American Revolution was a battle for 'home rule' of the colonies vis-à-vis England, as opposed to a battle of 'who should rule at home,' within the colonies …We are now able to frame a judgment about this issue for the earlier revolutions of the late seventeenth century and for their aftermath. We have seen how revolution, in the 1670s and especially after 1688, swept almost every colony in America: from Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia to Leisler's in New York to the continuing state of revolution in the two New Jerseys. All of these may be classified as 'liberal' and popular; in short, as essentially mass movements in behalf of libertarian objectives and in opposition to the tyranny, high taxes, monopolies, and restrictions imposed by the various governments." (CL, Vol. I, p.510)

Because the revolts were directed against state oppression, the antithesis of internal versus external revolution posed by Becker must be rejected:

"[W]hen these colonies rebelled, they did so not against England per se, but against the oppressions of the state, dominated by the English government. And the fact that the sudden weakening of English authority during the Glorious Revolution touched off these revolts in no sense negates this conclusion." (CL, Vol. I, p.510)

The Colonial Era, in Rothbard's view, was not entirely a battle for liberty. He had little use for New England Puritanism:

"One basic influence on colonial American thought was the fact that two contrasting traditions emerged from its Protestant and Puritan heritage. One was the fanatical theocratic persecuting tradition, which reached its apogee in Massachusetts Bay and the Dutch Orange Party." (CL, Vol. II, p.188)

His grim judgment in part rests on the detailed account in the preceding volume of the persecution of the antinomian Anne Hutchinson. He recommends Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker's The Puritan Oligarchy as "brilliant and deeply critical" (CL, Vol. I, p.516).

Much more to Rothbard's liking was the other tradition:

"The other was optimistic, individualist, libertarian, and even deistic, and was reflected in the Levellers, and in such escapees from Massachusetts as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, and later in Charles Chauncy and Jonathan Mayhew." (CL, Vol. II, p.188)

He stresses the influence of Algernon Sidney, John Locke, and Trenchard and Gordon of Cato's Letters. "Each made a profound contribution to the growth and development of libertarian thought in America." (CL, Vol. II, p.188)

He views Locke as in essence a radical libertarian:

"There were two strains in Locke's Essay: the individualist and libertarian, and the conservative and majoritarian, and examples of caution and inconsistency are easy to find. But the individualist view is the core of the argument …Locke was an extraordinarily timorous and secretive writer on political affairs …Hence it is not unreasonable to assume that the conservative strain in Locke was a camouflage for the radically libertarian core of his position." (CL, Vol. II, p.190).

Trenchard and Gordon interpreted Locke in just this way; they "greatly radicalized the impact of Locke's libertarian creed." (CL, Vol. II, p.192) Cato's Letters warned against the tyranny of power. This constantly threatened liberty and must, if necessary, be held in check by revolution.

"'Cato' assured his readers that there was no danger that the public might exercise its right of revolution against tyrannical government too frequently or imprudently; due to settled habits, as well as the propaganda and power of government, the danger is quite the reverse." (CL, Vol. II, p.195)

Rothbard's comments here raise a fundamental issue: how influential are intellectuals such as Locke and Trenchard and Gordon, and what motivates them? His response expresses a fundamental feature of his entire approach to history. He contrasts two sorts of intellectual: "court intellectuals", who serve those in authority, primarily wish to gain money and power for themselves. Revolutionary intellectuals, who oppose the state, do so out of genuine conviction.

He minces no words about the former group:

"The ruling class — be it warlords, nobles, bureaucrats, feudal landlords, monopoly merchants, or a coalition of several of these groups — must employ intellectuals to convince the majority of the public that its rule is beneficent, inevitable, necessary, and even divine. The leading role of the intellectual throughout history is that of the court intellectual who, in return for a share of, a junior partnership in, the power and pelf offered by the rest of the ruling class, spins the apologias for state rule with which to convince a misguided public." (CL, Vol. III, p.352)

Rothbard agreed with Etienne de la Boétie and David Hume that government depends on popular support: "no state — no minority — can continue long in power unless supported, even if passively, by the majority." (Ibid.) Hence the imperative need for intellectuals to guide the public.

The case is far different for revolutionary intellectuals.

"It is usually directly in the economic interests of the radical intellectuals to allow themselves to 'sell out', to be coopted by the ruling state apparatus. The intellectuals who do choose the radical opposition path …can scarcely be dominated by economic motives; on the contrary, only a fiercely held ideology, centering on a passion for justice, can keep the intellectuals to the rigorous path of truth …Thus, statists tend to be governed by economic motives, with ideology serving as a smokescreen for such motives, while libertarians or antistatists are motivated centrally by ideology, with economic defense playing a subordinate role." (CL, Vol. III, pp.353–54)

When he turns to the American Revolution itself, Rothbard, as usual, challenges mainstream opinion. The virtues and military leadership of George Washington did not impress him.

"Washington set out to transform a people's army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model. His primary aim was to crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces." (CL, Vol. IV, p.43)

For Rothbard, the Articles of Confederation were not, contrary to most historians, an overly weak arrangement that needed to be replaced by the more centrally focused Constitution. Quite the contrary, the Articles themselves allowed too much central control.

"While the radicals had succeeded in pulling much of the centralist teeth, the Articles were still a momentous step from the loose but effective unity of the original Continental Congress to the creation of a powerful new central government. To that extent, they were an important victory for conservatism and centralization, and proved to be a half-way house on the road to the Constitution." (CL, Vol. IV, p.254)

For Rothbard, this was decidedly the wrong road.

He emphasizes the radical nature of the Revolution.

"It was the first successful war of national liberation against western imperialism. A people's war, waged by the majority of Americans having the courage and the zeal to rise up against constituted 'legitimate' government, actually threw off their 'sovereign.'" (CL, Vol. IV, p.443)

To this it might be objected that an external revolution need not be internally radical as well; but Rothbard stands ready with his answer:

"the sudden smashing of that [British] rule inevitably threw government back into a fragmented, local, quasi-anarchistic form. When we consider also that the Revolution was consciously and radically directed against taxes and against central government power, the inevitable thrust of the Revolution for a radical transformation toward liberty becomes crystal clear." (CL, Vol. IV, p.445)

Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine rank high among the heroes of this radical drive toward liberty. Paine in Common Sense

"not only laid bare the roots of monarchy, but provided a brilliant insight into the nature and origins of the State itself. He had made a crucial advance in libertarian theory upon the social-contract doctrine of the origin of the State. While he followed Locke in holding that the State should be confined to the protection of man's natural rights, he saw clearly that actual states had not originated in this way or for this purpose. Instead, they had been born in naked conquest and plunder." (CL, Vol. IV, p.137)

By contrast, he agrees with Richard Henry Lee that Benjamin Franklin was a "wicked old man." (CL, Vol. IV, p.360)

Rothbard did not address nineteenth century American history in as much detail as the colonial period; but his illuminating article, "Origins of the Welfare State in America"  offers a key to his interpretation of this period. He argues that the welfare state cannot be traced to the labor movement. Rather, Yankee postmillennial pietists led the way to statist social reform. They were the product of the Second Great Awakening, led by Charles Finney. Believing that Christ would not return to earth until the world was reformed, they sought to regenerate the social order through state coercion.

"After only a few years of agitation, it was clear to these new Protestants that the Kingdom of God on Earth could only be established by government, which was required to bolster the salvation of individuals by stamping out occasions for sin."

Among the main sins to be combated were drinking ("Demon Rum") and "any activities on the Sabbath except praying and reading the Bible." The postmillennial pietists strongly opposed the Catholic Church; the public school movement in large part was an attempt to "Protestantize" the children of Catholic immigrants.

This group was largely concentrated in New England. "The concentration of the new statists in Yankee areas was nothing short of remarkable." They soon came to embrace big government for the economy as well. "Using big government to create a perfect economy seemed to parallel using such government to stamp out sin and create a perfect society." The PMPs [postmillennial pietists] gravitated to the Republican Party.

"On the other hand, all religious groups that did not want to be subjected to the PMP theocracy …naturally gravitated toward the laissez-faire political party, the Democrats."  Rothbard maintains that the struggle between the PMPs and their Democratic opponents lay at the heart of the political campaigns of much of the nineteenth century.

Toward the end of the century, the Progressive intellectuals often became secularized. Their emphasis shifted

"more and more away from Christ and religion, which became ever vaguer and woollier, and more and more toward a Social Gospel, with government correcting, organizing, and eventually planning the perfect society."

Richard T. Ely and his student John R. Commons were crucial figures in this transition. Another was

"the prophet of atheistic higher Democracy, the philosopher John Dewey …It is little known that in an early stage of his seemingly endless career, Dewey was an ardent preacher of postmillennialism and the coming of the Kingdom."

Rothbard also considered the Progressives in his essay "World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals". He documented to the hilt that the progressive intellectuals, "advanced thinkers," in their own estimation, were quite willing to impose suffering and death upon others, if doing so would advance their mad schemes. As he notes: "War offered a golden opportunity …to bring about collectivist social control in the interest of social justice." Once more, John Dewey is a major figure. "Force, he declared, was simply 'a means of getting results' and could therefore neither be lauded nor condemned per se." (John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War, Transaction, 1997, p.225)

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