Mises Daily

Libertarian Thought in Colonial America

[This is chapter 33 from Rothbard’s 4-volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty. Listen to the audio version.]

We have touched several times, especially in dealing with religious doctrines and institutions, upon the growth of libertarian views in eighteenth-century America. This extremely significant development was not a full-blown giant suddenly burst upon the European and American scenes. J. H. Hexter, in his brilliant Reappraisals in History, warns us of the dangerous temptation toward a linear view of history—a view adopted in different ways by “Whig” and Marxist alike. The linear view assumes a steady march from past to present; Hexter cites the concept of the “rising middle classes.” Historians, he points out, noted that the English middle classes were dominant in the nineteenth century, and virtually nonexistent in the Middle Ages. Hence the linear assumption of a steady march upward by the middle classes century by century, a picture which Hexter indicates is far from the truth. But the important point here is that history often moves not in a smoothly linear trend but in varying patterns of rises and falls of trends shattered by contrary trends.

The growth of libertarian thought in eighteenth-century America was, to be sure, heavily influenced by a preceding growth in England, the main source of cultural influence on its colonies. But the pattern was not so simple. For it must be remembered that parts of America itself had experienced entirely libertarian institutions in the seventeenth century: for example, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. To a large extent, this libertarianism had been unarticulated. In short, the abundance of fertile virgin land in a vast territory enabled individualism to come to full flower in many areas. But only in such cases—important to be sure—as those of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson did practicing libertarianism receive theoretical articulation and groundwork. This does not mean that no theoretical rationale existed. Indeed, it exploded in a mighty surge during the height of the Puritan revolution; Roger Williams and his friends among the libertarian wing of that revolution helped each other develop these doctrines.

But the significant fact of the mid-seventeenth century was the defeat of the revolution and the victory of the counterrevolution. In England this victory can be pinpointed in Oliver Cromwell’s shift rightward and his suppression of the Levellers—perhaps the finest libertarian movement up to that time. The steady retreat of Roger Williams from libertarian principles and enthusiasm can be dated from the disheartening victory of this Cromwellian counterrevolution. A similar counterrevolution against liberalism occurred in other parts of Europe: in France with the defeat of the Holy League in the late sixteenth century and of the popular Frondeur movements in the seventeenth century; in Holland with the victory of the Orange party over the Republicans. Civil war and foreign wars prevented England from turning its attention to its American colonies until the end of the seventeenth century. When it finally did so, it used its power to crush libertarian reality where it existed in America. Thus England imposed a counterrevolution on virtually libertarian conditions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and reversed the liberal-tending Leislerian revolution, which had had to force its way against what was in many ways the most reactionary colony of all, New York. Liberal-tending rebellions in the South (for example, Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia) were crushed, and reactionary policies entrenched or deepened. After the vigorous turmoil and turbulence of the late seventeenth century, when so many parts of America struggled in various ways toward freedom, a rather bleak uniformity was imposed on the colonies by England. The first half of the eighteenth century saw an increasing political stalemate between the contending forces, now generally consisting of Crown and privileged oligarchy as against the rest of the population, This period of quiescence was matched in the mother country, in institutions as well as in thought and opinion. In the first half of the eighteenth century, England settled down into a centrist Whig settlement; radical-liberal thought was more or less underground, expressed in thin trickles by lone independent thinkers. These liberals kept alive the torch of seventeenth-century Republican liberalism; when the radical-liberal movement burst forth once again as a political force in England in the later eighteenth century, it came not as a completely new phenomenon but as a renaissance of seventeenth-century radical models.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, America was more eager to learn from British liberalism past and contemporary than were the English themselves. England was, for one thing, the major cultural and ideological influence in the colonies, and Americans were eager to learn. For another, America had the heritage of its virtual epoch of libertarian revolutions in the last half of the seventeenth century; it was a long time before England was able to clamp down on America. And furthermore, America was not saddled with the enormous encumbrances on liberty that faced the English liberals: a pervasive and oppressive feudal land system—which had broken in America on the rock of vast new land, a drive for proprietary profit, and an American refusal to pay quitrents; an established church hierarchy; a large central state apparatus; and a thoroughly oligarchic polity. Americans suffered from these ailments to some degree, differing from one colony to the next. And such institutions as slavery, especially in the plantation South, and quasi-feudal landholdings in the Hudson Valley, presented great problems—but not nearly to the extent experienced by Great Britain. Above all, the rapid breakdown of attempts at imposing a feudal land system threw open land and areas of American life to a mobility and opportunity that Europe could not yet experience. The far greater democracy in the bulk of the American colonies than in England was a reflection of this breakdown. If liberty was to be achieved in the Western world, it was clear by the eighteenth century that America would have to take the lead—to achieve in practice the fruits of a theory generated in England.

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 in the Dutch Orange Party. 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.

Apart from ancient writers, three sources were the most frequently cited and quoted in eighteenth-century America, especially in the first half of the century: 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.

Algernon Sidney was one of the leading theorists of the Republican movement in seventeenth-century England. In particular, the doctrines expounded in his posthumously published Discourses Concerning Government were stamped on men’s minds by the circumstances of his martyrdom. Arrested in the early 1680s, Sidney was killed in late 1683 by the Crown and thus dramatized the Republican and libertarian cause. Sidney’s basic importance was his stress on the right of revolution. To Sidney, revolution and freedom were closely linked. Whenever people’s liberties were threatened or invaded, they had the right, nay the duty, to rebel. Everyone might legitimately slay a tyrant, and there is much justification for defending the rights of individuals against tyranny. Revolution to Sidney was not an evil but the people’s great weapon for the overthrow of tyranny and for exercising their rights to popular government. There was nothing sacred about governments, which on the contrary should be changed as required. The types of law necessary in a country were to be discerned by man’s reason investigating the fundamental laws of man’s nature. Against the arbitrary whim of the ruler Sidney championed law as “written Reason” and as defense of life, liberty, and property: “If there be no other law in a kingdom than the will of a Prince, there is no such thing as liberty. Property also is an appendage to liberty; and ‘tis as impossible for a man to have a right to lands or goods, if he has no liberty, and enjoys his life only at the pleasure of another, as it is to enjoy either when he is deprived of them.”

Although Sidney urged popular government as against monarchy, he was no believer in the unlimited rights of Parliament. On the contrary, it was to be subordinated to the individual rights of the people. Power, he warned, inevitably corrupts and every institutional power must be guarded against. To Sidney, government rested on a contract between government and governed. When government fails to perform its role in the service of the people, it deserves to be removed. Nor can a people give up their liberties permanently or be bound to government by the dead hand of the past. In his Dying Speech, Sidney proclaimed that “God has left nations the liberty of setting up such governments as best please themselves.” He thanked God that he had now become a witness to the truth and to the “Old Cause” of liberty against tyranny in “an age which makes truth pass for treason.”

A liberal Republican and friend of Sir Henry Vane (the Massachusetts champion of Anne Hutchinson), Sidney had been unhappy with Cromwell’s turn to tyranny and had spent the Republican years in retirement. He was then forced to spend the bulk of the Restoration years in exile, until his execution. Sidney’s great classical model was Brutus and his stirring motto Manus haec inimica tyrranis (”This hand to tyrants ever sworn the foe,” in the translation of John Quincy Adams).

Algernon Sidney’s widening impact on America during the eighteenth century influenced the great liberal Massachusetts Congregational ministers Andrew Eliot and Jonathan Mayhew. Eliot testified that this “martyr to civil liberty” first taught him just principles of government. Indeed, the defense of revolution by the martyred Sidney was far more inspiring to Americans than the defense by the timorous John Locke. Sidney’s historical honor roll consisted of those who had helped their countrymen get rid of tyrants. Injustice, to Sidney, made a government illegal. “Swords were given to men that none be slaves but such as knew not how to use them,” and “the law that forbids injuries were of no use if no penalty might be inflicted on those who will not obey it.” Concluded Sidney: “Let the danger be never so great, there is a possibility of safety whilst men have life, hands, arms, and courage to use them, but the people must certainly perish, who tamely suffer themselves to be oppressed ... by the injustice, cruelty, and malice of an ill magistrate....”1

If liberty found its martyr in Algernon Sidney, it found its elaborated systematic defense in the Essay Concerning Civil Government of the noted philosopher John Locke. The Essay, we now know, was written in the early 1680s at about the same time as Sidney’s Discourses; it was therefore written when Locke too was a revolutionary plotter against Stuart rule, and not, as had been assumed, as a conservative ex post facto rationale for the Glorious Revolution of 1688.2

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 philosophic argument, while the majoritarian and statist strain appears more in the later, applied portions of the theory. We know, furthermore, that Locke was an extraordinarily secretive and timorous writer on political affairs, even for an age when criticism could and did lead to exile and death. Hence, it is not unreasonable to assume that the conservative strain in Locke was a camouflage for the radically libertarian core of his position; certainly it was not difficult to concentrate on that core and make it the groundwork of a libertarian creed. And Locke’s Essay was particularly worthwhile in that it soared above the usual narrowly parochial concern of the day for time and place: from English liberty, ancient privileges, and the common law, to a universal abstract political philosophy grounded on the nature of man.

Locke began his analysis with the “state of nature”—not as an historical hypothesis but as a logical construct—a world without government, to pene- trate to the proper foundation of the state. In the state of nature, each man as a natural fact has complete ownership or property over his own person. These persons confront unused natural resources or “land,” and they are able to maintain and advance themselves by “mixing their labor with the land.” Through this mixing, the hitherto unowned and unused natural resources become the property of the individual mixer. The individual thereby acquires a property right not only in his own person but also in the land that he has brought into use and transformed by his labor.3   The individual, then, may keep this property, exchange it for the property of others, or bequeath it to his heirs. 4 He has the “natural right” to the property and to defend it against invasion by others. The moral justification for government, to Locke, was to defend these rights of property. Should government fail to serve this function, and itself become destructive of property rights, the people then have the right to revolt against such government and to replace it with one that will defend their rights.

5 Thus, Locke, by the use of reason in investigating the laws of man’s nature, adumbrated the doctrine of the natural rights of the individual to person and property, rights that are anterior to government and that government is duty-bound to defend, on pain of a justified overthrow.

Locke is clear that aggression and invasion of another’s right can establish no just title to property or rule, and that this holds for great heads of states as well as for petty criminals: “The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown or some petty villain. The title of the offender and the number of his followers make no difference unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones to keep them in their obedience, but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession which should punish offenders.” As to the legislature,

The reason why men enter into society is the preservation of their property; and the end why they choose and authorize a legislature is that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society ... whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge which God hath provided for all men against force and violence.

Locke’s reply to the critics of his theory of revolution was trenchant: Those who oppose the right to revolution as turbulent and destructive “may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed, If any mischief come in such cases, it is not to be charged upon him who defends his own right, but on him who invades his neighbor’s.”


To the objection that his theory allowed for frequent revolution, Locke countered that “such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people ... tis not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves ... “

The third great influence on America, and perhaps the most widely cited source in the colonies, was the works of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, especially their Cato’s Letters, We have already noted the influence of the letters on the freedom of the press, as well as the strong influence of Trenchard and Gordon’s contemporaneous Independent Whig series, both written in the early 1720s. Trenchard and Gordon were part of a small group of Englishmen who during the eighteenth century kept alive the torch of liberal Republican principles. This group was variously called “Common- wealthmen” “Real Whigs,” or “true Whigs.”

The great significance of Cato’s Letters is that in them the wealthy John Trenchard and his young protégé Thomas Gordon greatly radicalized the impact of Locke’s libertarian creed. They did so by applying Lockean principles to the concrete nature and problems of government, in a series of powerfully argued and hard-hitting essays that were often cited and reprinted and widely read throughout the American colonies. Cato’s Letters did more than merely restate Lockean doctrine. From the position that the people have the right to revolt against a government destructive of liberty, “Cato” proceeded to argue with great force that government is always and everywhere the potential or actual aggressor against the rights and liberties of the people. Liberty, the source of all the fruits of civilization and human happiness, is ever liable to suffer the aggressions and encroachments of government, of power, the source from which war, tyranny, and impoverishment ever flow. Power always stands ready to conspire against liberty, and the only salvation is for the public to keep government within strictly limited bounds, and to be ever watchful, vigilant, and hostile to the inevitable tendencies of government power to encroach upon liberty.

Expounding Lockean doctrine, “Cato” puts it thus:

All men are born free; Liberty is a gift which they receive from God himself; nor can they alienate the same by consent, though possibly they may forfeit it by crimes....The right of the magistrate arises only from the right of private men to defend themselves, to repel injuries, and to punish those who commit them: that right being conveyed by the society to their public representative, he can execute the same no further than the benefit and security of that society requires he should. When be exceeds his commission, his acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private officer usurping an unlawful authority; that is, they are void; and every man is answerable for the wrong which he does. A power to do good can never become a warrant for doing evil.

Liberty “Cato” defined as “the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruit of his labour, art, and industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys. The fruits of a man’s honest industry are the just rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal equity, as is his title to use them in the manner which he thinks fit: And thus, with the above limitations, every man is sole lord and arbiter of his own private actions and property.”


From liberty all other blessings flow:

Indeed liberty is the divine source of all human happiness. To possess, in security, the effects of our industry, is the most powerful and reasonable incitement to be industrious: And to be able to provide for our children, and to leave them all that we have, is the best motive to beget them. But where property is precarious, labour will languish. The privileges of thinking, saying, and doing what we please, and of growing as rich as we can, without any other restriction, than that by all this we hurt not the public, nor one another, are the glorious privileges of liberty; and its effects, to live in freedom, plenty, and safety.

Moreover, “Cato” made clear that the rights and liberties he was enunciating were individual and not those of the majority. The despotism of the majority can be as bad as the tyranny of one or a few:


It is a mistaken notion in government, that the interest of the majority is only to be consulted, since in society every man has a right to everyman’s assistance in the enjoyment and defense of his private property; otherwise the greater number may sell the lesser, and divide their estates amongst themselves; and so, instead of a society, where all peaceable men are protected, become a conspiracy of the many against a minority. With as much equity may one man wantonly dispose of all, and violence may be sanctified by mere Power.

But in this idyll of liberty there is always and ever the threat of the encroachments and aggressions of power, of government:


Only the checks put upon magistrates make nations free; and only the want of such checks makes them slaves. They are free, where their magistrates are confined within certain bounds set them by the people ... And they are slaves, where the magistrates choose their own rules, and follow their lust and humours; than which a more dreadful curse can befall no people ... and therefore most nations in the world are undone, and those nations only who bridle their governors do not wear chains.

Once acquiring power, rulers will try their best to keep and extend it:


We know, by infinite examples and experience, that men possessed of Power, rather than part with it, will do any thing, even the worst and the blackest, to keep it; and scarce ever any man upon earth went out of it as long as he could carry everything his own way in it .... This seems certain, that the good of the world, or of their people, was not one of their motives either for continuing in Power, or for quitting it.
It is the nature of Power to be ever encroaching, and converting every extraordinary power, granted at particular times, and upon particular occasions, into an ordinary power, to be used at all times, and when there is no occasion; nor does it ever part willingly with any advantage.

If liberty for “Cato” is the source of human happiness, the tyranny of power is the source of vast human misery:


Tyrants ... reduce mankind to the condition of brutes, and make that Reason, which God gave them, useless to them: They deprive them even of the blessings of nature, starve them in the midst of plenty, and frustrate the natural bounty of the earth to men; so that Nature smiles in vain where tyranny frowns: The very hands of men, given them by Nature for their support, are turned by tyrants into the instruments of their misery, by being employed in vile drudgeries or destructive wars, to gratify the lust and vanity of their execrable lords ....
Tyrants ... are supported by general ruin; they live by the destruction of mankind; and as fraud and villainy, and every species of violence and cruelty, are the props of their throne; so they measure their own happiness, and security, and strength, by the misery and weakness of their people.... That wealth, which dispersed amongst their subjects, and circulated in trade and commerce, would employ, increase, and enrich them ... is barbarously robbed from the people, and engrossed by these their oppressors ...
Alas! Power encroaches daily upon Liberty, with a success too evident; and the balance between them is almost lost. Tyranny has engrossed almost the whole earth, and striking at mankind root and branch, makes the world a slaughterhouse; and will certainly go on to destroy, till it is either destroyed itself, or, which is most likely, has left nothing else to destroy.

The corruption and lust for power in human nature are the cause of the aggressive nature of power, and therefore require eternal vigilance against power’s encroachments:


There has been always such a constant and certain fund of corruption and malignity in human nature, that it has been rate to find that man, whose views and happiness did not center in the gratification of his appetites, and worst appetites, his luxury, his pride, his avarice, and lust of power and who considered any public trust reposed in him, with any other view, than as the means to satiate such unruly and dangerous desires! And this has been most eminently true of Great Men, and those who aspired to dominion. They were first made great for the sake of the public, and afterwards at its expense. And if they had been content to have been moderate traitors, mankind would have been still moderately happy; but their ambition and treason observing no degrees, there was no degree of vileness and misery which the poor people did not feel.
The appetites therefore of men, especially of Great Men, are carefully to be observed and stayed, or else they will never stay themselves. The experience of every age convinces us, that we must not judge of men by what they ought to do, but by what they will do; and all history affords but few instances of men trusted with great power without abusing it, when with security they could.

“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:



It is foolish to say, that this doctrine can be mischievous to society, at least in any proportion to the wild ruin and fatal calamities which must befall, and do befall the world, when the contrary doctrine is maintained: For, all bodies of men subsisting upon their own substance, or upon the profits of their trade and industry, find their account so much in ease and peace, and have justly such terrible apprehensions of civil disorders, which destroy everything that they enjoy; that they always bear a thousand injuries before they return one, and stand under the burdens as long as they can bear them ....
What with the force of education, and the reverence which people are taught, and have been always used to pay to princes; what with the perpetual harangues of flatterers, the gaudy pageantry and outside of Power, and its gilded ensigns, always glittering in their eyes; what with the execution of the laws in the sole power of the prince; what with all the regular magistrates, pompous guards and standing troops, with the fortified towns, the artillery, and all the magazines of war, at his disposal; besides large revenues, and multitudes of followers and dependents, to support and abet all that he does: Obedience to authority is so well secured, that it is wild to imagine, that any number of men, formidable enough to disturb a settled State, can unite together and hope to overturn it, till the public grievances are so enormous, the oppression so great, and the disaffection so universal, that there can be no question remaining, whether their calamities to be real or imaginary, and whether the magistrate has protected or endeavoured to destroy his people.6

The American colonists eagerly imbibed from 7 Trenchard and Gordon, not only the Lockean doctrine of individual liberty and of the right of revolution against government in what Professor Bernard Bailyn has justly called a “superbly readable” form; but also, and even more important, the dichotomy between liberty and power, and the ever-constant threat to the crucial liberties of the people by the eternal incursions and encroachment of governmental tyranny. Even more concretely, Trenchard and Gordon were not afraid to point to the corruption and the increasing power of government and its bureaucracy in the relatively free England of their day. It was a warning that the American colonists were eagerly to take to heart.


Libertarian English views were also brought to America with a dramatic burst by the great liberal Massachusetts minister, Jonathan Mayhew. We have seen how this deist and Unitarian studied Locke at Harvard and was later to laud the influence upon him of Locke and Algernon Sidney. In early 1750, Mayhew delivered his most celebrated political sermon, significantly as a centennial celebration of the execution of Charles 1: A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers.

This sermon, which has been called the “warning gun of the [American] Revolution,” was the first expression in eighteenth-century America of the sacred right of resistance to tyrannical government. Reason, said Mayhew, dictates the usefulness of obedience to government for social protection; but when government becomes oppressive, when it robs and ruins the public, then “they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen. Rulers,” continued Mayhew, “have no authority from God to do mischief, and citizens have the right to disobey ‘unlawful’ authority,” and “in cases of very great and general oppression ... to vindicate their natural and legal rights, to break the yoke of tyranny, and free themselves and posterity from inglorious servitude and ruin.” Following Locke and “Cato,” Mayhew pointed out that there was little danger of revolution for trivial causes, for “mankind in general have a disposition to be ... submissive and passive and tame under government....”

Mayhew also stressed every man’s right and duty of “private judgment,” basing this in turn on the nature of man: his capacity for reason and freedom of will to choose his course of action. And as criteria for choice, the individual had available to him knowledge of truth and rightness rooted eternally in the “nature of things.”

The 1744 pamphlet of the Reverend Elisha Williams of Massachusetts, The Essential Rights and Liberties ..., was also frankly Lockean throughout. Writes Williams:

As reason tells us, all are born thus naturally equal, i.e. with an equal right to their persons; so also with an equal right to their preservation ... and every man having a property in his own person, the Tabour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his own, to which no one has right but himself; it will therefore follow that when he removes anything out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has his labour with it, and joined something to it that is his own, and thereby makes it his property .... Thus every man having a natural right to [or being proprietor of] his own person and his own actions and Tabour, which we call property; it certainly follows, that no man can have a right to the person or property of another. And if every man has a right to his person and property; he has also a right to defend them ... and so has a right of punishing all insults upon his person and property.

Consequently, a law violating natural and constitutional rights is no true law and requires no obedience. The natural right of private judgment was also upheld by the Reverend William Rand of Massachusetts in 1757, and by the Reverend Joseph Fish of Connecticut three years later.


During this period, many of the New Light ministers, under pressure of establishment persecution in several colonies, began to move towards a libertarian position. Elisha Williams was a New Light. The Reverend Samuel Davies, leader of the Southern New Side Presbyterians, declared in 1751 that people had a “legal as well as natural right to follow their own judgment,” and to gauge governmental authority against the great principles of natural justice. Davies’ focus, of course, was on religious aspects of liberty. Princeton, the training ground of the New Lights, soon developed as a libertarian center. Davies, president of Princeton from 1759 to 1761, lauded the English Puritan Revolution and exhorted his listeners to fight if need be for their liberties. His predecessor, the Reverend Aaron Burr, was noted as a “great friend to liberty, both civil and religious,” in state and church.

“Separates”—New Lights in Massachusetts and Connecticut who insisted on clear—cut separation from the state establishment—petitioned extensively for religious liberty and exemption from church taxes, even though the petitions were almost always spurned by the government. Daniel Hovey, of Mansfield, was imprisoned in 1747 for refusing to pay the church tax, and petitioned for relief on the ground that liberty of conscience was “the un- alienable right of every rational creature.” The Separates of Canterbury went beyond this to include the right of liberty and property. In their petition of 1749, they asserted that God’s law strictly limited the functions of government to “defense of everyone in the free enjoyment and improve- ment of life, liberty, and property from the force, violence and fraud of others; their different opinions in ecclesiastical affairs notwithstanding.” The Canterbury Separates also insisted on the natural right of parishioners to dissent and to separate from them—a welcome consistency for that or indeed for any era. Another leading libertarian petition came in 1743-44 from Exeter, Massachusetts. The petition asked: “Is not liberty equally every man’s right ... ?” The Exeter Separates asserted the right of private judgment, the right to separate, and the right to be free of taxes for a religious establishment. And though it was rejected, they petitioned again eleven years later.

While England was the great fountainhead of intellectual influence in eighteenth-century America, France also was important, even in the first half of the century, more so than has been generally believed. By far the most widely read French writer in the colonies was the great French liberal and deist, Francois Voltaire. Despite the enormous prejudice in America against Roman Catholicism and against France, Voltaire was able to make his way as a representative of deist and optimist thought, and especially as an avowed disciple of John Locke. For liberalism in eighteenth-century France was a heritage of seventeenth-century liberalism in England, and especially of John Locke. The young Voltaire spent three years of exile in England, in the late 1720s, and there became a firm advocate of religious liberty and of freedom of speech and press, and of Locke as their philosophical groundwork. Voltaire’s libertarian views were therefore English by inspiration and in content.

Voltaire conveyed this liberalism to France with his Philosophical Letters on the English, published in English in 1733 and then in French in 1734. In the Letters he spread the Lockean message to the Continent. He also praised the Quakers for their condemnation of war. His English exile also influenced Voltaire to write modern European history. His popular History of Charles XII was published so that people would “be cured of the folly of conquest.”

It is the curious belief of many writers that whereas English liberalism was moderate, pragmatic, and cautious, French liberalism was destructive, absolutist, and revolutionary. The truth is almost the reverse. Liberalism emerged as a coherent doctrine and as a full and powerful force in seventeenth-century England, and a thoroughgoing revolutionary force at that. French liberalism in the following century was frankly taken from England, albeit at a time when English liberal thought had been all but stifled by the Whig “settlement.” But French liberals despaired of the odds of fomenting revolution against the might of French feudalism and royal absolutism, which were far more rigidly fastened upon France than upon England. The eighteenth-century French liberals therefore remained content with the futile cause of urging liberty upon the royal power as a free gift to the people. A vain hope. When in history has a ruling elite voluntarily surrendered its power and rule as a free gift, unpressured by severe and persistent opposition from below?


  • 1The dying words of another contemporaneous martyr of the Stuarts, the Cromwellian Colonel Richard Rumbold, also served as inspiration to such revolutionary Americans as Thomas Jefferson: “I am sure there was no man born . . . with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”
  • 2See the Peter Lasiett edition of John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1960).
  • 3Locke adopted the curious, theologically oriented view that the original unused land was given to mankind in common and was then taken out of this common stock by individual labor. Actually, in fact, original land being unused was therefore unowned by anyone, individual or communal. It should be mentioned that, contrary to some historians, Locke’s “labor theory of property” has no relation to the “labor theory of value” of Karl Marx and other socialist authors.
  • 4Macpherson has shown that Locke’s state of nature includes a free market for exchange of property, including monetary exchanges, all of which is logically anterior to government (C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism , pp. 208 ff.).
  • 5It is a misconception to accuse Locke of setting “property rights” above “human rights.” For the two were conjoined: property rights included the right of the individual’s property in his own person.
  • 6John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, in D. L. Jacobson, ed., The English Libertarian Heritage (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1965), pp. 108-9, 114-15, 118-19, 127-29, 133-34, 193-94, 196, 256-57.
  • 7On Cato’s Letters and their great influence in America, see Bernard Bailyn, The Origins of American Politics (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 35-44, 54; and Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 1967), pp. 35-37, 43-45, and passim.
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What is the Mises Institute?

The Mises Institute is a non-profit organization that exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian School of economics, individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. 

Non-political, non-partisan, and non-PC, we advocate a radical shift in the intellectual climate, away from statism and toward a private property order. We believe that our foundational ideas are of permanent value, and oppose all efforts at compromise, sellout, and amalgamation of these ideas with fashionable political, cultural, and social doctrines inimical to their spirit.

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