Conceived in Liberty


0018_conceived_in_libertyWhat! Another American history book? The reader may be pardoned for wondering about the point of another addition to the seemingly inexhaustible flow of books and texts on American history. One problem, as pointed out in the bibliographical essay at the end of volume I, is that the survey studies of American history have squeezed out the actual stuff of history, the narrative facts of the important events of the past. With the true data of history squeezed out, what we have left are compressed summaries and the historian’s interpretations and judgments of the data. There is nothing wrong with the historian’s having such judgments; indeed, without them, history would be a meaningless and giant almanac listing dates and events with no causal links. But, without the narrative facts, the reader is deprived of the data from which he can himself judge the historian’s interpretations and evolve interpretations of his own. A major point of this and the other volumes is to put the historical narrative back into American history.

Facts, of course, must be selected and ordered in accordance with judgments of importance, and such judgments are necessarily tied into the historian’s basic world outlook. My own basic perspective on the history of man, and a fortiori on the history of the United States, is to place central importance on the great conflict which is eternally waged between Liberty and Power, a conflict, by the way, which was seen with crystal clarity by the American revolutionaries of the eighteenth century. I see the liberty of the individual not only as a great moral good in itself (or, with Lord Acton, as the highest political good), but also as the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilization, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity.

Out of liberty, then, stem the glories of civilized life. But liberty has always been threatened by the encroachments of power, power which seeks to suppress, control, cripple, tax, and exploit the fruits of liberty and production. Power, then,  the enemy of liberty, is consequently the enemy of all the other goods and fruits of civilization that mankind holds dear. And power is almost always centered in and focused on that central repository of power and violence: the state.

With Albert Jay Nock, the twentieth century American political philosopher, I see history as centrally a race and conflict between “social power”—the productive consequence of voluntary interactions among men—and state power. In those eras of history when liberty—social power—has managed to race ahead of state power and control, the country and even mankind have flourished. In those eras when state power has managed to catch up with or surpass social power, mankind suffers and declines.

For decades, American historians have quarreled about “conflict” or “consensus” as the guiding leitmotif of the American past. Clearly, I belong in the “conflict” rather than the “consensus” camp, with the proviso that I see the central conflict as not between classes (social or economic), or between ideologies, but between Power and Liberty, State and Society. The social or ideological conflicts have been ancillary to the central one, which concerns: Who will control the state, and what power will the state exercise over the citizenry? To take a common example from American history, there are in my view no inherent conflicts between merchants and farmers in the free market. On the contrary, in the market, the sphere of liberty, the interests of merchants and farmers are harmonious, with each buying and selling the products of the other. Conflicts arise only through the attempts of various groups of merchants or farmers to seize control over the machinery of government and to use it to privilege themselves at the expense of the others. It is only through and by state action that “class” conflicts can ever arise.

Volume 1 is the story of the seventeenth century—the first century of the English colonies in North America. It was the century when all but one (Georgia) of the original thirteen colonies were founded, in all their disparity and diversity.

Remarkably enough, this critical period is only brusquely treated in the current history textbooks. While the motives of the early colonists varied greatly, and their fortunes changed in a shifting and fluctuating kaleidoscope of liberty and power, all the colonists soon began to take on an air of freedom unknown in the mother country. Remote from central control, pioneering in a land of relatively few people spread over a space far vaster than any other they had ever known, the contentious colonists proved to be people who would not suffer power gladly. Attempts at imposing feudalism on, or rather transferring it to, the American colonies had all failed.

By the end of the century, the British forging of royal colonies, all with similar political structures, could occur only with the fearsome knowledge that the colonists could and would rebel against unwanted power at the drop of a tax or a quitrent. If the late seventeenth-century Virginia Rebel Nathaniel Bacon was not exactly the “Torchbearer of the Revolution,” then this term might apply to the other feisty and rambunctious Americans throughout the colonies.

Volume 2 is the history of the American colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century. It is generally dismissed in the history texts as a quiet period too uneventful to contemplate. But it was far from quiet, for the seeds were germinating that would soon blossom into the American Revolution.

At the beginning of the century, the British government believed that it had successfully brought the previously rebellious colonists to heel: royally appointed governors would run the separate colonies, and mercantilist laws would control and confine American trade and production for the benefit of British merchants and manufacturers. But this control was not to be, and, for most of this period, the colonies found themselves to be virtually independent.

Using their power of the purse, and their support among the bulk of the population, the colonial Assemblies were, gradually but surely, able to wrest almost complete power over their affairs from the supposedly allpower governors. And, furthermore, as a result of the classical liberal policies of “salutary neglect” imposed against the wishes of the remainder of the British government by Robert Walpole and the Duke of Newcastle, the Americans happily discovered that the mercantilist restrictions were simply not being enforced. Strengthening their spirit of rebellious independence, the colonists eagerly and widely imbibed the writings of English libertarians, writings which inculcated in them a healthy spirit of deep suspicion of the designs of all government—the English government in particular—on their rights and liberties. Consequently, when after midcentury the English, having deposed Walpole and Newcastle and ousted the French from North America, determined to reimpose their original designs for control, the Americans would not stand for it. And the great conflict with the mother country got under way.

Volume 3 deals with the stormy and fateful period from the end of the French and Indian War until the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the period that incubated the American Revolution. With France driven from the North American continent, and with the classical liberal Whigs out of power, the British government moved quickly to impose a system of imperial control over the fractious and hitherto virtually independent colonies. These fifteen years are a record of mounting American resistance to such efforts by the mother country, a resistance that finally erupted into full-scale war at Lexington and Concord.

Inspired by libertarian ideals, the colonists increasingly forged a unity that was to result in the first successful national revolution against Western imperialism in the modern world. Although other, largely unrelated, armed rebellions also erupted in this period—North Carolina, South Carolina, New York, and Vermont —-these years are essentially the story of the development of the American Revolution up to the outbreak of actual armed conflict.

Volume 4 deals with the exciting events of the American Revolution, perhaps the most fateful years in American history. While the military history of the war necessarily takes first rank, it is not simply a recital of the battles; intertwined with the tactics and the strategy of the war were ideological conflicts over how the war should be fought, and what sort of government and society should emerge after the war was over. In particular, important light is shed on both the battles and the military strategy of the war by incorporating the latest historical researches applying what we now know about the importance of guerrilla vis-à-vis conventional interstate warfare for the waging of a revolutionary armed struggle. The military histories of the Revolution written before the 1960s are hopelessly inadequate because they fail to grasp this vital dimension in explaining the course of the fighting.

In addition to the history of the warfare itself, volume 4 discusses the political history of the period, in particular the conflicts over the kinds of state governments to be constructed, and the drive of the Nationalists for a strong central government. This period culminates in the adoption of the Articles of  Confederation and in the rise to power of Robert Morris. Also discussed are the oft-neglected financial history of the war, the ruinous inflation and price controls, and the political-financial manipulations of Morris and his associates. The this volume also deals with the Western lands question, which will take on fateful importance in the nineteenth century; it concludes by assessing the impact of the Revolution on America and Europe, and by asking the question: was the Revolution truly radical?

My intellectual debts for Conceived in Liberty are simply too numerous to mention, especially since an historian must bring to bear not only his own discipline but also his knowledge of economics, of political philosophy, and of mankind in general. Here I would just like to mention, for his methodology of history, Ludwig von Mises, especially his much neglected volume,

Theory and History; and Lord Acton, for his emphasis on the grievously overlooked moral dimension. For his political philosophy and general outlook on American history, Albert Jay Nock, particularly his Our Enemy the State.

As for my personal debts, I am happy to be more specific. This series of volumes would never have been attempted, much less seen the light of day, without the inspiration, encouragement, and support provided by Kenneth S. Templeton, Jr., now of the Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana. I hope that he won’t be overly disappointed with these volumes. I am grateful to the Foundation for Foreign Affairs, Chicago, for enabling me to work full time on the volumes, and to Dr. David S. Collier of the Foundation for his help and efficient administration. Others who have helped with ideas and aid in various stages of the manuscript are Charles G. Koch and George Pearson of Wichita, Kansas, and Robert D. Kephart of Kephart of Libertarian Review and Communications, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia.
Historians Robert E. Brown of Michigan State University and Forrest McDonald of Wayne State University were kind enough to read the entire manuscript and offer helpful suggestions even though it soon became clear to them and to myself that our fundamental disagreements tended to outweigh our agreements.

To my first mentor in the field of American history, Joseph Dorfman, now Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, I owe in particular the rigorous training that is typical of that keen and thorough scholar.

The last chapter in volume 3 was included at the suggestion of Roy A. Childs, Jr. of New York City.

But my greatest debt is to Leonard P. Liggio, editor of The Literature of Liberty, San Francisco, whose truly phenomenal breadth of knowledge and insight into numerous fields and areas of history are an inspiration to all who know him.

Liggio’s help was indispensable in the writing of volumes 1, 2, and 3 in particular his knowledge of the European background.

Over the years in which this manuscript took shape, I was fortunate in having several congenial typists—in particular, Willette Murphy Klausner of Los Angeles, and now distinguished intellectual historian and social philosopher, Dr. Ronald Hamowy of the University of Alberta. I would particularly like to thank Louise Williams and Joanne Ebeling of New City for their often heroic services in typing this manuscript.

The responsibility for the final product is, of course, wholly my own.

Murray N. Rothbard

Conceived in Liberty .pdf file


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