The great historian of classical liberalism, Steve Davies, has an excellent new podcast on “Forgotten Libertarians of American History” (podcast and a somewhat garbled transcript available through the link). Davies focuses on the period between 1870 and 1914, an era which he says is usually neglected by libertarians in tracing their intellectual history. But it is also one, he thinks, in which “many of the most important figures in the history of American libertarianism were active enough to be found.”
Some of the figures he discusses will be familiar. Davies identifies Grover Cleveland, for instance, as a president who actively used his veto power to fight special interests and promote limited government. And Moorfield Storey is singled out not merely for his heroic advocacy of civil rights for African Americans, but for his principled opposition to American imperialism and support for a free society for all.
But Davies uncovers some gems that are likely to be surprising to even the most veteran scholars of libertarian thought. One of my favorite takeaways from Davies’ talk was the discovery of the 19th century campaigner and activist Edward Atkinson. Today, Atkinson is almost entirely forgotten to libertarians. But he deserves to celebrated as a hero.
He was, for starters, the founder of the tremendously important Anti-Imperialist League, an organization founded in 1899 to combat American militarism abroad. The League counted as members such luminaries as Mark Twain and William Graham Sumner. Its platform opened with these inspiring words (which we would do well to heed today):
We hold that the policy known as imperialism is hostile to liberty and tends toward militarism, an evil from which it has been our glory to be free. We regret that it has become necessary in the land of Washington and Lincoln to reaffirm that all men, of whatever race or color, are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We maintain that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We insist that the subjugation of any people is criminal aggression and open disloyalty to the distinctive principles of our Government.
But Atkinson was far from a single-issue activist. He was, in contrast, a vigorous and fairly consistent supporter of individual liberty across the board, whether it took the form of campaigning for free trade or pushing for the abolition of slavery. On that latter issue, and to give you a sense of the radicalism of which he was capable – Atkinson actually drew on his business experience to finance John Brown’s famous raid on Harper’s Ferry!
In his crusade against imperialism, Atkinson was tireless. Rather than merely pleading with politicians to change, Atkinson took his message to the soldiers themselves, mailing pamphlets to soldiers in the Philippines with titles like “The Cost of a National Crime,” and “Criminal Aggression: By Whom Committed?” These acts came very close to getting him shot for treason, but instead he was “merely” prosecuted for sending seditious materials through the US Mail.
Listen to or read Davies’ talk if you want to learn more. It’s full of fascinating and surprising information. My one quibble is that Davies limits himself to “mainstream” political figures, downplaying more radical but still too-little-known figures from the same era like Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker. Indeed, Davies explicitly counsels at the end of his talk against libertarians taking a radical posture, arguing that radical rhetoric will not be persuasive or effective.
I’m not sure I disagree with him about this, but I think he at the very least overstates his case. It’s true that if your goal is to make incremental changes in public policy, it’s helpful to work “within the system” and speak and play nicely with others. But, then again, there’s a reason why people like Atkinson are easily forgotten compared to radicals like Spooner. A principled articulation of the need for radical change will always hold up better over time than a careful, restrained analysis of the policy issue of the day. So whether one should be radical or moderate might depend on one’s audience – are you writing and speaking for your contemporaries, or for the ages? The most impressive figures in the libertarian intellectual tradition – people like Spooner, Spencer, Cobden and Locke – were able to do both. That’s an achievement that most of us won’t be able to measure up to, but it is certainly one to which we should aspire.