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Forgotten Libertarians of American History

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.

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Author: Matt Zwolinski
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  • The radicals (I hate that word, perhaps ‘extremists’ is better) also help the moderates by making the moderates’ proposals seem tame and therefore more acceptable.

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  • SIV

    My one quibble is that Davies limits himself to “mainstream” political figures

    So funding terrorist murderers is “mainstream”?

    • affenkopf

      Only when the terrorist murderers work for the government. Only then you aren’t allowed to call them
      terrorist murderers.

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  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Leaving aside his homicides, self-appointment, and adventurism, I’m sure there is something to say in favor of John Brown. I just can’t think what it is.

    • SimpleMachine88

      He was ” an expert in fine sheep and wool”. That was all I could find.

  • SimpleMachine88

    I had a professor who had done his thesis on Atkinson, so I was forced to write two papers about the guy. Personally, I found him insufferably dull. The league was ineffectual, and then supported entry into the first world war (if there ever was a cause for pacifism, this was it), and then folded. Blah.

  • I knew about Lysander Spooner having once done a term paper on his life. In my view the greatest libertarian political leader of the modern era was Calvin Coolidge.

  • Sharon Presley

    The truly forgotten libertarians were the*women.* The women resisters
    of the 19th c. (along with their male colleagues) were not interested in
    using the state to gain power, only to make the laws more just. The
    women abolitionists were the arms and legs of the abolitionists movement
    and made it possible with their work collecting money for the cause and
    their writing (the Grimke sisters and Lydia Maria Child especially but
    not uniquely). The women freethinkers and the women and men sex radicals
    (the latter group were mostly anarchists) made significant inroads into
    freedom for alternative thought and behavior (for example, Frances
    Wright, Moses and Lillian Harman, Ezra and Angela Heywood). Moses was
    the first person in the US to discuss the forbidden topic of marital
    rape publicly (it wasn’t made illegal till late in the 20th c.) The
    anarchist women were more radical in their feminism than most feminists
    are today. These women and men are MY heroes. They helped make women’s
    rights and women’s freedom in the 20th and 21st c. a reality. Who gives a
    damn about politicians.

    • Great point, Sharon. I’d also point out that one of my personal heroes, Booker Washington, had quite the libertarian attitude toward rights for African Americans. He thought that economic self-sufficiency was the first and most monumental step toward liberating African Americans from the white population he was worried they’d become dependent on. Sadly, the nation largely chose to listen to W.E.B. DuBois (a socialist through much of his career), and what we got was what the more libertairan Washington predicted: a “race” of people that became gradually more dependent on political entitlements and a government all too willing to create and maintain that dependency.

      I wish someone would (if they haven’t) done a paper or book on the libertarian strands in Washington’s thought.

      • Sharon Presley

        Kevin: Thanks and thanks for the info about BW. I don’t know much about him other than the usual in textbooks but he was obviously quite insightful. Maybe I can work that into the narrative for the chapter on women of color and their fight for civil rights in my book in progress on women resisters to authority in the 19th c. His thinking would have been right in step with most of the women resisters who recognized that women’s self-sufficiency was the key to their freedom. All of them recognized that quite explicitly and economic independence was one of the big issues of the anarchists feminists.

    • SimpleMachine88

      That’s because most of the women who promoted liberty we now label as “just obviously, indisputably, right”. Thank God there’s a bi-partisan consensus against marital rape at least. That opinion won’t get you labeled a wild eyed libertarian anymore. If only we were so sensible about people’s right to operate a taco truck, but nope. That common sense idea gets me labeled one of those spooky libertarians.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Matt.

    It is always discouraging to me to hear peolpe say that libertarianism is about advocating for the rights of the strong against the weak. In doing my own research on the history of libertarianism, I find that its main expositors did precisely the opposite: they were the ones opposing slavery and advocating for minority rights against governments that wanted to deny minorities rights. In my field of educaiton, for instance, many of the most libertarianish folks in early American educational history were ones deeply concerned with public schools being vehicles for sectarian religious purposes.

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