by Robert Klassen, from LewRockwell.com
Conceived in Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard was first published in 1975 by Arlington House, Publishers. In 1999 it was republished and copyrighted by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. In a detailed narrative well supported by period documents as well as historical interpretation, Rothbard describes the European settlement of the North American continent from its beginning in 1564 to the post-revolutionary confederation of states in 1784. Rothbard writes from an explicitly libertarian point of view; thus, in Volume 4 (pg.237) he states:
“The polar opposites in political regimes were slavery on the one hand, and self-government on the other, and self-government or self-direction was the key to liberty, not government by law, since laws can be and are made by one person or set of persons to bind others.”
The conflict between these “polar opposites” is the timeless theme of this work.
Volume I: A New Land, A New People: The American Colonies In The Seventeenth Century.
European adventurers in the Holy Land discovered pepper and silk from the orient and the race was on. Soon all of the European maritime countries were exploring the oceans to find a way to get these luxuries. Then Columbus bumped into an island.
European countries staked a claim on the new continent without consulting the native population, who had no notion of property in real estate, then the royal bureaucrats parceled out the land to royal favorites, including themselves. The feudal model of society and government was exported along with the colonists who were supposed to develop the wilderness in the name of their monarch. To accomplish the hard physical work entailed in that development, slaves were demanded. Call them what you will, serfs, peasants, yeomen, indentured servants, the first people who cleared the forests and plowed and planted and harvested were white slaves exported from their European homeland in servitude to their masters and to their states. And they were not happy about it. Rothbard dramatically details the intense and relentless conflicts between masters and slaves in every colony.
Religious fanaticism contributed no small part to the misery and, in addition, confused the issue in many places, especially in the Puritan colonies where religious leaders were also temporal masters. I was shocked and horrified by what the people had to endure, which is a tribute to the skill of the writer as well as a condemnation of what actually happened.
The absolute evil of the enslavement of African people also arose during this century and grew as the colonies grew. There were slave markets in all of the major cities, north and south, while the financial gains went primarily to British, Dutch, and New England shipping magnates. Few people remarked the contradiction inherent in the Christian slave trade; speaking against it was a dangerous thing to do.
The truly remarkable and nearly unbelievable thing that occurred in Seventeenth Century America was the settlement of Pennsylvania by the pacifist Quakers. They denounced slavery and they renounced the use of force and, once arrived, they ignored their royal master, paid no taxes, bought their land from the Indians, and worked industriously for their own individual purposes. They enjoyed twenty years of utter anarchy! But they were brought to heel in the end.
Less remarkable, but more significant for future events, was the emergence of Rhode Island as an unauthorized colony in the midst of royal estates. It became a refuge for political and religious dissidents and a defiant harbor of free trade.
Volume II: “Salutary Neglect”: The American Colonies In The First Half Of The Eighteenth Century.
England emerged as the dominant imperialist force in America after defeating France and Spain in war, and although the British Parliament passed laws aimed at fleecing the colonists, these laws were poorly enforced, a deliberate Whig policy called “Salutary Neglect.” Trade flourished between America, Europe, and the West Indies, as well as between the colonies themselves. Differences between the colonies gradually disappeared as common forms of local government and common experiences among the colonists brought people together. Moreover, the works of Isaac Newton and John Locke were becoming ever more popular in England as well as America, arousing a new spirit of rational inquiry into the laws of nature and the nature of man.
Harmonious settlement was continually disrupted, however, by conflicts between the settlers and their appointed masters. European immigrants poured into the wilderness and carved out homesteads for themselves, only to discover that powerful officials had claims on the land and assumed claims on their persons and property. Many forms of taxation were devised, and resisted. Southern governors suppressed slave rebellions, while northern governors suppressed sedition and tax evasion.
The British Tory war party initiated a new war against France by mid-century. In America it became known as the French and Indian War and it was, Rothbard points out, a deliberate land-grab. The British emerged victorious and the Tories swept the Whigs from office. Rothbard concludes Volume II on this note (pg.268):
“Enjoying the blessings of Salutary neglect, the American colonies had been able, in the first half of the eighteenth century, to ignore the de jure mercantilist restrictions and edicts of Great Britain and to flourish in virtual de factoindependence from the mother country. It was high time, the British imperialists felt, to cast off the restrictions of salutary neglect and to bring the American colonies to heel.”
Volume III: Advance To Revolution, 1760—1775
The British boot came down hard; the Crown wanted its loot. Stern new laws restricting and taxing imports, exports, and manufacturing were imposed and more or less obeyed. Then, in 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act.
This was a sinister threat indeed, for it required that all documents, from a bill of sale to a marriage license, be written on specially stamped paper available only from British agents. Americans were aghast at the prospect, but did not know how to respond. There did not seem to be any way around it.
Then a young lawyer in the Virginia House of Burgesses by the name of Patrick Henry made an impassioned speech calling for resolutions to protest the law. Seven “Virginia Resolves” were drafted by Henry and his group of young radicals, each one more defiant than the one before. Conservatives defeated the sixth and seventh and, behind Henry’s back, repealed the fifth, but all seven were published in newspapers elsewhere as if they had been passed. Rothbard writes (pg.102):
“But if most people were awakened and stirred by Henry and Virginia, who would lead them? For the masses cannot act without some form of organization and articulate leadership.” (Emphasis mine)
“No help, of course, could be expected from the arch Tory and opportunist, Benjamin Franklin.”
He continues (pg.104): “In the early summer of 1765, Sam Adams gathered together a group of Bostonians to lead and direct the people in the streets.” What ensued was no less than a mini-revolution where masses of people rose up against the British Stamp agents throughout the colonies and forced them to resign their royal posts. It was a brilliant strategy, and it worked; British ships were not allowed to land the stamped paper. After much political wrangling, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act the following March.
The success of united action brought Americans closer together than ever before, while in England it encouraged the people at the same time that it infuriated the Tories and George III. That fury resulted in the Townshed Acts of 1767 which “imposed new import duties on glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea.” (pg.166) “As a companion to the new duties, another Townshed Act radically increased the enforcement powers of British officialdom.” (pg.167)
The American response was to organize a colony-wide boycott of British imports. Organizing the colonies to agree to this boycott was no easy task, but it was done, and it worked. All but one of the Townshed Acts was repealed in 1770. The one that remained was the tax on tea.
The British Crown tried to accomplish two things. One, to bail out their own bankrupt creature, the East India Company, and two, once again, to plunder the American colonists. The tax was modest and could have easily been paid. What the Americans feared was encroachment by the East India Company, a state monopoly backed up by the British Army. Rothbard writes (pg.263):
“Defense of one’s property and commerce against a privileged monopoly is required by libertarian principle. Liberty implies property rights and free trade; it does not contradict them.” (Emphasis his.)
The previous revolts had resulted in the formation of the armed Sons of Liberty and the extra-legal Committees of Correspondence, so the colonies had a proto-army and efficient communications. They were unable to convince the designated consignees to refuse the tea shipments. Three ships arrived in Boston harbor, but the radicals patrolled the docks and the ships could not unload. The royal governor planned to seize the ships and unload them with the troops. Time was running out. On December 16, 1773, “a great mass meeting of the ‘body’ of eight thousand people learned of Hutchinson’s refusal to allow the Dartmouth to sail home.” (pg.267) “The prominent merchant John Rowe asked meaningfully, ‘Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?'” (pg.267) “Thereupon, a remarkably disciplined ginger group of Sons of Liberty, disguised as Mohawk Indians, rushed to Griffin’s Wharf, boarded all three tea ships, and spent several hours of the night dumping every bit of East India tea into Boston Harbor.” (pg.267)
British government was horrified, British people were delighted. “The Crown called Parliament into session in early March 1774 and presented a series of four Coercive Acts designed to bring Britain’s might to bear upon Boston.” (pg.273) The Coercive Acts closed the port of Boston, established a royal counsel in Massachusetts and barred town meetings, exempted royal officials from high crimes, and quartered British troops on the people. An army of occupation would put an end to colonial resistance once and for all.
“The embattled colonists, sharpened and increasingly unified by the years of struggle for liberty against Great Britain, hastened to accept that challenge.” (pg.279) The Committees of Correspondence got busy. “On September 5, 1774, there met at Philadelphia the most fateful and momentous assemblage ever gathered in the colonies: the Continental Congress.” (pg.296) They decided to reinstate the boycott on all imported British goods.
On April 18, 1775, General Gage sent a troop of infantry to capture Sam Adams and John Hancock and a rebel supply dump in Concord. He expected little opposition. The troop met John Parker and seventy minutemen at Lexington. Shots rang out and the Americans fell. The British troop went on to Concord. “While the British were destroying the remaining stores, three to four hundred militiamen gathered at the bridge into Concord and advanced on the British rear guard.” (pg.328) They drove the British off the bridge. The tumult attracted more and more Americans to the fight. The British return to Boston became a nightmare. “Events could not have gone better for the American cause: initial aggression and massacre by the arrogant redcoats, then turned into utter rout by the aroused and angry people of Massachusetts.” (pg.329)
The American Revolution had begun.
Volume IV: The Revolutionary War, 1775—1784
The Second Continental Congress met on May 10 and here the ultimate fate of America would begin to take form. The heart of every particular issue that faced this Congress over the next decade was whether to allow people to run their own affairs, or to rule them in the time honored master-slave political model. War was at hand. Conservatives wanted to ignore the popular uprising in Massachusetts and appeal to the Crown for compromise; radicals wanted to support the uprising. Rothbard writes (pg.32):
“Here the Massachusetts radicals were in a cruel dilemma; any army under the Continental Congress would mean, in contrast to a guerrilla army, the inevitable buildup of central state apparatus, and of a highly expensive and burdensome state army, which would inevitably saddle all Americans with heavy taxes, inflation, and debt.”
Congress chose to establish an army. Further wrangling between conservatives and radicals led to the appointment of George Washington to lead that army; Washington, although militarily inept and unqualified, was both an arch conservative and a radical, like most of the Virginia oligarchy, and was chosen as a political compromise.
Rothbard makes clear that the colonies were by no means united in purpose at this point. Americans were willing to fight against British coercion, but many, if not most, saw themselves as British subjects fighting unjust laws; remove the laws, as before, and they would become peaceful subjects once more. “Furthermore, the old and obsolete Whig ideal of virtual independence under a figurehead king of both Britain and America could only be shattered if the king were to be attacked personally.” (pg.135) The man who did so was Thomas Paine.
Paine had exceptionally clear insight into what was happening in America. Self-educated, working class, and already middle-aged, he arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 and went to work for a printer. He published a pamphlet denouncing slavery the following year. “Lexington and Concord moved Paine to turn his talents to the radical revolutionary cause.” (pg.136) Then, in January of 1776, Paine published his Common Sense. “Tom Paine had, at a single blow, become the voice of the American Revolution and the greatest single force in propelling it to completion and independence.” (pg.137)
“On June 7, in happy obedience to the instructions resolved by Virginia on May 15, Richard Henry Lee submitted to the Continental Congress a momentous resolution for the independence of the United Colonies.” (pg.175) For once the Congress agreed and the committee to draft such a declaration was appointed on June 11. Thus the Declaration of Independence was completed and approved by Congress on July 4, 1776.
Meanwhile, the war was heating up. “The mighty British invasion force began to assemble off New York City in late June, 1776. It was headed by the Howe brothers, Gen. Sir William Howe in charge of land forces and his brother Admiral Richard Lord Howe, newly appointed overall commander-in-chief of the American theater.” (pg.187)
George Washington with 19,000 militia stood opposed to 32,000 redcoats and 10,000 seamen. “If the British commanders had applied even moderate intelligence or devotion to their task, they could probably have wiped out Washington’s army then and there and perhaps won the war on the spot.” (pg.188) But they didn’t, and historians still wonder why. Was it because the Howe brothers were Whigs and therefore sympathetic to the American cause? Washington amply demonstrated his incompetence while the Howe brothers dithered and chased him around and finally allowed his army to escape.
While the war erupted in sporadic campaigns, the battle for power in Congress continued unabated. Rothbard describes the struggle (pg.244):
“And what of the revolutionary radical principle of locating sovereignty in the people themselves rather than in the ‘legitimate’ government? Would not this be an insuperable barrier to the Right? But here the able conservatives proved shrewd indeed; they managed to drop quickly the belief in the sovereignty of the crown, and demagogically to incorporate the radical doctrine of popular sovereignty for their own ends. Indeed, they cynically appeared to bemore democratic than the radicals; for they argued that only a strong national government could really represent all the people.” (Emphasis his.) And here the fraud of democratic government was born.
The Articles of Confederation passed by the Continental Congress in 1777 contradicted the Declaration of Independence, and so the libertarian cause was lost before it had hardly begun. The conservatives, led by the landed aristocracies, the traditional oligarchs of north and south, got what they wanted, a powerful central government designed to protect their financial interests. The radicals were conceded some rights for the common people as a sop to popular sentiment, all knowing that it would pose no threat to power in the long run.
The British, unable to pin down Washington’s army, and constantly harassed by spontaneous eruptions of militia in the north, changed their strategy to an all out attack on the southernmost colony, Georgia. They expected to enlist local Tory supporters and then march north, conquering the colonies one by one. They took the coastal region easily, but they once again overestimated Tory support and underestimated local militia resistance. In addition, both France and Spain had declared war on Great Britain, which divided British attention and manpower.
The final battle in the war ended at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. The French fleet bombarded the city from the sea while the American forces bombarded the city from land. The British surrendered. Rothbard summarizes (pg.365):
“And so the revolutionary United States of America threw off the British yoke and won the first successful war of national liberation against western imperialism. Many factors entered into the victory, but the most important was the firm support for the war by the great majority of the American people. It was that support which harassed, enveloped, and finally destroyed the proud British armies come to conquer and occupy in the name of traditionally legitimate government. It was a revolution fueled by fervent belief in libertarian natural rights ideology and by cumulative reaction to growing British infringement on those rights, political, constitutional, and economic. Its victory was essentially a people’s victory, of guerrilla strategy in its broadest sense: not only of the small, mobile guerrilla bands of the Marions and the Sumters, but also of ephemeral and suddenly appearing militia who largely fought in their own neighborhoods and on their own terrain.”
This is history written at its finest. Murray Rothbard is a powerful writer, yet his text is as easy to read as any skillfully written fiction. Indeed, some of the events he describes seem as strange as fiction. I come away from this work with a sense that Rothbard wrote with glee, that he might have been laughing when he slapped down yet another historical myth; certainly he never failed to entertain me.
On the subject matter itself, I am sad to see that what was so nearly won was so completely lost.
Copyright © 2002 Robert Klassen, from LewRockwell.com