Forgotten Libertarians of American History with Steve Davies

Have you heard of Moorfield Storey, Edward Atkinson, or Simon Bolivar Buckner? If you haven’t, you’re not alone! Dr. Stephen Davies introduces the best kept secrets of the libertarian tradition.


For those of you who were at yesterday’s Living Liberty online lecture, this is the full length audio recording of Dr. Davies’ lecture.


Here is the transcript (corrected 8/3/2012 ):

Hello and welcome to this lecture on forgotten libertarians in American history. I am Steve Davies the education director of the Institute of the Economic Affairs in London and I am also a program officer with IHS. What I am going to tell you about is a number of people who in their time were important and mainstream figures in American politics and who were also consistent and hardcore classical liberals or libertarians, but who are now almost entirely forgotten even by libertarians themselves. I will say something about why I think this is and why these are people that we need to remember and whose memory we need to revive.

Now the starting point is to ask yourselves “How will libertarians see themselves in the context of US history?” In other words, “How do contemporary libertarians or classical liberals here in the United States understand their own position in contemporary politics and in the course of American history?” What you find is that most contemporary libertarians view themselves in a way which combines two apparently contradictory elements. The first is that they define themselves as radicals, as people who are in some sense fundamentally opposed to a great deal of the way things are. They see themselves almost even perhaps as subversives. But at the same time they also see themselves as being true to and carrying on the founding principles of the United States, the principles upon which the government of the United States was erected with the ratification of the Constitution and in the early years of the republic.

Now this apparent contradiction of combining a belief that you are true to the original principles of the country and a view of yourself as subversive radicals is of course explained by a particular vision of the course of American history. In this vision, when the United States was originally set up and founded, reflected a consensus in favor of Constitutional, strictly limited government, with specifically defined and limited powers given to the federal government by the Constitution. This view says that at some point, and opinions disagree as to when this original consensus broke down, there was a departure quite radical from the original founding principles. This break is in such a way that what you now have is a form of government, and a politically overrun society that is not in conformity with the original founding principles or the original consensus which is in fact fundamentally opposed, in the view of those people who see themselves as being true to those original principles. So it is quite possible that if you have this view of American history, to see yourself as both a radical, even a revolutionary perhaps, but also in some sense profoundly conservative, because you are seeking to preserve and conserve the original founding principles of the US Constitution and the US government.

Now one of the things that means is that for many contemporary libertarians they see their historical antecedants and their political forbearers, the people in the past, who they would regard as having also articulated their own views and carried on those principles as being found primarily in the founding era. If you ask most contemporary libertarians which past American figures they identify with or see as exemplars or heroes, most of the names you will get will be drawn from the founding era or from the early republic.  It is quite rare to find anyone from subsequently and certainly very rare to find anyone drawn from say anything later than Jacksonian era of the 1820s and 1830s. In particular it is very unusual to find anyone naming anybody from the later 19th century which is actually surprise because as we will see that was in fact the era when these kind of ideas or principles were, if anything at their most influential and certainly when they almost widely articulated it and its former period of American history they under studied and often forgotten years between the end of the Civil War and roughly 1912 that many of the most important figures in the history of American libertarianism were active enough to be found.

Now, this also is something basically flawed in the kind of view of American history that I have just described. The point is that there was not a real consensus at the time of the founding.  Quite the contrary, there was in fact a very deep and profound division amongst Americans in the founding generation. This is found in the people who were at the convention in Philadelphia. It becomes even more apparent when you look at the debates associated with the ratification of the Constitution between the Federalists on the one side and the so called Anti-Federalists on the other. In other words, right from the start there has been a profound division in American politics over the question of the extent, scope, and range of the powers and functions of the government. There is on the one side indeed a body of opinion which thinks that government should have strictly limited precisely defined powers and that it should not have an extensive role or a wide range sweep of functions. On the other hand there has also been right from the start a body of opinion which thinks that the government active powerful as a central part to play in the creation and sustaining of a free society. The first view is best associated with Thomas Jefferson and with people on his side, the old Republicans if you will, in the founding generation. The other side is associated most with Jefferson’s nemesis Alexander Hamilton, the Secretary of Treasury under George Washington of course, and with his supporters and allies in the Federalist Party and subsequently his intellectual heirs in the Whig party. The Hamiltonians, unlike the classical liberals or libertarians or the Jeffersonian tradition, favor an active role for government in terms of promoting and stimulating economic growth, encouraging money factories as opposed to other kinds of industry, promoting internal infrastructure and improvement, regulating trade and commerce, educating the people… In other words this is a vision of government which has a very extensive role assigned to it.  It is a government which is strong, active and which is seen as expressing in some sense the general interests of the public. In sharp contrast is the view of the people following from the tradition of Jefferson who argue for a government that is set with strictly roles and highly defined and fenced in powers. These divisions of opinions derive from a disagreement over what is meant by the general welfare clause of the Constitution. A disagreement which was present right from the start, the point of the clause which both sides could agree to about which they had quite marked different interpretations of. If also reflects the division over what is called the police power which is essentially the capacity or range of government to act in the general interest to promote public well-being.

For the Jeffersonians, the libertarians, this is strictly limited. For people who follow Hamilton and his successors, it involves saying an active role for government. Now what you find as a result of this of course is that US politics from the very founding era onwards can be seen in many ways as a division or conflict between these two rival traditions, rival interpretations, of the founding principles of the United States. You can see this in the pre-war period with a division between the Whig party which articulates essentially with Hamilton’s vision and on the other side the Jacksonian Democrats who are much closer to the original Jeffersonian vision of a decentralist and limited government. It continues after the Civil War when there are people in both parties who are advocating the limited government vision and people in both parties who are advocating the most activist role for the government. This by the way is the normal state of affairs, the kind of polarization you find to some extent in the antebellum period and certainly today is actually the exception. Rather the normal state of affairs is for both sets of ideas to be found in both the major political parties. Now what this means is that what you find on the libertarian side in the course of American history is a whole series of movements for liberty, a whole series of political campaigns and mass movements which advocate the cause of liberty, and the understanding of government as something strictly limited and closely fenced in and defined. Now these kinds of movements can be both offensive and defensive. The offensive instances are where the argument is being made that the founding principles of the United States, the principles articulated and above all the Declaration of Independence should be applied more widely, more universally than they are at the time of the movement springs out. In other words the argument is that these should be extended to some group that previously was not within the pail of the Constitution and not regarded as being governed by the principles of individual liberty, self-direction, autonomy, and limited government. On the other side there are defensive movements where the advocates of limited government, the libertarian tradition, are seeking to defend their principles against what they see as movements in the other direction, movements to expand the scope of government and to increase its range and power.

Now what this also means when you think about it, is that if you look at the course of American history you aren’t going to find libertarians only in the founding era or the pre-Civil War period. In fact there is a whole series of important figures in the American history who are a quite clearly part of the libertarian, small government tradition in American politics. And it is also important to realize that in general these people are not fringe figures they are not wild or radical existing on the outskirts of politics. On the contrary, they are mainstream important figures, major political figures, major intellectual, business figures that are not part of fringe group and that means that their views are historically much more important than many people might realize because of the part they played at that time and because they are indeed part of the continuing mainstream. And this has bearings on the way in which these ideas are put across and the kind of rhetoric and style that is actually appropriate both then and now when advocating these ideas and seeking to persuade the public of their correctness and veracity.

Now what are examples of these movements? Well there is a whole range of them an obvious one is anti-slavery abolitionism the movement which sought to extend the principles of the Declaration of Independence to the unfortunate African-American slaves who were clearly the largest group in the United States at that time, who were totally and completely denied the kind of legal rights and freedoms which the Constitution had been set up to maintain and sustain.

Another group, well another major movement, was women’s rights where the argument was made to extend political, economic and social rights to women and to argue that the principles of liberty and autonomy and limited government applied just as much to women as they did to men. No coincidence that many of the people involved in abolitionism were also involved actively in the campaign for women’s rights and in fact most of the early 19th century feminists in American history people like Lucretia Mott, and the Grimke sisters were also ardent abolitionists.  And it was the arguments they made in the campaign for abolitionism which they then transferred across and applying to the situation case of women.  By the way those 19th century feminists both in the United States and elsewhere were almost all with exception hardline, hardcore, laissez faire liberals and libertarians. Another related movement was the campaign for Indian rights in opposition to policies such as Andrew Jackson’s displacement of the civilized tribes across the Mississippi and later on the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the aggressive policy of the federal government and others against plains tribes and other groups.

Another case was free trade. Now this is an example one of the defensive movements because here it was very much the Hamiltonian tradition that had the advantage with the consistent support for protectionism and economic development by government subsidies and the like which dominated the lot of US politics from the antebellum years onwards. Here the libertarians were, arguing for the preservation of free trade against the extension of protectionism also put in more aggressive way arguing that the United States should move in the direction of a more open free trade policy and away from the kind of protections which dominated policy particularly in the years after the Civil War.

Another negative campaign was anti-imperialism as we shall see in the late 19th century many classical liberals were strongly opposed to American expansionism to move towards more globalist and aggressive foreign policy and to the move to have the United States become an imperial power in the same way as many Europeans powers at that time. Opposition that is, to things like the annexation of the Philippines, and the American expansionism in areas like Hawaii or the Caribbean basin. Another campaign was in favor of hard money in favor of the gold standard under many cases of free banking and opposition to inflationist or soft money policies such as support for paper currency or the policy of monetizing silver advocated by many people in the later part of the 19th century.

A major campaign of a positive kind was in favor of honest government. This meant reform of the civil service, the creation of a more professional civil service, and doing away with the spoil system. It also meant opposition to patronage and the use of the political system to reward favored groups through the giving of government posts and positions and things of that kind. This was also linked to another very important campaign which was campaigns against what we would nowadays call cronyism. That is to say, overly cozy and favorable relations between governments, both state and federal, and large business firms. Usually in the context of most of American history, railroads but also including other groups such as favored trusts and cartels such as for example notoriously the sugar cartel but also many others.

Now when you look at these movements what you discover is that the same people occur in several of them you will find the people who were involved in one of these movements such as anti-imperialism for example will also typically be involved in campaigns for women’s rights or for the rights of African-Americans or opposition to militarism or campaigns for reformed government. What this tells you is that in fact these are not single issue campaigns motivated only by one concern or issue. They are the outgrowth or product of a shared coherent view of what government and politics should be. In other words the people involved in all these movements are people who share a common tradition, the tradition that goes back to the Jeffersonian side of the founding era, the tradition of individual liberty, limited government, honest money, free trade and free enterprise. You can then draw a kind of list, a biographical dictionary of the people who in American history were most clearly associated with these movements. People who articulated these views were the leading exponents on these ideas and as we will see are very often completely forgotten. Most people know about leading figures in the founding era but many of the subsequent figures, particularly in the era of the Civil War, are almost entirely forgotten. This is an enormous shame and a great loss because these are in fact people who were interesting in themselves and they are important figures of American history. And as I said they are part of the mainstream, they are not fringe figures, and they are often also outstanding exemplars of principled action in politics, of adherence to what is right, refusal to compromise in many cases, and also of effective campaigning and articulating of the views which they upheld. So they are people whose memory really we could do well to recover,  people who we can even now look back to as examples of what it should be to be a public figure articulating the case for freedom and limited government.


So who are some of these figures? Well what I am going to do is look mainly at the period I have already alluded to, the period between roughly about 1870 and 1912 or 1914. This was in fact the period when these ideas were at their most influential in both of the major parties. There was a large popular movement which supported many of the kinds of campaigns I was talking about. Many leading politicians or activists in both of the parties were identified with these views and as we shall see in many cases they actually cooperated closely with each other. In the Democratic Party there were the so called Bourbon Democrats the people upheld honest government, limited government, free trade and opposed the corruption of local government and local politics and the machine system. Their counterparts in the Republican party were the so called Mugwumps often caricatured as a kind of rather snooty new England elite who didn’t trust democracy. But in fact a body of people within the Republican party who advocated very similar views to those of the Bourbon democrats. They had a slightly different tone if you will but they shared very much the same ideas, the same beliefs and we shall see they cooperated on many particular issues.

So who are some of these figures? Well let’s start by looking at examples from politics perhaps the foremost figure and the one who is perhaps best remembered now although even now not remembered anywhere as much as he should be was Grover Cleveland, the only president to hold two non-consecutive terms of office and therefore to have two different presidential numbers, that is generally the most anything people remember him for now. Cleveland was elected breaking a whole long run of Republican domination of presidential elections because a large part of the Republican party the mugwumps I referred to earlier refused to get behind the parties candidate James G. Blaine who they identified with so called stalwarts the part of the Republican party which was favorable to government support for large private business, strong tariffs and above all the ruthless and systematic use of the spoil system to reward Republican voters and operatives with government posts and positions and favors of one kind or another. And so the mugwumps and the voters who followed them switched to the Democrats and Cleveland won the election and became president. Cleveland has a number of things to his credit if you are fan or supporter limited government. He was the most active president ever in terms of the use of the veto. He constantly vetoed special interest legislation and maybe very clear everything he did so that his reason for vetoing these bills was that he saw it was profoundly opposed to what government should be about to give special favors and gifts to privileged private interests. This he saw as profoundly corrupt and against the interest of the wider public and against the way that government ought to work. He was also strongly opposed to aggressive expansionist imperialism amongst the things he did veto was the annexation of Hawaii which took place after his time in office about which he was strongly opposed to. He was totally against the idea that the United States should be expanding beyond the North American continent and looking at to cross the Pacific and pursuing the expansionist policy towards Asia.

He was strongly opposed to corruption in politics not only in the Republican Party but also as an example of his political consistency in his own party where he strongly opposed the growth of machine politics in his own native state of New York and in other parts of the United States. When in his second term in office the United States was struck by the Panic of 1893 he was strongly opposed to any measure to allow for the government bailing out bankrupt institutions or in engaging in some extensive policy of relief. He articulated this very clearly saying that it was not the job of the government to support the people, that the catastrophe as it had been for many people of the great panic of 1892-93 had to be allowed to work its way through and that while this was undesirable and private action should be extensively encouraged to deal with these facts, it was not appropriate for governments to deal with it and that in fact attempts on the part of government to do it would make things even worse. He was also a strong and consistent supporter of free trade, vetoed tariff legislation and consistently used his position as president to advocate a freer trade policy on the part of the United States.

Two other people who followed Cleveland were the people who stood for president on third party tickets in 1896, John M. Palmer the governor of Illinois and Simon Bolivar Buckner. You have to love a politician with that name even if you don’t anything else about him, the governor of Kentucky. These were both people who had fought in the Civil War and risen to high ranks Buckner on the Confederate side, Palmer on the Union side. And in 1896, when the Democratic party nominated William Jennings Bryan and along with him adopted the monetization of silver as its platform, they left the party along with most of the Bourbon democrats who had supported Cleveland and went and formed their own party, The National Democratic Party to run on a platform of hard money laissez faire and limited but honest government. They were both exceptions from candidates and both had been highly successful in effective governance. Buckner amongst other things had vetoed more bills during his first term of office than every single governor of the state put together before he took office. He’d also at one time been obliged to pay the salaries of the civil servants of the state out of his own pocket when the treasurer a figure with a wonderful name of “Honest Dick” Tate, you know perfectly well what that kind of politician is going to be like, and managed to abscond with almost the entire contents of the state treasury. They were both outstanding political campaigners and associated with all the range of issues that I have mentioned earlier.

Another figure was Olson B. Parker the man who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1904, the last time that either major party really nominated somebody who is clearly from this tradition in American politics. He went down to a crushing defeat against Theodore Roosevelt, but if you read the speeches that he made and the documentation from that campaign,n he articulated a very clear and powerful case against the kind of tendency and policy on public affairs that Teddy Roosevelt represented. I.F. Stone of all people in the study of losing American presidential candidates actually estimated that Parker was an outstanding candidate, one of the most outstanding of all losing presidential candidates and would have been a highly effective and honest president. He also liked Theodore Roosevelt of course and argues that the 1904 election was one of the few cases where the American electorate actually had two outstanding candidates to choose between something we might differ on if you have a libertarian position. But again a major political figure, an important one, and an effective one.

The tradition did continue in the democratic party by the way perhaps the last major exponent of it was Albert Ritchie the governor of Maryland and failed candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1932. Someone who ran successfully for governor of many occasions who finally was defeated by his Republican opponent getting significant help  from the Franklin Roosevelt’s administration who was far more concerned to get rid of a Bourbon Democratic Republican in his own party than to see Republican defeated.

But in many ways the most interesting and attractive people are the ones who are not exactly the mainstream politicians but political campaigners and activists. Take for example the case of Edward Atkinson one of my own principal favorites from this whole tradition. Atkinson was a longstanding libertarian campaigner, activist and political figure. He was a highly successful business man not least  in insurance but he from a very early stage also involved himself in public affairs. Before the Civil War he was a leading advocate of antislavery and a major activist in the Free Soil party and then subsequently the Liberty Party, the movements which subsequently grew into the Republican Party of course and which were the political wing of abolitionism campaigning against the extension of slavery and for its ultimate abolition. He was actually responsible for funding John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry which gives you some idea of the extent and intensity of his radicalism and his opposition to slavery. Following the Civil War, he became a leading activist for free trade and became a major figure in the Cobden Clubs which were a network of society set up by classical liberals to advocate the cause of free trade and oppose the campaign for protectionism. But his finest moment maybe came when he became the deputy president, the vice president of the American Anti-Imperialist league. He was totally opposed to American policy in the Spanish American war and in particular to the American policy in the Philippines. In 1899 he sought to mail pamphlets to most of the American soldiers and officers serving in the Philippines, three pamphlets in total, the titles of two of these pamphlets give you some idea of the kind of arguments he was making and the degree of his radicalism. The first was called “The Cost of a National Crime,” the third pamphlet even more provocatively was entitled, “Criminal Aggression By Whom Committed?” and argued that the war being fought by the United States in the Philippines was not only unconstitutional and illegal but essentially what we would  later call a crime against humanity and in the pamphlet he urged all American soldiers not to take part in this war, to resign their commissions if they were officers, and to refuse to obey what he regarded as illegal orders. Theodore Roosevelt was not impressed by this put it mildly in fact he was quite simply incandescent and it was only with great difficulty that his cabinet persuaded him not to have Atkinson arrested, charged with treason, and shot. As it was, he was prosecuted on the grounds of sending seditious material through the mail. This was in fact what Atkinson intended because he wanted to really be a test case to test the rights of private citizens to send material through the mail under their first amendment rights. This gives you some idea of how even at an advanced stage because he was in his 80s by this time he remained a total radical fundamentally committed to the ideas that I have been speaking about. Also worth mentioning that Atkinson, a strong advocate of hard money and opposed to silver monetization, was also a strong advocate of what you now call free banking and the abolition of the state monopoly on the issue of currency he was a strong advocate of currency privatization.

Another in many ways very inspiring person is Moorfield Storey. Like Atkinson a leading figure in the politics and campaigning of the late 19th century he was a major figure again like Atkinson in the Cobden Club movement and longtime advocate of free trade. He was also the founding president of the NAACP and a major advocate of the civil rights and political rights of African-Americans. As a lawyer he brought many cases on their behalf before the courts and indeed on one occasion the Supreme Court. He was in fact the person who argued the case for the NAACP in one of the most important civil rights cases the court ever decided. The case of Buchanan, in which the Supreme Court ruled that local authorities could not actually segregate residential housing and prevent people from building houses and selling houses freely to people of any racial group. But again his finest moment, as with Atkinson, came as the president and founder of the American Anti-Imperialist society. He formed the opposition to the policy of the McKinney administration in the Spanish American War. This was something which he pursued extensively throughout all of his later years. In his campaigns against American imperialism, he consistently made the case that there was profound incompatibility between America’s imperial ambitions under the McKinney and Roosevelt administration and its existence as a free limited government republic in other words he made the case the pursuit of this kind of foreign policy was inevitably going to have disastrous results for liberty at home.

So here we have a whole number of figures who were in their own time were well known public figures part of political mainstream very controversial but seen as being lunatics or nuts by any stretch of imagination. Significant figures in terms of their political achievement in many cases successful politicians like Cleveland, Palmer, Buckner who achieved office and who actually held and exercised power in the executive branch of government. Many people in congress also who would want to as examples of this success. So what point should we draw from these forgotten libertarians apart from the first thing which is that I would urge you all to go and find out more about them and to read more about them and many others of this kind, people whom I haven’t actually talked about but who can find out about if you look into the history of groups such as the Bourbon Democrats, the Mugwumps and others in the late 1930 of 20th century.

There are three things too I would take away from the kind of things that we just talked about. The first is that libertarianism, radical anti-government thinking, is not a fringe tradition in the American political history. On the contrary, it is part of the political mainstream which we can trace back not just in the founding but right throughout American history. It is only the period really between the 1920s and the 1980s that it is the aberration in this regard, and it is a heritage which is a mainstream and part of the orthodox element in American politics, not something which we should be seen as opposed to the general trend of American politics in the American political argument.

However, it is important to realize also that is the not the only one. A common notion amongst many people who are sympathetic to these ideas today is to argue that the advocates of Big Government, Progressives if you will, are in some sense a radical departure from the underlying principles of the founding or from the tradition of American politics, that they are kind of alien non-American force and this reflects the view of American history under the founding in particular which I alluded to earlier on. This is a mistake. As I argued, there are two traditions all the way back to the start, so just as you have a libertarian tradition right back to start so you also have the Hamiltonian tradition going right back to the start and founding of the American republic. So you can’t argue it is inappropriate and incorrect to argue that people who do indeed advocate a large and expansive government or an active role for government are in some sense radically departing from the principles of the founding. The point is that there was not a consensus at the start, there has always been a disagreement and then presumably always will be and essentially it is a disagreement about how to realize liberty and whether or not an active or extensive role of government has any part to play in the realization or vision of liberty. I think that if you realize this, if both sides realize that this division has always been there, that it reflects a disagreement that’s always been present in American society, that you can have debates and exchanges of arguments that are civil and ultimately constructive rather than as so often happens at present. A case of two groups of people talking past each other and neither recognizing the legitimacy of either side’s position is not a constructive way to carry on.

Finally also, I think that if you think about what these people advocated and what they believed in and the way they advocated it, you will understand something about first of all the kind of vision that they had for the United States and the kind of vision that by extension we ought to still be arguing for today. It is one with a government that is both limited and precise in terms of how is that getting to it but also honest. A government that is professional, effective and not prone to corruption. Corruption understood as being not only the simple matter of political favoritism, giving jobs to political appointees, taking bribes and things of that sort, but also as meaning cronyism, the trading of government favors for campaign contributions for example, or the using of the political power to give special privileges and grants to major private interest groups whether the rail roads in the 19th century or large financial corporations today. It also means a vision of the United States as a country which is open to the rest of the world in terms of its trade policy which does not follow a kind of aggressive or globalist foreign policy this would be the dominant feature of American policy since the early decades of the 20th century. And it also means a vision of liberty as being something which should be applied as widely as possible and which should be applied in a consistent and systematic way to all groups within the United States, including groups who might otherwise be excluded from it and extended and defended against attacks of all kinds from all sorts of quarters. There is also a vision I think within this politics of a certain kind of public culture if you will, a certain kind of democratic culture promoting a certain kind of citizen. Citizens that are self-reliant, not dependent on government, not dependent for that much from large private interest but independent; independent in their minds, independent economically and free standing and autonomous in their ability to form opinions and to think for themselves and the like. There is also secondly the question how to present this and the point is to present this in a way that recognizes that what you are dealing with here is not something extreme or radical. One of the problems with thinking of yourself as a radical, someone who is no longer past the mainstream, is that you tend to adopt a rhetoric or style that is extravagant, extreme, and provocative. Now if you read the speeches of the politicians I have mentioned of like Atkinson or Storey, you will find that they are certainly a robust rhetoric, but it doesn’t have this quality of coming from an outsider. They did not see themselves rightly so as being outsiders. They saw themselves being part of the central conversation and it’s fair to say that the kind of rhetoric and angry outsider shouting into the window is not going to be persuasive and it is not going to be effective in public discussions. Tt makes much more sense to take a leaf out of the book of these forgotten libertarians and to emphasize the point you are trying to make in a measured, forceful certainly, but a measured and moderate way one which is going to persuade far more people than presenting yourself as an extremist or someone who disagrees with what most of your fellow citizens believe. And also, finally bearing in mind that these are indeed ideas with widespread acceptance and are still wide they adhere to by and large part of the American public there is no reason to believe this is a kind of political tradition that has died or has no chance of success or a revival, and the campaigns fought by these men and women the ideas they have and the way they articulated them, provides us with all kinds of resources and all kinds of models that we would do well to study and to seek to follow again.


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