Christine Woodside in the Boston Globe recently rediscovered a fact that often shocks and appalls government-loving admirers of the famous series of children's books about frontier life, known as the Little House series. While the books are credited to Laura Ingalls Wilder, as those interested in the topic (beyond just being fans of the book) mostly know, they were very much massaged, edited, or in effect ghost-collaborated by her daughter, novelist Rose Wilder Lane.

And Rose Wilder Lane was not only a novelist, but a libertarian polemicist, one of the first in the modern sense. Woodside sees lots of individualist propaganda and a lot of eliding of the actual facts of frontier life in the books, because, she presumed, of Lane's libertarian leanings.

Woodside makes weird statements about the modern libertarian movement that show at best a half-understood third-hand student essay "I read someone making some synthetic statements and I'm restating them without knowing what I'm talking about" grasp of her topic. For example, of Lane's great 1943 libertarian polemic The Discovery of Freedom, "Libertarian thinkers consider it a treatise that helped the party rise out of the strong anti-Communist movement of the time." Kind of, I guess, you could parse out some meaning from that, but I'm not at all convinced Woodside could.

And her adopted heir Roger MacBride did not, as Woodside writes, "eventually [go] on to help form the Libertarian Party," though he did do something very interesting Woodside's readers might have cared about: as a Republican elector from Virginia in 1972, he cast the first electoral vote in American history for a woman, vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party in its first national run, Toni Nathan.

I've blogged in both 2012 and 2009 on Judith Thurman at the New Yorker getting a bit alarmed at the perpetual rediscovery of the liberty roots of the Little House books.

My favorite libertarian take on frontier life came from Lane's good friend Isabel Paterson, also author of a very similar book of libertarian polemics that came out the same year as Lane's, called God of the Machine.

See my February 2005 Reason review of the biography of the first Isabel Paterson biography. Excerpt from that, on how Paterson:

spent her girlhood farming, ranching, and communing with Indians in the American West.

"She would never regard the frontier as the breeding ground of puritan virtues," writes [the biography's author Stephen] Cox. "She was aware that other people did. Those people, she could only suppose, had 'never lived on the frontier,' where freedom to loaf was more highly prized than hard work and stern ambition." Paterson did recognize that "frontier society offered 'the most civilized type of association'...because it had 'the absolute minimum of external regulation' and therefore 'the maximum of voluntary civility and morality.'"

While she was aware of the popular theory that "America's chief inheritance from its frontier past is 'aggressiveness,'" Cox writes, she considered that theory "'nonsense....On the frontier you have to be polite to your fellow men, and it won't get you anywhere to be aggressive to a blizzard.' What worked out West wasn't aggressiveness but 'a peculiarly individual, mind-your-own-business confidence.'

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg, far more versed in the Little House books themselves than I, gives a more nuanced take on exactly how libertarian-propaganda the books are, and the non-sinister, non-ideological reasons why this chidren's books series didn't stress some grim aspects of frontier life and its relations with government as much as Woodside might have liked.


Excerpts:

It’s not as if either Laura Ingalls Wilder or her daughter were anarchists who deliberately omitted the mention of the government’s role in offering them land and services. Woodside implies that they somehow conspired to conceal the rigors of prairie life, or the extent of government intervention in the prairies, which is really just not so. There’s quite a bit about the Homestead Act, which Pa Ingalls describes as the government “betting a man that he can’t live on the land for five years,” and the attempts to reforest the prairies via tree claims.

Yet somehow, Woodside complains that they don’t spend enough time talking about this: "The Little House books barely mention the obvious, which is that the impoverished Ingallses never could have gone to Dakota Territory without a government grant: Like most pioneers, their livelihoods relied on the federal Homestead Act, which gave settlers 160 acres for the cost of a $14 filing fee -- one of the largest acts of federal largesse in US history."

This is frankly bizarre, and made me wonder if she’d read the books as an adult. As it happens, I did just re-read the books, for a project I’m working on, and there are many lengthy passages explaining the Homestead Act, and how it works, including the granting of the land to the family by the government. Much of the dramatic action of "By the Shores of Silver Lake" consists of Pa filing a claim with the government for the land on which Laura spent her teen-age years, which hardly seems to qualify as “barely mentions.” It’s also pretty clear that the government is the source of the land for the schools where Laura teaches in "These Happy Golden Years," and the paychecks that she is paid for teaching in them.

McArdle's piece is long and detailed and well worth reading in its entirety.

I'll add the even more meta-libertarian point re: this Homestead Act stuff that by standard Lockean theory on how to claim land ownership, presuming that land was in fact not being occupied and used by previous owners (not always true, the history of how the U.S. came to "own" all that land complicated and often bloody), the government did an unlibertarian thing by claiming ownership of all that land in the first place, not in "granting" it to a frontiersperson in what Woodside presents as some government welfare giveaway.

The people who actually go and use and grow and build on the land are the proper owners, not the "government" who just decided to say that it was.

For more on Rose Wilder Lane's libertarianism, see my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.