Van Buren the Best?

As an admirer of Murray Rothbard I was shocked by his statement in the February issue of REASON that Martin Van Buren was probably the best American President. As the first of the political bosses and the head of the infamous Albany Regency, Van Buren and scandal kept very close company throughout his career. Van Buren was a professional politician who was only too glad to relieve the taxpayers of funds in order to increase his own wealth and power.

Van Buren's support of hard money was not based on a conviction that banks should be liberated from government control. Van Buren believed that the state banks should be free from Federal control. More specifically, he believed that the Wall Street banks which supported the power plays of the Albany Regency should become able to manipulate the American economy in place of the Philadelphia central bank, the Bank of the United States. His refusal to intervene in the Panic of 1837 was not based on libertarian motivation but rather an unwillingness to harm the interests of the New York bankers.

The libertarian would do well to remember that statism is statism regardless of the level of government involved. It is hardly libertarian for Wall Street businessmen to create special privileges in the state of New York and then attempt to expand their state banking monopoly. Martin Van Buren's guiding principle was political power. Modern statist historians (especially Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in THE AGE OF JACKSON) have apparently succeeded in reviving the reputations of major Jacksonian figures, including Martin Van Buren. I confess my surprise, however, that Murray Rothbard would have accepted their mythology.

It is commendable that we try to look for figures in the past who have behaved with dignity in the fight against big government. It would be mistaken, however, to idolize unprincipled political hacks of whom Martin Van Buren is a prominent example.

Gary Golding
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

DR. ROTHBARD replies: If the major objection to our rather controversial interview is the question of Martin Van Buren the libertarian movement is indeed in great shape. More seriously, I was of course assessing Van Buren within the context of the office of the Presidency and of the American political system. Within that context, it is curious to attack Van Buren for being a "professional politician."

Van Buren was, to be sure, a shrewd political boss, but it must be realized that, given the political situation of his day, Van's creation of the modern political party system—through his creation of the Democratic Party—was a major achievement for liberty. After the War of 1812, America suffered under literal one-party rule of the Monroe Administration, a rule, furthermore, that was Federalist-statist to the core, having adopted what was for that day big government, high taxes, internal improvements, a governmental central bank, high tariffs, the basic Federalist program. Political disputes were only personal factions within the ruling oligarchy. It was in this dismal context that Martin Van Buren, a personal boss but with libertarian-Jeffersonian inclinations, paid a weekend visit to the aging Jefferson at Monticello in May 1824 that changed his entire life. It was Jefferson who pointed out to Van Buren the Tory nature of the one-party Monroe regime, and it was under Jefferson's inspiration that Van Buren set out to create, almost de novo, the Democratic Party as a libertarian opposition: to recreate lost Jeffersonianism. He did it in alliance with Senator Benton of Missouri, similarly inspired by Jefferson, and with Thomas Ritchie, the "old school" Jeffersonian from Virginia, and then finding their charismatic leader, Andrew Jackson, and running him for the Presidency. From the libertarian point of view, Van Buren's achievement in creating the Democratic Party was one of the great political events in American history. It is true that Van Buren was not as pure or consistent a libertarian as his "left wing" in New York, William Leggett and the Loco-focos, but then again Van was close enough to them to merit praise.

Neither do I agree that Van Buren and Jackson were simply interested in aiding state banks; they were against all banks, period, as fractional reserve inflationists. The liquidation of the Bank of the United States, was, for the Jacksonians, only the first step in their ultra-hard-money program; this can be seen in Van Buren's final separation of the federal government from the banks by shifting from the "pet banks" to the Independent Treasury system. Frank Gatell has revealed the fallacy in the old "Wall Street bank" interpretation of Van Buren, and James Sharp's excellent JACKSONIANS VERSUS THE BANKS shows the determined drive of Van and the Jacksonians for hard money.

Mr. Golding's evocation of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. is pure guilt by association. Schlesinger was pro-Jacksonian, but largely for the wrong reasons. Moreover, most modern statist historians, following Bray Hammond, are solidly anti-Jackson and Van Buren. For the libertarian and Jeffersonian heroism of Van Buren I would refer our readers not to Schlesinger, but to Robert V. Remini's fine work, MARTIN VAN BUREN AND THE MAKING OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY (1959).


I would like to comment on the Rothbard-Liggio interview in your February 1973 issue, specifically with regard to Vietnam and the issue of Viet Cong atrocities. While I am in general agreement with Dr. Rothbard's thesis about the need for popular support in a guerrilla type revolution I believe he has made a common factual error in discussing the role of the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War.

Firstly, the Vietnam War was not totally a guerrilla conflict. In fact there were (and still are) large numbers of North Vietnamese Army personnel in South Vietnam. Up until the Tet offensive of 1968 the Viet Cong were pretty much in control on their side. But they lost a great number of their key leaders in that offensive and I believe at that point the North Vietnamese took over the brunt of the conflict. As a Vietnam veteran I was stationed in the northern provinces of South Vietnam and we saw plenty of North Vietnamese soldiers but very few Viet Cong. This was even prior to the Tet offensive.

These North Vietnamese not being indigenous to the area they were fighting in, treated the local peasants with no more or less tolerance than any other invading army would (including the U.S.). Often they coerced local peasants into giving them assistance, sometimes to the point of inflicting death if cooperation was not forthcoming. As Dr. Rothbard correctly points out however, the Viet Cong are the local people and could not afford to alienate other locals.

As to the Hue atrocities by the Viet Cong, I have read several independent accounts confirming that in fact these atrocities did occur. But again many of them were undoubtedly committed by North Vietnamese, not local Viet Cong. As I said, the North Vietnamese Army operated in the entire area of northernmost South Vietnam in which Hue is located so this is not unlikely. On balance though, it is undoubtedly true that American firepower has resulted in more civilian casualties than both the NVA and Viet Cong combined.

I believe that the above does not contradict Dr. Rothbard's thesis but rather confirms it. Whenever any army invades territory foreign to it regard for innocent civilians goes out the window. Even though the North Vietnamese are racially the same and ethnically similar to the South Vietnamese they are still considered by most South Vietnamese as an invading army and therefore act the same as any other invading army has throughout history.

Fred M. Welsh
Verona, PA


I read with interest your interview with Murray Rothbard and Leonard Liggio [REASON, February, 1973] and I am disappointed. I find Dr. Rothbard's criteria for a "just war" inadequate because nothing is said about the goals of the warring parties. It seems to me that if individual liberty is worth having, then it is worth fighting to attain and to preserve. A necessary criterion for a "just war" from a libertarian point of view should be that the goal is to attain or preserve liberty.

It is interesting to combine this criterion with the three offered by Dr. Rothbard and analyze the "justness" of each side in the current Southeast Asia conflict. North Vietnam scores zero at the outset…they tax, they conscript, they kill innocents, and they seek to impose a governmental system even more abusive of individual liberty and property rights than the wartime Thieu government. Admittedly, our side doesn't score too highly either…we tax, we conscript, and we kill innocents. On the fourth criterion, however, I give us just a few points. Though we aren't fighting to preserve a system acceptable to libertarians, we are trying to preserve one in which (during a stable peace) libertarian ideals have a chance to gain acceptance. No evidence to date suggests that the concepts of individual liberty and property rights have any chance at all in a communist nation.

Finally, I was disappointed to see that Dr. Rothbard accepts and is willing to parrot the Viet Cong version of the "Hue massacre". Skepticism of our own press accounts of Hue, or anything else, is understandable. However, acceptance of the official VC version at face value and passing it on to REASON readers as truth is inexcusable.

On a more positive note, I am glad that libertarian thinkers are addressing themselves to one of the weakest links in libertarian philosophy…foreign policy. I will be looking for more thoughts on the subject on the pages of REASON.

Kenneth Strong
Idaho Falls, Idaho

DR. ROTHBARD replies: In the first place, I don't believe that any motive can justify aggression. The "Robin Hood" who robs my home or mugs me on the street is just as much an aggressor and a criminal as the man who performs the deed for his own gain.

But to go on to motive: just whose "liberty" does Mr. Strong believe the U.S. fought the war to "preserve"? Certainly it is not the liberty of the Vietnamese; the most precious and necessary aspect of anyone's liberty is his right to life, without which any other aspect of his liberty would be meaningless. And yet the U.S. slaughtered literally millions of Vietnamese in its genocidal policies. How about our liberty? But this is even more of an absurdity. Does Mr. Strong really believe that if we had not waged our slaughter, the Vietnamese would have collected their junks and sampans in the dead of night and launched a sneak invasion of California? Not even the most deluded of Cold War Crusaders could have believed that America was in imminent or even remote danger of a Vietnamese invasion.

So what were the motives? It is easy enough to determine the motives of Hanoi and the National Liberation Front vis a vis the United States. They wanted us to get the hell out of their country, and cease to meddle in their affairs. To achieve this result they were willing to make enormous concessions, even refraining from insisting on the immediate freeing of Communist and other oppositionist prisoners from Saigon prison camps—so that perhaps for the first time in the history of cease-fires, our prisoners are coming home while their prisoners continue to rot in Thieu prisons. The motive, to get the U.S. out of their affairs, is one in which I heartily concur. And what was our motive? Certainly one crucial part of that motive was the American desire to push the Vietnamese around, to arrange their affairs, to make sure that they have the kind of government and the kind of society our rulers would like them to have. Until Vietnam, there was scarcely a quarter of the globe where the U.S. did not meddle, interfere, and attempt to dictate the form of government. Let us hope that this clear-cut defeat at the hands of a small, undeveloped but remarkably determined people will teach the U.S. rulers a lesson.

Mr. Strong seems to have fallen into a common conservative and libertarian trap. He is judging war between two states or nations on the basis of the relative merits of their domestic systems. But this is not only incorrect theoretically, it has proven to be wrong time and again in history. Country A may be freer in every way than Country B, and yet Country A may have launched a brutal and unjustifiable war of aggression against the latter.

Finally, the "Viet Cong" is not only capable of telling the truth, it has been remarkably truthful throughout the conflict, especially in contrast to the gigantic fabric of lies committed by the United States (Exhibit A: the Pentagon Papers).