Conceived in Liberty


Conceived in Liberty, by Murray N. Rothbard, New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1975, 531 pp., $15.00.

With this first of a projected series of volumes Professor Rothbard has embarked upon the prodigious task of "put[ting] back the historical narrative into American history," finding that survey studies have squeezed out the data of history and left us with only compressed summaries. He has succeeded admirably in his intention and at the same time has presented a new and challenging interpretation of historical developments.

Murray Rothbard, the celebrated modern libertarian economist, political scientist and historian, editor of The Libertarian Forum, professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, author of many books and articles, and popular lecturer, hardly needs any introduction. True to his professional character it is not surprising that he presents at the outset his Weltanschauung, a perspective on man and history which gives central importance to the eternal conflict between Liberty and Power—the liberty of the individual and the power of the state. He sees liberty of the individual as a moral good in itself as well as the necessary condition for the flourishing of all other goods cherished by mankind—moral integrity, cultural achievements, economic prosperity, civilization itself—and sees power, which seeks to suppress, control, and exploit the fruits of civilization, as the enemy of liberty.


Applying this perspective to American history he finds that the central conflict is not between economic or social classes or ideologies, "but between Power and Liberty, State and Society." In his view there are no inherent conflicts between, e.g., farmers and merchants in the free market; rather their interests are harmonious. Conflicts arise only when groups of one or the other attempt to seize control of the machinery of government and use it for their own ends. State action is thus the cause of "class" conflicts. So, in this volume on the first century of the American colonies in North America, the conflict between liberty and power is of central importance throughout the narrative, providing order to its complex structure and explanations for a multiplicity of events and developments.

The book opens with a broad sweep of salient developments in European history from 1300 to 1600, as background to historical developments of the 17th century in North America and their interrelationship with those of 17th century Europe. Interesting interpretations mark the narrative and analysis of these developments. The universal economic world of the High Middle Ages with its free market is destroyed by the dynamic power of rising statism. In due course the Dutch Netherlands emerges as the center of free trade vis a vis the economic statism of England. The idea that the State is requisite to the development of capitalism is refuted. The theory and practice of Mercantilism, that is, state control of the economy, which becomes dominant in the 17th century, is already in the 16th century destroying the universal European free trade economy. The expansion of Europe, the role of the maritime powers in exploration and discoveries East and West, are, of course, set forth in detail as are the rise of the trading companies, the specific persons involved, and their role in establishing colonies at the opening of the 17th century.

The impact of the new world and its vast land upon a relatively stagnant Old World is next described, leading to an analysis of the problem of land ownership and the resulting clash in North America between the settler-owner and the landlord-owner favored by the state, therefore between the individual and feudal privilege, between the individual and the state. Two especially interesting observations conclude this part: one, that the treatment of the Irish and Ireland by the English provided a model for the colonizing of Virginia; and the other, that in the long run, because chartered companies disposed of their land to settlers at a profit, the "cleansing acid of profit was to dissolve incipient feudalism and land monopoly."

In Part II the author tells the story of the Southern Colonies—Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas—describing and analysing the political system, the economy, the social structure, the role of religion, and the conflicts in each, as well as external conflicts. He brings in the powerful impact of European developments, not only the changing English relationships under different English governments (which contribute 1660 and 1688 to the chronological structure) but also the international rivalries, the continental and maritime wars of the European states, through to the close of the War of the Spanish Succession.


Besides the many and varied conflicts within the colonies between individual liberty and state power, especially interesting and valuable are the author's critical views of the slave system and of Indian-white relations, his treatment and interpretation of Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 and its influence in other Southern Colonies, and the effect on Maryland and the Carolinas of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. His critique of the slave system destroys widespread myths. His extensive exposition of Indian-white relationships, which combined hostility and friendship, extermination and chicanery, leaves nothing to be desired in its historical accuracy.

Bacon's Rebellion prompts Dr. Rothbard to analyse the nature of revolution per se, refuting the orthodox and revisionist versions as well as the class struggle myth of the neo-Marxian historians. After showing that any revolution, because it is a mass phenomenon and changes as it progresses, cannot be analyzed in terms of a single motive, Rothbard turns specifically to the Bacon rebels:

…the bulk of their grievances were libertarian: a protest of the rights and liberties of the people against the tyranny of the English government and of its Virginia agency.…On the other hand, there is no denying that some of the grievances and motives of the rebels were the reverse of libertarian: hatred of the Indians and a desire for land grabbing, or…hatred of Roman Catholicism.…

It should also be recognized that any revolt against a tyrannical state, other things being equal, is ipso facto a libertarian move.…If cherished in a later tradition, a revolution will decrease the awe in which the constitutional authority is held by the populace, and in that way will increase the chance of a later revolt against tyranny.

Overall, therefore, Bacon's Rebellion may be judged as a step forward to liberty…but despite, rather than because of, the motives of Bacon himself and of the original leaders. (pp. 105-06)

In Part III the author details the story of the founding of New England—Plymouth, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire—describing and analysing the character and development of each colony and their relationships to each other and to Europe, in similar fashion as in the Southern Colonies but with specific differences. Among these, powerfully delineated, are the religious, economic, and imperialistic aspects. His account of the rise of the fanatical Puritan oligarchic theocracy is superb. Its suppression of heresy, forcing the flights of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and its appalling persecution, involving torture, mutilation, and murder of the Quakers, proves as painful to the reader as it must have to Dr. Rothbard.

On the other hand his account of economic developments in New England, exposing the failure of wage and price controls, of subsidized production, and of a planned economy, contrasting government monopoly privilege with free private enterprise, and criticizing the theory and practice of Mercantilism and the misleading use of "class interests" and "class conflict" by historians, must have been as enjoyable to Rothbard, in the writing, as it was to this reviewer in the reading. The extensive account of the imperialistic territorial drive of Massachusetts, the joint action in New England to slaughter Indians and exterminate the Pequots, and the friction between the colonies caused by their aggressions against the neighboring French and Dutch, are more grim tales vividly told. This part closes with the Restoration Crisis of the 1660's and the intrusion of English authority.

In Part IV the author traces the founding and development of New Netherland and New Sweden, the causes of conflict between them in relation to European events, the fall of New Sweden to New Netherland, its persecution of the Quakers, which, as in New England, results in their triumph over persecution by the early 1660's and finally the seizure of New Netherland by the English, its transformation into the proprietary colony of New York and the territorial changes which took place during the decade.

Diverse, complex, and filled with happenings as the story has been thus far, Part V, which concerns the developments in the Northern Colonies in the last quarter of the 17th century, is even more so. In fact the multiplicity of shifts and changes in the conflict between Liberty and Power in the colonies leads Dr. Rothbard to control the stuff of history with more extensive use of dates to guide him and the reader through the chaos of happenings. Thus, he concentrates first on the period from 1674 through 1688, then, following the Glorious Revolution, on the period from 1689 through the 1690's, and finally on the first decade of the 18th century. The task is tremendous, the details exhaustive, yet the writing continues to be smooth and clear, dramatic and powerful.

Some, but not all, of the salient developments may be noted here. The treatment of the Indians and their extermination is recounted, this time in Rothbard's vivid description of King Philip's War, 1675-76. As the English Crown takes over the colonies, the role of Royal Governors vis à vis liberal and libertarian revolutionaries is, of course, given a prominent place in the narrative: Sir Edmund Andros and Edward Randolph before 1690, Samuel Allen, Benjamin Fletcher, and the exceptional liberal-oriented Lord Bellomont after 1690.

William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania now come into the narrative and most amusingly; Rothbard delights in describing the individualist anarchism of the people of Pennsylvania (with footnote credit to the discoverer, Professor Edwin Bronner):

William Penn, seeing that the Pennsylvanians had happily lapsed into an anarchism that precluded taxes, quitrents, and political power for himself, decided to appoint a deputy governor.…Penn concluded that he could not induce the Quakers of Pennsylvania to institute a state, so he turned to a tough non-Quaker,… John Blackwell.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

John Blackwell's initial reception as deputy governor was an omen of things to come. Sending word ahead for someone to meet him upon his arrival in New York, he landed there only to find no one to receive him.…When he arrived at Philadelphia on December 17, he found no escort, no parade, no reception committee.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It is amusing to find Edward Channing and other thorough but not overly imaginative historians deeply puzzled by this resistance: "This portion of Pennsylvania history is unusually difficult to understand. We find, for instance, so strong and intelligent a man as Thomas Lloyd declining to obey what appeared to be reasonable and legal direction on the part of the proprietor. As keeper of the great seal of the province, Lloyd refused point blank to affix that emblem of authenticity to commissions which Blackwell presented to him." What Channing failed to understand was that Pennsylvanians…had for some years been living in a world where no one was giving orders to anyone else. (pp. 408-09)

A prominent place is also given to the Salem Witchhunt of 1692 which is not only cuttingly described by Rothbard but enables him to take issue with those who treat it in psychological terms as a case of childish neuroses and mob hysteria. What is most important is the "use made of the hysteria" in a program carried out by the elite of the colony and directed by the lieutenant governor himself, William Stoughton, seeking power.


Especially interesting is the account of the successful revolution in New York, termed "Leisler's Rebellion," which allows Rothbard to discuss again the nature of revolution and to take issue with writers who "have judged the rebellion to be a class struggle, a pure outbreak of religious hatred, or an ethnic war of Dutch against English rule." The revolution, as he shows in detail, was "the culmination of many years of political and economic grievances" and was "truly a liberal people's revolution of all classes and ethnic strains against the common oppressors: the oligarchical ruling clique and its favorites, receivers of patronage, privilege, and monopolistic land grants from the royal government" (pp. 434-35). After indicating in a footnote his agreement with a leading historian of the revolution, Jerome Reich, that it was not a class struggle in the Marxian sense, Rothbard notes:

"The capitalists who gained their money from government privilege were against the revolution; the capitalists who earned their money in free market activity joined all the other producers in the colony to favor it." (p. 435n)

Again weaving in his comments on revolution, Rothbard goes on to point out that a libertarian revolution that takes power is faced with the inner contradiction that liberty and power are incompatible. The story of Leisler is thereafter the victory of power over liberty, and the author shows that such was largely the case in the other colonies. The revolutionaries even in most libertarian Rhode Island were destined, as in Connecticut, to be defeated.

Rothbard brings the story to a close with a summation of the situation in the colonies as of 1710 and an assessment, inspired by the noted historian Carl Becker, as to whether the revolutions of the late 17th century and their aftermath were primarily a battle of the colonists vis à vis England for home rule or a battle within the colonies over who should rule at home.

Besides the splendid flowing narrative of detailed events and developments, the value of the book is enhanced by the author's comparative use of economic and demographic statistics, his encyclopedic coverage of major and minor personages and family relationships, his philosophical and historical interpretations and critiques, his annotated bibliographical essay of basic studies in the field, on which his story is based, and by a group of photographs and an index of names. No doubt these excellent qualities will be continued in the forthcoming sequels to "The American Colonies in the 17th Century."

Henry Adams recently retired from his position as professor of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and has published in such journals as Modern Age, Journal of American History, and American History Review. He was a contributor to Learned Crusader, a volume in honor of Harry Elmer Barnes.