America's Libertarian Revolution


With the beginning of the American Revolutionary War at the outbreak of Lexington and Concord, two truths about the Revolution already stand out clearly. One is that the Revolution was genuinely and enthusiastically supported by the great majority of the American population. It was a true people's war against British rule. The American rebels could certainly not have concluded the first successful war of national liberation in history, a war against the world's greatest naval and military power, unless they had commanded the support of the American people. As David Ramsay, the first great historian of the American Revolution, put it in 1789: "The War was the people's war…the exertions of the army would have been insufficient to effect the revolution, unless the great body of the people had been prepared for it, and also kept in a constant disposition to oppose Great Britain. "[For a discussion of the Revolution as a majority movement, see the article in this issue by William Marina —Ed.]

A second truth that emerges is the egregious fallacy of the view endemic among historians of all ideological persuasions that there is a large and necessary dichotomy between political or moral principle and economic self-interest. Historians friendly to the Revolution have insisted that the Americans fought for political freedom, for independence, for constitutional rights, or for democracy; critical historians maintain that the fight was merely for economic reasons, for defense of property and trade against British interference. But why must the two be sundered? Why may not a defense of American liberty and property, of political and economic rights be conjoined? The merchants rebelling against the stamp tax, or sugar or tea taxes, or restrictions of the Navigation Laws, were battling for their rights of property and trade free from interference. In doing so, they were battling for their own property and for the rights of liberty at the same time. The American masses, similarly, were battling for all property rights, for their own as well as those of the merchants, and acting also in their capacity as consumers fighting against British taxes and restrictions.

In reality there need be no dichotomy between liberty and property, between defense of the rights of property in one's person and in one's material possessions. Defense of rights is logically unitary in all spheres of action. And what is more, the American revolutionaries certainly acted on these very assumptions, as revealed by their essential adherence to libertarian thought, to political and economic rights, and always to "Liberty and Property." The men of the 18th century saw no dichotomy between personal and economic freedom, between rights to liberty and to property; these artificial distinctions were left for later ages to construct.


From the conclusions that the American revolutionaries commanded the loyalty of a large majority of the colonists and that they saw no dichotomy between liberty and economic rights, and therefore between ideology and economic interest, we may proceed to some broader speculations on the role of ideology as compared to economic interest in the various actions of political history. In particular, we contend that the primary motivations will tend to differ between two classes of political actions, between actions of the State in expanding its power over the populace and actions of the populace in moving or rebelling against State power. We contend that the actions of the former will tend to be primarily motivated by economic interest, while the latter will tend to be primarily motivated by more abstract ideological or moral concerns.

Let us see why this should be so. The essence of the State through history is a minority of the population, constituting a power elite or a "ruling class," governing and living off of the majority, or the "ruled." Since a majority cannot live parasitically off a minority without the economy and the social system breaking down very quickly, and since the majority can never act permanently by itself but must always be led by an oligarchy, every State will subsist by plundering the majority on behalf of a ruling minority. A further or corollary reason for the inevitability of minority rule is the pervasive fact of the division of labor: the majority of the public must spend most of its time going about the business of making a daily living. Hence the actual rule of the State must be left to full-time professionals who are necessarily a minority of the society.

Throughout history, then, the State has consisted of a minority plundering and tyrannizing over a majority. This brings us to the great question, the great mystery, of political philosophy: the mystery of civil obedience. From Etienne de La Boétie to David Hume to Ludwig von Mises, political philosophers have shown that no State—no minority—can continue long in power unless supported, even if passively, by the majority. Why then do the majority continue to accept or support the State when they are clearly acquiescing in their own subjection? Why do the majority continue to obey the minority?

Here we arrive at the age-old role of the intellectuals, the opinion-molding groups in society. The ruling class—be they warlords, nobles, bureaucrats, feudal landlords, monopoly merchants, or a coalition of several of these groups—must employ intellectuals to convince the majority of the public that their rule is beneficent, inevitable, necessary, and even divine. The leading role of the intellectual through history is that of the Court Intellectual, who in return for a share, a junior partnership, in the power and pelf offered by the rest of the ruling class, spins the apologies for State rule with which to convince a misguided public. This is the age-old alliance of Church and State, of Throne and Altar, with the Church in modern times being largely replaced by secular intellectuals and "scientific" technocrats.

When State rulers act, then, to use and aggrandize State power, their primary motivation is economic: to increase their plunder at the expense of the subject and the taxpayer. The ideology that they profess and that is formulated and spread through society by the Court Intellectuals is an elaborate rationalization for their economic interests. The ideology is the camouflage for their loot, the fictitious clothes spun by the intellectuals to hide the naked plunder by the Emperor. The economic motive behind the ideological garb of the State is, then, the heart of the issue.


But what of rebellions against State power—those infrequent but vital situations in history when the subjects rise up to diminish, whittle away, or abolish State power? What, in short, of such great events as the American Revolution or the classical liberal movements of the 17th and 18th centuries? Of course, an economic motive exists here too, in this case that of defending the private property of the subjects from the depredations of the State. But our contention here is that, even when conjoined as in the American Revolution, the major motive of the opposition, or of the revolutionaries, will be ideological rather than economic.

The basic reason for this assertion is that the ruling class, being small and largely specialized, is motivated to think about its economic interests 24 hours a day. The manufacturers seeking a tariff, merchants seeking to cripple their competition, bankers looking for taxes to repay their government bonds, rulers seeking a strong State from which to acquire revenue, bureaucrats wishing to expand their empire, are all professionals in statism. They are constantly at work trying to preserve and expand their privileges. Hence the primacy of the economic motive in their actions.

But the majority has allowed itself to be misled largely because its immediate interests are generally diffuse and hard to observe, and because they are not professional "antistatists" but people going about their business of daily living. What can the average person know of the arcane processes of subsidy or taxation or bond issue? Generally he is too wrapped up in his daily life, too habituated to his lot after centuries of State-guided propaganda, to give any thought to his unfortunate fate. Hence, an opposition or revolutionary movement, or indeed any mass movement from below, cannot be primarily guided by ordinary economic motives. For such a mass movement to form, the masses must be fired up, must be aroused to a rare and uncommon pitch of fervor against the existing system. But that requires an ideology. Only ideology, guided either by a new religious conversion or by a passion for justice, can arouse the interest of the masses (in the current jargon, "raise their consciousness") and lead them out of the morass of daily habit into an uncommon and militant activity in opposition to the State.

This is not to say that an economic motive—for example, defense of their property—does not play an important role. But to form a mass movement in opposition means that they must shake off the habits, the daily mundane concerns of several lifetimes, and become politically aroused and determined as never before in their lives. Only a commonly held and passionately believed-in ideology can perform that role. Hence our conclusion that a mass movement such as the American Revolution must have been centrally motivated by a commonly shared ideology.


How then do the masses of subjects acquire this guiding and determining ideology? By the very nature of the masses, it is impossible for them to arrive at such an opposition or revolutionary ideology on their own. Habituated as they are to their narrow and daily rounds, uninterested in ideology as they normally are, it is impossible for the masses to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps to hammer out an ideological movement in opposition to the existing State. Here we arrive at the vital role of the intellectuals. It is only intellectuals, the full-time (or largely full-time) professionals in ideas, who have either the time, the ability, or the inclination to formulate an opposition ideology and then to spread the word to the mass of the subjects. In contrast to the statist Court Intellectual, whose role is a junior partner in rationalizing the economic interests of the ruling class, the radical or opposition intellectual's role is the centrally guiding one of formulating the opposition or revolutionary ideology and then spreading the ideology to the masses, thereby welding them into a revolutionary movement.

An important corollary point: in weighing the motivations of the intellectuals themselves, or even of the masses, it is generally true that setting oneself up in opposition to an existing State is a lonely, thorny, and often dangerous road. It would usually be to the direct economic interests of the radical intellectuals to "sell out," to be coopted by the ruling State apparatus. Those intellectuals who choose the radical opposition path—who pledge, in the famous words of the American revolutionaries, "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor"—can scarcely be dominated by economic motives. On the contrary, only a fiercely held ideology, centering on a passion for justice, can keep the intellectual to the rigorous path of truth. Hence, again, the likelihood of a dominant role for ideology in an opposition movement.


Thus, it turns out to be true that statists tend to be governed by economic motivation, with ideology serving as a smokescreen for such motives, while libertarians or antistatists are ruled principally and centrally by ideology, with economic defense playing a subordinate role. Through this dichotomy we may at last resolve the age-old historiographical dispute over whether ideology or economic interests play the dominant role in historical motivation.

We can now see why the Beard-Becker "economic determinist" model of human motivation, a dominant school of American history in the 1920's and 1930's, so fruitful and penetrating when applied to statist actions of the American government, fails signally when applied to the great antistatist events of the American Revolution. The Beard-Becker approach sought to apply an economic determinist framework and specifically a framework of inherent conflict between various major economic classes, to the American Revolution. The vital flaws in the Beard-Becker model were two-fold. First, they did not understand the necessarily primary role of ideas in guiding any revolutionary or opposition movement. Second, they did not understand that there are no inherent economic conflicts on the free market; without government intrusion, there is no reason for merchants, farmers, landlords, et al. to be at loggerheads. Conflict is only created between those classes that rule the State as against those exploited by the State. Not understanding this crucial point, the Beard-Becker historians framed their analysis in terms of the allegedly conflicting class interests of, in particular, merchants and farmers. Since the merchants clearly led the way in revolutionary agitation, the Beard-Becker approach was bound to conclude that the merchants, in agitating for revolution, were aggressively pushing their class interests at the expense of the deluded farmers.


But now the economic determinists were confronted by a basic problem: if indeed the revolution was against the class interests of the mass of the farmers, why did the latter support the revolutionary movement? To this key question the determinists had two answers. One was the common, mistaken view that the Revolution was only supported by a minority of the population. A second answer was that the farmers were deluded into such support by the "propaganda" beamed at them by the upper classes. In effect, these historians transferred the analysis of the role of ideology as a rationalization of class interests from its proper use to explain State action to a fallacious use in trying to understand antistate mass movements. In this approach, they relied on the jejune theory of "propaganda" pervasive in the 1920's and 1930's under the influence of Harold Lasswell: namely, that no one sincerely holds any ideas or ideology and therefore that ideological statements cannot be taken at face value but must be considered only as insincere rhetoric for the purposes of "propaganda." Again, the Beard-Becker school was trapped by its failure to give any primary role of ideas in history.

After World War II, as part of the general "American celebration" among the American intellectuals of that era, the newly dominant "consensus school" of American history demonstrated that the Revolution was indeed supported by the majority of the population. Unfortunately, however, under the aegis of such major consensus theoreticians as the "neoconservatives" Daniel Boorstin and Clinton Rossiter, the consensus school moved to the truly absurd conclusion that the American Revolution, in contrast to all other revolutions in history, was not really a revolution at all, but a purely measured and conservative reflex against the restrictive measures of the Crown.

Under the spell of the American celebration and of a post-World War II hostility to all modern revolutions, the consensus historians were constrained to deny any and all conflicts in American history, whether economic or ideological, and to absolve the American republic from the original sin of having been born via revolution. Thus the consensus historians were fully as hostile to ideology as a prime motive force in history as their enemies, the economic determinists. The difference is that, where the determinists saw class conflict, the consensus school maintained that the genius of Americans has always been to be unfettered by abstract ideology of any kind and that instead they have met every issue as ad hoc, problem-solving pragmatists. Thus the consensus school, in its eagerness to deny the revolutionary nature of the American Revolution, failed to see that all revolutions against State power are necessarily radical and hence "revolutionary" acts, and further that they must be genuine mass movements guided by an informed and radical ideology.


Fortunately, however, the most recent and now dominant school of historiography on the American Revolution—that of Professor Bernard Bailyn—brings radical ideology, and radical libertarian ideology at that, into the forefront of the causes of the Revolution. Against the hostility of both of the older schools of historians, Bailyn has managed, in scarcely a decade, to win his way through to become the leading interpreter of the Revolution. Bailyn's great contribution was to lay out for the first time the truly dominant role of ideology among the revolutionaries and to stress that, not only was the Revolution a genuine revolutionary and multiclass mass movement among the colonists, but also that it was guided and impelled, above all, by the ideology of radical libertarianism: hence what Bailyn happily calls the "transforming libertarian radicalism of the Revolution."

In a sense, Bailyn was harking back to an older generation of historians at the turn of the 20th century, the so-called Constitutionalists, who had also stressed the dominant role of ideas in the revolutionary movement. But Bailyn correctly saw that the mistake of the Constitutionalists was in ascribing the central and guiding role to sober and measured legalistic arguments about the British Constitution, and, secondarily, to John Locke's philosophy of natural rights and the right of revolution. Bailyn saw that this interpretation missed the major motive power of the Revolutionaries: Constitutional legalisms, as later critics pointed out, were dry-as-dust arguments that hardly stimulated the requisite revolutionary passions and, furthermore, neglected the important problem of the economic depredations by Great Britain, while Locke's philosophy, though ultimately highly important, was too abstract to generate the passions or to stimulate widespread reading by the bulk of the colonists. Something, Bailyn rightly felt, was missing: the intermediate-level ideology that could stimulate revolutionary passions.

Bailyn found that missing ingredient in the radical libertarian Lockean English writers of the 19th century—especially Trenchard and Gordon of "Cato's" Letters. These writers applied and transformed Lockean natural rights theory into a radical and passionate, and explicitly political, libertarian and anti-British framework. Trenchard and Gordon, and the other influential libertarian writers, clearly and passionately set forth the libertarian theory of natural rights, went on to point out that government in general, and the British government specifically, was the great violator of such rights, and warned also that Power—government—stood ever ready to conspire to violate the liberties of the individual. To stop this crippling and destructive invasion of Liberty by Power, the people must be ever wary, ever vigilant, ever alert to the conspiracies by the rulers to expand their power and aggress against their subjects. It was this spirit that the American colonists eagerly imbibed and that accounted for their "conspiracy view" of the English government, a view that such historians as Bernhard Knollenberg have shown was basically correct, since, after 1760, such conspiracies were all too real. Thus, what some historians have derided as the "paranoia" of the colonists turns out to be not paranoia at all but an insightful apprehension of reality, an insight that was of course fueled by the colonists' libertarian understanding of the very nature and essence of state power itself.

Thus, in the deepest sense, the American Revolution was a conscious majority revolution on behalf of libertarianism and against Power, a libertarian ideology that stressed the conjoined rights of "Liberty and Property." The American Revolution was not only the first great modern revolution, it was a libertarian revolution as well. (For a further elaboration of this thesis, see Murray N. Rothbard, "Economic Determinism, Ideology, and the American Revolution," Libertarian Forum [Nov. 1974], pp. 4-7. Also see Rothbard, "The American Revolution Reconsidered," Books for Libertarians (July 1974), pp. 6-8. For a summary of Bailyn's views, see Bernard Bailyn, "The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation," in S. Kurtz and J. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution [Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1973], pp. 3-31.)

Murray Rothbard, whose Viewpoint column appears every third month in REASON, is professor of economics at the Polytechnic institute of New York. He is the author of numerous books and articles. The following is adapted from a chapter in volume 3 of his multivolume, in-progress history of America, Conceived in Liberty.