Our Forgotten Goddess

Isabel Paterson and the origins of libertarianism.


The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, by Stephen Cox, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 418 pages, $39.95

The history of libertarianism has played out in the catacombs of standard American intellectual history. And so, even after an age of feminist theory and history, it is little noted that in 1943 three foundational documents of modern libertarianism were issued, as the journalist John Chamberlain put it, by "three women–Mrs. [Isabel] Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand–who, with scornful side glances at the male business community, had decided to rekindle a faith in an older American philosophy. There wasn't an economist among them. And none of them was a Ph.D."

The works included Ayn Rand's first successful novel, The Fountainhead, in print constantly ever since. It has imbued generation after generation with admiration for a hero, Howard Roark, who acted on the belief that no man had a legitimate claim on his liberty, his energy. Most readers end up cheering Roark as he blows up an unoccupied government housing project for the poor. (He had his reasons.)

Another, less well-known work published that year was an extended essay on history and political philosophy called The Discovery of Freedom: Man's Struggle Against Authority. That book was written by novelist and journalist Rose Wilder Lane, best known nowadays as the daughter of (and possibly ghostwriter for) Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie fame.

The third book was by a woman even less remembered now. She was a formerly influential New York literary critic and novelist who, like Lane, ended her public career with a work of uncompromisingly libertarian nonfiction published in the midst of war collectivism, after a decade of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had made classical liberalism dangerously out of touch with the zeitgeist. Her name was Isabel Paterson, and her book was The God of the Machine. Her first biography, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America, has just been published, written by Stephen Cox, a literature professor at the University of California at San Diego. Cox has done a smart, thorough job of explaining and contextualizing this unusual figure. He explores her connections to Lane and Rand, shining welcome light on an unfairly dark corner of 20th-century American intellectual history.

Paterson swam against a mighty tide with The God of the Machine. Old Right journalist Albert Jay Nock believed, with much evidence, that individualists were "superfluous men" in Roosevelt's America. Libertarian ideas, he thought, were like a delicate candle flame ever threatening to gutter; they could only be tended to monkishly by a tiny and obscure remnant. These three books published in 1943 tried to bring the philosophy to a wide, popular audience that the authors hoped was ready for it.

Nock declared that Lane's and Paterson's works were "the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century." The two female journalists had "shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally….They don't fumble and fiddle around–every shot goes straight to the centre."

Not just to the center, but to the root. The two books Nock wrote of–along with the novel by Rand, who was a close friend to Paterson (who was a close friend to Lane)–were each obsessed in their way with the origins of phenomena. In Paterson and Lane's case, the phenomenon was American political and economic success. In Rand's case, it was human greatness–and human depravity.

Two of these women died in obscurity; the third died as a lonely, embittered figure who was nonetheless loved by millions. They all paid a price for being uncompromising defenders of unpopular beliefs. They were all childless, but their ideological offspring have defined the libertarian movement in the postwar era. Paterson was one of the earliest synthesizers of the mixture that defines the still-growing political-ideological movement and tendency known as libertarianism, combining, as Cox aptly sums it up, "a belief in absolute individual rights and minimal (not just limited) government; advocacy of laissez-faire capitalism and an individualist and 'subjective' approach to economic theory; and opposition to social planning, victimless crime legislation, and any form of 'class' or 'status' society."

In The God of the Machine, her one work of political philosophy, Paterson tried to explain American exceptionalism. But she herself was a native Canadian, born Isabel Bowler (or possibly Mary Isabel Bowler; Cox was unable to ascertain her birth name) on an island in the middle of Lake Huron on January 22, 1886, one of nine children. Her family moved to the U.S. shortly thereafter, roughing it in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and the Utah territory. She 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 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.'" Paterson cultivated that ethic in herself. Her libertarian vision, then, was not based on atomistic individualism or notions of markets as enforcing sternly puritan virtues of unremitting hard work (though she recognized, as she feared many did not, that the physical benefits of modern market culture did require someone, somewhere to innovate and labor).

In 1910 she married a Canadian real estate agent, Kenneth Birrell Paterson. By 1918 he was out of her life, and she didn't seem to know, or care, where he had gone; romance remained an insignificant part of her life from then on. Through the 1910s she worked on various newspapers in the Pacific Northwest and in New York, writing editorials and drama criticism.

Paterson's first published novel, The Shadow Riders, a romance set in the world of Canadian politics, came out in 1916. Five years later, a mutual friend introduced her to Burton Rascoe, literary editor of the New York Tribune, later the Herald-Tribune. Three years later, she began working for him (although he didn't like her at all on first meeting), and she spent the next 25 years there as a columnist and critic.

Paterson wrote a weekly column, "Turns With a Bookworm," in the paper's "Books" supplement. The Herald-Tribune's literary supplement was a powerful national force; in the mid-'30s it had 30,000 copies distributed separately to bookstores nationwide and an overall circulation of half a million. Best-selling novelist John O'Hara, as his Appointment in Samarra was published, admitted to being "very much afraid of Isabel Paterson."

Her job required her to be well-read and well-informed. She was, and she was not afraid to let everyone around her know it. She was deathly bored with typical party scenes and small talk and did not necessarily enjoy the entr?e to New York literary society her position earned her. But as one friend told a newspaper writer profiling Paterson in 1953, "If people can stand her at all, they eventually become very fond of her."

Paterson continued to write novels, most of them historical, with some success throughout her career as a critic. One novel set in contemporary times, Never Ask the End, became a bestseller in 1933. During the '30s politics began to creep to the forefront of Paterson's attention–although Cox notes that she was always able to pan books she might have been expected to like on political grounds and be fair, even generous, to those whose politics she disdained.

Paterson was appalled by the love for state planning that ruled the literary intellectuals of the '30s. Many were fascists, many communists, but hardly any believed that individuals or markets should be left to run freely. The standard opinion of the time was that markets required technocratic planning. The political themes fully expressed in The God of the Machine began showing up in Paterson's columns (which were never strictly about reviewing books) in the '30s and early '40s. These ideological intimations led Edmund Wilson to dismiss her as irrelevant, declaring her "the last surviving person to believe in those quaint old notions on which the republic was founded." Her growing intellectual alienation led her to spend most of her time in a rural home she herself helped build near Stamford, Connecticut, and less time in the thick of the New York scene.

Paterson's beliefs were never obscurantist or conservative in the usual sense. She strongly opposed the common racism of her era and was fascinated with American experiments in living such as the communities of New Harmony and Oneida. One of her favorite aspects of a libertarian society was that it gives more room for conducting social experiments than a collectivist society, where everyone must conform to the plan. She believed that "the highest civilization affords the greatest latitude for variations in conduct" and was proud of having written for The Nation in 1931 what she thought was "the only article ever published in this country against any kind of law to forbid prostitution."

Alarmed at Western civilization's tearing itself apart in war, Paterson contemplated the key to what was special and worth preserving in it. (She was fervently against American intervention at the beginning of World War II, until Pearl Harbor and its aftermath, when she seemed to accept its necessity, though she remained mindful that "modern war is ruin, win or lose or draw" and appalled that conscription took men out of the mighty modern system of production and made them mere cannon fodder.) The God of the Machine is Paterson's celebration of the political and economic genius of the West. The title, as Cox notes, could be interpreted to mean either human intelligence, which rules the machine economy; or God himself, "the original 'Source of energy' for the human dynamo and the guarantor of the principles from which human liberty proceeds."

The God of the Machine was a radically individualist attempt to answer the question of why America was so rich and powerful. The most healthy and wealthy of cultures, said Paterson, were those that constituted the most elaborate and stable "long circuit energy systems," which had to run on "absolute security of private property, full personal liberty, and firm autonomous regional bases for a federal structure." (She used often-strained metaphors of human societies as different sorts of energy transmission systems throughout the book.)

To Paterson, ideas were the most important element in human history. "What the past shows," she wrote, "is that the imponderables outweigh every material article in the scales of human endeavor. Nations are not powerful because they possess wide lands, safe ports, large navies, huge armies, fortifications, stores, money, and credit. They acquire those advantages because they are powerful, having devised on correct principles the political structure which allows the flow of energy to take its proper course."

Paterson tried to demonstrate throughout The God of the Machine what those correct principles are and show how various cultures rose or fell based on their adherence to them. She explained how America became unprecedentedly powerful and wealthy by approximating the purest application of the proper ideas for structuring human society. Those ideas, essentially, are what might be called strict libertarianism.

Paterson called the Constitution "the greatest political document ever struck off at one time by the mind of men." Her discussion of American history and political life defended classical republican principles against pure democracy; fingered slavery as the "fault in the structure" the Founders built; attacked public schooling and conscription as rank tyranny; and radically assaulted the growth in government since the Progressive Era and the New Deal. Influenced by the thinking of Old Right journalist Garet Garrett, she saw the Depression as triggered by inflationary action and too much debt during the '20s and exacerbated by government attempts to maintain wages and prices and its refusal to let businesses fail. While she was unaware of their works, here and in her thoughts on the value of hard money over paper she echoed the ideas of two other powerful influences on modern libertarianism, Austrian economists Ludwig Von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

Although Paterson has almost no direct disciples on the libertarian scene today, The God of the Machine upon release thrilled scattered devotees of the freedom philosophy. John Chamberlain wrote in The New York Times that the book showed that "individualist liberals are beginning to recover their poise." Rose Wilder Lane wrote to her pen pal Herbert Hoover that "it seems to me a book ranking with the best of Paine and Madison." Nebraska Republican Rep. Howard Buffett also was a big fan.

Paterson's most significant disciple was Ayn Rand, who raved that The God of the Machine "does for capitalism what Das Kapital did for the Reds" and "what the Bible did for Christianity." Rand, not usually one to acknowledge intellectual debts to anyone but Aristotle, told Paterson in a letter that "you were the very first person to see how Capitalism works in specific application. That is your achievement, which I consider a historical achievement of the first importance….I learned from you the historical and economic aspects of Capitalism, which I knew before only in a general way, in the way of general principles."

Paterson helped Rand see capitalism's historical role in making men not only free but rich and successful. Their friendship, like most of Rand's, ended acrimoniously, over Paterson's theism, Rand's perception that Paterson did not give her proper credit for her unique contributions to individualist philosophy, and finally over what Rand considered intolerable rudeness to one of Rand's friends while Paterson was visiting Rand's California home.

The God of the Machine sold poorly, representing as it did an unpopular intellectual position. Like most libertarians of the time, Paterson became more and more alienated from the mainstream beliefs of her culture–and from her employers at the Herald-Tribune. According to Cox, when Paterson stopped working for the paper, her final editor there, Irita Van Doren (a lover of one-world-government devotee and failed presidential candidate Wendell Willkie) "intimated to inquiring readers that Paterson had 'been retired.' Paterson stated, more straightforwardly, that she had been fired for her political views." Her last column appeared in late January 1949.

Paterson ultimately retreated to a farm in New Jersey, close to Princeton, and found few places to publish after that, ruining relationships with John Chamberlain at The Freeman over word rates and with William F. Buckley at the early National Review over editorial changes (she wanted none). In retirement she tried (and failed) to sell another novel. Paterson died, largely forgotten, on January 10, 1960, at the home of friends in Montclair, New Jersey. (Lane died eight years later, similarly alienated from readers and the culture at large.) By the time of Paterson's death, Rand, who had learned so much from her, was a best-selling novelist and well on her way to being a campus sensation and high-profile Goddess of Reason.

The links between these three founding mothers of libertarianism are many and tangled, both personal and intellectual, and Cox does a good job of tracing them. Lane's 1943 book is remarkably similar to Paterson's. Both took a world-historical view of the development of human potential based on political institutions, and both tried to explain the link between liberty and the unprecedented prosperity of mid-20th-century America, both using a central metaphor of human energy and its flow.

Lane and Paterson not only wrote very similar books; they had very similar lives. Both began as American frontier girls; both had troubled relations with their parents. Both married young and quickly lost track of their husbands; both were popular novelists turned political philosophers; both grew into eccentric rural dotages, refusing Social Security and communicating with only a small, select circle of ideologically congenial confreres.

Lane and Paterson both seemed glad enough to see their husbands disappear; Rand cuckolded her do-nothing spouse in front of his face and with long, tedious rationalizations with which she forced him to agree. Lane had many intimate friendships, involving long-term travel and living arrangements, with other women; Paterson remained a proud exemplar of the Virginia Wolff dream of a woman with a Room of Her Own–in Paterson's case, one she built herself, both literally and figuratively.

Although libertarianism as a modern American ideology and movement was born largely from the work of Paterson, Lane, and Rand, women have tended not to play a large role in continuing the tradition. (There are, of course, notable exceptions, including former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel, whose focus on "dynamism" as the defining great characteristic of a free society and free market is prefigured in Paterson.) Why haven't women figured more prominently in the libertarian movement during the past few decades? All three of these women would reject the question's premise. They came to their conclusions and their careers as unique individuals, not as women, they would insist. They were individual–and individualist–phenomena, not examples of a type. These were not conventional women. None was concerned with specifically "feminine" issues, which helps explain why Paterson, Lane, and Rand have not attracted much attention from contemporary feminist scholars.

Did what they accomplished matter? Paterson, the novelist and literary critic, believed so much in the centrality of ideas to human history that she thought the world of books "actually comprises the world [human beings] have lived in, both mentally and physically. Everyone who lives in this country lives in books"–even an illiterate who "liv[es] in books he has never read."

Rand and Lane might not have agreed–Rand's major heroes in her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, were industrialists and inventors, not artists or intellectuals per se–but the history of their influence bears out Paterson's contention. Libertarians influenced by these three women, either firsthand or secondhand, are working to craft an America that, if they succeed, will be living in books that it mostly has never read. It will be an America that, they all would argue, will be better, richer, freer, and truer to its own roots.

Paterson, whose God of the Machine could be viewed as an extended valentine extolling America's many virtues, would be pleased to know that a set of ideas so well articulated by a woman who died long forgotten could still be in active play in America today, connected back to her by a long-circuit series of influences. But she would not be surprised. She knew that the individual mind was the dynamo that moved the world.?