History

The Late Murray Rothbard Takes on the Constitution

A lost volume of American history finds the light of day.

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Conceived in Liberty, Volume V: The New Republic, 1784–1791, by Murray N. Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 332 pages, $45

The Constitution is traditionally seen as the culmination of the American Revolution. But in the fifth and final volume of Conceived in Liberty, the libertarian firebrand Murray Rothbard portrays it as a reactionary counterrevolution against the Revolution's radical principles, orchestrated by a powerful array of monied interests who hoped a more centralized government would reproduce many hierarchical and mercantilist features of the 18th century British state.

The first volume of Conceived in Liberty was published in 1975, launching a lengthy history of America from the founding of the colonies to the adoption of the Constitution. Three more volumes came out in due course, but the fifth, which promised to explore the period from the end of the American Revolution to the Constitution's ratification, never appeared. Rumors circulated that Arlington House, the conservative publisher of the first four volumes, was not happy with Rothbard's critical approach to the Constitution. But the actual explanation is probably more mundane, since Arlington House went out of business in the early 1980s.

By the time of Rothbard's death in 1995, any trace of the fifth volume was thought to be irretrievably lost. But an early manuscript copy, partly typed but mostly handwritten, ended up in the Mises Institute archives. Now the economic historian Patrick Newman has painstakingly deciphered Rothbard's scrawl and shepherded the book into existence.

When the first volume of Conceived in Liberty came out, I was a graduate student, and my field at the time was colonial history. The volume's 531 pages, written with the assistance of Leonard Liggio, covered the American colonies during the 17th century. I already knew a good bit about the subject. Yet I was amazed at its comprehension, its detail, and above all, its unique and revealing interpretations. The next three volumes maintained the same high standard.

Book five is not quite up to the earlier installments. How could it be? It does not have the thorough bibliographic essays that graced each of the previous volumes, although Newman has partly remedied this by supplementing Rothbard's few footnotes with his own supporting references. Despite Rothbard's reputation for being able to make his first draft his final draft, his earlier volumes definitely went through some editing by others. And the fact that Rothbard's original manuscript for the fifth volume apparently dates back to 1966, well before the publication of any of the other installments, strongly suggests that, given the chance, he would have done much editing and expanding himself. (In the other volumes, he clearly consulted important sources that appeared only after 1966.) Finally, the fifth volume could have done without Andrew Napolitano's fervid foreword, which will weaken the work's appeal to a wider audience.

But the book is still vintage Rothbard. As in all of his historical writing, he starkly identifies those he considers heroes or villains. That sometimes leads to a lack of nuance, thanks to prose that understates or ignores his heroes' flaws and his villains' virtues. On the other hand, Rothbard's partisanship helps to vividly capture the acrimonious sectarian and personal divisiveness of the period. It certainly serves as an antidote to the tendency of many other accounts to minimize these disputes and conflicts.

The first section of the book deals with the "critical period" following the American Revolution. Rothbard quickly disposes of the common belief that the U.S.'s postwar economic hardships were due to excessive importation of inexpensive British goods. Anticipating more recent findings, he attributes these hardships partly to the fact that, after the war ended, the U.S. faced all the mercantilist restrictions that the U.K. applied to other foreign countries. Britain had been the colonies' major trading partner, and independence forced a painful reorientation of American trade. This in turn prompted pressures from merchants and artisans for a more powerful government with navigation laws protecting American shipping and tariffs protecting American manufacturers.

A second economic problem was the revolution's lingering war debt. The state governments devoted the largest portion of their postwar expenditures not only to servicing their own debts but also, in some cases, to assuming the debts of Congress. Doing this required a tax burden unimaginable before the war. Eventually most states adopted a gradual approach, easing the burden with various forms of taxpayer relief—including, in seven states, new issues of paper money. But the Massachusetts government was exceptionally aggressive in trying to pay both interest and principal on its debt quickly. That is what provoked Shays' Rebellion in the western part of the state in 1786.

Portrayed by nationalists then and by historians for a long time afterward as a debtor's revolt, Shays' Rebellion in fact was essentially a tax revolt, like the American Revolution before and the Whiskey Rebellion later. In a preface to this volume of Conceived in Liberty, Thomas Woods credits Rothbard with being the first to interpret Shays' Rebellion this way. While not strictly correct—a few historians, notably E. James Ferguson, had already cited taxes as a major cause of the uprising—this interpretation has since become the historical consensus.

Popular accounts of the post-Revolution, pre-Constitution period often claim that tariffs between the states caused major economic disruptions. Rothbard correctly dismisses this as a "bogey," but given how often those unfamiliar with the period raise this alleged problem, I wish he had given the topic more attention. Virginia did impose a minor tariff on all imports by ship, until it exempted American goods in 1787. And New York and Connecticut taxed foreign goods that arrived through other states. But the general rule was complete reciprocity among states.

Indeed, while Alexander Hamilton's Federalist No. 12 raised the specter of future trade restrictions between states, its main complaint was that competition was keeping state tariffs on foreign imports too low. "Hitherto…these duties have not upon an average exceeded in any State three percent," Hamilton wrote, but with the Constitution, they could be "increased in this country, to at least treble their present amount."

When discussing the Western territories, Rothbard displays none of the implicit nationalist bias so common in histories of the United States. He exposes wealthy land speculators' pursuit of large government grants. More surprising and yet refreshing is his sympathy for the various secessionist movements in the Southwest, even those that were tempted to join the Spanish empire in order to gain navigation rights down the Mississippi River. I know of no other U.S. historian who has dared to justify these endeavors. At the same time, Rothbard denounces white settlers' invasion of Indian lands and criticizes Congress' creation of a military force to provide those settlers with subsidized protection.

The most revealing parts of this book deal with the Philadelphia Convention and the ratification of the Constitution. Anyone familiar with the previous volumes in the series will not be surprised by Rothbard's position here. After all, book four made clear his view that the Articles of Confederation, the previous compact among the states, had created a government that was too strong, not too weak.

Many accounts of the Philadelphia Convention treat its proceedings topically, often leaving the impression that the Constitution emerged through a process of calm deliberation. Rothbard instead gives a mostly chronological blow-by-blow account. This approach highlights how bitter some of the disagreements were. Of the 74 state delegates chosen for the convention, 19 declined even to attend; some who did attend left in disgust. By the end of the proceedings, only 41 delegates were left, three of whom refused to sign the document.

Rothbard's chronological approach also discloses how very close the convention, held in secret, came to forging a document that granted far more power than the Constitution ultimately mandated. The Virginia Plan, formulated by James Madison, originally gave the central government explicit authority to use military force to compel obedience from any state. Although this provision was soon dropped, the plan continued to call openly for a "national government" that was "supreme." It gave Congress a veto over state laws and such vaguely phrased broad powers that there would have been no effective constraints on the government's scope.

The rival New Jersey Plan enumerated specific powers for Congress. But it was the Virginia Plan's plenary powers, minus the state-law veto, that the convention approved for consideration by a five-man Committee of Detail a full two months into the convention's deliberations. Only at that late date had Madison and other nationalist delegates begun to moderate their opposition to enumerated powers. The Committee of Detail then composed a suggested list of these powers, appended with the hitherto undiscussed clause permitting Congress to make all laws "necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution."

Madison subsequently proposed adding to Congress' enumerated powers the powers to grant corporate charters and establish a university, but these proposals were voted down. Another rejected proposal would have given Congress the authority to assume state debts. Several delegates suggested that these additions were now unnecessary, not because they considered these powers undesirable but because they believed they were already implied. Madison himself supported the assumption of state debts, in sharp contrast to his later position, but he agreed in a private conversation with Hamilton that it was best not to include that authority expressly because it might generate opposition to the Constitution's ratification. These are just a few of the many critical incidents that Conceived in Liberty, Volume V lays bare.

What makes Rothbard's rendition more remarkable is that, like all historians, he had to rely primarily on Madison's notes on the convention. These notes were published posthumously in 1840, when none of the other delegates were left alive to challenge them. It is well-established that Madison revised his notes before publication, and this has prompted suspicions that he doctored them to bring the proceedings more in accord with his later Jeffersonian sympathies, toning down his efforts to create a more centralized and intrusive government. But not until the 2015 publication of Mary Sarah Bilder's Madison's Hand were these suspicions confirmed, through forensic evidence and other documents about the convention.

The Constitution's advocates pulled off a linguistic coup by seizing the label Federalists for themselves. Many supporters of the Constitution had in fact wanted to replace the Articles' federal system of government with a fully national system, even though the convention cautiously removed the word national from the draft. The true defenders of federalism were the Constitution's critics. But they have gone down in history as Anti-Federalists, even though, as Rothbard reports, they never accepted that label themselves.

Here again, Rothbard's claim has been confirmed by later work. In this case, Pauline Maier's exhaustive 2010 study, Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787–1788, points out that opponents actually used such monikers as republicans and true federalists.

The Federalists, who were more tightly organized than their opponents, used their control over the postal monopoly to delay and sometimes suppress their opponents' mail. They even on occasion resorted to political bribery, physical intimidation, malapportionment of delegates, and holding state ratifying conventions in locations difficult for delegates from Anti-Federalist districts to attend. These strong-arm tactics allowed the nationalists to ram the Constitution through the first five state conventions in rapid succession.

Federalists then began using the prospect of disunion to persuade the remaining states to ratify. But it was the Philadelphia Convention that had actually created that possibility by requiring ratification by only nine states for the Constitution to take effect. Moreover, Federalists in the northern neck of Virginia, in New York City, in northeastern North Carolina, and in Providence, Rhode Island, went so far as to threaten secession from their respective states if those states did not ratify the Constitution.

Rothbard does not go into as much detail as Maier does about the debates at the state ratifying conventions. He is more interested in the composition of the delegates, where they were from, their motives, what special interests they represented, whether and why they switched sides, and each side's procedural maneuvers. But he makes a convincing case that a majority of Americans opposed the Constitution and would have rejected it if the Anti-Federalists had been fairly represented and better led. He also shows that the much-touted federalism of the U.S. system was less an intended consequence of the Philadelphia Convention, as commonly alleged, than an insincere concession that the Anti-Federalists wrenched from the nationalists during the ratification struggle.

Once the Constitution was under consideration in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York, the Federalists found themselves in trouble. Previously, at Pennsylvania's ratifying convention, the defeated Anti-Federalists had drawn up a proposed list of amendments, which then were circulated to the other states. The Federalists themselves had to compose a series of recommended amendments in order to get Massachusetts to ratify. They just barely avoided making Virginia's ratification conditional upon a series of 40 amendments passed by the convention. And in New York, they assented not only to a full slate of amendments but also to a circular letter calling for a second constitutional convention to frame those amendments. Overall, five states coupled their ratifications with proposed amendments; in two others, amendments were offered by the minority.

Many ardent Federalists were perfectly prepared to thwart those constitutional amendments once the new government began operation. But the politically astute Madison realized that the popular demand for amendments had to be satisfied. Anti-Federalists led by Patrick Henry had defeated Madison's bid to be one of Virginia's senators, and he barely squeaked into the House of Representatives. Already three more states—Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—had endorsed New York's call for a second convention that under the Constitution, if endorsed by two-thirds of the states, could recommend amendments. And the more than 200 state proposals went far beyond a simple bill of rights. Many of them would have stripped the central government of some of its new powers. In particular, every set of proposed amendments that emerged from a state ratifying convention called for a curb on Congress' ability to impose internal taxes.

Madison carefully culled through the proposals, eliminating those he saw as "endangering any part of the Constitution." As eventually ratified, the only amendment that dealt with the relationship between the state and central governments is what became the 10th, which enshrined the concession that the government had only limited powers. The other nine amendments in what become the Bill of Rights guaranteed various personal liberties, and Rothbard applauds them as "intensely libertarian." But he laments the fact that the House voted down an attempt to add the word "expressly" before the 10th Amendment's clause that "reserved" to the states or people all powers not "delegated to the United States by the Constitution."

After Congress approved the Bill of Rights, the Rhode Island legislature, which had chosen no representatives to the Philadelphia Convention, refused for a while even to convene a ratifying convention. Rothbard reveals that some Rhode Islanders hoped to become a small, independent, free-trading entity. Only after Congress threatened a total embargo did Rhode Island ratify the Constitution—by a one-vote margin. Notice the irony: The only serious threat of trade restrictions between states occurred after the Constitution was in effect, not before.

One need not share Rothbard's opinion about the undesirability of the Constitution to find his interpretation of what happened illuminating. His view of the Constitution as a counterrevolution had been advanced by earlier historians who differ with his politics, and this view is being increasingly embraced by scholars who admire the Constitution. Agree with it or not, Conceived in Liberty is filled with reliable, engaging, and challenging history.

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  1. “and this view is being increasingly embraced by scholars”

    So you’re saying it is stupid?

    1. Yes. Rothbard completely failed to grasp that use of 16th Amendment tax laws to enforce the Prohibition Amendment directly caused the crash, beginning with the U.S. v. Sullivan decision in 1927. True, even Friedman left the final dots unconnected, but he did explain how panic withdrawals affect a fractional-reserve banking system and all but handed us the answer on a platter.

  2. As I’ve said many times before, there’s a reason we celebrate the Fourth of July and 1776 as our nation’s founding. The Declaration of Independence and the day we declared ourselves free is marked as the day we became a free nation, not the day the King of England signed the surrender document acknowledging our freedom and even less the ratification of the Constitution which marked the foundation of that necessary evil known as our government. Looking at its degradation from a federal to a national form of government and the conflation of “America” and “the American government”, I think it’s important to remember Daniel Webster’s admonition:

    “Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.”

    When the Constitution fails to act as a check on power, the people always retain the right to refer back to the Declaration and its principles: ….that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

    1. Most of the commenters here would probably agree that the government has become too big, too powerful, too central. Maybe that is an inevitability of any government, but as Lysander Spooner put it, “it [the Constitution] has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.”

      1. Maybe that is an inevitability of any government

        Government is a one-way ratchet. Because legislation is rarely if ever repealed, it only accumulates. And with it so does the power to enforce it. So yeah, without any incentive to repeal bad or outdated legislation, government will only grow. Eventually it will grow to the point where society can no longer support it. At that point it will fail, and another parasite will take its place.

        1. But one can think of many mechanisms that would limit this inevitable growth which aren’t fixtures of our government. Term limits, sunset provisions for all laws, etc.

          1. My favorite is from Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

            He suggests a bicameral legislature where one house needs 2/3 to pass laws, and a second house whose only duty is to repeal laws, which they can do with a mere 51%.

            Can you imagine people running for office not for what the will do, but for what they will undo?

            That would be totally awesome, but it will never happen.

            1. I would have that every bill requires 2/3 vote in every chamber to pass, but if at any time, 1/2 the legislators of any chamber sign a petition for repeal, a law is repealed instantly. In particular, this is a petition, not a standing vote, and legislators can sign up (or unsign) at any time.

              I would also have that all state legislatures make up a separate chamber, and they can pass resolutions (not needing any governor’s signature) establishing their position on both 2/3 approval and 1/2 repeal. This is not the same as Senators elected by state legislatures; this is actually being part of the chamber, and taking full advantage of how cumbersome it would be, getting 2/3 of state legislatures to vote on any federal bill, let alone approve it by 2/3.

              And yes, one of my goals is to have candidates promising what they will undo. My elections are for contracts, not candidates. I fully expect most would be full of fluff, or promising to follow party diktats; but some would make explicit binding promises to sign up for specific repeals within so many days, and failure to do so would throw them out of office.

          2. Actually I got that 51% part wrong. See what I get for going by memory?

            I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority … while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that your would be better off without it?

            1. That’s great!

              I think the founders intended it to be much harder for the power grabs to not go through the amendment process, which of course includes the “veto” power of the states/people in not ratifying. That we only have 27 amendments, and only 6 ratified since WW2 is pretty telling, given the expansion of scope of the fed gov in that time. But the Founders left so many weasily-worded clauses in there, commerce, necessary and proper, etc, that you wonder how it wasn’t inevitable that almost everything became constitutional powers. That, coupled with really no meaningful check and balance on the Supreme Court is primarily responsible for the expansion we’ve seen… at least in my opinion.

              1. In my opinion the 17A ended limited federal government by eliminating the state governments’ ability to veto spending.

                1. You can add fiat currency to the list.

                2. Why do people ignore that it was the STATES that wanted to get rid of the 17A?

                  They didn’t want their own domestic governance to be hijacked by ‘who will you choose for Senator’ in the same way that judicial appointments are today hijacked by ‘how will you vote on Roe’. They viewed the 17th as nothing but an unpaid mandate/imposition by the feds on themselves.

                  By the time the amendment passed Congress for ratification, 33 states had already legislated direct election (via either primaries or general), 31 had called for an amendment, and 27 (of 32 required) had called for a constitutional convention. The states which didn’t do that were, in general, the Jim Crow states which weren’t in any meaningful sense ‘republican forms of government’ (one party states with meaningless elections and very low suffrage).

                  1. That doesn’t refute my point.

                    1. It does if you assume that states have some legitimate veto power over either the distribution or the issuance of federal money. They do still have the authority to issue their own currency – in either silver or gold. To compete re the value of money which is the true check-and-balance re ‘spending’. States have all chosen to abdicate that too.

                      The HOUSE has the authority to initiate – which also means limit – spending. It is the freezing of the House that took the constraints off spending by a) eliminating the voting power of voters who might favor constraint and b)eliminating the power of mavericks who might do the same and c)strengthening the power of party bosses to enforce party agendas re spending.

                      I do believe that one of the unforeseen consequences of the 17th is that state laws/courts have been diminished. But even there, I suspect the composition of the Senate is less to blame for that than the executive nominating federal judges who can be approved on the basis of some national judicial philosophy rather than experience in and respect for state judicial stuff.

                    2. I can’t drive… fifty five!

                3. True. Religious communists belched forth three consecutive rights-destroying Amendments the LP has been struggling to undo since 1972.

              2. I don’t know about the direct election of Senators, since the second rule of politics is unity in the face of outside (ie, civilian) disfavor. It was still a bad move, showing a profound lack of understanding of why it was.

                I would instead have some way for ordinary people, and state legislatures, to challenge laws as defective, settled entirely by a single jury, without appeal, which must approve the challenged law unanimously to retain it. They could void a law for any reason whatsoever, and I would expressly make it clear that among these reasons are inconsistency (internally; with respect to other laws; and as enforced), lack of clarity (if any of the 12 random people cannot understand a law, it is ridiculous to expect the entire public to understand it), and too damned expensive.

                Every law also has to detail its revenue source and expected budget; exceeding the budget before end of year stops spending.

                Every law also has to list all expected consequence, both good and bad, and having unexpected consequences is yet another reason for being voided by the defect jury.

                Note especially no appeal. If those 12 people cannot unanimously understand and accept a law, then they are supreme. One of the worst aspects of the current situation is relying on government judges to decide if the government has gone too far. One of Lincoln’s few good moments was saying “of the people, by the people, for the people”, and it ought to be enshrined in the core the Constitution, not just lip service by politicians.

                1. One of Lincoln’s few good moments was saying “of the people, by the people, for the people”

                  Here’s the rub. “The People” is everyone except you. You don’t matter. So “The Will of the People” is whatever the politicians say it is. It’s the modern equivalent of the Divine Right of the King.

                  1. Take cops for example. They serve “the public” which is everyone else. That means you serve them. That’s how government works. It caters to everyone except anyone who might have a problem with what they are doing. Squawk too loud and the hammer will treat you like a nail. We still live in a feudal system. Only the costumes have changed.

                    1. I just wanna say thank you to everyone in the thread. It is nice to see an actual libertarian discussion free of trolling, insults, and demagoguery. This is how this comment section used to be, before the invasion of the Trump supporters.

          3. A constitutional limit on the length of the legal code.

            John Stossel proposed an amendment requiring that the passage of every new law be accompanied by the repeal of an existing law.

            The problem is they could repeal short simple laws in favor of long complex laws, so I would go for a page and/or word count limit.

            1. The problem is they could repeal short simple laws in favor of long complex laws

              I’m sure this will invite the ire of the usual suspects, but my understanding is that Trump did just that with his deregulation.

            2. However, they would eventually run out of short simple laws and have to start repealing lengthier ones.

              1. If by “eventually” you mean a century, sure.

                1. If it’s that slow, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

              2. “However, they would eventually run out of short simple laws and have to start repealing lengthier ones.”

                Lets imagine a scale for the length/complexity of laws on a scale of 1-10 similar in structure to the Richter scale for measuring the power of earthquakes. (each whole number on the scale represents an order of magnitude increase in power).

                They repeal laws at rank 1 and replace them with laws at rank 2. When there are no more rank 1 laws they start replacing rank 2 laws with rank 3 laws. When only rank 10 laws are left they will go beyond the scale and craft rank 11 laws.

                1. You left out the omnibus bills. Pass a single ten thousand page omnibus bill covering a zillion disparate subjects, repeal one two pager.

                  They could keep this up for a long long time, eventually passing one new bill which exactly duplicates the repealed law.

                  I would preclude this by saying that if any part of a law is found defective (see my post on citizen juries voiding laws), the entire law is voided. No severability escape clauses, no rewriting laws, no reinterpretation. You can imagine how unlikely it is to have a single 10,000 page omnibus law with zero defects.

                  Of course, any jury would know that finding a small defect would throw out too much, and they would be more reluctant to acknowledge small defects. But any law that big would garner enough defect complaints to find a sympathetic jury sooner or later, thus encouraging legislatures to break laws into parts again.

                  1. “thus encouraging legislatures to break laws into parts again.”

                    Ah, but a very large number of smaller/simpler laws is not all that preferable to a few large omnibus laws.

                    That is why I would go for an absolute page limit on the entirety of the law. The entire federal code must fit into x number of pages. Anything beyond that is automatically void.

                    1. Get ready for page sizes which make a Publisher’s Clearing House check look tiny.

                    2. And teensy font sizes you need a microscope to read.

                    3. Page and font sizes can be specified in the amendment.

            3. Each bill must be read in it’s entirety and it’s final form in front of the House and Senate before the final vote, in which individual votes must be recorded. No Representative or Senator who did not sit attentively through the entire reading may vote aye, but any member of the body may vote nay. Any member who voted aye but subsequently claims to have misunderstood the bill will be stripped of his seat and barred from any elective office for ten years.

              And Congress may not delegate it’s legislative power to agencies.

              So they can make a bill up to whatever length can be read in one session, but if they do that, they can only pass – or reject – one bill in the 1 or 2 year session. Or they can make a lot of short bills, or a mix of longish and short ones, but in any case the total verbiage considered (not passed) is limited.

              And the shortest bills, that could go through most quickly, would be of the form “XXX.xx is repealed”.

    2. and the conflation of “America” and “the American government”

      ^^this

    3. “…organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

      Careful. Every modern collectivist, e.g. Bernie Sanders, promises safety and happiness above all else. Just no so much freedom.

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  4. The first four are available as free PDFs and are a fantastic history, devoid of the usual concentration on famous people and governments. After a while, you begin to see a pattern: the people in power become corrupt, the people out of power, who just want to mind their own business, eventually get sick and tired of the corruption getting in their way, and the inevitable mini-rebellion and change of power.

    Of course, the colonial governments gradually accreted more and more power through more and more laws and government infrastructure, but it was a grand time while it lasted.

    1. I’ve been meaning to read these for a long time. Maybe now is the time.

      1. They are a slog, in the sense that the pattern repeats so very often, it begins to get repetitively unexciting. I put them in my kindle library and read them from my phone in waiting rooms, standing in line, waiting at work, etc. He put an immense amount of work into them and I have put this kindle version ($4) on the phone also.

        Surprisingly readable, if not page turners, but they are lengthy.

  5. Portrayed by nationalists then and by historians for a long time afterward as a debtor’s revolt, Shays’ Rebellion in fact was essentially a tax revolt, like the American Revolution before and the Whiskey Rebellion later.

    Tax revolts are always debtor revolts. The primary function of taxes is to a)pay the interest on public debt and b)pay that part of the debt that can’t be rolled over when it comes due. Creditors RECEIVE tax payments so even if they pay more in taxes they get it back in the other pocket.

    When discussing the Western territories, Rothbard displays none of the implicit nationalist bias so common in histories of the United States. He exposes wealthy land speculators’ pursuit of large government grants. More surprising and yet refreshing is his sympathy for the various secessionist movements in the Southwest, even those that were tempted to join the Spanish empire in order to gain navigation rights down the Mississippi River. I know of no other U.S. historian who has dared to justify these endeavors.

    The fact that you are calling it ‘nationalist’ tells me that you are simply unfamiliar with the entire ‘frontier’ school of historiography kicked off by Frederick Jackson Turner. It never was really accepted by East Coast academics. But once you admit that so many founders were land speculators; it’s quite easy to see how most constitutional arguments can be seen as simple arguments re the new thang called ‘federal territories’ which only later became ‘states’. The Articles of Confederation had no way of dealing with anything west of the 1763 line of settlement because that is when all their charter claims to that land were revoked even though the 1783 peace settlement also relinquished the King’s claim to that land.

    Fail to understand those federal territories as a true power vacuum and you can’t understand American history from the Constitution through to the Civil War. It wasn’t about feds imposing something on existing states. It was about how the fed territories would turn into states.

    1. It was still crooked politicians (including George Washington) using government power to ensure their investments came to fruition. Failing to understand THAT identifies one as a statist through and through.

      1. Not unless you can identify the alternative way that that power vacuum can be resolved. re who EXACTLY is the sovereign of the territory west of the 1763 line. That territory was way over 50% of the total territory. The Treaty of 1783 and the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785 and 1787 (all under the Articles) resolved something on paper which was completely unworkable in fact under the Articles of Confederation.

        But hey – I’m sure an unresolvable issue that came up every single year during the confederation had nothing whatsoever to do with the Constitution. The founders choosing the best way to profit from that is not the same as saying that a new system wasn’t necessary.

  6. I just finished reading this book. It portrays a history very different from everything we’ve been taught, and explains a lot about the things some of us libertarians find highly objectionable in the constitution.
    Dare we hope that, in future, libertarians calling for adherence to the constitution will temper their rhetoric? We should be calling for adherence to principles, not to a deeply flawed document.

  7. “In this regard American “nationalism” has nothing to do with the older concept of a people with a common language and culture, living within the borders of their own nation state. The unique American version of “nationalism” was invented at the time of the founding by a group of conniving, Machiavellian politicians who sought to overthrow the results of the American Revolution – the casting off of the centralized, oppressive, mercantilist/crony capitalist British empire – and adopt the very same system in America – the British empire without the British. There is nothing wrong with a corrupt, tyrannical, mercantilist empire that uses the coercive powers of the state to enrich the ruling class at the expense of the working class, these men said, confident that they would naturally assume the position of the ruling class.
    These men were led by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Thomas Paine, and other “Federalists,” many of who were “defectors” to the cause of liberty – the cause of the American Revolution – as Murray Rothbard wrote in .

    The “triumph” of these “nationalists” with the adoption of the centralizing U.S. Constitution is the theme of the latter two-thirds of Rothbard’s latest great work of scholarship, made possible by the heroic efforts of Patrick Newman in painstakingly (with the emphasis on “pain”) translating Murray’s handwriting of nearly the entire manuscript, which is 319 pages long in print. The nationalists, wrote Rothbard, “wanted a strong central power that would control an aggressive national army and navy, wield a national taxing power to decimate the rights of the states and individuals, and federally assume public debts and army pensions.” In doing so they hoped to “destroy the original individualist and decentralized program of the American Revolution.” Conceived in Liberty tells the story, chapter and verse, of how these men subverted and overthrew the principles of American freedom that inspired the American Revolution with their “devious and sinister machinations.” The rest here: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2019/11/thomas-dilorenzo/deceived-in-liberty-the-curse-of-american-nationalism/

  8. This is a nice review of an interesting work. It sounds as if in this earlier work, Rothbard doesn’t show any regard for what tools the Constitution provides to libertarians.

    Like any law, the Constitution consists of rules and associated sanctions. A key rule is the Fifth Amendment’s rule that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law (criminal or civil law executed by constitutional processes). Other key rules are the enumerated powers. The associated sanctions are the powers of state governments, and various offsetting powers within the national government. A key offsetting power in particular is the conscience-clause power formalized in the oaths, which requires each state and national government officer to not perform any action that the officer himself regards as unconstitutional.

    All the law needed to limit the government is currently in force. What stops these sanctions from being applied is our monopoly of two majority-Progressive parties.

    To me, Rothbard’s later works A History of Money and Banking in the United States and The Progressive Era show that Rothbard later had a growing sense of how to use the Constitution. In A History of Money and Banking, Rothbard provides an excellent description of the early Democrats’ libertarian program. In The Progressive Era, Rothbard delves into what went wrong in past parties.

    I’ve developed the best-available design for a better party in two complementary volumes: The Constitution Needs a Good Party, and rConstitution Papers. A good party’s organization needs to have the same structure that the government has under the Constitution, so that the party organization itself is self-limited. The party’s elected representatives need to use their constitutional powers against others in government, so that the government is limited. The elected representatives need to pass laws that are only clear rules and sanctions, with no grabs of executive power. And they need to repeal the administrative state.

    For additional information on these books, please see my author website:
    jamesanthony .us

  9. Forty years ago Hummel told me that the real enemy is the U.S. Constitution, and we should surrender to the Soviet Union, legalize murder, and forget all about laws against theft, fraud and violence in defense of individual rights. Since he was speaking in his official capacity of sole purveyor of libertarian anarchist values, I voted for Reagan. This is a textbook example of how whack jobs alienate potential voters.

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