Essay:Libertarianism in American History

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Libertarianism is more tightly entangled with early American politics than its detractors like to believe--but also with proto-fundamentalism.

Perhaps the attribution of libertarian ideals to the Founding Fathers is a misaimed fandom, but if so it was misaimed very early, even before Thoreau and his essay on Civil Disobedience. Alexander Campbell arrived in Virginia from the British isles in 1809. As a well-to-do landowner of the time, he was politically active; as a Virginian, he was acquainted with several of the younger or longer-lived figures of the American Revolution, such as James Madison. Moreover, he was independently a follower of John Locke, a critical figure in early American political ideals.

Campbell was also a religious reformer, the source of the disputed "fourth wing" of Christian belief, the Restorationists. Although historically the term "fundamentalism" does not appear for another century, Campbell's movement was an attempt to reconstruct the early church based on Biblical data, bypassing the creeds and confessions of the time. (Textual criticism was not yet a twinkling in rationalism's eye, and Campbell viewed this as a thoroughly rational project.) Certainly the remaining heirs of Campbellian Restorationism, the churches of Christ, are rightly viewed as fundamentalist.

In the midst of his seminal work, the Christian System (published 1829), we find this:

" In these last days of degeneracy, republics are great blessings to mankind, as good physicians are blessings in times of pestilence ; but yet it must be confessed that it would be a greater blessing to be without plagues and doctors. While men are, however, so degenerate, and while selfishness and injustice are so rampant in society, republican officers are better than kings - because we can get rid of them sooner. They are, indeed, kings under another name, with a short-leased authority ; and our experience fully demonstrates that in these degenerate days the reigns of our republican kings are nearly long enough. Till the King of kings comes, we Christians ought to be good republicans, under the conviction that human governments seldom grow better...."

Campbell continues on in this vein a bit longer, but he clearly is taking an extremist theoretical perspective on (human) government--that while we need it for the moment, in the long run we'd be better off without it. Note that in some sense he is also a monarchist--but only for a literally divine monarch. In short, he has simultaneously proclaimed himself for both libertarianism (as regards ordinary humans) and authoritarianism (as to divine law). Here in a nutshell we have the central paradox of the modern American right, already exprsssed in 1829.

The libertarian strain did not, of course, confine itself solely to protofundamentalists, or there would be no Civil Disobedience by Thoreau, who had no special connection to Campbell. One might instead suppose it to be an outgrowth of early republican philosophy--if less government is good, no government is best of all--that persisted intermittently in American discourse among mostly-obscure adherents.

However, in the writings of David Lipscomb, now being rediscovered by libertarians, we see how the idea incubated and changed in fundamentalist groups. Campbell moderated his views out of pragmatism and even called for a world judicial body. But a significant minority of conservatives came to believe in the fundamentally illegitimate nature of human government. Lipscomb was more aware than most modern libertarians; he denounced big church, big business, and big labor along with big government. He did, however, save special wrath for the last, viewing the State as a massive violence-amplifier and an attempt to usurp divine authority. At the same time, though he was a pacifist, he believed the reason God allowed human governments to survive at all was to police human wickedness. Thus in some limited sense he was pro-police, pro-courts, and even pro-military, even though he denounced all three, since those aspects of government did the work God wanted done.

Between the World Wars, pacifism ceased to be respectable in churches of Christ, but the rest of the ideology remained intact. Government was to be tolerated when it enforced moral righteousness, and rejected when it enforced anything else, whether evil or merely nonmoral.

None of this should be construed as libertarianism being dependent on a specific religious movement. Rather, key figures in the movement reveal an ideology that is otherwise frequently obscured by more powerful political currents. Antigovernment ideologues are prone to simply avoid the government; it took the increasing bureaucratization of society to bring them into the public eye.

Nor is this a defense of libertarian ideals. I posit only that libertarian claims of a link to early America have some basis in fact.