Rothbard’s Challenging History of the Revolutionary War and the Constitution

Written by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel

The Constitution has traditionally been viewed as the culmination of the American Revolution, brought about through judicious compromise by the country’s most distinguished and enlightened statesmen. Some version of this established American folklore still tends to be repeated in high school and college texts and in the popular media. But the interdisciplinary and prolific libertarian scholar, the late Murray Rothbard, in the fifth and final volume of Conceived in Liberty, portrays the Constitution as a reactionary counter-revolution against the Revolution’s radical principles, orchestrated by a powerful array of mercantile, creditor, and landed interests that sought a central government that would reproduce many of the hierarchical and mercantilist features of the eighteenth-century British fiscal-military State. 

Having this volume finally available is an unexpected and noteworthy accomplishment. The first volume of Conceived in Liberty was published in 1975. It was part of a projected multi-volume 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 volume, 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, given that 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 it turns out that an early manuscript copy, partly typed but mostly handwritten, ended up in the Mises Institute archives. Economic historian Patrick Newman, after painstakingly deciphering Rothbard’s scrawl, has shepherded the volume into publication. 

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 upon reading this volume, I was amazed at its comprehensive coverage, detailed accuracy, and above all, its unique and revealing interpretations. The next three volumes, all shorter, lived up to the same high standard. Newman has enhanced the readability and usefulness of the fifth volume by perceptively dividing Rothbard’s manuscript into sections and chapters, adding an explanatory introduction, and creating an index. The introduction also includes brief summaries of the earlier volumes to help orient readers, although no summaries can do these works full justice and substitute for consulting them directly. 

This final volume is not quite up to the earlier volumes. How could it be? It does not have the kind of thorough bibliographic essay that graced each of the previous volumes, although Newman has partly remedied this by supplementing Rothbard’s few footnotes with his own editorial footnotes, providing 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 publication of any of the other volumes, strongly suggests that Rothbard would have done much editing himself, expanding on certain sections. In the other volumes, he clearly consulted important sources that appeared only after 1966. Finally the last volume could have done without Judge Andrew P. Napolitano’s fervid foreword, which tends to weaken the book’s appeal to a wider audience. 

The book is still vintage Rothbard, from start to finish. Not everyone will be comfortable with how he infuses the narrative with his own strong opinions and anti-State ideology. As in all of his historical writing, he starkly identifies those he considers heroes or villains. That sometimes leads to a lack of nuance, understating or ignoring the flaws of his heroes and the virtues of his villains. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, although principles may be black and white, men and women are often gray. But on the other hand, Rothbard’s partisanship actually helps to vividly capture the acrimonious sectarian and personal divisiveness of the period and serves as an antidote to the tendency of many other accounts to minimize these disputes and conflicts. I don’t accept every single one of Rothbard’s judgments, but there are very few serious works of history that I agree with entirely.

Like the previous volumes of Conceived in Liberty, the fifth is richly detailed with actors and events. The more you already know about whatever historical period Rothbard treats, the more insights you will find, with the downside that general readers may get a bit overwhelmed. At the same time, this volume feels slightly less comprehensive compared with the others. He does not get into some topics I would have expected him to cover, and there are other topics I would have expected him to cover in greater length. Nonetheless, the final volume of Conceived in Liberty remains a valuable and impressive scholarly contribution. It deftly synthesizes the myriad studies of other historians into a compelling and singular survey.

The first section of the book deals with the so-called “critical period” in U.S. history, after the war had ended. Rothbard quickly disposes of the common belief, both at the time and among some historians, that the post-war economic hardships were due to excessive importation of inexpensive British goods. Anticipating the more recent findings of economic historians, he attributes these hardships partly to the fact that, after the war ended, the U.S. faced all the mercantilist restrictions that Britain applied to other foreign countries. When the colonies were still inside the empire, they were hindered by some of these restrictions but aided by others. Consequently Britain had been the colonies’ major trading partner, and independence forced a painful reorientation of American trade. This in turn created pressures from merchants and artisans for a more powerful government that could retaliate with navigation laws protecting American shipping and tariffs protecting American manufactures.

A second economic problem was the lingering Revolutionary War debt. The state governments devoted the largest portion of their post-war expenditures not only to servicing their own war debts but also, in some cases, to assuming Congress’s debts. Doing so required a tax burden undreamed of 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. This is what provoked Shays’ Rebellion in the western part of the state in 1786. Although portrayed by nationalists then and by historians for a long time afterwards as a debtor’s revolt, Shays’ Rebellion was essentially a tax revolt, like the American Revolution before and the Whiskey Rebellion later…

The rest of the story continues here.

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