Libertarian Thought in Colonial America

[This is chapter 33 from Rothbard’s 4-volume history of colonial America, Conceived in Liberty. Listen to the audio version.]

We have touched several times, especially in dealing with religious doctrines and institutions, upon the growth of libertarian views in eighteenth-century America. This extremely significant development was not a full-blown giant suddenly burst upon the European and American scenes. J. H. Hexter, in his brilliant Reappraisals in History, warns us of the dangerous temptation toward a linear view of history—a view adopted in different ways by “Whig” and Marxist alike. The linear view assumes a steady march from past to present; Hexter cites the concept of the “rising middle classes.” Historians, he points out, noted that the English middle classes were dominant in the nineteenth century, and virtually nonexistent in the Middle Ages. Hence the linear assumption of a steady march upward by the middle classes century by century, a picture which Hexter indicates is far from the truth. But the important point here is that history often moves not in a smoothly linear trend but in varying patterns of rises and falls of trends shattered by contrary trends.

The growth of libertarian thought in eighteenth-century America was, to be sure, heavily influenced by a preceding growth in England, the main source of cultural influence on its colonies. But the pattern was not so simple. For it must be remembered that parts of America itself had experienced entirely libertarian institutions in the seventeenth century: for example, Rhode Island, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. To a large extent, this libertarianism had been unarticulated. In short, the abundance of fertile virgin land in a vast territory enabled…

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