About Jim Powell
Q & A with Jim Powell,
author of The Triumph of Liberty
"A literary achievement"
-- Wall Street Journal
Q: Why did you decide to write The Triumph of Liberty?
POWELL: I've been interested in the ideas of liberty ever since I discovered stacks of a magazine called The Freeman in my father's study, probably when I was in the 8th grade. The Freeman was a monthly journal started in 1950 by Newsweek columnist Henry Hazlitt, Fortune magazine writer John Chamberlain and others, and when I happened upon it the magazine was being published by the Foundation for Economic Education. The Freeman had articles by Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian economist who identified the fatal flaws of socialism, by F.A. Hayek who wrote the bestseller The Road to Serfdom, and by many other distinguished thinkers. These ideas were a revelation to me.
Several years later, when I was deciding where to apply for college, I got a subscription flyer from New Individualist Review, a quarterly published by graduate students at the University of Chicago. It talked about their articles by Mises, Hayek and like-minded thinkers. This made my college choice easy. I applied to the University of Chicago and thankfully got in. There I met F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler and others who developed a powerful case for free markets and against government intervention in the economy -- if the case weren't powerful, it would have been quickly shot down, because most intellectuals were opposed to it.
As an editor of New Individualist Review, I helped publish articles by these men as well as Mises, Hazlitt and many more thinkers on liberty. I worked as a researcher for Ronald Coase who edited The Journal of Law and Economics. At the University of Chicago, I was deeply impressed by the highest standards of scholarship and proof. This was years before Hayek, Friedman, Stigler and Coase won their Nobel Prizes.
The University of Chicago was such an exciting place for me. Besides the famous names, I learned much from Hayek's graduate students including Ralph Raico and Ronald Hamowy who were students of Hayek and co-founders of New Individualist Review. They were (and still are) historians with impressive knowledge of the intellectual history of liberty. I read widely about the history of liberty. I read the heroic novels of Ayn Rand who presented a compelling moral case for individualism and liberty.
I had long dreamed of writing a history of liberty, but I didn't know enough, and I figured somebody else would do it. By the 1990s, it became apparent that no one else was going to write the kind of history I had in mind, and I was ready. So I decided to go for it.
Q: You got your degree in history or economics?
POWELL: I received my undergraduate degree in history, and I did a couple years of graduate work. My professors included Rise of the West author William H. McNeill; economic historian Earl J. Hamilton; Donald F. Lach who was writing a multi-volume history of Asia in the Making of Europe; and Daniel J. Boorstin, then teaching American intellectual history, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Parkman Prize, Bancroft Prize and National Book Award.
It was so exciting to be studying with these men who had such seriousness of purpose, who did prodigious amounts of research, who displayed insights from mature reflection and who focused on the production of important works. I remember McNeill (either in his graduate seminar on Venice or on historical method) advising us to produce something. In the academic world, it was common for scholars to study endlessly and never have much to show for all the effort.
Q: Did you go into teaching?
POWELL: I became an independent journalist. I wrote profiles for the New York Times Sunday business section. I wrote about business for Barron's,Town and Country and Global Finance, and some of the work I did for Global Finance led to my giving presentations in London and Frankfurt. I visited museums and historic sites there, and I made side trips to Brussels and Geneva.
My Frankfurt assignment was in January 1990, just two months after the Berlin Wall began to come down, and as soon as my work was done, I visited East and West Berlin. I still remember the sounds of hammers through the day and night, as people chipped away at that hated wall which had prevented people from fleeing communism. I saw plenty of Trabants, those tinny little communist cars that put out a lot of exhaust fumes. East Berlin shop windows were mostly empty. I visited the splendid art museum which, of course, had been built long before the communist takeover.
I wrote about more and more subjects: computers for Money, history for Audacity/American Heritage, health and science for Science Digest, art and the art market for the Christian Science Monitor, Antiques Monthly, Antiques World, Connoisseur and Architectural Digest. I did travel stories for House Beautiful and Travel/Holiday. As a travel writer, I was fortunate to go to China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and I visited street markets and stock markets everywhere. I saw the ominous border check point between Communist China and Hong Kong, and I went to the heavily armed border between North and South Korea. I wrote a book about Japan, which brought an opportunity to lecture there. I found my way to the home of Chiaki Nishiyama, the scholar who had translated Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Friedman's Free to Choose into Japanese.
One aim in all this was to share my enthusiasm for things. I tried to find subjects that excited me and to make them appealing for others. I acquired a nearly complete set of Reader's Digest going back to the first issue in 1922, and I studied their headlines and the structure of their articles, since Reader's Digest publishes a wider variety of subjects than any other magazine and makes these appealing to a large international audience. I especially analyzed the structure of their personality profiles.
In 1988, I became senior fellow at the Cato Institute for which I periodically did talks and policy analysis about international trade issues. The Manhattan Institute put together a program of lectures in Rio de Janiero and Buenos Aires, and I presented a case for free trade there. Since then, I have focused on writing about the history of liberty which had been an avocation for so many years.
I became the editor of Laissez Faire Books in 1992 and had to evaluate and write about all kinds of new books on liberty plus reprinted editions of classic works. History, philosophy, politics, economics, law, psychology, fiction, everything. There's no better way to clarify your own thinking than explaining a subject for other people in plain language. As editor of Laissez Faire Books and senior fellow at Cato, I have had the occasion to talk with and meet most contemporary authors on liberty. These experiences have considerably broadened my understanding of the history of liberty, especially American contributions.
Q: Why did you approach the history of liberty through biography?
POWELL: As historian Paul Johnson said in the foreword to The Triumph of Liberty, "worthwhile abstract ideas are best promoted by the study of the lives of those who embodied them."
I had learned a great deal about the intellectual history of liberty, about constitutional history and economic history. I might add that economic history is the history of ordinary people as opposed to political history which traditionally has been the history of rulers. I didn't know that much about the lives of individuals who had written great books and done great things. So I plunged into biographies, published letters, diaries and other documents.
It soon became apparent to me that the lives of these people were far more dramatic than I had imagined. I was overwhelmed to learn how much they suffered, how they prevailed and how they changed history. The emotional power of these stories was tremendous. Almost every story I did had unexpected drama. Despite all I had learned about the history of liberty before, I was quite unprepared for the human dramas.
As I wrote more and more stories, I discovered another dimension: the often quite poignant relationships among friends of liberty who helped each other, comforted each other and inspired each other. Lafayette, for instance, developed an affectionate relationship with Jefferson, both of whom are chronicled in my book. Runaway slave Frederick Douglass worked with abolitionist journalist William Lloyd Garrison (both in my book), he shared a speaker's podium in Ireland with "Irish Liberator" Daniel O'Connell (in my book), then toured England to promote free trade with Richard Cobden and John Bright (in my book) and helped Elizabeth Cady Stanton (in my book) launch the movement to achieve equal rights for women.
I thought these stories, gathered together, might bring to the ideas many readers who wouldn't pick up an abstract book.
And in this prosperous, peaceful and complacent time, when many people don't seem to care about the grossest corruption and arbitrary power in Washington, maybe such stories can help remind people what liberty is all about, why it cost so much blood and why it must still be defended.
Q: How did you gather your material?
POWELL: I have always collected books, and by the time I started The Triumph of Liberty, I had several thousand on the history of liberty. Acquiring more books became critical since I'm the one who takes our children to and from school and other activities everyday. Although we live about a half hour from Yale University, which has great libraries, it has been difficult to get to Yale, find a parking place, get books out of the stacks and copy some before I had to get back to our school. I needed as much material as possible at hand so that when scraps of time became available, typically at night, I could move the project forward.
In years past, I had travelled around the United States to give talks or gather material for magazine assignments, and when that work was done, I would head for the nearest major library, go into the stacks and then photocopy a few out-of-print books on liberty, books I hadn't been able to locate anyplace else. I did this at the University of California (Berkeley and Los Angeles), Stanford University, Harvard University, Cornell University, the University of Chicago and the Library of Congress. Initially, I had been more discriminating, photocopying only chapters that looked useful, but when I returned home and studied the material, I often found they referred to other parts of the book, but then the book was several thousand miles away from me. So I started sizing up the potential usefulness of a book quickly and copying the whole thing. These copies went into three-hole binders.
All the libraries I visited had document collections relating to one or another of the people in my book. Berkeley, for instance, has Mark Twain's papers. Cornell has the largest U.S. collection of Lafayette papers. Yale has papers by Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison and others. The New York Historical Society has papers by the American individualist Lysander Spooner. Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Library has H.L. Mencken's papers. The J. Pierpont Morgan Library has what they claim to be the world's largest collection of Gilbert and Sullivan material (I wrote about Gilbert). I spent many hours viewing Jefferson and Lafayette correspondence at the Library of Congress. And so on. One can gain insights and a greater sense of immediacy by studying original documents.
When I bought out-of-print books, I long relied on about 20 used book dealers around major universities and in big cities. For years, I had bought stuff from Strand's (Broadway and 12th Street, New York). Fred Bass still runs the place. I bought a lot from the Argosy Bookstore on 59th Street. I bought Mencken material from Kelmscott in Baltimore, material on constitutional history from Robert Rubin in Brookline (Massachusetts), Cicero material from McIntyre & Moore in Cambridge, and I can't remember what all from Starr (also in Cambridge), Black Oak in Berkeley and Bell's in Stanford, to name a few.
A friend of mine at the University of Chicago, Mike Powell (no relation), took over the money-losing student co-op, made it profitable and soon realized he liked the used book business better than his graduate work in political science. He started a used bookstore near the university, and his father Walter, a hotel handyman in Portland, Oregon, decided the used book business was more fun than fixing up and renting run-down houses (which he did in his spare time), and he started a used bookstore in Portland. Mike later took that over, and it grew to occupy an entire city block. In the early 1990s, Powell's listed their stock on a computer database, so you could call an 800 number and quickly find out whether they had what you wanted. Powell's became a wonderful source for me.
In the mid-1990s, I used several searchers. An Atlanta searcher, C. Dickens, got Lafayette material from an American Lafayette collector. Dickens got books on Jacques Turgot, the Frenchman who first put laissez faire principles into action, from a Turgot collector in France. I used Phiebig, a White Plains, New York searcher who specializes in finding material in England and continental Europe. I remember it took me over a year to acquire enough biographical material on and pamphlets by the 17th century Englishman John Lilburne who helped develop the first comprehensive agenda for liberty.
I learned about searchers who used internet databases of out-of-print books. I used an internet searcher in New York City and another in New Haven, near Yale. Their methods seemed rather mysterious, although I learned that the biggest database they used was called Interloc. If I gave these searchers 10 titles, they might find one or two, but they would find them in a couple hours, which seemed amazing.
The big breakthrough came several years ago when I saw a little advertisement for Bibliofind in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. I had never heard of Bibliofind before, but apparently it was one of those out-of-print book databases, and it was making itself available directly to the public. I checked it out and was astounded. If I searched for 10 titles, I soon found I could usually find about 8, and the prices were far less than I had been paying the professional searchers. A friend subsequently referred me to mxbf.com which searched Interloc, Bibliocity, American Book Exchange, Powell's and, just in case something was still in print, amazon.com. Each year, several million more out-of-print books were added to these databases, and my hit rate went up. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I was getting stuff from dealers I had never heard of, people who weren't on my rolodex.
Since it was important for me to have as much material as possible close at hand to work with whenever writing time became available, these out-of-print databases seemed as miraculous to me as word processing itself -- I well remember working through the night to make a deadline, retyping a piece over and over and over again on my IBM Selectric because I had left something out, or I didn't leave enough room for footnotes, or I made too many typos.
I gained access to some important material through interlibrary loans, too, but the internet databases really opened things up for me.
Q: How did you choose the people you wrote about?
POWELL: Although it would have been odd to omit a major name in the history of liberty, I really wasn't trying to write about the top 65 (I ended up with 65 stories).
The history of liberty proceeded on different, though related, tracks. The development of natural rights, the idea that individuals are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness regardless what a government might say, was a story in itself. So was the development of religious toleration, individualism, economic liberty and so on.
I identified the earliest major figure about whom I could gather adequate biographical material, then the major names who would come next, and I tried to close each sequence with somebody who lived in recent times. My aim was to provide a rich treatment of the ideas through the dramatic and often poignant lives of the people.
I tried to be as inclusive as possible. You'll find women, blacks and Jews well represented. The largest number of people in the book are Americans followed by English and French. There are two Austrians, two Dutchmen, two Italians, two Scots, a German, a Hungarian, an Irishman, a Russian, a Spaniard, a Swede and a Swiss.
I considered people from other regions, but the fact is that while liberty is universally appealing, it is a gift of the West. All the innovations including the ideas, the political structures and the constitutional protections, originated in the West.
It was much harder for me to get adequate biographical material about people from other regions. I had considered B.R. Shenoy, an Indian economist who had courageously opposed socialism in his country during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, but I couldn't get enough biographical information about him. I wasn't able to reach his daughter in Australia. I considered Yukichi Fukuzawa, a 19th century Japanese writer who did much to promote self-help in his country. I acquired a couple dozen books by the 20th century Chinese-American writer Lin Yutang, but I wasn't able to get much biographical information about him.
There were stories I couldn't make work to my satisfaction. For instance, I considered Simon Bolivar who helped a number of South American colonies gain independence from Spain, but he demanded and for a while held absolute power. Nor could I make Voltaire's story work. He was best known as a witty critic of religious intolerance, but he wrote a book praising the 17th century King Louis XIV who revived religious intolerance in France, and Voltaire spent a number of years producing plays in the court of the Prussian King Frederick the Great who was constantly at war. I found the contradictions too great to sustain the story.
Q: But some of the people you wrote about also had serious contradictions, like Jefferson with his slaves.
POWELL: In each case, I asked whether there was more liberty because a particular individual lived.
Voltaire was a prolific writer, but I didn't find much to anchor a story about liberty. His Philosophical Letters and his romance Candide were about all, and liberty was only one of the issues he covered. Voltaire admired John Locke, but for Locke's view that people learned mainly from observation, not Locke's defense of natural rights. By contrast, Voltaire's contemporary Jacques Turgot abolished forced labor, crippling trade restrictions and ruinous taxes.
Jefferson made immense contributions to liberty. As we all know, he contributed to the success of the American Revolution, drafting more resolutions, declarations, reports and other official documents than any other Founder. Moreover, his 18,000 letters abound with keen insights about a free society. Although Jefferson didn't live up to his principles, they helped inspire William Lloyd Garrison to lead the movement to abolish slavery, and they helped inspire Elizabeth Cady Stanton who launched the movement to achieve equal rights for women. Without question, I believe there is more liberty because Jefferson lived, and that's why his story is in The Triumph of Liberty.
Q: You mentioned self-help. What does that have to do with liberty?
POWELL: A free society cannot work unless people take charge of their lives and assume responsibility for their actions. People must do everything they can to help themselves. Despite all the claims of supposedly compassionate politicians, nobody is going to care as much about your life or be in a position to do as much for you as you yourself. Accordingly, I wrote about Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Smiles, Booker T. Washington and Maria Montessori.
Q: Who was Samuel Smiles?
POWELL: He was the Scottish writer whose influential books including Self-Help (1859), Character (1871) and Thrift (1875) sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Whereas most traditional historians wrote about kings, Smiles wrote about humble people who became engineers and entrepreneurs and created phenomenal prosperity in England.
Q: A lot of readers will be surprised at some of your choices, such as the Western writer Louis L'Amour.
POWELL: I had two groupings for individuals who weren't thinkers. One group, "Spirit of Liberty," was for those who expressed ideas in literature, music and drama, which touched the hearts of millions. This grouping includes Friedrich Schiller, Ludwig van Beethoven, Victor Hugo, William S. Gilbert, Robert Heinlein and L'Amour. The largely self-educated L'Amour sold a quarter of a billion books whose heroes stood for personal responsibility, justice and courage. The other grouping, "Courage for Liberty," is for people of action who put ideas into practice: Sam Adams, Charles James Fox, Lafayette, Daniel O'Connell, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Raoul Wallenberg and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Q: You wrote about so many different kinds of people, from ancient Rome to the present time. What, if anything, do they have in common?
POWELL: They're all independent thinkers, they're stubborn, and in many cases they displayed remarkable courage.
Many of the people I wrote about showed tremendous persistence. Adam Smith worked on The Wealth of Nations for a dozen years. Ayn Rand was writing her philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged for 14 years. Victor Hugo's masterpiece Les Miserables was in the making for 22 years. The movement to achieve equal rights for women continued for an astonishing seven decades.
Also, for the most part, these people knew they were in the same tradition. The American Founders were inspired by the ancient Roman thinker Marcus Tullius Cicero, by the early 17th century English jurist Edward Coke, and by the late 17th century English philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sidney, for instance. The late 18th/early 19th century French economist was inspired by Adam Smith and, in turn, inspired his French compatriot Frederic Bastiat. The 20th century American individualist Albert Jay Nock was inspired by the 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais. Mark Twain inspired H.L. Mencken and Thomas Szasz, the Hungarian born American psychiatrist who protested the practice of committing people to mental institutions against their will.
Q: Do you have favorite stories among the 65 in your book?
POWELL: Almost every story has far more drama and emotional power than I had imagined, and I had been studying the history of liberty for a long time. Friedrich Schiller, whom most Americans have never heard of, is among my favorites because he created his greatest work while suffering from heart disease, liver disease and tuberculosis. I love Lafayette who helped achieve victory in the American Revolutionary War, then contributed to the downfall of two French kings and an emperor, while encouraging freedom fighters in Spain, Greece and elsewhere, and during his last years he sheltered Polish refugees in his attic. My most dramatic story is about Raoul Wallenberg who saved almost 100,000 Budapest Jews from the gas chambers, although he operated within Nazi territory, which meant escape was impossible, and he was armed only with a pistol which he never used.
Q: Any light moments?
POWELL: When John Locke was an exile in Holland, somebody asked what he was doing there. He reportedly replied, "I am here for the beer." If he had returned to England, he surely would have been executed as an adversary of King Charles II.
After Adam Smith had spent a dozen years writing The Wealth of Nations, and more years revising it, he told his publisher: “I had almost forgot that I was the author of an inquiry concerning The Wealth of Nations.” He made fun of his reputation for forgetfulness.
After The Road to Serfdom (1944) became a bestseller, the University of Chicago Press rushed the author F.A. Hayek into the lecture circuit, a new experience for him. He told an interviewer, “When I was picked up at my hotel [in New York]...I asked, 'What sort of audience do you expect?' They said, 'The hall holds 3,000 but there's an overflow meeting.' Dear God, I hadn't an idea what I was going to say. 'How have you announced it?' 'Oh, we have called it 'The Rule of Law in International Affairs.' My God, I had never thought about that problem in my life…I asked the chairman if three-quarters of an hour would be enough. 'Oh, no, it must be exactly an hour...you are on the radio." Hayek was a hit.
Though a serious scholar, George Stigler was a source of mirth. He identified himself as an intellectual "because I am a professor, and buy more books than golf clubs." A reporter noted that Stigler had written a hundred articles, far fewer than another economist who had written about 500 articles. Stigler's reply: "Mine are all different!"
Q: Since you're drawing much from biographies, how do you add value?
POWELL: First of all, a number of the people I wrote about, principally 20th century figures, haven't been the subject of a full-length biography. Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Robert Heinlein and Thomas Szasz, for example. Much has been written about their work. Hayek left autobiographical reflections about his career, and I was able to draw on Alan Ebenstein's manuscript about his life, which St. Martin's will publish in late 2000. Friedman and Stigler wrote autobiographies, Friedman's with far more personal material than Stigler, but there haven't been biographies of them. The first biography of economist Murray Rothbard has just been published by Prometheus Books, but it wasn't available when I wrote my story of him. I drew on Rothbard's papers which his executor tells me biographer Justin Raimondo never used, perhaps because they've just started to be organized.
Second, most of the major biographies, published diaries and letters of the people I wrote about are out-of-print. That's why I had to do extensive searching. For example, the last authoritative biography of philosopher John Locke was published in 1957. The only biography of Samuel Smiles was published in 1956. One of the best biographies of economist John Stuart Mill was published in 1954. The last major biography of philosopher Herbert Spencer was 1908. Until two biographies appeared in the 1980s, the last major biography of free trade crusader Richard Cobden was 1875. While I was working on my book, Oxford University Press issued the first major biography of economist Adam Smith in more than a century.
Third, I focus on liberty which biographers rarely do. Mark Twain's biographers, of course, have spent much time on his childhood in Missouri, his career as a journalist, his novels and travel books, his lecturing and his legend. You'd have to search hard to find points relating to liberty. I pulled them out. Similarly, biographers of journalist H.L. Mencken loved him as a literary lion during the 1920s, and they generally disapprove of his individualist views, which are the reason I wrote about him.
Fourth, I amassed myriad details to show you what individuals were like: how they looked, what kind of people they were, what their contemporaries thought of them. In the case of public speakers, I found eyewitness accounts of their platform performance. It's as if you were there with Mark Twain when he delivered his humorous monologues, with Frederick Douglass when he thundered against slavery, with Daniel O'Connell when he denounced oppression of the Irish, with Booker T. Washington when he championed self-help and with Lord Acton when he delivered his magnificent inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, sharing his wise reflections about liberty. Wherever possible, I tracked down addresses where these people were born, where they achieved great things and where they died. In many cases, you can visit these sites today.
Finally, a biography ends with an individual's death. I brought stories up to the present by chronicling the ups and downs of an individual's reputation and influence. For example, after Friedrich Schiller died in 1805, his plays were banned by Napoleon. When Beethoven was composing the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, he turned to Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy," and when Beethoven had finished the Ninth Symphony, he exclaimed to his assistant: "Let us sing the song of the immortal Schiller!" Gioacchino Rossini based his last opera (1829) on Schiller's play Wilhelm Tell, about the assassination of a tyrant. Because Rossini's opera was five hours long, there weren't many complete performances, but the overture became the theme for The Lone Ranger, the popular TV series about the pursuit of liberty and justice. The Nazis permitted performances of Schiller's play Don Carlos, about the liberation of the Dutch, but they censored a famous line demanding freedom of thought. But audiences knew where that line was, and they applauded when the action reached that point, so further performances were banned. Hitler's defeat was celebrated by 26 theatrical companies which toured Germany performing Schiller's plays. As you can see, there are wonderful stories about great heroes for liberty after they died, which affirm that they have a living presence.
Overall, I believe it's fair to say The Triumph of Liberty covers more ideas, personalities and events in the history of liberty than any other book I can think of. Ancient philosophers, European thinkers, American individualists, Chicago School economists, Austrian School economists, Public Choice economists, Ayn Rand, political history, economic history, constitutional history, opponents of slavery, taxes, military conscription and involuntary commitment, champions of privatization and term limits, you name it, and if it was of any consequence in the history of liberty, it's probably discussed in this book.
Q: How did you decide on the method of organizing your material?
POWELL: As I did more and more stories and became convinced there was enough material for a book, I pondered the issues of organization. The most important was to bind everything into a coherent whole.
While reading one of Daniel Boorstin's books, The Creators (1992), I realized that people stories were his building blocks as they were mine. They were his building blocks in The Discoverers (1983), too. I hadn't noticed that people stories were his building blocks because Boorstin didn't put the names of his people on the table of contents or the chapter headings, and they weren't featured on the book jackets. Each chapter heading was about an idea or point of a story. Boorstin gathered his stories chronologically into thematic groupings. His aim was to use people stories as a method of presentation and to present readers with a coherent whole. That both books were big bestsellers attested to the success of his methods.
My subject and treatment are entirely different from his, but I concluded I could apply several of his organizational methods to The Triumph of Liberty. I spent the better part of a year working on long introductions to each thematic grouping, only to conclude that so much exposition didn't work in a book which focused on people stories. I concluded Boorstin was right again, and I cut my introductions to just one or two paragraphs. Be brief and step aside so the people stories can resume.
The drawback of this approach is chronological overlap among stories, which Boorstin acknowledged in his books. For instance, in The Triumph of Liberty, Paine and Jefferson appear in the first grouping about natural rights, and their contemporaries Sam Adams and Lafayette appear in the tenth and last grouping about courage for liberty. Obviously, Boorstin and I concluded that the advantages of fully developing distinct themes was more important than chronological overlap among stories.
Q: Sometimes your sequences seem a bit arbitrary.
POWELL: Several individuals could have gone in more than one grouping because of their multi-faceted accomplishments. Originally, I had Lysander Spooner and Ayn Rand in my grouping on individualism, but after I had finished all the writing and focused on the overall picture, it seemed to me they would work better in the natural rights grouping. I thought the best fit for Ronald Reagan was my grouping on peace, since he had promoted a missile defense against incoming missiles, whether launched intentionally or accidentally; he had led negotiations aimed at reducing rather than merely controlling nuclear arms; and his policies helped accelerate the collapse of the most murderous regime in history, the Soviet Union.
Moreover, stories in my toleration grouping touch on points made in my peace grouping and visa versa. There are plenty of displays of courage by individuals who aren't in my "Courage for liberty" grouping. The Triumph of Liberty is like a mosaic, and I tried to place each story where it might be contribute to the whole.
Q: What sort of conclusions can you draw from your stories?
POWELL: Political power is everywhere the most serious threat to liberty. The more power politicians have, and the more able they are to disregard constitutional rules, the more serious the threat. Precedents for expanding government power are sure to be exploited by politicians more dangerous than those who set the precedents.
The most successful method for protecting liberty is the constitutional system developed in the United States, which applies the principle of a separation of powers, articulated by the French thinker Montesquieu (in my book), together with a bill of rights (that story told in my chapter on James Madison).
A single individual or a small number of individuals can make a big difference for liberty. Most of the people I wrote about didn't have much money. They didn't have connections. They had the most humble, unpromising backgrounds. For instance, I wrote about two former slaves, a handkerchief weaver's daughter, a pencil maker's son, a farmer's daughter, a printer's assistant, a wandering monk and a hobo.
Who would have ever imagined that a bankrupt Quaker corset maker could help inspire the American Revolution, as Thomas Paine did?
Who would have thought that a palsied brewer would emerge as the greatest political agitator of the American Revolution, as Sam Adams did?
Who would have dared predict that a writer with little money would give a talk, never published during his life, which would gain global influence, as happened with Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience?
And it would have seemed crazy to say that the son of a failed businessman and a seamstress would win a Nobel Prize and win friends for liberty around the world, as Milton Friedman has done.
The Triumph of Liberty makes clear that such wonders have happened many times, and they give us much hope for the future
Wall Street Journal calls The Triumph of Liberty -
"a literary achievement"
Voices for liberty in the ancient world
The first yearnings to be free were expressed in Greek epics, tragedies and comedies
The man who helped finance the American Revolution
During desperate years, merchant Robert Morris came through with money and munitions so that George Washington could win
Ancient Roman contributions to private property rights
The Romans replaced tribal property with private property and worked out the details about how ownership should be proven and transferred.
How toleration developed in modern Europe and America
Courageous individuals defied the terrors of the Inquisition and denounced religious wars.
The story of Magna Carta
King John's wars and taxes stirred England's barons to protect their interests by rebelling against him, and they set an enormously important precedent for liberty which benefited everyone.
The best of H.L. Mencken, witty American defender of liberty
This prolific newspaperman and literary critic still entertains and enlightens us today.
How private enterprise created modern Japan
The government's railroads, shipping, silk-reeling and other ventures all lost money. Private entrepreneurs achieved wonders.
Far from being contented and docile, American slaves dreamed of liberty, and thousands rebelled or ran away. Inspiring resistance to oppression.
The strange battle for the U.S. Bill of Rights
Those who initially wanted it ended up voting against it, and those who never wanted it made it happen
Why has liberty thrived in the West?
This is where enough people stuck out their necks for liberty.
"Honor is a harder master than the law"
At 58 and in ailing health, Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) was plunged $94,000 in debt by business failures. True to his word, he repaid everybody.
Liberty as a woman
Throughout history, liberty has been depicted as a woman on coins, in engravings, paintings, statues and more. Here are illustrations from ancient Rome, France and America.
Private initiative spurred vital discoveries throughout history
Language, geography, science and other essentials of civilization were diffused around the globe by private initiative.Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."
Political liberty impossible without economic liberty
The life and times of F.A. Hayek. The New Yorker called the twentieth century "the Hayek century."
Thomas Jefferson in perspective
How can friends of liberty still defend him after the relentless attacks of historians and biographers during the last quarter century?
How markets nurtured our civilization
Many people seem to imagine that markets and commerce are only about money, yet they made civilization possible. They brought people into contact with new ideas and things. Civilization has flourished where commerce has flourished.
Most dramatic orator in the American antislavery movement
Although Wendell Phillips isn't as well known today as William Lloyd Garrison, the pioneering journalist for abolishing slavery, or Frederick Douglass who provided the most compelling testimony, Phillips was more effective than anyone else stirring crowds against slavery.
Socialism's greatest enemy
How this great Austrian economist recognized the fatal flaws of a government-run economy 7 decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union made it obvious to all that he was right.
They created the first modern agenda for liberty
Dubbed the "Levellers" by their adversaries, these mid-17th century English rebels championed private property, religious toleration, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free trade, a rule of law, a separation of powers, a written constitution, and they opposed military conscription.
William S. Gilbert's wicked wit for liberty
Most quotable lines by the dramatist whose comic operas, created with composer Arthur Sullivan, are still going strong after more than a century (reportedly performed more than the work of any other songwriting team except the Beatles). Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken enjoyed Gilbert's barbs at bureaucrats and politicians.