Reviews of The Triumph of Liberty

from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, July 11, 2000

Bookshelf: From Rabelais to Reagan, Freedom's Long March

by Tom Bethell

Liberty has never been a fashionable cause. Ruling elites have feared it as something that might threaten their hold on power. Today intellectuals, having attained a considerable measure of power themselves, are at best ambivalent about it, and for decades they have toiled to enlarge and centralize government. This would surely have surprised their bookish predecessors, who for centuries craved little more than the freedom to publicize their opinions.

Writing a book on liberty therefore tends to be a thankless task. So we should thank Jim Powell, a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Chicago, who has written a wonderful history of the subject. In a brief forward, the British historian Paul Johnson argues that "worthwhile abstract ideas are best promoted by the study of the lives of those who embodied them," and that is what Mr. Powell has done. He tells the story of liberty through the lives of remarkable people. The earliest (and surely one of the greatest) is Cicero, while a few, including the economist Milton Friedman, are still with us. Mr. Friedman, he writes, "ranks as the greatest champion of liberty during the 20th century."

Told in 65 chapters, Mr. Powell's brief lives are themselves a literary achievement. He has gone to enormous trouble to hunt down out-of-print biographies, so that he can view his subjects from a variety of angles. He tells us what his heroes and heroines looked or sounded like, puts them in historical context, uses an abundance of direct quotations and concludes with a look at his subjects' influence or current stature. (Six women are included: Rose Wilder Lane, Maria Montessori, Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Wollstonecraft.)

Mr. Powell scoured libraries and out-of-print booksellers, interviewed specialists and visited historic sites. (Very few academics these days would bother with such essential legwork.) And Mr. Powell's lives are as readable as they are instructive. Start any one of them and you are unlikely to stop. Having embarked on his accounts of Benjamin Constant, Desiderius Erasmus and Victor Hugo -- or less-known figures like Frederic Bastiat (the 19th century French political economist) and John Lilburne (the 17th-century British pamphleteer) -- I found myself arriving at the end of the chapter before I knew it.

Organizing a mass of material without a clear story line is not easy. Daniel Boorstin's books (The Seekers, The Discoverers) suggested a method to Mr. Powell,, who divides liberty into 10 aspects -- natural rights, toleration, peace, self-help, individualism, economic liberty, and so on. Then he groups six or seven lives under each. Sometimes the allocation seems arbitrary. Under "peace," for example, we find Richard Cobden, William Gladstone, William Graham Sumner and Ronald Reagan. Clearly Cobden -- who worked with extraordinary dedication to abolish import taxes in England in the 1840s -- could as easily have been included under economic liberty, and Mr. Reagan under "the spirit of liberty." In any case, Mr. Powell stresses throughout the connection between free trade and peace, and he rightly sees those who agitate for war as great enemies of liberty.

Mr. Powell has gone out of his way to include people who are not normally associated with liberty: Ludwig van Beethoven, William S. Gilbert (Arthur Sullivan's collaborator), Louis L'Amour, H.L. Mencken, Rabelais. His ecumenical outreach is admirable, but perhaps not in every case successful. Beethoven, for example, he describes as "an outspoken republican amid a continent of kings," who "broke free of conventional forms so music could plumb the depths of despair, express heroic struggles, and reach astonishing peaks of joy." But the breaking of musical traditions and the breaking of real chains are very different. Man is meant to be free, but "free music is, well -- try John Cage.

Mr. Powell includes the canonical theorists of liberty, whether in politics or economics -- John Locke, Tom Paine, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises among them. Although well known, their stories are often the most effective. It is precisely the adversary political or intellectual environment in which some of them lived -- particularly the free-market economists of the 20th century -- that stimulated them to new thoughts. Both their lives and their insights seem the more dramatic as a result. Others -- one thinks of Henry David Thoreau -- are less impressive precisely because they lived in surroundings of unprecedented freedom.

Many Americans, of course, have experienced much hardship. One thinks of Rose Wilder Lane growing up in the prairie states. She wrote The Discovery of Freedom and rewrote her mother's drafts for The Little House in the Prairie and other works. Her inspiring story I thought one of the best in the book. In the early 1920s, Rose Wilder embraced communism and went to the Soviet Union, where she soon learned her mistake. When she left, she said: "Like all Americans, I took for granted the individual liberty to which I had been born."

Native-born Americans often don't learn this lesson. And failing to appreciate their good fortune, they don't bother to fight for it. "Liberty is rare and precious thing," as Mr. Powell says. He believes that preserving it will require a never-ending struggle. His book, an education between hard covers, makes his own valuable contribution to the cause of liberty.


Mr. Bethell is Washington correspondent of the American Spectator and author of The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages (St. Martin's).

Additional articles:

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.

Runaway slaves!
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.

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