I first became acquainted with Dr. Patrick Newman a year or two ago I read the long-awaited fifth volume of Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty. Newman labored through the indecipherable handwritten manuscript that Rothbard had left.
I read, reviewed, and enjoyed that book. And that led to my acquiring Rothbard’s work titled The Progressive Era, which consists of a series of essays about the ideas, events, and leaders of a movement that has dominated much of American history and historiography since the late 1800s. (See my review of Bradley Watson’s fine study Progressivism: The Strange History of a Radical Idea.)
A few months ago, I was pleased to see that Newman had written a book on American history, titled Cronyism: Liberty vs. Power 1607-1849. And in typical Ben House-fashion, I was more thrilled when I received a copy of the book. And in frequent Ben House-fashion, I am quite awed and impressed after having read the book.
First let me say this: Libertarians, anarchists, ultra conservative folks, political cynics, and many others of similar mindsets will be quite pleased with the nature and contents of this book. While none of those terms describe me, I have lots of sympathies and shared belief with those folks. For the record, I am much more of a Reagan Republican than a libertarian.
I want to make the case for this book for those of US who are not devotees of Murray Rothbard, those who may have never heard of and read Ludwig von Mises, those who see more goofiness than sanity in Ayn Rand, those who vote for less than satisfying Republicans, those who even prefer to call themselves moderates, and even those who reject anything that has even the faintest odor of less government.
American history is a vast, deep, many layered, and complex subject. Every issue that is on the news headlines today is rooted in long-term conflicts, ideas, wars, political fights, and killings related to our past. As I said recently concerning the War Between the States, it hasn’t ended. Or as William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”
A Rothbardian view of American history is rarely put forth in history classes. I know that we are often simply trying to teach some names and timelines to younger children. Sadly, freshman level American history in college is often a repeat of high school American history. (I “Clepped” out of American history, having already learned the stuff, but end up in a life-changing freshman course anyway.)
But even graduate courses are often too narrowly focused or too consumed with the latest books off of the university presses to examine other views.
Sometimes people will question me for reading certain books. “Why are you reading Allen Guelzo’s biography of Robert E. Lee?” I was asked. It was not to learn about Lee, for I have read at least a couple of dozen books that focused entirely or largely on Marse Robert. I was searching for perspectives. And even though I was not satisfied with Guelzo’s take on the man, I did gain from reading the book.
I confess to having a desire to read what the older historians say about a matter, what the recent scholarship reveals, what the more Marxist or leftists say, what the more conservative authors say, what the self-consciously Christian writers think, what unbelievers think, and what both fans and foes latch on to.
Granted some books are trash and some ideas are garbage. More often some books recount what is generally agreed on and some books are expanded Wikipedia accounts.
If one wishes for a review of American history along the standard traditional lines of thought, go elsewhere. There are good standard American histories. (I suggest Samuel Elliot Morison or Thomas Bailey for slightly older accounts and Wilfred McClay or Thomas Kidd for more recent accounts. And I think that Englishman Paul Johnson’s study of American history is quite fun.)
The Rothbard-Newman rendition is different. You will think you are going to hear a familiar tune and get quite surprised. I called it Rothbard-Newman because Dr. Newman dedicated the book to Rothbard, quotes or cites his work extensively, and attributes his way of thinking to Rothbard.
Get ready for lots of mud to thrown on your favorite heroes from the past. Or rather, be prepared to discover they the mud came from their own choices to wallow in the hog pen.
“Follow the money” and “all politicians are corrupt” are often used phrases. But we will just as often assume that in yesteryear, we were governed by marble statesmen. Some will hate Alexander Hamilton, some Andrew Jackson, some James Madison, and even the untouchable Lincoln gets black marks from some readers. But we want to think that the Washington Swamp is more recent. And, truthfully, recent readings about Progressives have pushed me in that direction. Also, the high degree of current corruption, much of it ignored by the media and condoned by the perpetrators, bears a recent and new trademark, or so we think.
But what if money and monied interests have been there all along? What if power really does corrupt, but it also fleshes out the bank account? What if ruling for the good of the people has almost always financially benefited those who ruled (and possibly the people)?
What I love about Newman’s book in this regard is that it is unconvincing! After all, he and Rothbard find little to praise about The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and the “Miracle at Philadelphia.” Did they overlook those charts in the history books telling us of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation?
Newman says that Jefferson’s decision to make the purchase after his Monopoly figure landed on Louisiana for a mere 15 million was not right, good, and certainly not Constitutional.
And while he praises those like Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and a few others for hitting the brakes now and then on a national bank and some other matters, he makes it clear that they fell short, that they succumbed to corruption, that they were political hypocrites, and that they contributed in the long run to problems we still have.
Newman is unconvincing! That is why I love his book. He has hit the walls of my thinking with massive stones. His historical trebuchet is lethal.
While I keep wanting to respond to what I read with “Well, I don’t think so,” Newman pulls out his arsenal of weaponry from his vast understanding of economics as well as history. All too many history teachers and students, of which I am both, have studied battlefields and personalities, but not economics.
I don’t even stutter when trying to answer Newman’s arguments. I am silenced.
I know there are readers and reviewers who can climb into the ring and do battle better than I can. Believe me, I would cut and paste from their reviews when needed. But I need to read these kinds of “change everything you thought you knew” kinds of books.
I look forward to a sequel to this book where Patrick Newman carries the story on up to the present. Until then, this book is a good beginning. I really hope some college professors either assign or recommend it. While I know that libertarian-leaning students will love it, I hope that some of the rest of us get put through this obstacle course.