1776: Libertarian Revolution Against Conservatives of Power

In his magnificent Libertarian Manifesto For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard made the case that the American Revolution of 1776 was a principled libertarian revolution – not a conservative revolution. The conservatives were those who wanted to continue their illegitimate, market-insane privileges; the revolutionaries actually cared about the principles of liberty.

Classical Liberals

Rothbard credited the “classical liberal” movements of the 17th and 18th centuries for bringing to the Western world the Industrial Revolution. These were revolts against the conservative Old Order which had a supposedly divinely-inspired king in charge of an absolute State mixed up with a monopolistic, anti-market order with urban guild controls and rural feudal land monopolies. This structure of mercantilism had business monopolies working closely with powerful States who could declare wars to enrich the businesses.am rev 2

The purpose of the classical liberal revolutions was to free individuals in all areas of life. Entrepreneurs were to be freed from regulatory controls that, of course, favored the big businesses who worked closely with political leaders; tax burdens were to be reduced; civil liberties such as religious freedom were to come. This was the ambitious program of the classical liberal revolutionaries.

Every facet of life was to be finally separated from the aegis of the State. “Separation of Church and State,” was just one aspect of this separation. Rothbard also named separation of the economy, of speech, of military affairs. “Indeed, the separation of the State from virtually everything,” he said (3). The revolutionaries were not middle-of-the-road “small government” types who believed in government-forced insurance programs; rather, they were dead set on stopping any new form of taxation or expansion of the State – because they knew such expansion always came at the expense of individual rights.

American Libertarian Revolution of 1776

The ideas of classical liberalism pored over into the American colonies in the 18th century. The debates that had been happening in England for years moved seamlessly into the New World. Bernard Bailyn wrote of the American Revolution:

Where the English opposition had vainly agitated for partial
reforms . . . American leaders moved swiftly and with little
social disruption to implement systematically the outermost
possibilities of the whole range of radically liberation

The American colonies were in a unique position to actually implement the great liberal thought which began in England because they did not have the same constraints as British libertarians, namely, the feudal landlords and wealthy aristocrats who had been lording over the people for centuries.american revolution

Rothbard called the American Revolution an “explicitly libertarian revolution, a revolution against empire; against taxation, trade monopoly and regulation; and against militarism and executive power (7).” And yet, there were some entrenched elites who clamored for State controls, wanting in the colonies a copy of the British mercantilist system. These not-so-revolutionary forces organized themselves into a political party, called the Federalists. Unfortunately, these were indeed the people who were in charge during the first two presidential administrations in America.

Jeffersonianism and the Democratic Party

The Democratic Party has roots in libertarianism, not in socialism as you might expect based on the modern-day party. Despite President Jefferson’s strong libertarian leanings, his years in office witnessed a relentless march towards uncompromising statism as the American political elites headed towards another war with Britain. The Federalists were able to get a central bank, tariffs and taxes to fund their war march, and they spent horrifying amounts of cash on the military and public works programs.

Rothbard painted the scene in Moticello, where an old Thomas Jefferson complained about the Federalists’ hatred of freedom and motivated his visitors, Martin Van Buren and Thomas Benton, to found the Democratic Party. The new party had great success in the 1830s – defeating the central bank – but it never recovered in its libertarian form after being split up and destroyed over the issue of slavery and then the Civil War.

Power Elites: Conservatives Who Hate Liberty

It was not the libertarians who wanted to go back to the Old Order of landed elites who dominate everybody else’s life because they enjoy special privileges; it was the conservatives of the time: the Federalists in the 1790s; the Republicans in the 1800s; the Democrats and Republicans in the 1900s; Bush and Obama so far in the 2000s. These are all conservatives of power – they care deeply about conserving their own power.

Although libertarians are among the most likely to be traditionalists who uphold strong family values in their personal lives and communities, they are political radicals who oppose the State because it conserves immoral traditions of unjustified power. The State is an excuse power elites can use to maintain their power position without doing any real work. Libertarians oppose this evil program and that is what the American Revolution was about.


Rothbard, Murray. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1973.

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