Leonard Read, the Founder and Builder
MAY 01, 1996 by MARY SENNHOLZ
Filed Under : Biographies
Mrs. Sennholz is an administrative assistant at FEE and an honorary trustee. She is the author of Leonard E. Read: Philosopher of Freedom (FEE, 1993).
In 1946, the eyes of most Americans were on the U.S. Congress debating full employment, higher minimum wages, extended social security benefits, price and rent controls, public housing projects, and government health insurance. Many Americans were eager to follow in the footsteps of the British Labour Party which, having won an overwhelming electoral victory, was busily nationalizing various industries and enacting a comprehensive Social Security system, including a national health service; but they did not dare call their aspirations “socialism,” as the Labour Party openly proclaimed; instead, Americans called it just another deal, a “Fair Deal,” which, in the years to come, was to have its essential parts enacted by both popular political parties.
Unbeknownst to the political world, the former manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Leonard Edward Read, was laboring in Irvington-on-Hudson to rally the remnants of old-fashioned liberalism and prepare for an intellectual counteroffensive. Read was an entrepreneur par excellence, confident, ambitious, and courageous, who could have launched any enterprise to which he had set his mind. But for reasons no one will ever know, he chose to enter the world of thought and ideas, of ideologies and philosophies, and create the Foundation for Economic Education.
Leonard’s passion had not always been for ideas and ideologies. For much of his adult life (1928-1945) he had been a business and trade association executive, a vocal Chamber of Commerce spokesman who faithfully defended the official Chamber position, which at that time was sympathetic to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and his attempts to pull the economy out of depression by organizing business, regulating prices, and stimulating bank credit through monetary inflation. His moment of reformation and conversion came in the fall of 1933 when, after hearing that a prominent California executive had been criticizing the Chamber, he arranged a visit to set the businessman “straight.” The businessman was W. C. Mullendore, an official of Southern California Edison Company. Having made the Chamber of Commerce pitch, he was then obliged to listen to Bill Mullendore patiently explaining individual liberty and the private property order and refuting the New Deal contentions. Until his dying days Leonard swore this explanation had been his best lesson ever—it had removed the blinders from his eyes.
Leonard was a self-educated man who learned much not only from books but from a great deal of experience. Leonard’s practical education began when most children are still preoccupied with mastering the Three R’s. Already by the age of twenty he had faced an unusual share of challenges which shaped his lofty spirit, empowered him with knowledge, and became the kernels of an industrious adult life. By the age of 48 he had achieved remarkable success in two endeavors when he brought forth his greatest creation, the Foundation for Economic Education.
Leonard Edward Read was born September 26, 1898, on an 80-acre farm just outside Hubbardston, Michigan. He was the first- born of Orville Baker Read and Ada Sturgis Read. The family labored from dawn to dusk to wrest a meager living from the bounty of nature. Leonard’s father had come there from Watertown, New York, a descendant of a long line of farmers who immigrated from England early in the eighteenth century. Leonard’s mother often spoke of her Grandfather Sturgis, who was the first settler in Shiawasee County. Both families truly were pioneer folk with pioneer attitudes—venturesome, hardworking, willing to share, thankful for their blessings.
When Leonard was barely eleven and his sister Rubye nine, tragedy struck. Their father died at the age of forty from septicemia, commonly called blood poisoning. His death changed the life of the family dramatically, leaving Leonard the man of the family who now faced adult responsibilities. He helped his mother sell the farm and establish the first boarding house in town. To supplement the family income, he at times worked sixteen hours a day, milking cows at Uncle John’s farm and working in the village store.
A boy is said to be more trouble than a dozen girls. But Leonard had little time for play and trouble. He labored diligently and yet did not neglect his school work, hoping to become a physician. Because Hubbardston High was a rural public school with limited resources, he had to look elsewhere to complete studies necessary for college and ultimately medical school. The nearest accredited school that was well known for its excellence in college preparatory instruction was Ferris Institute in Big Rapids. Founded in 1884 by Woodbridge Ferris (later to become Governor of Michigan), it was a poor child’s private school with more than 1,200 pupils. A poor boy could earn his tuition by working for the school. At Ferris Institute, hard work and severe discipline were the rule. Any student failing in his academic subjects or violating the tough rules of conduct and behavior was expelled immediately, before the whole assembly.
When Leonard was seventeen his mother let him go. To work his way through Ferris Institute he would fire the furnace (at 5 a.m.), carry in wood and water, rake leaves, mow lawns, shovel snow, and so forth. He charged every new difficulty, in both studies and living conditions, with every ounce of his energy. He tackled his most uncongenial subjects and conquered them. He read and studied fervently and graduated a year later, in June 1917. “One way to check whether you ought to be doing this or that,” he was to say later,“ is to feel your zest pulse. If it’s low, chances are you should be elsewhere or doing something else. My zest pulse seems to be high in everything.”
The “War to End All Wars”
World War I had been raging in Europe since August 1, 1914; the United States had joined on April 6, 1917. Soon after his graduation Leonard enlisted with the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps. He hoped to become a pilot, but on the very day he was to be transferred to a training program his Squadron was ordered to leave for New York and embark for France. Leonard was so eager to go to war that he declined the pilot training. Much later, in another war, his two sons, Leonard E. Read, Jr., and James Baker Read, were both to become pilots and flight instructors.
Many young men are attracted by the glamour, pride, and glory of war. In times of war they would think poorly of themselves for not having been a soldier who tested his courage in battle. Soldiers rarely question the justifiableness of war, or virtue and righteousness. Leonard Read was skeptical of President Woodrow Wilson’s pronouncements that the war was the “culminating and final war to end all wars.” He wondered about Theodore Roosevelt’s oration that he was to fight “in the quarrel of civilization against barbarism, of liberty against tyranny.” To Leonard, it was not his business to question, but to fight.
In France, Leonard became a “rigger,” who assembles and services planes. He always kept in mind that the pilot’s life depended on the care and accuracy of his work, which made him labor hard and give scrupulous attention to detail. He bought books on aerodynamics, which he studied in the evening and learned the refinements of his craft. He later was able to boast that no flyer ever lost his life because of structural failure of a plane that he had rigged. When his reputation for knowledge and capability grew, he became a natural teacher as other ground crews sought his guidance. He learned two lessons which remained with him throughout life: (1) whatever you do, it is of paramount importance to pay attention to detail; (2) when you improve your own learning and understanding, others will seek you out for knowledge and advice.
Upon discharge from the service in July 1919, Leonard was eager to go to college and earn a degree so that he could proceed to medical school. But his severance pay would barely see him through the freshman year. He had to seek employment which would permit him to save for his college career.
Husband, Father, and Entrepreneur
After he had worked in several bookkeeping and cashier positions that were disappointing, he set out to establish himself in the business he knew best, the farm produce business. For more than five years Leonard struggled to build his Ann Arbor Produce Company. While other young men of his age were attending college, Leonard built a thriving business with six employees and better than a quarter of a million dollars in gross sales, which in today’s minidollars would be more than three million dollars. He even found time to marry petite, vivacious Gladys Cobb—later affectionately called Aggie. They soon were blessed with two strong and energetic sons—Lenny, Jr., and “J.B.” At the age of 25 Leonard was a well-known and highly respected businessman in Ann Arbor, owning a stately home in a prosperous neighborhood.
Yet, there is an element of fate that shapes man’s ends. Leonard’s situation so radically changed through the advent of chain stores that he was to liquidate the Ann Arbor Produce Company, forever leave the produce business, and move to California for an entirely new career. What had begun as a step toward medical school had yielded valuable experiences and many joys, and ended with a step forward into the next phase of his life.
A great talent is often lost for the want of a little courage. For Leonard it took a great deal of courage to give up his business, a lovely home in his native state, and move 2,000 miles in order to find a new beginning. And yet, a stirring restlessness, nourished by growing doubts as to the future of his Ann Arbor Produce Company, prompted the difficult decision and took the Leonard Read family to California, the Golden State.
Seeking More Light
Success in life is a matter of concentration and service. Step by step, little by little, bit by bit—that is the way to success. Unbeknownst to himself, Leonard was about to enter a phase of his life that would take him to the very summit of accomplishment. He would succeed above his fellows because he would continue to grow in strength, knowledge, and wisdom. He would seek more light, and find more the more he sought. Leonard Read was to become one of those rare individuals who take and give every moment of time.
He spent the next eighteen years with the Chamber of Commerce, serving as manager of Chambers in four locations: Burlingame, Palo Alto, the National Chamber’s Western Division in Seattle, and finally, as General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber. Here he directed a staff of 150 serving 18,000 members.
Leonard grew in many fields and branches of knowledge. In time he became a vocal critic of policies that would limit the scope of individual freedom and expand the powers of government. There were many local issues on which the Chamber of Commerce was expected to take a position such as the “Production for Use” movement, the popular “Ham and Eggs” scheme, “End Poverty in California,” and many other programs. In hundreds of speeches and pamphlets Leonard Read opposed these welfare schemes with some success. “After six years of these `successes,”’ he later wrote, “it became evident that if the intellectual soil from which these fallacies sprung were rancid, new ones would spring up in their places. Only the labels would be different. What I had been doing was comparable to proving only that the earth isn’t flat. The positive knowledge of someone discovering that the earth is a spheroid has rid us of the whole collection of fallacies about the earth’s shape. While it is necessary to understand and explain fallacies, that’s less than half the problem. Finding the right is the key to salvation, for the wrong can be displaced only by the right.”
Leonard felt a sense of duty to speak out clearly and courageously. He raised his voice against any abuse of power and especially against injustice committed in the name of law. His devotion to the cause of freedom caught the attention of many people in high places. Virgil Jordan, the President of the National Industrial Conference Board (NICB) in New York, had the wisdom to invite Leonard Read to achieve with NICB on a national scale what he had accomplished so admirably at the L.A. Chamber. And so, on May 15, 1945, Leonard Read became Executive Vice President of the National Industrial Conference Board and was looking forward to launching a nationwide educational program for the restoration of individual freedom and the market order.
As was his wont, Leonard poured his full effort and energy into raising money for the great task he was about to undertake. He was “on the road” most of the time, calling on prospective donors and presenting his ambitious program. However, NICB’s policy was to organize public meetings at which “both sides” of an issue were presented. Leonard opposed this policy. How do you represent “both sides” when “one side” is all around you? How do you state your case for individual freedom and the private property order when the other side is monopolizing the stage?
After eight frustrating months with NICB, Leonard resigned his position. Since he had raised many thousands of dollars for a cause he was unable to promote fullheartedly, he felt obliged to visit the donors and apologize for his failure. One of these men was David Goodrich, Chairman of B.F. Goodrich Company in New York City. When Leonard brought him the sad news of his failure, Mr. Goodrich raised a simple question: “If you had an organization of your liking, what would it look like?” Leonard went home, dazed and puzzled, with renewed courage and hope. He went to his typewriter, and between 3 p.m. and midnight wrote a description of the organization he envisioned. On that day in January 1946, the idea of the Foundation for Economic Education was born. To join all its pieces it would take a few more months, but a great idea had come to the world and now was pressing for admission.
The Founding of FEE
On March 7, 1946, seven founders of the Foundation met in the office of Dave Goodrich for the inaugural meeting. They were Leonard Read, Donaldson Brown of General Motors Corporation, Professors Fred R. Fairchild of Yale University and Leo Wolman of Columbia University, Henry Hazlitt of the New York Times, Claude Robinson of Opinion Research Corporation, and Goodrich himself.
The founders were convinced that New York City, with its splendid education and financial facilities, provided the ideal setting for FEE. But rent control had created a painful shortage of office space while confiscatory income and estate taxation had forced luxury homes and mansions to the market, which were now being sold at fractions of their original construction costs. When a thoughtful real estate agent showed Leonard a property at 30 South Broadway in Irvington-on-Hudson with its badly overgrown grounds and a mansion that showed evidence of neglect, he knew he had found the ideal home for his fledgling organization. Here he could set out to complete his mission “to discover, gather and to fasten attention on the sound ideas that underlie the free market economy which, in turn, underlies the good society.”
Leonard sought to surround himself with men and women of excellence, seekers of knowledge and students of liberty. Throughout the years his senior staff consisted of scholars who combined in a common effort and with energy and industry sought to serve the cause. Most of them spent a few years in Irvington and then moved on to other important pursuits in industry and education. Some were to become captains of industry, founders of enterprise, or famous educators. They all became wiser for their years of learning at FEE and their association with Leonard.
Ludwig von Mises was associated with the Foundation from the day FEE opened its doors to the day of his death in 1973. Read and Mises formed a team of discovery, united in the love of liberty and truth, succeeding in all they undertook, and whose successes were never won by the sacrifice of a single principle. Their association and friendship, which began for an end, continued to the end. Their joint efforts were to make the Foundation in Irvington-on-Hudson the intellectual center of the freedom movement.
In time The Freeman was to become the flagship publication of the Foundation. It came to FEE in 1955 when it ran into financial difficulties. In the dreary world of political strife The Freeman brings new hope to the weary mind and instills new strength.
In the early days of FEE, Leonard himself responded to all requests for lectures and speeches explaining the freedom philosophy. His friends and members of the board of trustees would invite him to speak to their service clubs and other groups. As the request for lectures and speeches continued to grow, the senior staff, too, was called upon to explain the work of the Foundation. Leonard and his colleagues traveled thousands of miles, from Maine to Hawaii, Manitoba to Miami, in order to explain the benefits of freedom. The growing popularity of the FEE speakers, finally, pointed to the need for short courses or “seminars” lasting one or two days. Throughout the year they conducted seminars at the Foundation in Irvington, attended by eager students of liberty from many parts of the country and world.
Leonard was always aware of the ethical and religious dimensions of human liberty. American institutions and the American way of life, he believed, ultimately rest on the tenets of the Judeo-Christian religion. It is from this source that we derive our convictions as to the meaning of life, the nature of man, the moral order, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. The American system, as it was originally conceived, is a projection of this religious heritage, and the American dream has an implicit religious content.
Leonard used what he knew about nature as evidence for his belief in God. Nature reveals certain qualities that are characteristic of an intelligent mind which designed nature for a purpose. In his own words: “There is the Mind of the Universe—God—from which all energy flows. Individuals are receiving sets of this Infinite and Divine Intelligence.”
Although Leonard Read published numerous tracts on political economy, his chief contributions to social thought lie in what he added to the philosophical, ethical, and psychological basis of human action. He was essentially a social philosopher who was more interested in moral and psychological principles than in economic theory.
A Commitment to Principle
For the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, the meaning of education was of crucial concern and occupied his mind from FEE’s beginning. In The Coming Aristocracy (1969) he stated his concern in simple terms: “Intentionally working on others takes the effort away from self. It has no effect on others, unless adversely; and the unevolving self is always the devolving self. The net result is social decadence—and has to be. The corrective for this is to rid ourselves of the notion that Joe Doakes must stand helpless unless he be made the object of our attention. Joe will do all right—and the same can be said for you and me if we’ll just mind our own business, the biggest and most important project any human being can ever undertake!”
This message is repeated in several of his 27 books, written largely between 1954 and 1982, sometimes two volumes in one year. He did not compromise in matters of principle no matter how the world censured him for his strict and unyielding position. His answer was uncompromising: “Principle does not lend itself to bending or to compromising. It stands impregnable.”
Leonard kept a journal of his labors and principles, never missing a day of entry since he began on October 16, 1951. In his journal entry of 9/5/54 he explained his reason for this activity. “Recording what one does and thinks each day is more of a discipline than one would at first suspect. Not that it isn’t possible to do or think what one does not record. But there is a forceful tendency to act only in ways that are recordable.” On the 22nd anniversary of his first entry, he reminisced: “I have kept you faithfully for all of these years, never missing a day. In a word, you are a joy to me or this would never have been accomplished.”
Among his achievements, Leonard was proud of his performance and accomplishments in his favorite sports: golfing and curling. He learned to play golf as a young Chamber of Commerce executive in Seattle and later played when time and weather permitted the rest of his life. He sometimes declared that the most important lesson which golf may teach its devotees is the “magic of believing.” In belief lies the secret of all valuable exertion and success.
It should not surprise us that a man who found so much fun and pleasure in life on the golf course and the curling rink, as did Leonard, displayed a great deal of interest in the practices of the “good life.” He took his cooking stove, saucepans, and pantry seriously and believed that dinner tables should be ever pleasant places in an otherwise arid world. With his love of innovation and experimentation Leonard transformed the Read cuisine into a gourmet’s laboratory, ever searching for exclusive culinary delights for the benefit of soul and body. Because Aggie, an excellent cook in her own right, didn’t care to be called upon to pare the potatoes or chop the vegetables while he put on the finishing touches, they agreed that each one would prepare his or her dishes from beginning to end. For many years, Leonard used to don a cook’s hat and prepare his Chicken Livers Leonardo for appreciative guests.
Until his death at the age of 84, Leonard continued to combine a youthful sense of wonder and curiosity with the profundity and erudition that are the fruits of many years of experience and labor.
In the early hours of May 14, 1983, Leonard E. Read died peacefully in his sleep. He had spent the day before at his desk, preparing for the annual meeting of the FEE Board of Trustees scheduled for the following week. At the age of 84, he left his grand creation, the Foundation for Economic Education, in sound condition intellectually and financially. He left his family as he left the Foundation, well ordered and well instructed.
Leonard Read was one of the most notable social philosophers of our time. His name will forever be associated with the rebirth of the freedom philosophy. The Foundation for Economic Education constitutes an enduring monument to his energy and talent.