The Freeman: The Early Years
DECEMBER 01, 1984 by CHARLES HAMILTON
This article is adapted from a chapter prepared for an extensive review of The American Conservative Press. This collection, edited by Ronald Lora and William Longton, is to be published by Greenwood Press.
Mr. Hamilton founded and was president and editor-in-chief of Free Life Editions, an independent publishing house in New York City. He is widely experienced in editing, publishing, research and writing of libertarian studies.
When the Freeman first appeared on October 2, 1950, it was carrying on a distinguished history of political journalism. The original Freeman under the tutelage of Albert Jay Nock, had begun publication in 1920, a wonderfully successful venture lasting four years. In 1930, Suzanne La Follette, who had been Nock’s assistant at the older Freeman, began the New Freeman, which lasted for fourteen months. Thus it was that the lead editorial in October, 1950, lamented: “For at least two decades there has been an urgent need in America for a journal of opinion devoted to the cause of traditional liberalism and individual freedom. The Freeman is designed to fill that need.”
In post-World War II America there were published a few small conservative magazines like Human Events, analysis, and Plain Talk, but there were none like the liberal New Republic or Nation that could influence and focus national attention on conservative issues and answers. Within that milieu, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Freeman to the development of modern-day conservative and libertarian sensibilities. All the internal controversies and tensions that characterize a fledgling political faith were contained in its pages. With great verve, it leveled criticisms at liberal domestic and foreign policies and tried to present viable alternatives.
By the end of 1955, when new owners changed the nature of the magazine, a self-conscious and relatively coherent movement had evolved. If “creeping conservatism” was “the grand trend of the 1950s” as Clinton Rossiter believed, then the Freeman had been its professional and articulate journal of opinion.
The Freeman developed out of the perceived need to get beyond the militantly, and unrelievedly, anti-Communist journalism of Plain Talk. Within two years of its founding in October, 1948, Plain Talk editor Isaac Don Levine, journalists John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt, and financial backers Alfred Kohlberg and Jasper Crane wanted, in the words of Chamberlain, to: “go on to something more positive . . . . The fight [against Communists] has been won domestically . . . We want to revive the John Stuart Mill concept of liberalism.” Plans were begun for a new magazine, and in short order $200,000 was raised with the active help of Kohlberg, Crane, Sun Oil magnate J. H. Pew, and ex-President Herbert Hoover. The first issue of the Freeman went to 6,000 subscribers (5,000 from Plain Talk). Thirty-one thousand promotional copies were also distributed.
The editors were to be Isaac Don Levine, John Chamberlain, and Henry Hazlitt. When Levine dropped out of the plan, Suzanne La Follette was added. These three well-known journalists, who had been perceived as radicals in the 1930s, would now edit a conservative fortnightly.
Chamberlain had been variously an editor or book editor for the New York Times, Harper’s, and Fortune. He had written an important critique of progressivism, Farewell to Reform. In addition to general editorial responsibilities, he would contribute “A Reviewer’s Notebook,” a valuable column which he continues to write today. Hazlitt had succeeded H. L. Mencken at the American Mercury and for many years had served on the editorial staff of the New York Times. He was the author of the popular introduction to free market economics, Economics in One Lesson. Hazlitt would work part-time so that he could continue as a columnist for Newsweek. La Follette, who had been a contributing editor for Plain Talk, became the managing editor.
The Freeman’s board of directors represented heavyweight individualism. Academic representation including Ludwig von Mises, Leo Wolman, and later Roscoe Pound. Donald Cowling (Carleton College), Leonard E. Read (Foundation for Economic Education), and H. C. Cornuelle (Volker Fund) were also on the board. Businessmen were represented by Henning W. Prentis (President of Armstrong Cork), Alfred Kohlberg (wealthy importer), W. F. Peter (Vice President of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad), and Lawrence Fertig (Fertig Advertising). Successful publisher Alex Hillman and Claude Robinson of Opinion Research were later added to the board.
The Freeman rested its perspective firmly on the principles of the classical liberal tradition. These were succinctly set forth in the first issue in Henry Hazlitt’s editorial, “The Faith of the Freeman.” Of primary importance, he wrote, was a belief in the moral autonomy of the individual, without which there could be no freedom. Second, individual liberty necessitated a free market, “the basic institution of a liberal society.” It was this that set the true liberal or libertarian society apart from all forms of collectivism. Finally, the editorial gave more moderate expression to Dorothy Thompson’s short poem, “I hate, the State.” The rule of law, decentralization of power, and local autonomy stood as barriers against the natural self-aggrandizing tendencies of government. A year later, Hazlitt wrote another important editorial in defense of “the existence and power of ideas” against those “friends of free enterprise” who “can only fume and sputter.” The editorial went on to point out that intellectuals set economic and social fashions and that it was absolutely necessary to “make converts . . . . It is the aim of the Freeman to address itself specifically to the leaders and moulders of public opinion and to thinking people everywhere, in order to help create a healthier climate for the preservation of free enterprise and the liberty and moral autonomy of the individual.”
Concern About the Threat of Soviet Communism
The sentiments expressed in “The Faith of the Freeman” and in “The Function of the Freeman” were never fully realized. Until 1956 the major topic of discussion in the pages of the Freeman was how America should respond to the threat of communism—specifically Soviet communism. The principles of classical liberalism seemed to offer little guidance in such a struggle. The fear of communism and the pressing need to defeat it challenged deep-seated anti-statist and free market convictions: “We are being forced to spend billions and to arm and to tax and to interfere with the freedom of the market for one reason alone, and that reason is Kremlin Joe’s overriding purpose to subvert the world.”
A strongly interventionist foreign policy position developed from the articles of Suzanne La Follette and John Chamberlain, and from contributors like Bonner Fellers, William Henry Chamberlin, William Schlamm and Alice Widener. They hoped that the resultant powerful American State would only be temporary. When, for instance, John Chamberlain supported a temporary draft in late 1950, he appended this fearful caveat: “But don’t let us make the mistake of thinking that the values of Athens can be maintained by changing our society into a Sparta for all time.”
Other writers feared that the ultimate value of freedom was being corrupted, perhaps permanently, by fear. Contributors like John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett, Louis Brom-field, and Frank Chodorov stood up for the Old Right position of nonintervention and warned that freedom would be lost in a wrongheaded attempt to protect it. A massive and continuing military presence throughout the world would lead, Garrett predicted, to “the institution of perpetual war” at home.
In the case of Korea, the Freeman voiced extreme displeasure at Truman for his militarily “untenable” dispatch of Americans to the Asian continent. Its contributors debated whether withdrawal from Korea was prudent, but the editors hinted at preventive war elsewhere in that case: “we should obviously strike elsewhere to keep the military and moral consequences of this defeat from being too great.” It was imperative that the western Pacific not be lost to communism as eastern Europe had been lost. Rearming Japan, supporting Chiang Kai-shek and liberating mainland China were seen as appropriate goals. Indeed, as one editorial commented, “The Pacific Ocean is an American lake.”
At the same time, contributors wrote about the limitations on American foreign policy. It was pointed out that 140 million Americans could not save the world. Articles called for the nations of the world to assume their full share of the fight against communism. It became imperative, the Freeman advanced, for America to disentangle itself from uncertain allies and inappropriate and limiting alliances: “One of our fundamental mistakes was our well-meant effort to ‘assume world leadership’.”
This was not the traditional right wing isolationist position, however. Nor was it a call for a containment policy, which was often criticized in editorials and by James Burnham, author of The Struggle for the World and The Coming Defeat of Communism, both of which argued the case for the liberation of enslaved countries. It was a call for the use of autonomous American strength. Unilateral and interventionist actions were necessary, conservatives believed, to protect the United States and save the world from communism, and the Freeman became a spokesman for such views.
The Freeman regularly commented on political affairs. It severely criticized the Truman administration for many of its economic policies, ranging from price controls to the takeover of the steel industry. With respect to Korea, an editorial in early 1951 caused quite a furor when it called for Truman’s resignation because of his “clear usurpation of the constitutional prerogative of Congress.”
In late 1951 and in 1952, editorials and articles debated the pros and cons of Taft, Eisenhower and MacArthur for the Republican Presidential nomination. While the Freeman never officially endorsed a candidate, its criterion was clear: “a good candidate must grasp the Communist nettle firmly.” And it acknowledged that it followed Taft “as a benchmark” when it came to foreign and military policy.
Compared to foreign affairs, however, domestic economic and social issues received limited attention: from Henry Hazlitt, economists Ludwig von Mises, Leo Wolman, and F. A. Hayek, and a few others like businessman Edward F. Hutton and lawyer C. Dickerman Williams. As important as domestic problems were, a late 1952 editorial pointed out that they “must play second riddle to the overriding considerations of foreign policy. If we can take care of Joe [Stalin], we can take care of everything else. There is nothing that an effective foreign policy can not cure.”
The Freeman rarely published the exposes of Communist terror that were common in Plain Talk. The consensus seemed to be that, as evil as communism was, the danger did not come from “any exceptional cunning of our enemies. The Communist design of world conquest is one of the most open conspiracies in history.” Rather, the Freeman’s authors believed the danger lay with America’s liberal leaders. Liberalism was, in conservative eyes, essentially a form, albeit more benign, of the same collectivist and economic ideology that made up the Communist doctrine. The beginnings of a critique of “social communism” and of liberal ideology developed out of this analysis. The problems facing America were less ones of agents and treason and more ones of the ideological weaknesses and susceptibilities of liberalism.
This discussion of ideas seemed too theoretical to editors La Follette and Forrest Davis (who became the fourth editor in May 1952) and many of the contributors. As they discussed day-to- day politics and personalities, the lines between liberal and “pink” and agent often became blurred. Widespread treason in many areas of American society was alleged. Numerous articles came to question at least the intelligence and often the loyalty of Owen Lattimore, Dean Acheson, Alger Hiss, and General Marshall.
The McCarthy Era
It was within this context that Senator Joseph McCarthy became a cause celebre for the Freeman. While rarely conservative in his economic and social views, McCarthy nonetheless struck a responsive chord among many conservatives in his attempt to eliminate alleged Communist agents and influence in government. He was successful in gathering attention and support from the American people—whatever his methods—and that was the important point, as young writer William F. Buckley made clear in his first article for the Freeman: “if we want to help forge national policy, we must not allow our predispositions for clean and objective political techniques to influence too heavily our judgments of candidates and their aims . . . . we must search out today only the general aims we find congenial and the men who seek to realize them.”
By late 1952, the Freeman had 22,000 subscribers, was edging toward self-sufficiency, and was firmly established “at the gates of our liberty like a heroic watchman, unafraid and dedicated.” At this same time, however, a series of internal conflicts developed and then it went through a number of ownership changes. By the end of 1955, it had been replaced as the conservative journal of opinion.
There were no clearly drawn camps in the initial controversies. Hazlitt and many of the board members felt the other editors had become too intemperate and had too intensely embraced McCarthyism. The editors also clashed with board members over who controlled editorial policy. And finally, the strong pro-Taft sentiment expressed by Chamberlain and Davis did not sit well with many of the board members who supported Eisenhower or wanted the Freeman to remain neutral until after the Republican convention.
These difficulties made it impossible for the magazine to run smoothly or to raise funds. In late October 1952, Henry Hazlitt resigned. The struggles between the board and the remaining editors continued, however. Four months later, Chamberlain, La Follette, and Davis resigned, and with the issue of February 23, 1953, Hazlitt came back as the sole editor.
A Return to Classic Liberal and Free Market Principles
Hazlitt tried to direct the Freeman back toward classical liberal and free market principles. He tried to steer away from personalities, and in “Let’s Defend Capitalism” wrote a powerful critique of “those who think ‘anti-Communism’ is itself a sufficient ground for unity. Communism, they say, is not a doctrine that needs to be dissected, but a conspiracy that needs to be suppressed . . . The true opposite of Communism is Capitalism. The Communists know it, but most of the rest of us don’t. This is the real reason for the ideological weakness of the opposition to Communism.”
Despite his ascendency, Hazlitt left the Freeman at the beginning of 1954 to pursue other interests. For the next six months, the day-to-day work fell to Florence Norton as Managing Editor (she had previously been Managing Editor of the American Mercury and was a protégé of Max Eastman who published frequently in the Freeman during this time). By June, it looked as if the Freeman might have to cease publication. After three and a half years, it had lost $400,000. Board member Leonard E. Read offered to buy it for the Irvington Press, owned by The Foundation for Economic Education. A number of board mere-bers were against the sale, but it finally was accepted.
The new publisher of the Freeman (now a monthly) was quick to emphasize that the magazine would be independent of The Foundation for Economic Education. It would “be a ‘house organ’ for the libertarian faith.” The new editor was Frank Chodorov, who from 1944 to 1951 had published the libertarian monthly, analysis. At 68, he was well-known in conservative circles for his uncompromising individualism, his emphasis on free market solutions to problems, and his strong anti-statist and anti-war views.
The number of articles on domestic and economic affairs increased, but the major articles remained centered on foreign affairs and the Communist threat. With Chodorov speaking clearly for the non-interventionist side, “The Dilemma of Conservatives,” as William F. Buckley called it, became quite explicit. “It is a pity,” he wrote in August 1954, “that yet one more difference will divide the waning conservative movement in the United States. But the issue is there, and ultimately it will separate us.”
A major debate on the subject occurred in the September and November 1954 issues between Chodorov and William S. Schlamm (formerly assistant to Henry Luce and a Freeman contributor). In two articles, Chodorov spoke for the Old Right, emphasizing that the threat of communism was largely ideological and that it needed to be opposed by better ideas. To turn away from the free market and individualism, and to increase state power and prepare for war, would, he warned, be “certain to communize our country” no matter what the military outcome. Schlamm, after asserting that Chodorov ignored the problem of communism in favor of easy and high-sounding words, reiterated a common theme when he wrote: “we had better try, as responsible men, to defeat the implacable foe before, by our own default, he has become invincible . . . [I am willing] to pay with the recoverable loss of some of my liberties for a chance to avoid, for centuries, the total loss of freedom.”
The last word from the Old Right on this subject—in the Freeman—came from Chodorov. He commented on the large percentage of all manuscripts he received that treated the subject of communism: “We are, of course, opposed to communism, but no more so than we are opposed to fascism, or socialism or any other form of authoritarianism. But we are also for something—a thing called freedom. Sometimes as I read these anti-communist manuscripts, an unkind suspicion comes upon me; are these writers for freedom or only against communism?”
Those advocating intervention nevertheless won the day. Both Murray N. Rothbard and William F. Buckley (on opposite sides of the debate) have commented on how quickly and completely the interventionist position became the conservative position. What had been the continuing thrust of most conservative opinion, as expressed in the Freeman, was solidly ensconced by late 1955.
Financial problems continued to plague the Freeman during this period. Losses reached nearly $90,000 since it was taken over by The Foundation for Economic Education in May, 1954. And since the Freeman had always been somewhat outside FEE’s thrust of promoting economic and moral principles, it was decided to integrate it more fully into their educational program. Beginning with the January, 1956 issue, the Freeman became “the major carrier of FEE re leases.” A smaller size was adopted, and it became a controlled circulation publication with a circulation of about 44,000. Dr. Paul Poirot, who came to FEE in 1949 and had previously been a Cornell University economist, has been the Managing Editor ever since.
The Freeman had been the journalistic vehicle “of the libertarian reconstruction after World War II.” It had formed and reflected the development of a rather inchoate gathering of conservative and libertarian authors into a self-conscious and active intellectual movement. However, the first issue of National Review in November, 1955 symbolized the institutionalization of the more traditionalist and anti-communist threads of that resurgence. During Frank Chodorov’s tenure as editor, the Freeman had become a rear-guard action for the classical liberal and libertarian strains in the American right-wing. Whether seen as a tragedy or the necessary rejection of an outmoded individualism, a new era had begun for the American conservative movement.
Since 1956, the Freeman has played a different kind of crucial role. It has quietly emphasized the free market, private property, and especially the moral and spiritual underpinnings of a free society when conservatives and libertarians have often preferred to focus on other topics. The conservative and libertarian resurgence might have been stillborn, however, without those early years of the Freeman. 
4. In fact, the Freeman rarely described itself as conservative, using, for instance, subtitles like “A Fortnightly for Individualists,” “A Monthly for Libertarians,” and since 1956 simply “Ideas on Liberty.”
5. Editorials were unsigned. Author attributions, when given, are based on notations made by Henry Hazlitt in the office copy of volume one of the Freeman, or on discussions with John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt.
17. See, for instance, “George F. Kennan: Policy-Guesser.” Freeman 2 (February 25, 1952):325-326 [written by Suzanne La Follette and Alice Widener], and James Burnham, “Critique of Containment,” Freeman 3 (February 9, 1953):331-334.
From “The Faith of the Freeman”
It will be one of the foremost aims of the Freeman to clarify the concept of individual freedom and apply it to the problems of our time. Its basic principles and broader applications have long been embodied in the classic liberal tradition. That tradition has always emphasized the moral autonomy of the individual. Real morality cannot exist where there is no real freedom of choice. The individual must be free to act as his own conscience directs, so long as he does not infringe upon the equal rights of others.
The true liberal tradition has always placed great emphasis on economic liberty. It is particularly of economic liberty that communists, socialists, government planners and other collectivists have been most openly contemptuous. Yet it is not too much to say that economic freedom, as embodied in the free market, is the basic institution of a liberal society . . . .
The Freeman is launched in the faith that there is a substantial body of readers in America who share these ideals, and who will rally to a periodical dedicated to their reaffirmation.