All Commentary
Sunday, July 1, 1962

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1962/7


For people who are concerned with the difficulties of operating—or even formally maintaining—a republic in a time when practi­cally everybody has ceased to be­lieve in the concepts of natural law and inalienable rights, George Wolfskill’s The Revolt of the Con­servatives: A History of the American Liberty League 1934­1940 (Houghton Mifflin, 303 pages, $5.00) provides an amaz­ing, instructive casebook. But its meaning goes deeper than any­thing that is provided by the author’s rather shallow moraliz­ing.

Dr. Wolfskill, a first-rate re­searcher who writes a clean, crisp prose, knows that he is telling the story of a great practical failure. The Liberty League spent thou­sands of dollars and thousands of hours in the effort to defeat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, yet succeeded nowhere save in Maine and Vermont, which might have gone for Roosevelt‘s opponent, Alfred M. Landon, anyway. From this Dr. Wolfskill concludes thatthe Liberty League high com­mand, rich men for the most part, were “the wrong people… es­pousing the wrong philosophy at the wrong time.” What he should have said is that it is fatal to be both rich and right at a time when a popular majority has been weaned away from the basic con­stitutive idea of a republic, which is that all men, whether rich or poor, are entitled to equal protec­tion in inalienable rights deriving not from the state but from their Creator.

To operate a republic on the op­posite theory, that rights are the transient and entirely relativistic dispensations agreed upon by 51 per cent of the voters, is a long-run impossibility, for the major­ity, cut loose from moral anchors, will progressively eat up the spiritual and material capital on which society and the state itself depend for their continuity. But 1936 was not a propitious year for long-term considerations.

Having entered the basic objec­tion to Dr. Wolfskill’s approach, we may concede that the Liberty League completed the ruin of its chances for good works by making a long succession of tactical blunders. The Liberty Leaguers were not the “wrong” people; they had as much right to protection in their lives, liberties, and prop­erty as anybody else. But they were wrong in their approach to politics, for what they did not see is that tides cannot be changed by blowing upon the surf ace of the waters. Dr. Wolfskill is quite cor­rect in saying that the “League failed because it represented eco­nomic and political conservatism at a time when both were out of style.” In such a time one cannot hope to win by narrow concen­tration on an election; the only practical thing to do is to dig in for a long campaign to change the mind-set of the majority, which involves something deeper than getting out the vote.

Emotional Forces Overlooked

The Liberty League did not reckon with the interaction be­tween breadlines (even the sophis­ticated breadlines of the WPA) and the very human attribute of envy. The rich men who set up the Liberty League, a group which included several Du Ponts as well as important industrialists, like Alfred P. Sloan and E. T. Weir, were quite sensible in their fears that the New Deal would do little more than institutionalize the de­pression. (It was World War II that solved Roosevelt‘s unemploy­ment problem, not such gadgetry as the PWA and the NRA.) But they did not reckon with the emo­tional forces that had been un­loosed between 1929 and 1933. They thought that an elementary appeal to logic could be “sold,” provided the logic were backed with sufficient cash to disseminate it in carload lots to the literate in every corner of the land.

In their feeling that they could “save the Constitution” by spend­ing money for the broadcasting of principles, the Liberty Leaguers drew sustenance from their pre­vious success with the Association Against the Prohibition Amend­ment. Jouett Shouse, the able at­torney who led the AAPA in its final campaign for repeal of the Volstead law, argued that the Eighteenth Amendment was “mis­placed in the federal Constitu­tion.” It was, essentially, a “police statute” which usurped a right of surveillance of sumptuary habits that belonged to the local com­munities and states. In its battle for a particular constitutional principle the AAPA had succeeded by broadcasting—and John J. Raskob, the Du Ponts, and others who had paid most of the bills for the AAPA, did not see why the appeal to logic shouldn’t work in fighting such “unconstitutional” things as the AAA, the TVA, the Potato Control Act, and the Guf­f ey-Snyder Bituminous Coal Con­servation legislation.

“Rights” Had Become Suspect

It was one thing, however, to lead the workingman to a glass of good beer and quite another to restore a belief in such things as States’ Rights and the sanctity of economic contract in a day when the very idea of “rights” had be­come suspect. The trouble went much deeper than anything of an immediately specific nature that had been thought up by the New Deal to combat the depression.

What the Liberty Leaguers did not seem to know was that the battle for constitutional principle had been lost far earlier in the century. For one thing, the amend­ment which had legalized the “progressive” income tax in 1913 had effectively “nationalized” in­comes: what a man could keep of his paycheck was a matter of fed­eral permissiveness, not of indi­vidual right. By 1933 few people really believed that a man had clear title to what he produced, and the depression merely pro­vided a practical reason to redis­tribute the wealth more arbitrar­ily. The whole idea of constitu­tional “principle” had become ut­terly befogged by 1933, and if any real regeneration were to be effected, it would have to begin far back of politics. There were, for example, the schools. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been taught to disbelieve in Say’s Law of Mar­kets at Harvard University in the early nineteen hundreds—and from a disbelief in the efficacy of the market it was easy to jump to the conclusion that economic contract was in itself an anachro­nism. The attempt to preach the sanctity of market principles to the New Dealers, or to the voters whom they represented, in the heat of the political campaign of 1936 was equivalent to policing a cancer.

Moreover, the Liberty Leaguers had no conception of the role played by symbolic fitness in polit­ical combat. They let Al Smith, the man of the brown derby and the sidewalks of New York, lead off their 1936 campaign by mak­ing a speech to a crowd of million­aires at an expensive dinner in Washington. Al Smith should have “taken a walk” out of the Roose­velt Party in an entirely different setting, say by crying out to a group of working men in Madison Square Garden that it was John Doe’s dollar that was being de­valuated as well as John D. Rocke­feller’s, and that John D. Rocke­feller could still afford to buy beer after the devaluation where John Doe couldn’t. But Al Smith, out of anger toward Roosevelt, forgot his old political adroitness, and let himself be maneuvered into seeming a spokesman for the rich. As William Allen White put it, the Du Ponts had become “black beasts in the popular imagina­tion” merely because they had money. Al Smith should have steered clear of seeming to speak for the “black beasts” when he was really speaking for anybody and everybody who still had a nickel to preserve.

The relevance of symbolism to politics dawned on the Liberty Leaguers after the Roosevelt 1936 landslide. Thus, when Roose­velt proposed his Court Packing plan in early 1937, Jouett Shouse bestirred himself to keep the Lib­erty League out of the forefront of the fight against it. The politi­cal “pros” among the Republicans chuckled to themselves when Bur­ton Wheeler, a Democrat, helped lead the onslaught on the Court Pack plan in the Senate. When the plan had been defeated, the Lib­erty Leaguers could claim a vic­tory for their constitutional “teachings.” But they had, finally, to admit that you don’t sell “teach­ings” the way you sell “motor oil and razor blades.”

Since 1936 conservatives and libertarians have learned a great deal about the nature of the crisis that confronts the republic. They have learned that the New Deal was an effect, not a cause; that the task of saving the individual from chronic manipulation by statists is a matter of re-creating a philosophical fabric even more than it is a matter of electing “good” men to office. They have learned that politicians are agents, not prime movers, and that if the mind-set of the coun­try is first taken care of, the poli­ticians will do as they are told.

Because they have been willing to undertake the task of patient education, conservatives and liber­tarians have been winning at least a few political victories in recent years. They will win even more when the generation that is now in its twenties has had time to mature.        

Biochemical Individual­ity By Roger J. Williams

(New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., $6.50)

Reviewed by James L. Doenges, M.D.

Egalitarians have for decades espoused an impossible cause. The more erudite of their number knew, and occasionally admitted, that some men are “more equal” than others! The facts of individ­ual variation are fully demon­strated in this book by the Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Biochemical Institute of the University of Texas.

Modern egalitarians have two choices. They may ignore Dr. Williams’ Biochemical Individual­ity (which most of them will have to do), or challenge and attack some “windmills” of their own construction in an attempt to con­fuse the issue and draw attention from the obvious, yet well-demon­strated facts which Dr. Williams presents. These are facts which every biologist, scientist, anthro­pologist, geneticist, doctor of medicine, and every observant citizen knows almost as “second nature.” People are not equal—except in their human-ness. Each person is an individual, different from every other person.

Every human being is a deviate in some respects, and this fact is of immense significance for the life sciences: medicine, dentistry, nutrition, and others. Individuals exhibit important anatomical dif­ferences; they vary in body chem­istry; their nutritional patterns are not the same; they differ in their tolerance to various drugs, in endocrine activity, in excretion pattern.

The point driven home by Wil­liams’ book is that men cannot be dealt with en masse, and we should give up trying to do so. Mass legislation, mass education, mass medication, and mass every­thing else, swamp the individual person who, after all, is our main concern.

This book is easy to read, self-evident in its analysis, but an es­sential for a more complete under­standing of the entire picture by those who are not, and do not care to be, “equal.”    

Suffer, Little Children (Reflections On American Educa­tion) By Max Rafferty

(The Devin­Adair Company, New York, 1962. 166 pp. $3)

Reviewed by Rev. August W. Bru­stat

This incisive, hard-hitting vol­ume might well be subtitled: “A School Administrator Speaks His Mind.” Max Rafferty, a school su­perintendent in California, is a master of the King’s English, and has produced a unique book. It goes to the very heart of the edu­cational problem and propounds sane, workable solutions.

Among other things, Rafferty discusses the decline of educa­tional standards, the stress on “methods” rather than “subject matter” in teachers’ colleges, the cultural mediocrity of many teach­ers, the lack of discipline in the schools, the concentration on “projects” and “field trips” in­stead of solid instruction, and the generalized report cards which tell little, if anything, about a child’s academic competence and accomplishments.

The author criticizes the uni­versities for spawning a philoso­phy which “denies eternal veri­ties, glorifies the immediately use­ful, and decries learning for the sake of learning…. The mating of permissive progressivism and soulless Behaviorism,” he writes, “has produced a monster.”

This is a volume that ought to stir up a lot of discussion among teachers, school officials and boards, and parents. If this hap­pens, education may yet revive!

Who Is Ayn Rand? By Na­thaniel Branden.

(New York: Random House, 239 pp. $3.95)

Reviewed by Francesca Knight

Ayn Rand’s uncompromising ad­vocacy of reason, self-interest, and individualism has won her an enormous following. Her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have sold over two and a half million copies. It would be hard to name a modern writer who has stimulated such violent controversy—such intense ad­miration or such intense hostility.

Nathaniel Branden is a psychol­ogist and close associate of Ayn Rand; he is co-editor with her of the newly founded Objectivist Newsletter. Several years ago he founded Nathaniel Branden Insti­tute, Inc., which offers lecture courses on Objectivism (the name Miss Rand has given to her phil­osophy) in New York and in other cities across the country. The un­dertaking has been highly suc­cessful, and there can be no ques­tion but that Ayn Rand, both as philosopher and novelist, has stirred up considerable enthusi­asm among young intellectuals.

Who Is Ayn Rand? is an analy­sis of the novels of Objectivism’s founder from the standpoint of philosophy, psychology, and liter­ary method. The title essay of the book, contributed by Barbara (Mrs. Nathaniel) Branden, deals primarily with Miss Rand’s artis­tic and intellectual development.

Ayn Rand’s chief target is the morality of altruism. The cardinal principles of her ethics are: the supremacy of reason; man’s right to exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself; and the princi­ple that no man or group of men has the right to seek values from others by the use of physical force.

Conservatives owe it to them­selves—and to their cause—to consider what it is that Ayn Rand is offering people, and what is the nature of her appeal. They will find answers in this book.


  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.