All Commentary
Friday, May 1, 1964

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1964/5

Despair Not

The late Isabel Paterson, whose The God of the Machine has just been reprinted by the Caxton Printers of Caldwell, Idaho ($4.95) with an appendix which lists the books in Mrs. Paterson’s library, was neither a professional economist, nor a poli­tical scientist, nor a historian, nor yet a sociologist. But she was a superb logician, and because of this fact The God of the Machine remains just what I said it was when I reviewed it for Harper’s Magazine in 1943, “the first clear piece of sustained primary poli­tical thinking that has appeared in ages.”

Rereading The God of the Ma­chine twenty years after its first appearance, one is particularly conscious of two things, one hope­ful, one that is only productive of despair. The hopeful thing is that an important seminal book does not have to be widely popular to have a prodigious effect. The de­spairful thing is that the same important book can continue to be ignored by established institu­tions even after it has made its way among thinkers who are not linked to the hierarchies that con­trol most of our important social and political activities.

Mrs. Paterson operated in the field of logic because she con­sidered that none of our modern disciplines could be made worth while until people had learned how to use words and categories with due regard to their actual meaning in a world of physical reality. Her attack on the fallacies of socialism, for example, began by holding Proudhon’s maxim, “All property is theft,” up to the light. Theft, said Mrs. Paterson in swift rebuttal, presupposes rightful ownership, for “an ob­ject must be property before it can be stolen.” After such a suc­cinct and powerful demolition of the whole bent of Proudhon’s thought, is there anything more that need be said?

Since such epigrammatic utter­ance is condemned by our self-appointed Best Minds as “shoot­ing from the hip,” Mrs. Paterson made it a habit to follow up her barbs with some fairly detailed logical analysis. The reason for private property, she told the Proudhonists and the Marxists, goes back to the physical law that says two bodies cannot oc­cupy the same space at the same time. Individual ownership is dic­tated by the “conditions of physi­cal phenomena,” whereas “public ownership” must inevitably be a fiction simply because its verbal terms do not correspond to the conditions of time and space.

Nobody, so Mrs. Paterson re­minded us, could live in a house if the general public were free to go in and out at will, to sleep in the beds, or to cook in the kitchen. There would have to be an allotment of the space and the facilities. If the allotment were to be made in perpetuity, under a theory of inalienability, it would be a mark of private property creeping back in. Otherwise, the occupant of bed and kitchen would be sleeping and cooking by per­mission. Thus Mrs. Paterson made her logical point: in a world of public ownership, one lives by permission. In such a world one can make out rather well if he happens to be on an important committee, or knows how to get next to the official dispenser of favors. But woe to the individual under socialism who is not gaited to rise in the political world or to fawn on those who have already attained to political power.

Cliches Examined

Twenty years after Mrs. Pater­son wrote her book one still hears labor leaders arguing that prop­erty rights and human rights are mutually exclusive categories, and that production for profit and pro­duction for use are at polar ex­tremes from each other. The de­spairful thing is that, despite Mrs. Paterson, the labor leaders still carry conviction. The deduc­tion to be made from this is that our schools have been incapable of teaching logical analysis to all the generations that have grown up since 1943, when Mrs. Paterson first demonstrated that produc­tion for profit and production for use are one and the same thing. She did this by following a farmer into his potato patch. There would be no sense to plant­ing a seed potato in the spring, she said, if it were not to result in many more potatoes in the fall. The multiplication of his potatoes is the profit the farmer gets from his deployment of energy and cap­ital. And it is, at the same time, the source of what the farmer must use to live and add to his capital. He may not eat the pota­toes himself, but someone else will eat them—and by this “use” they will sustain their own lives.

A Circuit of Energy

To Mrs. Paterson, civilization was to be likened to a “long cir­cuit of energy.” To keep the cir­cuit operating with complicated hook-ups, the individual had to be left free to make his own deci­sions about plugging in. A good part of The God of the Machine is devoted to historical exposition, accompanied by shrewd analysis of the contributions of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the medieval church, the English, and the creators of the American Federal Constitution, to the making of a free society. Since Mrs. Paterson was one of the closest reasoners in the world, it is impossible to put the gist of such chapters as “Rome Discovers Political Structure” or “The Function of Government” or “The Meaning of Magna Carta” into a few paragraphs.

Briefly, however, a government, if it is to encourage the inventive and productive man, must agree that the rights to life, liberty, and property are inalienable. The man who is not free to think, to own, and to produce is not free to live. The function of government is to protect a man on his physical base (property), to safeguard him in his contractual relations with other individuals, to represent him in dealing with other nations (the power of the border), and to render impartial justice. In her exploration of the function of gov­ernment Mrs. Paterson found her­self talking about money, about the “flaw” of slavery, and about the need for architectural struc­ture (the “motor” of the individ­ual, the “brake” of the political power, and the correct combina­tion of regional and mass repre­sentation).

Religious Foundation

Mrs. Paterson’s book deals ex­haustively with mechanisms, but the fundamental approach is not mechanistic. Unlike Ayn Rand, whose novels appealed to her be­cause they had great force as in­spiriting fables, Mrs. Paterson was fundamentally religious. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the universe is “run­ning down,” and will end as a dead aggregation of heatless and motionless particles. But to Mrs. Paterson it was only rational to suppose that there must be a God (or First Cause) to wind uni­verses up so that they may run down. She saw the human being as constituting a continuing ex­ception to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It was obvious to her that a human being posses­ses the faculty of choice, that he has the power to become a crea­tive person, and that he is in charge of his machines, and not vice versa. The principle of the dynamo inheres in nature, but man himself makes the dynamos and keeps them in running order. Thus Mrs. Paterson’s answer to Henry Adams, who saw the “Virgin” (the thirteenth century embodiment of grace and free will) giving way to the mechan­istic twentieth century.

The “Virgin” is still with us. She turns the dynamo on and off.


JOHN ADAMS by Page Smith (New York: Doubleday & Co., 2 vols, 1170 pp., 1962, $14.50).

Reviewed by Robert M. Thornton

John Adams had one of this country’s best political minds, and was one of the few men active throughout the entire twenty-five years that witnessed the birth of the Republic, 1764-1789. With James Otis and Cousin Sam he was among the first to advocate separation from the British Crown; he was a delegate from Massachusetts to the first meetings of the Continental Congress; he was on the committee chosen by the Continental Congress to draw up the Declaration of Inde­pendence from Great Britain; he represented the colonies at the French court, in Holland, and later in drawing up the peace treaty with Great Britain that ended the war for independence; he was our first ambassador to the Court of St. James after hos­tilities ceased and he wrote at length in favor of forming a na­tion of the thirteen colonies un­der a constitution; he was the first Vice-President of the United States of America, and the sec­ond President.

After the Revolution he was often accused of being a monarch­ist, of no longer holding to the ideas that led to the separation from Britain; he retorted that not he but some of his fellow-rev­olutionaries were false to the cause of individual liberty. Adams believed (as Page Smith phrased it) that “only those should make revolutions who cared, next to justice, for order. The careless, the hasty, the fanatical, the reck­lessly impatient—they brought destruction and ruin more often than happiness. Those ardent rev­olutionaries who killed particular men because they loved Man in the abstract put a dark curse on the ideals they professed and compromised the causes for which they themselves were quite ready to die.”

Tyranny of the Majority

While Mr. Jefferson and others were concerned with the dangers of an all-powerful monarch, Adams (and many framers of the Constitution such as James Madi­son) worried about the possible tyranny of the majority. As his biographer writes:

To say that they had equal rights before the law and equal opportunities to advance in the world was one thing, but this querulous contention that breed­ing, education, experience, man­ners, character and property counted for nothing was troubling and dangerous. It was the same spirit which held up single-branch legislatures as the model of pop­ular government where the will of the people was expressed di­rectly, unencumbered by judges and executive officers. Indeed, the “leveling spirit” looked askance on law and lawyers. The will of the people was the magic phrase. The people, by this new doctrine, were naturally and inherently good. It thus followed that re­straints and inhibitions on their actions were bad. If the people wished this presently and some­thing else tomorrow, what right had law to gainsay them? This was, in Adams’ view, a most in­sidious dogma. It was government by men, not by laws, government in which order and stability yielded to whim and fashion, in which the tyranny of the major­ity might at any moment topple the safeguards that protected the life, liberty and property of a minority of the community.

Page Smith has done a truly fine job of presenting the life of our second President—the first biography of Adams since release of the Adams Papers in 1954 and, with the exception of Gilbert Chinard’s Honest John Adams (1933), the only full treatment of the man by a historian in this century. Were it not so long, one could imagine Smith writing this book at one sitting without so much as a pause to catch his breath—it is that sustained and steady an effort. It is heartily rec­ommended to all who might seek some clarification of current af­fairs by going back to the early days of our nation which were no less critical than our own. And it is most refreshing to read of this man who of all the giants of his time we can perhaps know best. If Mr. Jefferson ever put his innermost thoughts and feel­ings in writing, he carefully de­stroyed all the papers before his death. Adams, on the other hand, seems never to have thrown any­thing away—letters, diaries, com­monplace books all written in per­fect frankness and unedited by the writer!

This book should put John Adams in his rightful place be­side Washington, Jefferson, Madi­son, Franklin, and Hamilton. Paraphrasing Adams, Page Smith writes: “The revolutionary crisis drew forth the devoted and able and with them the emotionally unstable, the meanly ambitious, the zealots and the simple cranks.” That John Adams was among the former, this book makes clear without a doubt.

  • 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.