Against the Tide: The Life of Francis W. Hirst

An Apostle of Civil Liberty and Personal Freedom
by  Mark Brady

Mark Brady, who was born and grew up in England but now lives in America, has been a libertarian for almost 30 years.

Sadly, it is only an exceptionally well-informed reader who will recognize the name of Francis W. Hirst, whose stalwart advocacy of personal freedom, free trade, and peace during the first half of the twentieth century, and especially during the First World War and its aftermath, surely earns him an honored place in the pantheon of individual liberty.

Francis Wrigley Hirst (“Frank” to his family) was born on June 10, 1873, at Dalton Lodge, two miles east of Huddersfield in the West Riding of Yorkshire. He was the third of five children (two sons, three daughters) of a prosperous wool-stapler, Alfred Hirst, who went blind at 27, and his wife, Mary Wrigley.

On both sides of his family Frank Hirst had nonconformist ancestors who had worked and voted for the Great Reform Bill and the repeal of the Corn Laws. His maternal grandfather, Joseph Woodhead of Huddersfield, had supported Richard Cobden and John Bright in their opposition to the Crimean War and had voted for Cobden at Huddersfield in 1857. His paternal grandfather, Charles Hirst, had enjoined his son, Alfred, “always be against war; nine times out of ten you will be right, and the other time it will not matter.”

As a young boy in the early 1880s, Frank Hirst met a few of the old handloom weavers who spoke of the hungry years during and after the French wars, when work failed and the taxed grain rose to impossible prices. Thus during his childhood, which seems to have been a happy one, he imbibed the great Liberal tradition of peace, retrenchment, and reform, causes that he held dear throughout his long life.

In 1891 Hirst won an open scholarship in classics to Wadham College, Oxford, where he had a distinguished university career. He was elected successively librarian and president of the Oxford Union, the renowned debating society, where he was a contemporary of Hilaire Belloc and F. E. Smith, later Earl of Birkenhead. In 1899 he won the Cobden Prize and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple. Although for some years he had entertained hopes of making an income as an attorney, these hopes faded away as few clients sought him out and he found he had no natural talent for court work. So Hirst practically abandoned the law for journalism and book writing.

In 1903 he married Helena Cobden, a great-niece of Cobden, at Heyshott and eventually they were to live in Cobden’s old home, Dunford House, in Sussex, where he was chairman of the Dunford House Association. They had no children.

Liberal Author

As early as 1897 Hirst had co-edited and contributed to Essays in Liberalism by “Six Oxford Men,” who included Belloc and J. L. Hammond, later to become famous as one half of the Hammonds, the labor historians. Hirst’s own contribution was a stalwart defense of “Liberalism and Wealth.” The book was dedicated to John Morley, the writer and Liberal statesman, with whom Hirst was to have a close relationship until Morley’s death in 1923.

On February 14, 1900, with the Boer War under way, Hirst was a founding member of the League of Liberals against Aggression and Militarism. The following month Hirst and Hammond decided to collaborate on a volume of essays expressly devoted, as the eventual title said, to Liberalism and the Empire. It proudly appealed to the memory of “the older school of English liberals.”

One unspoken target was George Bernard Shaw’s celebrated pamphlet of May 1900, Fabianism and the Empire, which argued for what historians now call Fabian social imperialism. Hirst’s essay on “Imperialism and Finance” showed how militarism and excessive expenditure on armaments both feed and are fed by calculated panics and “inevitable war,” which also prevent reforms at home. It should be added that Hirst was never a pacifist. He wrote in his memoirs, In The Golden Days (1947), that “a clearly aggressive attack on one nation by another—e.g. that of Soviet Russia on Finland or of Germany on Holland—should be resisted until resistance is hopeless. But in nearly all the wars recorded in history it may be said that there were two sides to the quarrel; and nearly all wars have been initiated by rulers who have forced their peoples to fight, relying upon conscription or the pugnacity of the human species, especially when patriotism and the cry of ‘my country right or wrong’ can be evoked.”

His work for Essays in Liberalism and his contribution to a popular life of W. E. Gladstone, the Liberal prime minister, brought him to the attention of Morley, who engaged him to help go through Gladstone’s papers and later read the proofs of Morley’s monumental Life of Gladstone, which finally appeared in November 1903. Hirst wrote Adam Smith (1904) for Morley’s English Men of Letters series; he edited a useful anthology of speeches and writings under the title Free Trade and Other Fundamental Doctrines of the Manchester School; and he also translated and edited Josef Redlich’s Local Government in England, a much-acclaimed work. It was also at this time that he threw himself into the fight for free trade and helped revive the Cobden Club, which published Fact versus Fiction (1904), a reply to Joseph Chamberlain’s tariff reform speeches, and The Burden of Armaments (1905), a plea for the reduction of military and naval expenditures, both of which Hirst helped write. He was therefore overjoyed when in 1906 the Liberal Party swept into power under the banner of free trade.

In 1906, Hirst’s The Arbiter in Council was published anonymously, financed by J. P. Thomasson, a Cobdenite from Bolton. Written as a series of imaginary conversations between a former associate of Cobden and others, Hirst sought to analyze the follies of war principally on economic grounds. In Monopolies, Trusts and Kartells (1906) he explored another timely question in some depth. Subsequently he wrote several books on money, investment, public finance, international trade, the law of the sea, and a book on the stock exchange for the Home University Library in 1911.

Years at the Economist

In 1907 Hirst was appointed editor of the Economist and proceeded to make important innovations in the publication and to extend its appeal beyond the business community. He wrote his own policy editorials and recruited a competent staff to assist him. He also printed contributions from such distinguished foreign scholars as Josef Redlich and Luigi Einaudi. Hirst remained editor until he was forced to resign in 1916 owing to his opposition to World War I. Like his friend John Morley, who resigned from the cabinet in protest at the decision to declare war in August 1914, he viewed the Great War as a tragedy from the start.

His valedictory leading article said: “Since the war began, the function of an editor who believes that truth and patriotism ought to be reconciled has been difficult and even hazardous.” To his great credit he never displayed the bitterness that one might expect of someone who had been forced to give up such a prestigious position.

Hirst’s The Political Economy of War was published in 1915. He was a zealous supporter of (the Conservative) Lord Lansdowne’s Letter in 1917, which rejected a policy of unconditional surrender and sought a negotiated peace. He also helped Earl Loreburn, the former Liberal Lord Chancellor, on his book How the War Came (1919). He was opposed to aspects of the punitive anti-German peace treaty that came out of Versailles.

From 1916 until 1921 he edited Common Sense, a weekly journal of commerce that later merged with the Manchester Guardian Commercial, and thereafter devoted his life to writing and travel.

Collectivism on the Rise

Hirst had come of age at a time when the New Liberalism that advocated an expansive role for the State was in the ascendant, although his own sympathies lay with an older, more individualist liberalism. And he attained middle age just as the Great War began. Thereafter he observed and wrote about Britain and the world in an era when collectivist ideologies of various stripes dominated intellectual debate, and increasingly interventionist and sometimes tyrannical governments disrupted and on occasion destroyed the market order and civil society.

A notable moment in Hirst’s life was his speech before the Lords of Appeal on behalf of Arthur Zadig, a naturalized British citizen of German parents, who had been interned under the Defence of the Realm Act in 1915. Although Zadig lost, Lord Shaw of Dunfermline gave a dissenting judgment that recognized Hirst’s arguments grounded in English legal history, and Zadig was released two weeks later. Nearly 20 years later Hirst reprinted Lord Shaw’s judgment in full in his account of The Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934). He also traced the history of English liberty in one of his best books, Liberty and Tyranny (1935), which he wrote as “a reasoned defence of political and civil liberty.” Describing the dark age for individual liberty worldwide that had been inaugurated by the Great War, he wrote: “Two centuries of emancipation have been followed by two decades of reaction.” That same year also saw the publication of his Economic Freedom and Private Property, a defense of economic liberty.

After the war Hirst continued to write on behalf of the cause of free trade. His From Adam Smith to Philip Snowden: A History of Free Trade (1925) was a short political history of free trade in Britain. In Safeguarding and Protection, first published in 1926 as a Cobden Club pamphlet and expanded into a book the following year, he explained how the Conservative government, despite Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s pledge against protection, had extended customs duties under the guise of “safeguarding” (a euphemism for protectionism). This had reassured voters and enabled the Tories to exploit fears of Bolshevism and defeat the pro-free trade Labour and Liberals in the 1924 general election. Hirst criticized the “American customs union,” contrasted the free-trade Democrats with the protectionist Republicans, and explained how high American tariffs made it difficult for European nations to pay off their war debts to the United States. He also described how the “tariff walls of Europe” prevented economic recovery.

Hirst also wrote Life and Letters of Thomas Jefferson (1926), Early Life and Letters of John Morley (1927), and the introduction to Morley’s Memorandum on Resignation, August 1914 (1928), which Morley had written immediately after his resignation from the cabinet. In his entry on Morley in the Dictionary of National Biography, Hirst wrote that Morley’s “loyalty indeed was to the faith rather than to the party,” a statement that applied as much to Hirst himself. (Hirst stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal candidate in the general elections of 1910 and 1929, but subsequently moved away from the official leadership of the party, even supporting the Munich agreement.)

Pure Individualism

During the Second World War, Hirst was involved in the foundation of Sir Ernest Benn’s Society of Individualists in 1942 and wrote some pamphlets for it. But he found this body more conservative than he had supposed and withdrew his support. In Free Markets or Monopoly (1941, revised 1944) he wrote: “When I was an Oxford undergraduate, I met pure individualism in the person of Auberon Herbert, and in later life I have become acquainted with disciples of Karl Marx. I call myself an Individualist, not because I object to State activity, either central or local—such as existed in England before 1914—but because I hold that the State exists for the individual citizens who compose it and ought to control it.” He also wrote: “Private Property, Free Competition, the right to make profits, the right to save and to employ your savings (the reward of skill or thrift) as you like are all the rights of a free citizen in a free State. They are the precious inheritance of Englishmen.” It greatly pleased him that the Cobden Club was on the Gestapo’s infamous Black List of people and organizations to be suppressed were the Nazis to conquer Great Britain.

Hirst denounced the welfare state as the “Beveridge hoax,” after the Liberal Sir William Beveridge, author of the report that bore his name and was accepted by the Labour, Liberal, and Conservative parties as the basis for the postwar welfare state. He also disapproved of redistributive taxation and was critical of Keynesian economics. Regarding Marxism, he wrote: “Those who favour class war, while denouncing capitalist war, cannot be counted among the forces favourable to peace.”

A volume of Hirst’s memoirs, going only to 1906, was published in 1947 and he died at Singleton in Sussex on February 22, 1953, after an attack of influenza.

Truth described him as “one of the greatest libertarians of all time” for his work as an apostle of civil liberty and personal freedom. A book of reminiscences by his family and friends appeared in 1958, in which his lifelong friend and brother-in-law, J. E. Allen, wrote that he had a “genius for friendship” and the historian G. P. Gooch declared, “I have never known a man whose character and convictions underwent less change with advancing years.”

Hirst was a prolific writer, skillful biographer, and scholarly exponent of basic principles, who devoted his life to the cause of individual liberty when at times it must have seemed that collectivism had triumphed. It is therefore appropriate that we salute Francis W. Hirst as a valiant defender of the Cobdenite tradition of peace and free trade.

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