All Commentary
Saturday, March 1, 1997

Albert Jay Nock: A Gifted Pen for Radical Individualism

Nock Deserves Considerable Credit for the Endurance of Individualism

Thanks to Edmund A. Opitz, Jack Schwartzman, and Robert M. Thornton for helping to secure scarce materials on Nock.

American individualism had virtually died out by the time Mark Twain was buried in 1910. Progressive intellectuals promoted collectivism. Progressive jurists like Oliver Wendell Holmes hammered constitutional restraints as an inconvenient obstacle to expanding government power, supposedly the cure for every social problem. Progressive education theorist John Dewey belittled mere learning and claimed that social reconstruction was the mission of schooling. Progressive hero Theodore Roosevelt glorified imperial conquest. Progressive President Woodrow Wilson maneuvered America into a European war, jailed dissidents, and pushed through the income tax which persists to this day. Great individualists such as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were ridiculed, if they were remembered at all.

Yet author Albert Jay Nock dared declare that collectivism was evil. He denounced the use of force to impose one’s will on others. He opposed military intervention in the affairs of other nations. He believed America should stay out of foreign wars that inevitably subvert liberty. He insisted individuals have the unalienable right to pursue happiness as long as they don’t hurt anybody. Murray N. Rothbard called Nock an authentic American radical.

Even though Nock didn’t contribute to mass-circulation magazines and his books had a limited sale, he quietly affirmed individualism as a living creed. He became a name to reckon with as editor and writer for The Freeman (1920-1924). The great antiwar journalist Oswald Garrison Villard called it the best-written weekly yet to appear in the United States, a publication which thoroughly merited a permanent place in American journalism. The influential editor and author H. L. Mencken declared: What publicist among us, indeed, writes better than Nock? His [Freeman] editorials . . . set a mark that no other man of his trade has ever quite managed to reach. They were well informed and sometimes even learned, but there was never the slightest trace of pedantry in them. In even the least of them there were sound writing and solid structure. Nock has an excellent ear . . . he thinks in charming rhythms.

Nock won respect, too, because he was a highly cultured man. As literary critic Van Wyck Brooks explained: He was a formidable scholar and an amateur of music who remembered all the great singers of his day and could trace them through this part or that from Naples to St. Petersburg, London, Brussels, and Vienna. He had known all the great orchestras from Turin to Chicago . . . and he had visited half the universities of Europe from Bonn to Bordeaux, Montpelier, Liege and Ghent. He could pick up at random, with a casual air, almost any point and trace it from Plato through Scaliger to Montaigne or Erasmus, and I can cite chapter and verse for saying that whether in Latin or Greek he could quote any author in reply to any question. I believe he knew as well the Old Testament in Hebrew. American historian Merrill D. Peterson added: He was a finished scholar, a brilliant editor, and a connoisseur of taste and intellect.

Nock’s friend Ruth Robinson recalled, He was a finely constructed man, with small bones, hands, and feet. He was five feet ten inches tall, slight and quick in movement; he kept his excellent figure and carriage throughout life. The salient expressions of his strong face were conveyed through his brilliant blue eyes, which could change instantly, be impenetrable, mischievous, or express great kindliness and sympathy. He had fair skin and high color and during all the years I knew him wore a mustache. . . . Long before his hair turned white, an iron-grey band at the edge of his brown hair was an outstanding characteristic of his appearance.

Nock was an intensely private man. People who worked with him for years had no idea that he had been a clergyman. No one knew even where he lived, noted Van Wyck Brooks, and a pleasantry in the office was that one could reach him by placing a letter under a certain rock in Central Park. Frank Chodorov, a friend during Nock’s last decade, said, It was only after I was appointed administrator of his estate that I learned of the existence of two full-grown and well-educated sons.

Social philosopher Lewis Mumford, who knew Nock early in his career, remembered that: He was the very model of the old-fashioned gentleman, American style: quiet spoken, fond of good food, punctilious in little matters of courtesy, with a fund of good stories, many of them western; never speaking about himself, never revealing anything directly about himself. Added Chodorov, Nock was an individualist.


Albert Jay Nock was born October 13, 1870, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the only child of Emma Sheldon Jay, who descended from French Protestants. His father, Joseph Albert Nock, was a hot-tempered steelworker and Episcopal clergyman.

Nock grew up in a semirural Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, and the family had a large garden and fruit trees. According to his account, he learned the alphabet by puzzling over a newspaper and asking questions. He didn’t attend school until he was a teenager, but at home he was surrounded by books, which he explored randomly. He recalled that the first book he focused on was Webster’s Dictionary, probably because it was a fat book on a lower shelf. The dictionary became quite literally my bosom friend, for I lugged it about, clasped it to my breast with both hands, from one place to another where I should not be underfoot, and there I would lay it open on the floor and read it.

When Nock was ten, his father got a job on the upper shore of Lake Huron. There he observed independence, self-respect, self-reliance, dignity, diligence . . . the virtues that once spoke out in the Declaration of Independence. . . . Our life was singularly free; we were so little conscious of arbitrary restraint that we hardly knew government existed. . . . On the whole our society might have served pretty well as a standing advertisement for Mr. Jefferson’s notion that the virtues which he regarded as distinctively American thrive best in the absence of government.

After attending a private preparatory school, Nock entered St. Stephen’s College (later to become Bard College) in 1887. It had fewer than one hundred students. Both institutions stressed a classical curriculum, and Nock relished Greek and Latin literature. He graduated third in his ten-student class. Nock reportedly went on to attend Berkeley Divinity School, Middletown, Connecticut, and although he left after about a year, he was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1897. The following year, he began serving as assistant rector at St. James Church, Titusville, Pennsylvania. He succeeded the rector, who died on New Year’s Day 1899.

It was in Titusville that Nock met Agnes Grumbine, and they were married April 25, 1900. They had two sons: Samuel, born in 1901, and Francis, born in 1905. Nock left his wife soon thereafter, and never remarried. His sons grew up to become college teachers. Meanwhile, Nock was called to Christ Episcopal Church, Blacksburg, Virginia, and then to St. Joseph’s Church in Detroit. In 1909, he seems to have experienced a crisis of faith. My life was detached, untouched and colorless, he later told Ruth Robinson.

Nock embraced ideas of crusading economic reformer Henry George. As a social philosopher, George interested me profoundly, Nock recalled, as a reformer and publicist, he did not interest me. . . . George’s philosophy was the philosophy of human freedom . . . he believed that all mankind are indefinitely improvable, and that the freer they are, the more they will improve. He saw also that they can never become politically or socially free until they have become economically free.

Nock quit the clergy to become an editor of American Magazine, launched by editors and writers who had a falling out with S.S. McClure, the pioneering muckraking publisher. Nock worked at American Magazine for four years. He wrote articles advocating a single tax on land and—it must be confessed—he approved Canada’s policy of having government own vast acreage. He befriended the former Toledo mayor and aspiring scholar Brand Whitlock, who later wrote a biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. He spent time with the likes of muckraking journalists Lincoln Steffens and John Reed. He honed his writing. My stuff is good enough, perhaps, he wrote Ruth Robinson, and surely better than five or six years ago, but it still sounds as though it was written from a seat in the grand stand.

The Players Club

Nock frequented the Players Club, fabled gathering place for people in the arts since it was established by actor Edwin Booth and author Mark Twain. Located at 16 Gramercy Park South, Manhattan, it is a Gothic Revival style five-story house that architect Stanford White transformed into the club in 1888. Out front are a wrought-iron balcony and Renaissance-style gaslights. The Players Club has one of America’s largest libraries on the theatre and portrait paintings by Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, and Norman Rockwell. Besides Nock, illustrious members have included caricaturist Thomas Nast, theatrical actors John Barrymore and Helen Hayes, screen actors James Cagney and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Nock liked to take mail, eat, and play pool at the Players Club—a portrait of Mark Twain hangs over a fireplace, and one of Twain’s pool cues is on display. Nock’s business card simply said: Albert Jay Nock, Players Club, New York.

Nock absorbed the ideas of German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, whose radical book Der Staat was published in 1908. An English translation, The State, appeared in 1915. Oppenheimer had noted that there were only two fundamental ways of acquiring wealth—work and robbery. He declared that government was based on robbery.

In 1914, cash-short American Magazine was about to be acquired by a publisher intent on avoiding controversy. Nock joined the staff of The Nation, which was owned and edited by Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of antislavery crusader William Lloyd Garrison. Nock came to admire Villard, who courageously opposed President Woodrow Wilson’s scheming to get America into the First World War. One of Nock’s articles, on labor union agitator Samuel Gompers, provoked Wilson’s censors to suppress The Nation.

The Freeman

Nock, however, decided he couldn’t abide Villard’s approval of nationalizing railroads. He resigned from The Nation and, backed by Helen Swift Neilson, daughter of Gustavus Swift and heir to a meatpacking fortune, he became editor of a new magazine of opinion: The Freeman. The first weekly issue appeared March 17, 1920. The magazine measured 8 inches by 12 inches and contained 24 pages of articles and letters about politics, literature, music, and other topics.

Nock’s principal collaborator was Neilson’s English husband, Francis, a former stage director at the London Royal Opera and radical Liberal Member of Parliament who became a leading pacifist. Disgusted by England’s entry in the First World War, Neilson came to the United States and became an American citizen. He provoked controversy with his book How Diplomats Make War, published in 1915 by Benjamin W. Huebsch, who subsequently served as president of The Freeman.

Practically from the beginning, there was rivalry between the collaborators. Will Lissner, a former New York Times writer who knew both Nock and Neilson, recalled that Nock rewrote many of Neilson’s articles in Nock’s own distinctive style, causing the readers to assume that ‘Nock was The Freeman.’ Neilson bitterly resented this assumption. Lewis Mumford reported that Nock couldn’t bear Neilson’s somewhat inflated parliamentary style; and he would quietly put Neilson’s contributions in the drawer of his desk, letting them gather dust. . . . In his memoirs, published after Nock’s death, Neilson claimed Nock had stolen his stuff. Nock was more graceful. I had far less to do with forming or maintaining [The Freeman] than people think I had. My chief associate was . . . one of the ablest men I ever knew, far abler than I, and more experienced.

The editorial staff included Suzanne La Follette. In her mid-twenties, she was the daughter of progressive U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette and a rigorous opponent of government intervention. She was a very beautiful woman, with a hilarious sense of humor, a grammatical stickler . . . a feminist . . . generous and warm-hearted, recalled William F. Buckley Jr., who knew her in later years.

There was an eclectic assortment of contributors, including economic historian Charles Beard, book reviewer Van Wyck Brooks, Soviet critic William Henry Chamberlin, technology critic Lewis Mumford, philosopher Bertrand Russell, muckraker Lincoln Steffens, poet Louis Untermeyer, and economist Thorstein Veblen—The Freeman decidedly wasn’t a hard-core libertarian magazine.

Oswald Garrison Villard hailed The Freeman for, he assumed, joining the ranks of liberal journalism, but Nock replied in the March 31 issue: The Freeman is a radical paper; its place is in the virgin field, or better, the long-neglected and fallow field, of American radicalism.

The liberal believes that the State is essentially social and is all for improving it by political methods so that it may function accordingly to what he believes to be its original intention. Hence, he is interested in politics, takes them seriously, goes at them hopefully, and believes in them as an instrument of social welfare and progress. . . . The radical, on the other hand, believes that the State is fundamentally anti-social and is all for improving it off the face of the earth; not by blowing up office-holders . . . but by the historical process of strengthening, consolidating and enlightening economic organization.

To better understand the roots of freedom, Nock urged Americans to resolutely close their eyes to diplomatic exchanges and official pronouncements, and read Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Henry George. Nock added that without economic freedom no other freedom is significant or lasting, and that if economic freedom can be attained, no other freedom can be withheld.

Of the consequences of the First World War, Nock wrote: The war immensely fortified a universal faith in violence; it set in motion endless adventures in imperialism, endless nationalist ambitions. Every war does this to a degree roughly corresponding to its magnitude.

Nock wrote more about diplomacy than any other subject for The Freeman, and although he didn’t pore through all the diplomatic documents, he did gain perspective by traveling through Europe. For instance, he witnessed the 1923 German runaway inflation: I crossed from Amsterdam to Berlin with German money in my bill-fold amounting nearly to $1,250,000, pre-war value. Ten years earlier I could have bought out half a German town, lock, stock and barrel, with that much money, but when I left Amsterdam my best hope was that it might cover a decent dinner and a night’s lodging.

Nock turned some of his Freeman articles into his first book: The Myth of a Guilty Nation, which, based on the work of Francis Neilson, debunked the idea that Germany was solely responsible for World War I. Nock insisted all the participants deserved blame for the catastrophe that resulted in some 10 million deaths. Historian Harry Elmer Barnes wrote that The Myth of a Guilty Nation was a brilliant piece of journalistic Revisionism. . . . It took some courage in those days.

Unfortunately, The Freeman never attracted more than about 7,000 subscribers—far from enough to become self-sustaining. Annual losses reportedly exceeded $80,000. The magazine ceased publication after the March 5, 1924, issue. There had been 208 issues, and Nock seems to have contributed 259 pieces. Atlantic Monthly editor Ellery Sedgwick remembered Nock’s Freeman as admirably written, diverting, original, and full of unpredictable quirks. Oswald Garrison Villard expressed grateful thanks that it has existed, and our belief that it would be a misfortune if some other medium were not found to avail itself of Mr. Albert Jay Nock’s exceptional equipment for editorial service.

Nock sailed for Brussels, where he had many fond memories: Her ways and manners, her unpretending grace and charm, her feel of stability and soundness, are all just as you have been impatiently expecting to find them, and her face wears a jolly Flemish smile.

Back in New York, Nock became a good friend of H.L. Mencken, the maverick who edited American Mercury. There is no better companion in the world than Henry, Nock exulted after one Manhattan dinner. I admire him, and have the warmest affection for him. I was impressed afresh by his superb character—immensely able, unselfconscious, sincere, erudite, simple-hearted, kindly, generous, really a noble fellow if ever there was one in the world.

Soon Nock was writing for intellectual magazines like American Mercury, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Saturday Review of Literature, and Scribner’s. American Mercury, for instance, published On Doing the Right Thing. He wrote: The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed. Everything else has been tried, world without end. Going dead against reason and experience, we have tried law, compulsion and authoritarianism of various kinds, and the result is nothing to be proud of.

Three admirers from Philadelphia, Ellen Winsor, Rebecca Winsor Evans, and Edmund C. Evans, provided funds which enabled Nock to pursue his projects—their assistance continued for the rest of his life. In 1924, he gathered together writings of the American humorist and social critic Artemus Ward (1834-1867), who had inspired Mark Twain. Ward had fallen out of fashion, and Nock thought his social criticism could be appreciated by just a small number of unusually civilized and perceptive people whom he called the Remnant—a term that would blossom into one of his better-known ideas a dozen years later.

Mr. Jefferson

Then Nock focused on book-length biographical essays. The first was Mr. Jefferson (1926), which skipped the most famous events of the Founder’s life to focus on the development of his mind. Nock drew extensively on Charles Beard’s The Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy. Claude Bowers’s Jefferson and Hamilton, published the same year, sold more copies at the time and did more to revive the reputation of Jefferson, who had been a forgotten man since the Civil War. But it is Nock’s book that remains in print. H.L. Mencken wrote that Nock’s book is accurate, it is shrewd, it is well ordered, and above all it is charming. I know of no other book on Jefferson that penetrates so persuasively to the essential substance of the man. Harvard University’s great narrative historian Samuel Eliot Morison hailed the brilliancy of Nock’s Jefferson. Historian Merrill Peterson calls it “The most captivating single volume in the Jefferson literature.”

Nock loved the sixteenth-century French humanist scholar, extravagant satirist, and maverick individualist Francois Rabelais, and in 1929 he wrote a book about him, collaborating with Oxford-educated researcher Catherine Rose Wilson. Rabelais is one of the world’s great libertarians . . . he has been a stay and support to my spirit for thirty years, and I could not possibly have got through without him. . . . The chief purpose of reading a classic like Rabelais is to prop and stay the spirit, especially in its moments of weakness and enervation, against the stress of life, to elevate it above the reach of commonplace annoyances and degradations, and to purge it of despondency and cynicism. He is to be read as Homer, Sophocles, and the English Bible, are to be read. Five years later, Nock wrote A Journey into Rabelais’s France, a travelogue illustrated by his friend Ruth Robinson (1934).

Nock did a book-length essay on Henry George (1939), drawing substantially on the two-volume biography by Henry George Jr. Nock’s contribution was as an interpreter, downplaying the importance of George’s famous policy proposal—a single tax on land—regretting George’s foray into New York City politics, and emphasizing his contributions as a philosopher of freedom. He was one of the greatest of philosophers, Nock wrote, and the spontaneous concurring voice of all his contemporaries acclaimed him as one of the best of men.

Meanwhile, in March 1930, backed by one Dr. Peter Fireman, Suzanne La Follette and Sheila Hibben had launched the New Freeman, but losses became too big, and it was discontinued after the March 1931 issue. Nock contributed 54 mostly short articles about art, literature, and education. There was little political commentary other than a call for ending Prohibition. His articles were reprinted in The Book of Journeyman (1930).

In The Theory of Education in the United States (1932) and other writings, Nock challenged the American dream of educating everybody. He believed that while most people could be trained to do useful things, only a few could truly cultivate their minds and contribute to civilization.

Nock provided an early warning of collectivist catastrophe. In July 1932, before Hitler came to power, Nock observed: Things in Germany look bad at this distance. The new government, which is making use of Hitler, seems bent on a Napoleonic absolutism.

Nock was decades ahead of most intellectuals in condemning all tyranny. Refrain from using the word Bolshevism, or Fascism, Hitlerism, Marxism, Communism, he noted in November 1933, and you have no trouble getting acceptance for the principle that underlies them all alike—the principle that the State is everything, and the individual nothing.

Nock became an implacable foe of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In May 1934, he wrote: Probably not many realize how the rapid centralization of government in America has fostered a kind of organized pauperism. The big industrial states contribute most of the Federal revenue, and the bureaucracy distributes it in the pauper states wherever it will do the most good in a political way. The same thing takes place within the states themselves. In fostering pauperism it also by necessary consequence fosters corruption. . . . All this is due to the iniquitous theory of taxation with which this country has been so thoroughly indoctrinated—that a man should be taxed according to his ability to pay, instead of according to the value of the privileges he obtains from the government.

Nock embraced the pessimism of the architect Ralph Adams Cram, whose September 1932 American Mercury article Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings declared that most people are barbarians, there are limited prospects for improvement, and the future depends on a few civilized souls. I held to my Jeffersonian doctrine for a long time, meanwhile trying my best to pick holes in Mr. Cram’s theory, Nock recalled, but with no success.

Nock’s friend Bernard Iddings Bell persuaded him to accept a visiting professorship in American history at Bard College, part of Columbia University, and he served there between 1931 and 1933. He delivered a series of lectures which focused on the struggle for liberty. He subsequently massaged the lecture texts into his great radical polemic Our Enemy, the State. He drew from ideas of Franz Oppenheimer, who had written about the violent origins of the state. Nock championed the natural rights vision of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, the case for equal freedom articulated by Herbert Spencer. Nock ignored a taboo and spoke kindly of the American Articles of Confederation (1781-1789), the association of states without a central government. He shared American historian Charles Beard’s view that the Constitution reflected a struggle among interest groups.

Our Enemy, the State

Our Enemy, the State appeared in 1935. Nock wrote: There are two methods, or means, and only two, whereby man’s needs and desires can be satisfied. One is the production and exchange of wealth; this is the economic means. The other is the uncompensated appropriation of wealth produced by others; this is the political means . . . the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation.

The State, he continued, both in its genesis and by its primary intention, is purely anti-social. It is not based on the idea of natural rights, but on the idea that the individual has no rights except those that the State may provisionally grant him. It has always made justice costly and difficult of access, and has invariably held itself above justice and common morality whenever it could advantage itself by so doing.

Still far ahead of other intellectuals, Nock observed: The superficial distinctions of Fascism, Bolshevism, Hitlerism, are the concern of journalists and publicists; the serious student sees in them only the one root-idea of a complete conversion of social power into State power. . . . In Russia and Germany, for example, we have lately seen the State moving with great alacrity against infringement of its monopoly by private persons, while at the same time exercising that monopoly with unconscionable ruthlessness.

Nock despaired about individuals who become willing tools of state power: Instead of looking upon the State’s progressive absorption of social power with the repugnance and resentment that he would naturally feel towards the activities of a professional-criminal organization, he tends rather to encourage and glorify it, in the belief that he is somehow identified with the State, and that therefore, in consenting to its indefinite aggrandizement, he consents to something in which he has a share.

Most reviewers ignored Our Enemy, the State, but it won surprising praise from the pro-New Deal New Republic. Editor George Soule ranked Nock among the best essayists and soundest commentators on political history.

“Isaiah’s Job”

In his June 1936 Atlantic Monthly article Isaiah’s Job, Nock explained his view that the future of civilization depended on what he called the Remnant. He told the story of the Biblical prophet Isaiah, called by the Lord to warn people about terrible times coming. Tell them, Nock quoted the Lord, what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. But the Lord acknowledged missionary work wouldn’t yield quick results: The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you, and the masses will not even listen. They will keep on their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.

Why bother? According to Nock, the Lord replied: There is a Remnant. . . . They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up, because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.

Speaking to prospective prophets, Nock wrote that “Two things you know, and no more: first, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight, and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.”

There was yet another revival of The Freeman in 1937. The creative spark was Frank Chodorov, who had met Nock the year before at the Players Club. The eleventh son of Russian immigrants, Chodorov had become director of the recently chartered Henry George School, and The Freeman served as its flagship publication. It was an 18- to 24-page monthly that defended capitalism and opposed American entry in the coming European war. Chodorov published at least eight articles by Nock.

More than ever, Nock rejected claims that government could deal with the monumental problems of the age. In his introduction to Henry Haskins’s 1940 book Meditations in Wall Street, he insisted that the State is the poorest instrument imaginable for improving human society, and that confidence in political institutions and political nostrums is ludicrously misplaced. Social philosophers in every age have been strenuously insisting that all this sort of fatuity is simply putting the cart before the horse; that society cannot be moralized and improved unless and until the individual is moralized and improved.

Nock recognized the futility of violent revolution. For instance, these remarks from his introduction to the 1940 edition of Herbert Spencer’s Man Versus the State: The people would be as thoroughly indoctrinated with Statism after the revolution as they were before, and therefore the revolution would be no revolution, but a coup d’état, by which the citizen would gain nothing but a mere change of oppressors. There have been many revolutions in the last twenty-five years, and thus has been the sum of their history.

Nock was considered a conservative for opposing Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who touted big government and schemed to get America into another European war. Yet Nock was among the few thinkers to maintain antiwar views during both world wars. Moreover, having abandoned his early progressive ideas for government intervention, he had actually become more radical. He affirmed his authentic radicalism in many of the 48 articles he wrote between 1932 and 1939 for American Mercury, hotbed of opposition to FDR. The German State is persecuting great masses of its people, he wrote in March 1939, the Russian State is holding a purge, the Italian State is grabbing territory, the Japanese State is buccaneering all along the Asiatic Coast. . . . The weaker the State is, the less power it has to commit crime. Where in Europe today does the State have the best criminal record? Where it is weakest: in Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Luxemburg, Sweden, Monaco, Andorra. . . .

Many now believe that with the rise of the ‘totalitarian’ State the world has entered upon a new era of barbarism. It has not. The totalitarian State is only the State; the kind of thing it does is only what the State has always done with unfailing regularity, if it had the power to do it, wherever and whenever its own aggrandizement made that kind of thing expedient. . . .

So it strikes me that instead of sweating blood over the inequity of foreign states, my fellow-citizens would do a great deal better by themselves to make sure that the American State is not strong enough to carry out the like inequities here. The stronger the American State is allowed to grow, the higher its record of criminality will grow, according to its opportunities and temptations.

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man

In the early 1940s Nock turned to writing his last and best-known book—Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. He worked at a house in Canaan, Connecticut. He gracefully chronicled the development of his ideas. He provided insightful commentary about his heroes—like Thomas Jefferson, Herbert Spencer, and Henry George. But he omitted most personal details about his life, and he was steeped in pessimism. The American people, he lamented, once had their liberties; they had them all; but apparently they could not rest o’nights until they had turned them over to a prehensile crew of professional politicians.

Nock assailed one of his favorite targets, compulsory government schooling, which promoted superstitious servile reverence for a sacrosanct State. In another view one saw [government schooling] functioning as a sort of sanhedrin, a leveling agency, prescribing uniform modes of thought, belief, conduct, social deportment, diet, recreation, hygiene; and as an inquisitional body for the enforcement of these prescriptions, for nosing out heresies and irregularities and suppressing them. In still another view one saw it functioning as a trade-unionist body, intent on maintaining and augmenting a set of vested interests . . . an extremely well-disciplined and powerful political pressure group.

Harper’s published Memoirs of a Superfluous Man in 1943. Adversaries, predictably, heaped criticism on the book—the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, for instance, blasted Nock for a corrosive, contemptuous cynicism and a profound despair. But some reviewers, like intellectual compatriot Isabel Paterson, who wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, were charmed by the book.

Nock seems to have had few friends during his last years. He corresponded with his sons Francis and Samuel, with Discovery of Freedom author Rose Wilder Lane, and former American Mercury editor Paul Palmer. He often lunched with Frank Chodorov, who had been forced out of the Henry George School because he opposed American entry in World War II; after 1943, The Freeman became the Henry George News and has continued up to the present. Chodorov recalled his times with Nock: Over a meal—I was usually ready for coffee before he finished his soup—he would regale you with bits of history that threw light on a headline, or quote from the classics a passage currently applicable, or take all the glory out of a ‘name’ character with a pithy statement of fact. He was a library of knowledge and a fount of wisdom, and if you were a kindred spirit you could have your pick of both.

Independent oilman William F. Buckley, Texas-born son of Irish immigrants, saw himself as part of the Remnant Nock cherished. Periodically he invited Nock to lunch at his family’s Great Elm mansion in Sharon, Connecticut—despite Nock’s radical ways. Buckley enjoyed Nock’s individualism and his scholarship, and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man helped spur his son William F. Buckley Jr. to defy the collectivist trends of the time.

Nock’s Last Years

Since no magazine would take Nock’s writing, several friends set up the National Economic Council. Starting on May 15, 1943, it published the Economic Council Review of Books, which he edited. He continued almost two years until failing health led him to bow out. This work was picked up by Rose Wilder Lane.

In 1945, Nock developed lymphatic leukemia, and he gradually ran out of steam. He told his son Francis: If sometimes you begin to think the old man is pretty good, and you feel that maybe you ought to be a bit proud of him . . . realize that he ain’t so much after all. He moved in with his friend Ruth Robinson, who lived in Wakefield, Rhode Island. There he died August 19, 1945. He was 74 and left an estate of about $1,300. Since Nock had wanted to be buried without any fuss, a local Episcopal priest conducted a simple funeral service at Robinson’s house, and he was buried nearby in Riverside Cemetery.

In his quiet way, Nock had remarkable influence. Frank Chodorov championed Nock’s brand of individualism through his books, his monthly newsletter analysis (he didn’t capitalize the first a), and in the weekly newsletter Human Events, where he became an editor. He founded the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.

According to Henry Regnery, who published two volumes of Nock’s material after his death, The Freeman was an inspiration for Human Events, launched by newspaperman Frank Hanighen on February 2, 1944. Hanighen and his principal collaborator, former Haverford College president Felix Morley, were principled opponents of American intervention in foreign wars. Not long before his death, Nock had expressed his admiration for the enterprise and agreed to write some articles. Among the early contributors were William Henry Chamberlin, who had written for The Freeman, and Nock’s antiwar comrade Oswald Garrison Villard.

In 1950, Nock’s former editorial associate Suzanne La Follette joined with Life editor John Chamberlain and Newsweek columnist Henry Hazlitt to launch another Freeman—this time, as a biweekly. They were backed by businessman Alfred Kohlberg, Du Pont executive Jasper Crane, and Sun Oil heir Joseph N. Pew, Jr., among others. The distinguished contributors included William F. Buckley Jr., Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Wilhelm Ropke. But by 1954, the editors were split between those (like Henry Hazlitt) who wanted to focus on economic freedom and those (like La Follette and volatile Willi Schlamm) who wanted to make anticommunism the key issue. The latter resigned and joined William F. Buckley Jr.’s new fortnightly, National Review—which, ironically, offered new subscribers a bonus collection of Nock’s essays under the title Snoring as a Fine Art (1958).

Leonard E. Read’s Foundation for Economic Education acquired The Freeman, pumped money into it, went to a monthly schedule, retained Chodorov as its first editor, and has issued it ever since. Freeman articles have been excerpted in the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, and dozens of other publications, and The Freeman reaches readers in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Poland, Russia, Switzerland, and 50 other countries, as well as the United States.

Despite the onslaught of wars and the relentless expansion of government power, individualism endures as a living creed, and Albert Jay Nock deserves considerable credit. He expressed fundamental issues of liberty with blazing clarity. He withstood withering criticism. He defied censors. He helped revive glorious names like Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Herbert Spencer. His moral conviction, cosmopolitan scholarship, elegant prose, and steadfast devotion inspired others to join the epic struggle for liberty.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.