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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Experiment in Liberty by William Moore Gray III

A Reliable Text That Places Liberty at the Center of U.S. History

Sunflower University Press • 1998 • 388 pages • $34.95

Experiment in Liberty is an experiment by a certified public accountant in writing a history of the United States. It is sometimes a flawed experiment and often idiosyncratic in organization; but this book is nonetheless more reliable than most texts now being used in high-school and college classrooms across the country, as it places liberty rather than the state at the center of our history.

In tracing American history, Gray looks at the impact of liberty on our political and economic development. Liberty, he argues, has been the key to American progress, with government a gaudy but unproductive sideshow. That is a vital shift from the common approach that leads the reader to believe that government is the driving force.

Experiment in Liberty is rather thin on the colonial period, but ably covers the American Revolution and economic development thereafter. On Alexander Hamilton, Gray is, I believe, too negative. It’s true that Hamilton involved the federal government in activities beyond the scope of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. But he ought to be commended, not criticized, for helping to redeem the near worthless Continental bonds and thereby establish U.S. credit at home and abroad. Gray overreacts when he concludes that if Hamilton “had . . . not been martyrized by falling to Aaron Burr’s bullet in a duel . . . he would likely have disappeared quietly from the pages of history.”

The author does a good job of tracing westward expansion and the industrial growth of America during the nineteenth century—again a result of the actions of free individuals operating under a system that protected life, liberty, and property. On the rise of big business, Gray ignores the standard historical line and sagely concludes that “envy and fear describe in a nutshell what drives the criticism of trusts and monopolies.”

Gray is also sharply critical of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. He points out the dangerous concentration of power in Washington that began so forcefully early this century and takes a dim view of the justifications advanced for subjecting people to the yoke of federal bureaucracies.

However, he should have hit the problem of the income tax harder than he did. Tax rates, contrary to Gray, did not remain low until 1943. During World War I, the rate on top incomes was hiked to 77 percent; it came down to 24 percent in the 1920s, but shot up first to 79 percent and then to 90 percent under FDR. Understanding the history of the income tax is understanding twentieth-century America, and here Gray lets the reader down.

Unlike many history texts, Experiment in Liberty recognizes the deluge of problems with the growth of government from the Great Society era to the present. Gray frequently quotes John Stuart Mill, F. A. Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises in advocating greater individual choice and less government regulation in modern American life. His refusal to take at face value the usual claims that government programs work and must correct for “the failures” of the free market sets this book apart from the run-of-the-mill history of the United States.

Gray properly criticizes the United States for its Indian policy, but his analysis is sometimes simplistic. The Indians often were paid for their land and sold it voluntarily. If he had studied the fur trade, he would have seen Indians and whites in a market economy frequently working well together. The American Fur Company, under John Jacob Astor, did more for the American Indian than did government paternalism, which led to Indian removal.

Concerned parents—who are looking for sensible histories of the U.S. for their high-school and college-age children—will be pleased with this book. It’s a sad state of affairs when retired accountants write better histories of our country than do the historians, but that is the case at present. Gray has served up an excellent feast of information on liberty in the United States, and its essential role in creating American health and prosperity.

  • Burton Folsom, Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to WarHe is a member of the FEE Faculty Network