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Friday, January 4, 2019

John M. Ashbrook: A Congressman Who Never Gave In

He called himself a “conservative,” but many of us budding libertarians didn’t see a whole lot of difference at the time.

A gift I’ve cherished for 45 years sits on a coffee table in my home. It’s a framed photograph of Winston Churchill in the back of a car, cigar ensconced between his lips, and his right hand displaying the “V” for Victory sign. Under the photo are inspiring words he delivered at his old school, Harrow, during the darkest days of World War II:

Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never. In nothing, great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

The main reason I cherish this memento is neither the photo nor the quote but the fading, hand-written inscription below them both: To Larry, (signed) John M. Ashbrook.

Who Was John Ashbrook?

Who was Ashbrook? It’s a shame anyone has to ask, but time and shifting attitudes sadly make it so. He was one of the most principled and courageous members of Congress of the 20th century. I liked him so much that I rustled up fellow high school students in 1970 and 1972 to go door-to-door for him in the Mansfield, Ohio, area during two re-election campaigns. And in February 1972, I trudged through foot-deep snow to distribute his literature when he ran for president in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

Born in Johnstown, Ohio, John Milan Ashbrook would have been 90 this past September. Tragically, he died suddenly in 1982 of a peptic ulcer at just 53.

His career mirrored that of his father precisely: editor and publisher, businessman, and congressman.

His career mirrored that of his father precisely: editor and publisher, businessman, and congressman. He figured prominently in the “Draft Goldwater” movement that led to the Arizona senator winning the GOP’s 1964 presidential nomination.

As that would strongly imply, Ashbrook was deeply committed from an early age to the ideals of limited, constitutional government; free enterprise and private property; a strong national defense, and vigorous opposition to the global ambitions of Soviet communism. He was a Harvard-educated non-conformist who boasted that the university faculty’s attempts to vaccinate him with statist ideas were “a vaccination that never took.”

Not Your Standard Republican

Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968 as a moderate conservative who promised to rein in the federal government. He disappointed very quickly, embracing price controls, an array of new regulatory agencies, a ballooning budget deficit, an escalating drug war, a guaranteed annual income, and other mischiefs. With his popularity high as he approached re-election in 1972, Nixon seemed certain of facing no opposition from within his party.

John Ashbrook always cared far more for country and principle than for election or party. He knew the chances of toppling an incumbent were slim-to-none and that trying to do so might make more enemies for himself than friends. None of that mattered. Ashbrook entered the New Hampshire primary to challenge Nixon and make some important points. His slogan was “No Left Turns.” His campaign logo was a simulated traffic sign depicting a left-turn arrow with a “No” line drawn across it.

Both Ashbrook’s character and positions put those of the chameleon Nixon to shame.

He called himself a “conservative,” but many of us budding libertarians didn’t see a whole lot of difference at the time. We knew that if Ashbrook had his way, government would shrink and individual Americans would correspondingly grow. We’d all be freer and more prosperous as a result. I appreciate him as much today as I ever did, even though my own views have gravitated more towards the libertarian end of the political spectrum over the years.

Both Ashbrook’s character and positions put those of the chameleon Nixon to shame, but the victory went to the incumbent. The country missed another opportunity to elect a man who really meant it when he said he would uphold the Constitution and strengthen our liberties.

Ashbrook’s Legacy

On the beautiful campus of Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, sits an independent institution devoted to this great man. It’s the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, and its website includes a short, fine biography of John here. On Monday, January 21, 2019, FEE will co-host a one-day FEE seminar on the campus, open to the public. Details are here.

The Ashbrook Center sponsors a superb Ashbrook Scholars Program, and I’m proud to note some close ties between the Center and FEE. Katie Fossaceca, a summer 2018 programs intern at FEE, is currently a senior Ashbrook Scholar who continues to assist FEE on a contract basis. Dennis Cerny is also a senior Ashbrook Scholar and a summer 2017 programs intern at FEE. And one of our recent full-time hires (and former FEE intern) is a proud member of the Ashbrook Scholars Program alumni. His name is Josh Sanders, our data analyst. He told me:

The program which proudly bears John Ashbrook’s name is a haven of scholarship that attempts to teach its students not what to think, but how to think. The late Dr. Peter Schramm, a former executive director of the Center, wrote that even after John Ashbrook “had been in Congress for many years, he still considered himself first and foremost a publisher.” Perpetuating that principle, each graduate of the Program, regardless of career path, considers him or herself first and foremost a good thinker, which every publisher, editor, or writer should be.

John Ashbrook was the epitome of what a congressman should be—in character, straight as an arrow, honest to a fault, courageous as it comes; on policy, passionate about liberty and sound as the dollar once was. He ranks up there with the best lovers of liberty the country ever sent to Washington, which include the likes of Bourke Cockran and Ron Paul.

I close with a selection of the best of Ashbrook himself, all drawn from a compilation of his columns and speeches, edited and published in 1986 by Randy McNutt under the title, No Left Turns:

“Those who love freedom can only be sickened when the champagne glasses are tipped and our presidents toast Mao, Khruschev, Ceausescu, Tito and the like. While perfection is nowhere to be found in the world today, at least some norms of decency should be observed….All of our recent Presidents, including Carter, have gone too far in making accommodations to communist regimes while in pursuit of an elusive goal of peace.”

“For a nation to be successful, it must have a system of private enterprise in which the capital required by industry is supplied by the people and the industry is owned by the people who supply the capital. The opposing system—socialism—in which the government supplies the capital and owns the industry, has never succeeded. If capital is essential to the providing of jobs, what possible excuse is there for the government to seize that capital by taxation to use for nonproductive purposes?”

“The smooth workings of the Federal tax machine depend on a con game. The game is to give workers higher and higher wage increases through the front door while robbing them through the back door with higher taxes and inflation. The wage increases do not keep up with higher taxes, of course, but the establishment assumes the average family is just too dumb to notice. Unfortunately for the establishment, most people are a lot smarter than most politicians realize.”

“I guess I’m one of those who believes that promises, platforms and philosophies are important. As I have often said, kind of humorously, I wasn’t one of those Republicans who could view something with alarm under Johnson and then to pride under Nixon for the same thing. So I’m a strange breed. I’m a Republican, but I’m not a party man. The more I see parties, the more I think they sell people out.”

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is