All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Leonard E. Read: A Portrait

The Advancement of Human Liberty Is a Learning Process

Leonard started out as a farm boy in the small town of Hubbardston, Michigan. There are always chores on a farm, and Leonard learned early on that time was not to be wasted. Leonard’s father died when the boy was ten. From then on Leonard shouldered the role of a responsible adult. In addition to farm chores, Leonard also clerked in the local store. As he remembered those days, Leonard remarked that his was a 102-hour work week!

There was a one-room schoolhouse in Hubbardston and, of course, church on Sunday and Bible school. Meager resources, these, but they did feed Leonard’s lust for knowledge and gave him the basic tools of learning: the three R’s—reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. His high-school years were spent at nearby Ferris Institute, where he earned his way by keeping the building in shape, looking after the furnace, and grooming the grounds. He had a room and cooked his own meals. He graduated from Ferris and joined the Air Corps.

During World War I, his troopship, the Tuscania, was sunk off the coast of Scotland. Leonard was among the survivors and went to an airbase in England. After the war, Leonard was sent to Germany to serve for another year in the army of occupation. He was about 20 years of age when he returned to his home state and opened a wholesale produce business in Ann Arbor. Before dawn he drove to the Detroit wholesale market and back to Ann Arbor to sell his commodities to grocery stores, fruit stands, and the like. It was backbreaking, heartbreaking work, but he stuck to it till he realized that the market was trying to tell him that peddling groceries was a misuse of his unique talents.

So he packed his wife and two sons into his car and drove to California. He eventually was able to get a job with the tiny Burlingame Chamber of Commerce outside of San Francisco, where he did well enough to be invited to head the much more active Palo Alto Chamber. He was now on the first rung of his remarkable career. Destiny, it seems, had tapped him on the right shoulder.

Leonard was now in his mid-twenties; handsome, strongly built, articulate, suave, well-groomed, energetic, and well-spoken. The total package was attractive to men and women alike, especially so because one sensed that this man had ordered his soul aright and had his priorities straightened out. His dedication was palpable, which made him all the more persuasive.

Mr. Herbert Hoover lived near Palo Alto and was already acknowledged to be the likely Republican candidate in the 1928 race for office of President of the United States. He won, which fact gave Leonard an impossible dream: why not hire a train to take a crowd of people from California to Washington to participate in the inaugural ceremonies? Could be a flop, of course; but when Leonard evolved a strong belief in something, a mysterious alchemy would somehow transform his vision into reality. It may be presumed that Leonard sounded out some of his friends and acquaintances, got some positive responses, and decided to go for broke; the whole package included a luxury Pullman with 16 cars, quality service and gourmet meals, nurse and doctor aboard, and a daily mimeographed bulletin, which Leonard edited. Once in the nation’s capital there would be special rates in first-class hotels, tickets for the parade, reservations for the Inaugural Ball . . . and who knows what else? It caught the eyes of the nation’s press, and the young man from Palo Alto was praised for his innovative mind and the sagacity he displayed in the execution of his plans.

Mr. Hoover conveyed his best thanks to Leonard, and the two saw each other occasionally until the death of the ex-president in 1964. There’s a story that Mr. Hoover submitted (decreed?) an article for publication in The Freeman—which Leonard turned down. Mr. Hoover accepted the rejection slip gracefully!

Leonard’s next move was to Seattle as assistant manager of the Western Division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which extended its jurisdiction over the huge wedge of territory in our Northwest. From there Leonard moved back to San Francisco as manager of the Western Division, a portent perhaps, of even bigger things to come.

California is a state of mind, or a mental state—take your pick. There was—especially in southern California—a mixed bag of share-the-wealth enthusiasts: Marxists, socialists, social creditors, Townsendites, technocrats, followers of Upton Sinclair, and the like. The New Deal, with its myriad alphabet agencies, was sending its tentacles in every direction. The Chamber of Commerce would have nothing to do with the communists or socialists, but Chamber policy tended to favor national recovery programs, which seemed to be lending a helping hand to some sectors of business, as well as offering aid to farmers. And Chamber policies were, for young Read, gospel truth. If the Chamber favored some New Deal policies, so did Read!

Meeting Bill Mullendore

But there was in the Los Angeles area a small cadre of businessmen who were critical of all New Deal policies. The most articulate man in this group was W. C. Mullendore, an executive with Southern California Edison. Leonard journeyed to Los Angeles to meet with this man Mullendore and straighten him out. As Leonard tells this story, he spent ten minutes explaining Chamber policies, and the next few minutes trying to rationalize them. And began to stumble! His sound instincts began to send up warning signals. At which point Mr. Mullendore took over, ripped the Chamber’s position to shreds, and went on to demonstrate that the New Deal was riddled with fallacies and fantasies. Money is unjustly taxed away from those who earn it and unjustly given to those who lobby for it. And in effecting these transfers government itself becomes rich and powerful while the country at large suffers a drop in productivity, as well as an impairment of personal freedom.

Whatever the words uttered by Mr. Mullendore, they had an overwhelming effect on Read; they changed his life by altering his thinking. He began to study and then wrote a book in order to clarify his philosophy. The result was The Romance of Reality, published in 1937 by Dodd, Mead Company.

Under the prodding of Mr. Mullendore and others of like mind, Chamber policy began to shift away from campaigns that touted the climate, the oranges, the movies, and such, to serious efforts to change the climate of opinion by means of the written and the spoken word. The man to guide the Los Angeles Chamber in its new orientation was to be, of course, Leonard Read, who became general manager of the nation’s largest Chamber in 1939, when he was 41 years old. He was the right man, at the right time, in a strategic post. It was important that the Los Angeles Times was what we might call a conservative paper, which gave Read a fairly friendly press. The Register of Orange County was outspokenly libertarian; its publisher, R.C. Hoiles, was a dynamo. He and Read must have become allies early on.

And Leonard’s pastor, Reverend James W. Fifield, minister of the 4,000-member First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, with a Saturday evening radio hour heard from San Francisco to San Diego, was a foe of the New Deal and critical of the “Social Gospel” trend in the churches. To counter the “Social Gospel” Fifield sent a black minister, the Reverend Irving Merchant of his staff, around the country to meet with ministerial associations and explain its errors. Pastor Merchant collected some 17,000 signed cards of endorsement from ministers affirming their allegiance to a resistance movement (I’ve seen the cards!), which came to be called “Mobilization for Spiritual Ideals.” In short, the vineyard in southern California had reached a stage where a man like Leonard could make optimum use of his talents with support offered by the business and ecclesiastical communities. Leonard served on the board of First Church.

Enter Bastiat

And now Bastiat enters the picture. Thomas Nixon Carver, distinguished professor of economics at Harvard who championed the free-market economy during the ’20s and ’30s, had retired to southern California. Carver attended a luncheon at which Leonard was the speaker. After the talk Carver approached Leonard and said, “Mr. Read, you sound like Frederic Bastiat.” “Who is Bastiat?” inquired Leonard. Carver responded and promised to mail Bastiat’s booklet titled “Communism versus Free Trade.” Leonard loved it and soon issued it under the imprint of Pamphleteers, Inc., a small group of friends of liberty within the Chamber orbit who, in their “ninth-floor underground,” occasionally chipped in to print short works that otherwise might be neglected, like Rose Wilder Lane’s Give Me Liberty and Ayn Rand’s Anthem. Not long after this, Mr. Hoiles reprinted three of Bastiat’s books in the English translation of about 130 years ago. Several years after founding FEE, Leonard published Dean Russell’s robust translation of Bastiat’s The Law. Well over 500,000 copies have been circulated.

The public (or government) schools of Leonard’s boyhood offered a fairly sound curriculum; students were exposed to the basic public documents of this nation. The Declaration of Independence was Leonard’s favorite. Permit me to quote from Read’s interpretation of a portion of one sentence. “. . . in the fraction of one sentence written into the Declaration of Independence,” Read declared, “was stated the real American Revolution, the new idea, and it was this: ‘that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.’ That was it. This is the essence of Americanism. This is the rock upon which the whole ‘American miracle’ was founded.

“This revolutionary concept was at once a spiritual, a political, and an economic concept. It was spiritual in that the writers of the Declaration recognized and publicly proclaimed that the Creator was the endower of man’s rights, and thus the Creator is sovereign.

“It was political in implicitly denying that the state is the endower of man’s rights, thus declaring that the state is not sovereign.

“It was economic in the sense that if an individual has a right to his life, it follows that he has a right to sustain his life—the sustenance of life being nothing more nor less than the fruits of one’s own labor.”

These words are lifted from Leonard’s lecture “The Essence of Americanism,” his opening speech at virtually every one of our several hundred seminars (see page 527).

Liberty Cannot Be Sold

During Leonard’s five years as general manager of the Los Angeles Chamber, his mind sharpened and deepened; he grew and he outgrew. New insights developed as he pondered the question of how the freedom philosophy could best be advanced. In his earlier professional positions he had become well acquainted with advertising and promotional techniques. But the idea of individual liberty cannot be “sold” as if it were a cake of soap; it has to be explained—and explained in such a manner that the reader or hearer gains an intimate insight into the plain truth of the matter. The idea of “freedom” is more caught than taught; it’s analogous to a benign contagion spreading from person to person, until a few begin to say: “By George, I think I’ve got it!”

It was some years later that Leonard came across a confirmation of his own thoughts in a few words from Albert Schweitzer’s great 1923 book, Civilization and Ethics: “Civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind independent of the one prevalent among the crowd and in opposition to it. A new public opinion must be created privately and unobtrusively. The existing one is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by organization, and by financial and other influences at its disposal. . . . This unnatural way of spreading ideas must be opposed by the natural one, which goes from person to person and relies solely on the truth of the thoughts and the hearer’s receptiveness for new truth.”

Albert Jay Nock’s widely circulated essay, “Isaiah’s Job,” conveyed much the same message as the words of Schweitzer. Leonard has said that the unique stance of FEE was inspired by reading this essay by Nock. The first contact between the two men may have been in 1935 or 1936. Leonard told me that he read Nock’s Our Enemy, the State shortly after it came out and wrote a letter to Mr. Nock: “I’ve just read your Our Enemy, the State. It is a perfectly splendid book. But how can a brilliant man like you advocate the Single Tax?” Back came a letter from AJN: “Dear Mr. Read: I do not advocate the Single Tax: I merely believe in it.” Yours very truly, Albert Jay Nock. Leonard was, from then on, free from the distemper of mere advocacy.

The ice once broken, the relationship between the two men strengthened. Whenever Leonard came to New York he tried to arrange to have dinner with AJN. Nock published his magnificent Memoirs of a Superfluous Man in 1943. He sent a copy to Leonard inscribed, “If this book is good enough for Leonard E. Read, it’s good enough for me.” Signed, Albert Jay Nock. FEE is now the central source for Nock’s books; and there is a Nockian Society at 42 Leathers Road, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky 41017.

Leonard finally came to the conclusion that the institution he envisioned as a proper vehicle to advance the freedom philosophy could not operate as a facet of another type of institution . . . it had to be autonomous.

The bout with Bill Mullendore started it all. Leonard continued his own search for wisdom, reaching for new ideas and better ways to present them. He firmly grasped the profound truth that the advancement of human liberty is a learning process and not a selling problem.

What the freedom philosophy needed was “a local habitation and a name.” Fifty-two years ago, in 1946, it found both in Irvington, New York. FEE has been a wellspring of ideas of liberty since its inception—and the tradition continues.

Postscript: A fine, full-scale biography of Leonard Read written by Mary Sennholz, his secretary in the early days of FEE, is available from the Foundation. Highly recommended.

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.