The First Liberty Library

Dr. Rothbard is a professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Among his works are the comprehensive two-volume treatise, Man, Economy, and State (1962) and America‘s Great Depression (1963).

The lone individual is seldom given credit as a shaper and mover of great historical events; and this is particularly true when that in­dividual is no famous statesman or military hero, nor leader of a mass movement, but simply a little-known person pursuing his own idea in his own way. Yet such a person, scarcely known in his day and totally forgotten by historians until the last few years, played an important role in one of the most significant events in mod­ern history: the American Revo­lution. In all the welter of writing on the economic, social, political, and military factors in the Revo­lution, the role of this one obscure man, who directed no great events nor even wrote an influential book, had been completely forgotten; and yet now we know the great in­fluence of this man and his simple idea in forming an event that has shaped all of our lives.

Thomas Hollis of Lincoln‘s Inn (1720-1774) was an independently wealthy Englishman of the eigh­teenth century, who came from a long line of leading merchants and Dissenters (non-Anglican Protes­tants). From early in life, Hollis developed two passions that were to guide and consume his life: books and individual liberty. The devotion to liberty was not surprising, for the Hollis family had long been steeped in the libertar­ian “Commonwealthman” or “Real Whig” tradition, a tradition de­rived from the English republi­canism of the seventeenth century. What was unique about Thomas Hollis was his fusion of an in­tense devotion to books and to liberty, a fusion which led to his particular idea, to the cherished “Plan” to which he would dedicate his life. This was a plan to dis­seminate the writings of liberty (his affectionately named “liberty books”) as widely as possible to kindle the spirit and the knowl­edge of liberty throughout the world.

His Own Kind of Public Service

Offered a chance, in his mid-thirties, to enter Parliament, Hol­lis refused to join what he con­sidered the inevitable corruption of the political life; instead he de­cided to devote himself to his Plan to distribute libertarian books. Hollis thus came to spend the bulk of his life collecting and disseminating books and pamphlets and mementoes of liberty where he be­lieved they would do the most good; when books could not be obtained, he financed the repub­lishing of them himself. Every phase of their publication and distribution was shepherded through by Hollis as a labor of love. The typography, the condi­tion of the prints, the luxurious binding and stamping, all were en­hanced by his efforts. When send­ing a book as a gift to a library, person, or institution, which he usually did anonymously, Hollis took the trouble to inscribe the title page with mottoes and quotations appropriate to the book it­self. Even “liberty coins,” medals, and prints were collected by Hollis and sent to where they might best be used.

At first, Thomas Hollis sent the benefits of his largesse far and wide, throughout Europe and Asia as well as England and Scotland. But after the Stamp Act troubles in 1765, Hollis concentrated almost all his efforts on the American colonies, in which he and his fam­ily had always been interested. The family had often contributed to Harvard College, and now a fire at Harvard, coinciding with the eruption of the Stamp Act turmoil between America and England, gave Hollis the opportunity to send a host of libertarian books and pamphlets to restock the Har­vard library, to which he sent no less than 1,300 books! For Hollis was particularly aware of the importance of diffusing the principles of liberty among youth, and especially among university students. Harvard was particularly receptive soil, for it was at the center of the growing revolutionary spirit in the American colonies, a spirit that could only be fueled by the writings of the English revo­lutionaries of the previous cen­tury and their spiritual heirs: men such as the martyred Alger­non Sidney, John Locke, John Milton, John Toland, Henry Neville, John Trenchard, and Mar­chamont Nedham.

Hollis supplemented these acti­vities by sparing no effort on be­half of the American colonists, in­cluding writing letters, public and private, wherever he could and re­printing and distributing writings favorable to the Americans. These works included tracts by American and English authors, as well as letters by Hollis’ friends written to the London press, usually after being prodded into writing them by the indefatigable Hollis.

Samuel Johnson Pays Tribute

While far from famous in his own day, Thomas Hollis and his Plan were well known in English intellectual circles, where that crusty old Tory, Dr. Samuel John­son, angrily pinned upon Hollis the responsibility for the Ameri­can Revolution. Ironically, John­son had at first brusquely dis­missed the unprepossessing Hollis as a harmless “dull poor creature.” Professor Caroline Robbins, who has done yeoman work in rescuing Hollis from total obscurity, elo­quently concludes that Dr. John­son’s final assessment was not so very wrong:

When his gifts to Americans of his “liberty books” and his propaganda for them are considered, Dr. Johnson’s attribution to Hollis of some share at least in the American Revolution seems hardly exaggerated. . . .

The famous plan of Thomas Hollis of Lincoln‘s Inn was itself a microcosm of the activities of all his lib­eral contemporaries. Those books, pictures, medals, and manuscripts he began to collect as a young man in the reign of George II represented to him and to his friends the great tradition of English liberty. He wanted to spread knowledge of this sacred canon around the world. As he saw in the policies of George III and his ministers a threat to all he most valued in his dear, native land, he concentrated his efforts to send overseas American friends as much of the heritage as could be confined in print and portrait. The New World would provide an asylum for the freedom his ancestors had fought for in the old.

Hollis was right. In America the academic ideas of the Whigs of the British Isles were fruitful and found practical expression. Americans opposing English policies made claims which could be contradicted from past experience and practice, but in using the natural rights doctrines they were appealing to tradition still lively among their English sympathizers. . . .1

Influence in America

Thomas Hollis’ most direct in­fluence in America fell upon its most eminent libertarian minister, the Congregationalist divine from Boston, the Rev. Jonathan May­hew. Having discovered Mayhew as a fervent champion of religious freedom and disseminated May­hew’s work in England, Hollis began an ardent lifelong friendship by correspondence with Mayhew which rapidly expanded the hori­zons of the New England minister from religious to political liberty. Mayhew’s biographer testifies to the enormous influence wielded by Hollis’ correspondence and by his periodic shipments of boxes filled with libertarian books, manuscripts, pamphlets, and assorted memorabilia.2

Thomas Hollis was not destined to see the fruit of his beloved Plan in the American Revolution. But though this lone man of learning was quickly forgotten, recent his­torians, in the wake of the re­searches of Caroline Robbins, have begun to recognize the tremendous influence upon the American Revo­lution, not only of Hollis himself, but of the entire English liber­tarian tradition which Hollis did so much to revive and disseminate. The recent works of Charles W. Akers, David L. Jacobson, and particularly Bernard Bailyn have demonstrated how much the birth of America owed to the English libertarian tradition carried on and transmitted by a few stalwart Commonwealthmen of the eight­eenth century.3


1 Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), pp. 268, 384-85. Miss Robbins first resur­rected the role of Hollis in her “The Strenuous Whig, Thomas Hollis of Lin­coln‘s Inn,” The William and Mary Quar­terly (July, 1950), pp. 406-53, and in her “Library of Liberty—Assembled for Har­vard College by Thomas Hollis of Lincoln‘s Inn,” Harvard Library Bulletin (Winter and Spring, 1951), pp. 5-23, 181-­96.

2 Charles W. Akers, Called Unto Lib­erty: A Life of Jonathan Mayhew, 1720­-1766 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uni­versity Press, 1964), pp. 139-48 and pas­sim.

3 See Bernard Bailyn, “General Intro­duction,” Pamphlets of the American Rev­olution, Vol. I (Cambridge, Mass.: Belk­nap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1965); David L. Jacobson, ed., The English Libertarian Heritage (Indianap­olis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).