All Commentary
Tuesday, May 1, 2001

The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell

A Fascinating Collection of Brief Biographical Sketches of Champions of Freedom

The Free Press • 2000 • 574 pages • $35.00

On some books you feast. On others you nibble. Jim Powell’s The Triumph of Liberty is one of the latter. A fascinating collection of brief biographical sketches of those who have championed human freedom throughout history, Powell’s work is a seemingly inexhaustible source of information, insight, and inspiration. To sit down and read it cover to cover would be not to give Powell his due. His stories deserve to be savored, re-read, and retold. (Readers of this magazine may remember that a number of Powell’s sketches first appeared in these pages.)

Powell begins with Cicero and ends with Martin Luther King Jr. This reflects the breadth of his vision, blending names traditionally associated with free-market economics and classical liberal thought—such as John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand—with champions of religious, social, and cultural liberation as varied as Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony, Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, and Robert Heinlein.

One of my favorite accounts is of the life of Desiderius Erasmus, prolific author and contemporary of Martin Luther in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe. I had only a passing familiarity with Erasmus, and so was delighted to learn about his defense of free will and religious toleration in an era of persecution by both the Catholic Church and Luther’s Protestant followers. Erasmus, we further learn, wrote a response to Machiavelli’s The Prince urging European leaders to favor peace and freedom over power and plunder. “I am a lover of liberty,” he wrote, and Powell supposes that he “must have been uneasy about his friend Thomas More’s Utopia, which described an ideal society where ‘everything’s under state control.’”

Powell dutifully provides those just learning the tenets of the freedom philosophy an excellent introduction through the lives of major eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century economists, philosophers, and politicians. But then he throws some curve balls. He profiles William S. Gilbert, whose comic operas ridiculed the governing establishment of his day. H.M.S. Pinafore, or the Lass That Loved a Sailor apparently drove Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli up the wall, which alone justifies Gilbert’s inclusion in The Triumph of Liberty. Another work created with Sir Arthur Sullivan, The Mikado, is a clever take on the dangers of meddlesome government and the hypocrisy it so often creates.

Another gem is Powell’s profile of Victor Hugo, whose Les Misérables has itself been revived as a popular and powerful musical in recent years. I had forgotten that it was Hugo who famously declared that “nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

I am indebted to Powell for giving me a new appreciation of Thomas Babington Macaulay. Powell leads off his treatment of Macaulay by making the sweeping claim that the English essayist and historian “ranks among the most eloquent of all authors on liberty” and “in terms of the sheer quantity and range of eloquence, perhaps only Thomas Jefferson soared to such breathtaking heights.” Macaulay was an abolitionist, advocate of religious freedom and equality for women, and critic of “profuse expenditures, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars” and other government perfidy. He wrote that private property is “that great institution to which we owe all knowledge, all commerce, all industry, all civilization.”

The Triumph of Liberty provides a unique perspective on such pivotal world events as the fall of the Roman Republic, the Reformation, the American Revolution, the Holocaust, and social movements for abolition, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. A major theme is how much it can cost to stand up for basic human freedom. Twelve of the 65 men and women he profiles were imprisoned for their beliefs, and 15 were exiled from their home countries. Three were killed. Many of Powell’s heroes were poor for much of their lives, sacrificing material comfort as they fought for their principles. Often they did not live to see the fruits of their labors.

In today’s intellectual climate, the kind of history that Powell has written is decidedly out of fashion. His is a book about heroes whose actions altered the course of human development. It is a refutation of the notion that only impersonal social and economic forces can explain the evolution of societies. If, for example, John Lilburne had not spent much of his life in English prisons, protesting the injustices of the Star Chamber and championing the rights of the individual, English history from the seventeenth century to the present might have been far different.

I feel compelled to conclude by quoting one of the blurbs on the back of The Triumph of Liberty. I do so only because I can’t imagine any better way to put it. “A generation of American children are being taught that Malcolm X, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, and William Kunstler are heroes,” author P. J. O’Rourke wrote. “Please read The Triumph of Liberty to your kids. Or go to their school and hit a teacher over the head with it.”

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of the forthcoming Investor Politics.

  • John Hood is a former president of the John Locke Foundation, a state policy think tank in North Carolina, and author of The Heroic Enterprise: Business and the Common Good (Free Press).