Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, Oswald Garrison Villard

Mar 13, 2005 12:23 pm

Happy Birthday, Oswald Garrison Villard

Osward Garrison Villard provided a rare direct link between the classical liberal anti-imperialism of the late nineteenth century and the Old Right of the 1940s.

Born in 1872, his early surroundings were steeped in the Yankee folkways of antislavery, free trade, and business enterprise. He was the son of Henry Villard, a wealthy railroad magnate, who owned the The Nation and The New York Evening Post. His grandfather was William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist.

In 1894, Villard began to write regularly for The New York Evening Post and The Nation. The editor of both publications was E.L. Godkin, a tireless advocate of free trade, the gold standard, and anti-imperialism.

Villard said that he and his fellow staff members at The Evening Post and The Nation were "radical on peace and war and on the Negro question; radical in our insistence that the United States stay at home and not go to war abroad and impose its imperialistic will upon Latin-American republics, often with great slaughter. We were radical in our demand for free trade and our complete opposition to the whole protective system.” Upon the death of his father, he not only wrote for both publications but owned them.

Villard was also a founder of the American Anti-Imperialist League which favored independence for the territories captured in the Spanish-American War. To further the cause, he worked to organize"a third ticket" in 1900 to challenge Bryan and McKinley. His was joined in this effort by several key veterans of the National (Gold) Democratic Party in 1896. Not surprisingly, Villard made a personal appeal to Grover Cleveland, a hero of the gold Democrats, to be the candidate. Cleveland demurred asserting that voters no longer cared what he had to say.

Villard was a pioneer, and today largely unsung, civil rights leader. In 1910, he donated space in The New York Evening Post for the “call” to the meeting which formerly organized the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. For many years, Villard served as the NAACP’s disbursing treasurer while Moorfield Storey, another Cleveland Democrat, was its president.

While Villard continued to champion civil liberties, civil rights, and anti-imperialism after World War I, he had largely abandoned his previous belief in laissez faire economics. During the 1930s, he welcomed the advent of New Deal and called for nationalization of major industries.

Always independent-minded, however, he bitterly dissented from the foreign policy of the Roosevelt administration in the late 1930s. He was an early member of the America First Committee which opposed U.S. entry into World War II. He broke completely with The Nation, which he had sold in 1935, because it supported American intervention. At the same time, he became increasingly repelled by the New Deal bureaucratic state which he condemned a precursor to American fascism.

After 1945, Villard made common cause with"old right" conservatives, such as Senator Robert A. Taft, Felix Morley, and John T. Flynn, against Harry S. Truman’s Cold War policies. He died in 1949.

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Roderick T. Long - 3/17/2005

> maybe you could write up something
> for the Cato Journal and submit it to
>the editor? I'd love to see more published
> on the connections between the civil rights
> movement and libertarianism

I'd be happy to see something on that topic for the Journal of Libertarian Studies also.

> Lew Rockwell has made it clear that he
> favors more beatings, lots of them

That doesn't seem like the most plausible interpretation of this.

Kenneth R Gregg - 3/17/2005

Tom said: "....maybe you could write up something for the Cato Journal and submit it to the editor? I'd love to see more published on the connections between the civil rights movement and libertarianism?"

Quite agree. David has done some good research that already touches on this, and would be an excellent choice to do a paper on the subject.

The relationship between libertarian history and civil liberties is quite interesting and the connections have always been strong in almost every generation where libertarians have spoken out. One of the best-known leading British feminists of a century past was a strident libertarian (member of the board for the Liberty & Property Defence League), antiwar activist and founding suffragette, Millicent Garrett Fawcett (also spouse of the blind British classical liberal, Henry Fawcett--coauthor of books on the economy and society with her).

The Fawcett Society Prize is one of the most coveted award given to British feminists today. The Fawcett Library and Fawcett Society are organizations which, if you study the recent history of feminism in Britain, you will come across again and again.

A paper of mine on Wordsworth Donisthorpe, who was influenced by the Fawcetts, and found Millicent a fascinating character.

This is besides the point, however, which is that there is a lot of fertile ground in the relationship between civil liberties and libertarianism for research. Sometimes it is not well-noted because the connections between the two subjects are not identified. Free speech has been pushed forward by radicals within the freethought movement. Are the leading figures identified by their politics? Charles Bradlaugh, for example, was a strong classical liberal (and friend and associate of Auberon Herbert) who lead much of the fight for free speech in England. Yet, his primary historical recognition is that of an atheist. One can go on and on with these matters, Tom.

CATO (or some other group) would not go wrong by sponsoring a conference on this subject, and would find it a worthwhile venture in the long run. Indeed, the more the merrier!

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Tom G Palmer - 3/17/2005

David, I thought that it was friendly criticism, but I just didn't understand it (until your clarification). Since mostly the Cato Institute produces public policy studies, such references wouldn't feature as prominently, but....maybe you could write up something for the Cato Journal and submit it to the editor? I'd love to see more published on the connections between the civil rights movement and libertarianism.

The crowd are generally of a very different mindset; one was upset that I had written a short essay on the courage of Martin Luther King in facing police violence and mocked the idea that it was an advance in liberty, justice, and civilization that black men no longer fear being beaten for failing to get off the sidewalk when a white policeman approaches. Come to think of it, Lew Rockwell has made it clear that he favors more beatings, lots of them:

March 10, 1991
Los Angeles Times, Sunday edition


If you offer a small boy one candy bar now or 10 tomorrow, he'll grab the one. That's because children have what economists call a "high time preference." They want it, and they want it now. The future is a haze.

The punishing of children must take this into account. One good whack on the bottom can have an effect. A threat about no TV all next year will not.

As we grow older, this changes. We care more, and think more, about the future. In fact, this is the very process of maturation. We plan, save, invest and put off today's gratification until tomorrow.

But street criminals, as economist Murray N. Rothbard points out, have the time preference of depraved infants. The prospect of a jail sentence 12 months from now has virtually no effect.

As recently as the 1950s -- when street crime was not rampant in America -- the police always operated on this principle: No matter the vagaries of the court system, a mugger or rapist knew he faced a trouncing -- proportionate to the offense and the offender -- in the back of the paddy wagon, and maybe even a repeat performance at the station house. As a result, criminals were terrified of the cops, and our streets were safe.

Today's criminals know that they probably won't be convicted, and that if the are, they face a short sentence -- someday. The result is city terrorism, though we are seldom shown videos of old people being mugged, women being raped, gangs shooting drivers at random or store clerks having their throats slit.

What we do see, over and over again, is the tape of some Los Angeles-area cops giving the what-for to an ex-con. It is not a pleasant sight, of course; neither is cancer surgery.

Did they hit him too many times? Sure, but that's not the issue: It's safe streets versus urban terror, and why we have moved from one to the other.

Liberals talk about banning guns. As a libertarian, I can't agree. I am, however, beginning to wonder about video cameras.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr. is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an economics think tank in Auburn, Ala.
No surprise that civil rights (even the right to own a video camera to record police brutality) isn't on the lewrockwell agenda.

David Timothy Beito - 3/17/2005

The Cato folks, unlike the Mises folks, emphasize the civil rights tradition of libertarianism yet I have rarely seen them emphasize the importance of people like Villard and Moorfield Storey as founders of the NAACP. This is meant as friendly criticism. Also, I would love to have a Cato-produced Moorfield Storey T-Shirt!!

Tom G Palmer - 3/17/2005

David, I'm not sure I understand your point.

David Timothy Beito - 3/15/2005

Interesting. Perhaps some of his stories about the horrors of war influenced his son's antiwar outlook.

What do you think of my colleague George Rable's book on Fredericksburg?

Richard Croker - 3/14/2005

I have just finished a book about the Battle of Fredericksburg in which HENRY Villard plays an important role (I write "history as fiction," so people DO "play roles"). While he is known (as noted) as a railroad tycoon, he came to America as a virtually penniless political refugee from Germany. He got a job writing for a German Language paper, started a company to compete with the fledgling Associated Press, went bust and then went to work for Mr. Harace Greeley's New York Tribune. His story on the Battle of Shiloh was (are you ready for this?) lost in the mail. Instead of being fired, he was promoted to special correspondent to the Army of the Potomac and was an eye wtiness to the horrors (from a Union standpoint) of Fredericksburg. His diary tells of his harrowing ride to Washington where he claims to have played a role in informing Mr. Lincoln of the disaster -- information that sent the President into a fit of meloncholia and a three-day seclusion. After the war he not only became rich off of the railroads, but he was also an early investor in Edison General Electric which apparantly did very well for him.
Richard Croker
"To Make Men Free"

David Timothy Beito - 3/14/2005

Unfortunately, not many libertarians emphasize this important point, not even the Cato people who one would expect to to so..

Kenneth R Gregg - 3/14/2005

Yes, I've always liked Ekirch on this subject as well, both in "Decline of American Liberalism" and in his other books.

The "tipping point" seems to be with the Wilson administration. He was a "dark horse" winner of the Democratice presidential candidacy and many admired the classical liberal elements in his work, "The State" (even the great free market anarchis of the time, Spencer Heath, liked it). So many classical liberals (and many of the more radical Georgists) supported and/or became involved in Wilson's administration that it was inevitable that they found themselves caught up in being invested in Wilson's goals for his administration. Often, it was a matter of either leaving their involvement with his administration (as was the case with Albert Jay Nock), or accepting the growing corporate statism and imperialism which evolved during his admin. Regrettably, most stayed with him and left their original principles behind.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Kenneth R Gregg - 3/14/2005

I've always found it interesting to find so many classical liberals involved in the origins of the NAACP. It's not noted today, but certainly in line with their general beliefs regarding individual rights and improving the general condition of people.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Kevin Carson - 3/14/2005

Arthur Ekirch's The Decline of American Liberalism is a good study of this process. Liberals at the turn of the 20th century has a strong affinity for the market, but began to see government anti-monopoly action as necessary to keep it competitive and prevent plutocratic power from overwhelming "petty bourgeois" liberal values.

Brandeis is a good case in point--his book Other People's Money is a perfect illustration of this tendency.

Over time, this affinity for nineteenth century model of distributive property and decentralized, competitive markets gradually evolved to incorporate more and more government intervention, until government-promoted "rationality" became an integral part of their ideal version of capitalism. They went from seeing government intervention as a necessary evil to promote their preferred "laissez-faire" model, to seeing it as a positive good.

David Timothy Beito - 3/14/2005

This brings to mind a telling point. I traced the subsequent careers of the member of the National (gold) Democratic national committee of 1896. Many lived on to the 1930s.

A majority of them seem to have become Wilsonian progressives and, at least a few, still proudly considered themselves to be "liberals." Thus, a case can be made that modern statist liberals have just as much right to the term "liberal" as classical liberals do. Both can trace their origins to the same tradition.

Bill Woolsey - 3/13/2005

Villard appears to be an excellent
example of a libertarian who came
to support socialist policies. Why?

While one sometimes hears the claim
that those socialists stole the term
"liberal," it rather seems that liberals
changed their views on policy.

Presumably, most classical liberals
weren't as "good" as Villard, and
apparently, most of them didn't go
as "bad" on the economic issues.

What happened?

William Marina - 3/13/2005

A very nice piece on a stalwart opponent of Empire in all of its manifestations.