Blogs > Liberty and Power > Happy Birthday, Isabel Paterson

Jan 20, 2005 11:33 pm

Happy Birthday, Isabel Paterson

On January 22, 1886, a child was born in a log house on an island in Lake Huron. This child, who after many adventures became a best-selling novelist, influential literary critic, and nationally famous “personality,” would also be known as one of the three founding mothers of libertarianism, and the one to whom the other two were intellectually indebted.

To Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson’s great work on political theory, “The God of the Machine” (1943), was “a book ranking with the best of Paine and Madison." To Ayn Rand, Isabel Paterson was "the one encounter in my life that can never be repeated." In my own book, “The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America” (Transaction Publishers, 2004), I argue that Paterson (1886-1961) was the earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.

But there’s no need to repeat the book; you can read it yourself (please do!). Paterson was a wit, an intellectual pioneer, and the rare cultural critic whose work is fresh and alive, three generations after she published it. To celebrate her birthday, I don’t want to rehearse the facts of her life, no matter how colorful they are (and they’re colorful, all right). I want to give you some of Paterson’s own thoughts, in Paterson’s own words.


The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people--and you can guess for yourself which is likely to be done.

The enemy of every honest man is the politician seeking power.

Next time any one says, "There ought to be a law," you know the answer--"There is."

What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of things.

We have been asked, by reformers: Don't you want the law enforced? We can only reply: We're not so darned sure, and neither would you be if you knew what the law is.

There is practically nothing you can't be put in jail for now.

A lot of American principle is contained in the two words: "Just don't." Much of the rest is encompassed by the suggestion of minding one's own business. The whole is summed up in the word "liberty."

When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.

Freedom is dangerous. Possibly crawling on all fours might be safer than standing upright. But we like the view better up there.

A government official is a man who would cheat even at solitaire.

Any one who has been continuously wrong for twelve years is just wasting his time outside our national capital.

Even a wheelbarrow can be wrecked.

Kingdoms are more likely to collapse by a deficit than to perish by the sword.

Destitution is easily distributed. It's the one thing political power can insure you.

The craving for power is in itself a sign of inferior abilities and unfitness for responsibility.

The power of the state is always in inverse ratio to the power of the nation.

If you go back 150 years you are a reactionary; but if you go back 1,000 years, you are in the foremost ranks of progress.

No majority can absolve the individual.

It is always possible to stick to your principles, if you have any.


The first qualification for a writer on any subject is to be able to write.

The possession of a carload of bricks doesn't make a mason.

The desire to be a writer is usually fatal to accomplishment.

Literature is not to be expected every minute.

What young writers want most is Encouragement. (A thing we find it difficult to supply.)

All that any society can give a writer is the freedom of the press. Of course it's pretty tough to be given full leave to say what you please and then find either that you have nothing to say or that you don't know how to say it.

We have known exactly two people who simply loved writing, enjoyed it, wrote with fluency and without compulsion. They've been at it for twenty years and have not yet achieved publication. Their stuff is simply terrible.

A writer should know absolutely everything in the most minute detail.

With too many historians, you'd think it was thirty thousand abstractions fell at Gettysburg.

The mere fact that a book does not sell is not a guarantee of literary quality.

The great problem of the writer is that if you do anything else you have no time to write and if you don't you have nothing to write about.

Writing can be done only during the time when one ought to be doing something else.

It is necessary to bear in mind constantly that literature is not a Five-Year Plan.

It is writing that lasts; the subject never yet made a classic. Well, neither did a prize committee.

There are recurrent periods when every other test is applied to literature except that of literary value.

We don't enjoy, for any length of time, a book in which it is impossible to be sure what the author means.

Words are the tools of the thinker. If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?

Practically the whole art of writing consists in getting rid of superfluous words.

Nothing is worth reporting if it doesn't cause the subject to deny and repudiate it violently.

All heads of great states are considered great writers while they are in office. It goes with the job. And we mean it goes with the job.


What almost everybody wants is to be at once famous and invisible.

The thread upon which the humblest destiny depends spins out to the end of the earth.

The natural tendency of the human mind is to get rid of facts, and if obliged to retain a few, to mutilate them beyond recognition.

People mostly do as they like, and that would be fine if they'd let other people do the same.

Life should consist in at least 50 per cent pure waste of time, and the rest in doing what you please.

Nothing is so vitalizing as a few robust prejudices, so long as one knows when to disregard them.

A cat is always around if there is a chance of the spotlight.

It is sad to reflect that doubtless Cleopatra herself would have liked to be the sort of person legend makes her.

If one could bring the moon down to earth it would no longer be the moon.

The best of us are liable to indulge in orgies whenever we get inside a five-and-ten-cent-store.

This country could do with better looking men. And more of them.

Personally we do not object to the rich, as long as they know their place. Segregated in Newport and other penal colonies, they do little or no harm. The trouble is they couldn't stand it themselves. . . . A lot of them have decided to Help Others. And the results are just about what you'd expect.

The great danger of demanding to be understood is that finally the yearner gets his wish. And the next step is divorce.

There is a secular self-righteousness which borrows all the unbearable features of formalized piety with none of its graces.

All the virtues require some one else to practice them upon, which seems to us rather hard on the object.

People do not realize how important it is to have a good time until it is too late.

H. M. Parshley writes that he has read somewhere that "there never was an Age of Reason; just a reasonable person now and then." Yes, but sometimes there were as many as four or five at once; that is what was called the Age of Reason.

Nothing ever works out but sometimes something else does.

Sometimes there seems to be nothing to do but take the leftovers and make a stew.

Right now it is a terrible thing to be a rugged individualist; but we don't know what else to be except a feeble nonentity.

What we really don't understand is why more people are not interested in more things.

Fame consists in being taken for some one else with a different name, which nobody can quite remember either.

Money is especially vulgar when in the possession of others.

People will believe almost anything that isn't so.

The volunteer fire department is usually about as bad as the fire.

Nothing that well meaning people might do would surprise us.

A noble purpose is a very queer guide to conduct. . . . If only there were no such thing as consequences.

The biggest pests are the people who use altruism as an alibi. What they passionately wish is to make themselves important.

"Did I ask to be born?" . . . How do they know they didn't ask to be born? They asked for their dinner, anyhow, the minute they were born, and got it.

If you're going to be a dinosaur, be one; otherwise you're nothing but a lizard.

We hardly know what the consequences would be if everybody suddenly realized how many things there are they don't have to do.

If there were just one gift you could choose, but nothing barred, what would it be? We wish you then your own wish; you name it. Ours is liberty, now and forever.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

Sad thought:
By some strange coincidence, I happen to have lived very near both of the houses in which Isabel Paterson lived in later life--one just outside of Princeton NJ, and one in Montclair NJ. In neither town is there anything remotely resembling a memorial to her.

Princeton has a "Paul Robeson Place" (commemorating an unapologetic Stalinist actor), but nothing for Paterson. Montclair commemorates Stephen Crane (fair enough), and the painter George Inness (more than fair enough), but not Paterson. I'm told (by Stephen Cox) that her gravesite near Cherry Hill, NJ is unmarked, as well. (Thomas Paine has suffered a similar fate, I believe.)

On a horn-tooting note:
I took photos of Paterson's houses for Stephen Cox when he was still working his book, but not (yet) having bought the book, I wasn't sure whether my photos made the final cut. Does anyone know? (Guess I might as well click on over to Amazon, buy the book, and find out, right? Can't expect a handout from a bunch of libertarians....)

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

The handout comment was a joke!

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006


I'll check at home--uh, I mean behind the commissary--to see whether the photos are digitized. I don't remember offhand.


You are far too kind!

Kenneth R. Gregg - 1/18/2006

Wait! Here's the shirt off my back. I'll go out and catch some desert tortoises and a couple of rattlesnakes--they make great stew!!

Roderick T. Long - 1/17/2006

I know Irfan; he's a homeless person who gets his meals from a dumpster behind the 10th Avenue commissary. But he sleeps on a stack of 457 copies of the Paterson biography; don't let him trick you into giving him another one!

Kenneth R. Gregg - 1/17/2006

Wasn't sure, Irfan. Decided to give you the benefit of the doubt and let you respond.

Roderick T. Long - 1/17/2006

Irfan, do you have digitized versions of your photos? If so, I'd be interested in seeing them posted.

Kenneth R. Gregg - 1/16/2006

Irfan said:
"I took photos of Paterson's houses for Stephen Cox when he was still working his book, but not (yet) having bought the book, I wasn't sure whether my photos made the final cut. Does anyone know?"
Irfan, your photos didn't make the cut, unfortunately. There are a number of quite good pictures in the book which are pertinent to the biography, but none appear to be yours.

Irfan said: "(Guess I might as well click on over to Amazon, buy the book, and find out, right? Can't expect a handout from a bunch of libertarians....)"

You might be interested in the bio anyway, it is quite good (I keep meaning to finish a review for one journal) and deserves more recognition. As one who takes care of his own family and dies volunteer work on the side, I understand how it may be to need some help from time to time. Did you ask Stephen for a review copy? He may be happy to send you one.

I'm keeping my copy (already marked it up), but if I run across an extra, I'll be happy to send it to you.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Mark Brady - 1/16/2006

Agreed. The reason I didn't mention is that I find it takes significantly longer to search and it's less easy to use so, as a first port of call, I use and recommend and not

Roderick T. Long - 1/16/2006

Amen to Mark re Abebooks, but I would also, or instead, recommend the marvelous, which searches through a long list of different online used-book providers, including Abebooks.

Mark Brady - 1/16/2006

When I come across an out-of-print book about which I know little or nothing, I visit It's quick and easy to use. The advanced search enables the user to search just for, say, a signed first edition cloth with a dust jacket. Right now, there is one copy of the first edition of the book you mention and it is priced at $58. Which, of course, does not mean that someone is willing to pay that amount for it. I find the most serious defect with is that booksellers enter the details of their books incorrectly. You should also be aware that sellers tend to inflate the condition of their wares.

There are several other bookselling websites but I find very easy to use. It's a good place to go for used scholarly books. Many sellers do not use

charles c carver - 1/14/2006

I just had a question you seem to have a good knowledge of her work I found one of her books in an old partially destroyed library. I wanted to know what it was worth either sentimental or monatary it is a first edition of "if it prove fair weather" I found literally hundreds of book around the same vein I would appreciate any assistance you could offer.

Kret Tate - 2/13/2005

Isabel Paterson is an undiscovered genius.

Keith Halderman - 1/21/2005

There is a pronouced timeless quality to these quotations. My three favorite are:
Kingdoms are more likely to collapse by a deficit than to perish by the sword.-- the Soviet Union
The craving for power is in itself a sign of inferior abilities and unfitness for responsibility.-- the Bush family
There is a secular self-righteousness which borrows all the unbearable features of formalized piety with none of its graces. -- Senator Clinton

Hapy Birthday from me too.

Kenneth R Gregg - 1/21/2005

May songs be written of her as she is remembered on the millenia of her birth. She and the other builders of the freedom philosophy (including Thomas Paine--b. Jan 29, 1737!) will be recognized and acknowledged if civilization endures another thousand years. The Lincolns, Bushes and other warmongers will be long forgotten, thankfully, for their attainments will sink into nothing.

I hope it will, and that our children's children are there, freer and happier, dancing and singing on whatever planet they stand upon.

Just a hope.
Just Ken