Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Rothbard: The Creation of the US Constitution Was a Bloodless Coup

Murray Rothbard
Volume 5 of Murray Rothbard's "Conceived in Liberty" will soon be published.

The publication of this volume is an ongoing monumental task (Donate here to help). During a recent interview with Patrick Newman, who is editing the volume, Mises Institute president Jeff Deist spent some time talking to Newman about what he had to do to get Rothbard's handwritten manuscript into shape for publication. Then Deist got Newman to provide a teaser about what is in the volume.

JD: This project, resurrecting the final 5th volume of Conceived in Liberty, was a doozy. It’s subtitled The New Republic, and covers 1784 to 1791. I understand Rothbard wrote the book longhand, on yellow pads, and then used a dictating machine to record it. The tapes were destroyed, so you faced the task of deciphering his handwriting—something even Joey Rothbard and Lew Rockwell couldn’t do. Describe how this project developed.
PN: That’s a good question. I was a Mises Institute Research Fellow during the summer of 2013 and this is right around when the archives are starting to take shape, and one afternoon I asked Dr. Salerno if I could look in there. Barbara Pickard, the archivist, was there. I thought “hey, there would be good paper ideas in there, some history stuff.” So, I started to go in there, started to work in there, sifting through boxes. The only way I can describe it is when you’re a kid in a candy store, this is like the same thing, it’s the closest you can get to meeting your Mark Maguire, your Barry Bonds. And you’re going to see all this stuff that no one else has seen and you could spend all day in there, all night. I’ve done that.
I first saw some pages developing the unpublished fifth chapter of Man Economy, and State on production theory and developed that over the next couple of years. Some of the other things I saw in 2013 were some chapters of The Progressive Era, as well as the fifth volume of Conceived in Liberty. When I looked at the fifth volume of Conceived in Liberty, I thought, “whoa, what is this hieroglyphics stuff going on here?” But I had an idea. I thought, “okay, I think there’s definitely something there for each of those big projects.” So, you first work on the Man, Economy, and State chapter. Then you go to The Progressive Era, then you go to Conceived in Liberty, so it’s kind of like each step of the way, you’re going to a harder and harder project. Most of The Progressive Era was typed. He did have some marginalia I had to add in, if I could figure out how to read that. But the fifth volume of Conceived in Liberty, that was something with which you had to try to figure out the handwriting. There were some typed pages, but when you get to Shays’ Rebellion, it was only handwriting and I just hit an immediate wall. I thought “this is not going to work.” And I was ready to throw in the towel because I wasn’t making any headway. I remember even talking to the Mises Institute book editor Judy Thommesen about this saying, “hey, this might not work out.” But, she said “don’t give up yet.”
In the beginning it was rough going. Barbara was even helping me with the first part of the handwritten manuscript. I had to go back and forth and look at what I was reading. There were times I just worked through the night. Finally I thought, “alright, I’m starting to get into this, highlight each word and then write it out.” And then I’d have to go back and say “alright, now what do the other words say?” I’d go over the context and finally see what it said and I just started to get a better feel for how he was writing. Then I could read whole sentences. The biggest thing is, not only do you not necessarily know what he’s writing, but you also have to figure out his point of view. And as you’re reading you’re having his-tory unfold and then you read it better and you don’t need to write out as much. By the end, it was like “translating” a book. It was about a solid four weeks of just hell. I mean, I loved every minute of it. It was great, but it was tough work. I would go to sleep and I would literally see the words in my sleep — the hieroglyphics — and trying to figure out what he meant. At the end of it, you did it and you’re thinking, “wow, I did it.” And now, at least with the writing, I can look at it. I can still look at it and I’m very comfortable reading it, but it was definitely a process. It was a fun struggle, I think that’s the way I’d put it.
JD: Did you ever have to construct a sentence and hope it was right?
PN: You had to, definitely. There were times I’d have to go back and look at the words and have to construct a sentence or revise it. In some of the places, he actually wrote his ands as plusses. There was lots of shorthand. But I don’t know how his hand could take it. We’re talking literally 600 pages of front-and-back handwriting. I don’t know if he ever developed carpal tunnel syndrome. He must have used an icepack when he was doing this. But, sometimes you have to edit sentences or kind of reconstruct them a little bit. Obviously you couldn’t do it as much as he did it because it’s his work. What’s remarkable was how little of it, in the structure, I had to edit. He handwrote a book with footnotes and block quotes. He would have, “see this article.” Some of the pages, parts of it were torn, so you had to stitch it in. It wasn’t just purely like transcribing. There was some editorial work involved.
JD: Can you give us a teaser or a surprise, something people might find interesting about the book, to whet our appetite for its release?
PN: Definitely. Rothbard takes a view of the Constitution that, ironically, some Founding Fathers — some neglected ones — took. Namely, that it was basically a conspiracy and sort of a bloodless coup. That was the word he used, the phrase he used, where he moved from the Articles of Confederation to the US Constitution. A lot of times this is just presented as: “Well, the Articles didn’t work, so these well-intentioned Founding Fathers write up a new Constitution and then this all takes us naturally to the Washington Administration.” But Rothbard definitely takes a view where he says “no, it was a kind of conspiracy, a sort of coup, where you’re having these people trying to institute a stronger government to enhance their own power and privilege, at least for themselves and the various sorts of factions they represent.” He goes through that and it’s a really a fascinating view of how a state forms and how one state takes over another. He definitely goes with the conquest theory of the state as opposed to the contract theory, as if it were all a voluntary formation of the new state. Some of the stuff he goes through was new to me. I had to look through all the books that he used. I bought and I read them just to try to get the context that he was going through and even some more recent books, just trying to look at the larger context of what he was talking about. I think the best part of the book is when he goes through the ratification. I believe it’s the fifth part of the book, and it’s fascinating. He breaks down all the states and who he’s rooting for, like Patrick Henry of Virginia, who is definitely a neglected Founding Father. He also covers George Clinton of New York and the anti-Federalists associated with him and the Clinton political machine, particularly Abraham Yates. Rothbard goes through it all and it’s really a fascinating part. It’s a topic that no one else has written about or very few people have written about.
JD: In Rothbardian history there are still heroes and villains, just not who we thought.
PN: Yes, exactly. He has heroes and villains and he tries to give people their just due. He definitely tries to provide a new look at people who have been overlooked by history and he thought that was an important thing to do. He was always very humble, but I think he knew in his writing, like he was himself getting overlooked. That was probably why he has somewhat of a harsh view of academics. He might have thought, “these people, I could have done what they did, but I decided not to do it.” So, he may have been thinking about some of these neglected historical figures, thinking, “these people, they made the right choices, at least back in the day. They weren’t perfect, but they made the good choices and they’ve kind of gotten overlooked.” He definitely has that view of bad people and a lot of times, the bad people are the bad people who we were taught, are actually the good people.
JD: Does the 5th volume of Conceived in Liberty work as a standalone book, for those who haven’t read the earlier volumes?
PN: Right. It can definitely be a standalone. The main reason why I say that — and certainly not to give myself too much credit — in the introduction, I go through an overview of the first four volumes. So, to someone picking it up, they’re certainly not going to get all of the detail, but you can read the introduction and you can say “oh, okay, this is where we are.” You definitely don’t need to read the first four volumes. Now you certainly want people to read the first four volumes. But, you don’t need to read the first four volumes. I certainly would like people to, but you get brought up to speed, so to speak. It was one of my initial goals to make sure it could be read as a standalone volume. The last volume was published in 1979, and 40 years later a lot of the original readers are dead. To get people back into the series, you’d want to at least read the introduction in the beginning.

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