The First Liberty Library

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Introduction by Charles Burris

Can one
lone person make a real difference in the state of the world? Is
there any outlet for societal change in the direction towards liberty
free from the corrupting tentacles of partisan politics? Here is
a near forgotten Murray N. Rothbard article, "The First Liberty
Library," from the October, 1966 edition of The Freeman,
published by the Foundation for Economic Education. It tells the
virtually unknown story of British libertarian pioneer Thomas Hollis
who, many keen observers once said, almost single-handedly created
the intellectual ferment and ideological ground swell for the American
Revolution. Rothbard beautifully tells Hollis' courageous story
in his own impassioned and inimitable fashion. The lives of such
exemplary men as Hollis and Rothbard, unswervingly dedicated to
the cause of liberty, serve as shinning beacons in our ever-darkening
world of tyranny and state oppression. Let them both be models of
persevering character and commitment for each of us at LRC to never
give up the good fight and grow weary and disillusioned in our struggle.

The First
Liberty Library
by Murray N. Rothbard

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

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

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).

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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