At its lowest point in the early 20th‐century, classical liberal ideas were in full retreat with the advent of extensive state interference in the economy. Rose Wilder Lane reignited a passion for liberal ideas in her numerous columns alongside her masterwork, The Discovery of Freedom.
The early twentieth century was a time when liberalism was in retreat. Competing extreme ideologies like National Socialism and Communism were on the rise, seducing many intellectuals into seeing the benefits of a more comprehensive role for the state in both the economy and society. World War One ruptured the optimism of liberals, and the Great Depression of 1929 made capitalism seem like an abject failure leading to an increasing need for state intervention. When liberal ideas were in retreat, one woman did not flinch and unrepentantly called for laissez‐faire individualism against the popular notions of state intervention into the economy. Rose Wilder Lane was a journalist, writer, and eventually, a political activist who began her political life as a communist but became a dogged opponent of communism, fascism, and the policies of the New Deal. She has rightly been dubbed one of the mothers of the libertarian movement for her tireless efforts to bring about a world in which individuals decide their own fate, not the state.
Rose Wilder Lane was born on December 5th, 1886, in De Smet, South Dakota. She grew up in a poverty‐stricken household, meaning her earliest memories were of numerous hardships from crop failures, illnesses, and constant money worries. Her mother and father, Laura and Almanzo, eventually lost their farm due to years of unfortunate crop failures. They were forced to move to Minnesota to live with relatives, then to Florida. After a brief return to South Dakota, the family finally settled in Mansfield, Missouri, where her parents established a new farm. While no slouch intellectually, Rose found it hard to fit in with the more refined girls of Mansfield, and she found that school drained her of enthusiasm to learn. When she was sixteen, she was sent to live with her aunt in Louisiana, who introduced her to the ideas of socialists such as Eugene Debs. At the time, Rose began to develop a taste for socialism, but as we will learn, this would dramatically change as she grew older.
Sick of traditional schooling, she decided to cram three years of high school into one, graduating at the tender age of seventeen at the top of her class in 1903. Her intellectual drive and curiosity would have made college a perfect place for the young Rose, but her family had no way of financing her further education. Rose had no intention of returning to rural Missouri, and instead, thanks to a schoolfriend’s father, who was a station master, Rose informally studied telegraphy. She moved to Kansas City and worked the night shift as a Western Union telegraph clerk. When not working, she spent endless hours reading voraciously. But Rose did not stay put for long. She moved to Indiana and then San Francisco, California, where she met a travelling salesman by the name of Gillette Lane. Gillette supported himself through a multitude of means, writing, editing, selling ad space, real estate, writing brochures, and so on. But he lacked ambition and was quite content to wander throughout the country and earn enough money to support himself and have a good time spending all of the money that he had earned. While Rose became quickly unhappy in her marriage to Gillette, she picked up the basics of writing, starting to take on freelance writing gigs to hone her skill. Though Gillette did not have much of an appetite for reading, Rose redoubled her efforts to read as widely as possible and to educate herself as much as she could while roaming the country.
The couple had a child but tragically, the infant baby was either stillborn or died shortly after birth, leaving Rose even more morose than before. Soon after, Rose underwent surgery, which left her unable to have any more children. Rose became depressed and dissatisfied. She even attempted suicide using chloroform; however, she reported that she merely woke up with a headache and a renewed sense of purpose to make something of her life. Rose and Gillette separated and eventually divorced.
Through a friend, Rose accepted a job offer as an editorial assistant at the San Francisco Bulletin. Originally Rose was only meant to be a temporary employee until someone more qualified could be hired. Still, Rose quickly distinguished herself from other assistants and her talent not only in editing others’ works but in her own writing soon became apparent. Rose’s diary shows her dedication to writing; she constantly took notes on how to sharpen her wit and skill. With the Bulletin, she began writing serialized romance stories and biographies of famous figures such as Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, and Herbert Hoover.
Rose longed to see Europe and wanted to work as a reporter in Europe, but circumstances got in the way of her travels until in 1920, she got an opportunity to travel to Europe with the Red Cross, reporting on their relief efforts across the continent. Rose, along with a cadre of fellow journalists, travelled to Paris, Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Albania, Iraq, and a whole host of other countries. Rose imagined Europe to be the great jewel of the civilized world, but she was disappointed by what she observed; bureaucratic corruption, civil wars, lawlessness, and runaway inflation left her not with the impression of a more civilized world.
At this point in her life, Rose was a communist at heart. After listening to a speech by John Reed in New York, she intended to join the party, but illnesses stopped her from entering though she remained a communist despite lacking membership to the party. Rose had been a supporter of the Bolshevik Revolution and had chatted with fellow communists such as the then‐communist writer Max Eastman. But this was all to dramatically change when she visited the USSR in what is today the country of Georgia, four years after the 1917 revolution.
A family hosted her in a small village that had always owned property and worked communally for generations. Though poor, the villagers were hard and skilled workers who were perfectly suited to the communist way of life. But one night, when having tea with one of her hosts, she was shocked when he predicted that there would be chaos and widespread suffering the more power was centralized in Moscow. Rose presumed she could educate this man who was nothing but a simple farmer as she described him. Apparently, she assumed that he had a peasant mind that could not grasp new ideas. After trying to explain the benefits of a planned economy, the farmer shook his head and said it will not work for “In Moscow there are only men, and man is not God. A man has only a man’s head, and one hundred heads together do not make one great head. No. Only God can know Russia.” A man born into a village that communally owned property for generations had cut to the heart of the issue. Controlling the economy of a village was one thing, but an entire nation was a wholly different beast.
In retrospect, this supposedly simple farmer aptly predicted the fate of the Soviet Union. Rose would later write that she “came out of the Soviet Union no longer a communist.” She began to realize America was a nation that had a degree of freedom no other nation held. She wrote that” Like all Americans, I took for granted the individual liberty to which I had been born. It seemed as necessary and as inevitable as the air I breathed; it seemed the natural element in which human beings lived.” Like many of us, Rose forgot that most of the world does not live in freedom. When I was 18, I travelled to Cuba myself and saw socialism in the sun. Cuba is naturally gorgeous, and every person I met was warm and friendly. It is a tragedy that such a wonderful place and such good people are contorted to the wills of a one‐party state that deems itself intelligent enough to command every person to their whims. Like Rose, I had taken for granted the freedom we live under in places like Ireland and America, and while both of these nations are by no means perfect, everyday people are largely free to experiment, create, and live life on their own terms.
But enough about me and back to Rose, for her, the Soviet Union was “not an extension of human freedom, but the establishment of tyranny on a new, widely extended and deeper base.” She realized that when one says economic control, they do not mean controlling the economy, but people because the economy is the aggregate of individual people’s efforts to provide for themselves and their families. To control the economy is to tell people what to do, and Rose observed that “No man can so control multitudes of men without compulsion.” But compulsion would be an ever‐expanding aspect of life because humans are not like animals that merely repeat patterns. People are diverse; they try to do things in new ways, innovate, explore, and create.
In Rose’s words, “It is the nature of men to do the same thing in different ways, to waste time and energy in altering the shapes of things, to experiment, invent, make mistakes, depart from the past in an infinite variety of directions.” But these efforts would be squashed in a planned economy that demanded conformity. Therefore economic control was not only inefficient but an attack on the fundamental nature of humans. She believed that “to control the economic processes of a modern nation is under a necessity, either to fail, or to tend to become absolute power in every province of human life.” Thanks to the wisdom of a supposed bumpkin, Rose had an intellectual revolution that would shape the rest of her life. The moral of the story is to listen to wisdom from wherever it comes because one random or unremarkable person might provide the wisdom that changes one’s entire worldview.
By the time of her return to America in the late 20s, Rose had established herself as one of the highest‐paid woman writers in America. But her economic fortune was not to last. Firstly, she was extremely generous, sometimes to a fault; she gave money to friends and family in need regardless of her circumstance. This noble but flawed practice caught up with her with the advent of the great depression in 1929 which demolished her investments and caused her to go into a great deal of debt. By now, Rose returned to Missouri to care for her parents. Though she was somewhat resentful of this, she was undoubtedly loyal to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, who most people know for the famous series of Children’s books known as Little House on the Prairie.
But what most people don’t know is that Laura Ingalls Wilder was not the sole author of her famous series. The biographer of Rose Wilder Lane, William Holtz, has shown that Rose undertook a project which involved massive rewriting and reworking of her mother’s original manuscript. Now, this in no way takes away from Laura’s achievement, but instead casts a light on the contributions of her daughter Rose. Holtz points to many instances where the hand of Rose can be felt, especially pertinent is the Fourth of July sequence in Little House where a young Laura observes “Americans won’t obey any king on earth” and when she is grown “there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders.” Themes of independence, thrift, and self‐discipline form the core of the Little House series. Thanks to Rose’s skill as an editor and her connections in publishing, Little House eventually became the massive success that we all know it as today. Over the years, the series has sold 40 million copies in the U.S. and 20 million more worldwide in 32 different languages, no mean feat.
But Rose’s literary success was not relegated to merely being the obscured collaborator of her mother. Drawing upon her homesteading experiences yet again, Rose wrote two novels, Let the Hurricane Roar in 1932 and Free Land in 1938, both highly successful pieces of work.
So far, Lane had been steadily writing for all kinds of outlets on a wide variety of topics. Still, as the great depression wore on, desperate politicians attempted to alleviate people’s suffering through the New Deal, first started in 1933, which expanded the American government’s scope and size to an unprecedented level. This was the catalyst for Rose becoming much more politically involved than she ever had previously. By 1935 the former communist Rose had become an advocate of individualism and laissez‐faire economics. She explained her newfound political ideology in a piece from March 1936 entitled Credo where she wrote that “Representative government cannot express the will of the mass of the people, because there is no mass of the people; The People is a fiction, like The State. You cannot get a Will of the Mass, even among a dozen persons who all want to go on a picnic… In actual fact, the population of a country is a multitude of diverse human beings with an infinite variety of purposes and desires and fluctuating wills.” Three years after it’s initial publication Leonard Read approached Lane about her essay. At the time, Read was known for his role as the General Manager of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; today, libertarians recognize his name for establishing the Foundation for Economic Education and his authorship of the famous essay I the pencil. Read was impressed by Lane and republished Credo under the new title Give Me Liberty to a wider audience. By 1942 an editor named John Day Company asked Rose to write a book expanding her short essay into a more comprehensive philosophy. What Rose produced was her masterpiece, The Discovery of Freedom, published in 1943.
Many historians fall into the trap of discussing what the kings, emperors, dictators, and general assortment of great men have supposedly achieved throughout history. Rose didn’t. She saw no virtue in these overlords. Instead, she focused her grand sweeping history on ordinary people’s efforts to secure prosperity, comfort, and ease for themselves and their families. Rose poses the question of why most of humanity lived in stultifying poverty for thousands of years, but then all of a sudden, over a few hundred years, colossal gains were made in the form of unimaginable technology coupled with unprecedented material prosperity. The answer for Rose is the title of the book, the discovery of freedom.
Rose explains that every person has a kind of energy that powers spontaneity, creativity, and drive and that “Each living person is a source of this energy. There is no other source … individuals generate it, and control it.” Therefore, governments cannot control and guide said energy because they are a force outside of an individual. Strong centralized states, she argued, are based on the premise that an outside authority of some sort controls or ought to control individual humans. But this idea is built on what Rose calls a pagan faith in invisible authorities, almost fantasies. A person’s energy can only be generated by an individual, not a person outside of themselves, therefore “Each person is self‐controlling, and therefore responsible for his acts. Every human being, by his nature, is free.” The only system that can hope to harness the potential of human energy is to leave them free to pursue their goals without direction or compulsion. The state ought to secure some rights and essential safeguards for people to guarantee freedom, but beyond that, the state ought to stay in it’s lane. Rose argued that this recipe for a free and prosperous society was what created the modern world. The expansion of prosperity and the massive growth of technology was not due to mechanical laws of nature or some form of determinism but the realization of human freedom that had its fullest expression in the founding fathers’ philosophy. Rose by no means thought the Founders went far enough. She felt that they only uncovered a mere fraction of human potential because they only granted freedom to a small number of men, but this began a process of freedom being spread to all peoples.
While Rose wrote for a wide variety of outlets throughout this period of her life, I would like to focus in particular on her time writing columns for the Pittsburgh Courier, from 1942 to 1945. At the time, the Pittsburgh Courier was the most widely read black newspaper in America, pulling in hundreds of thousands of readers. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Robert Lee Vann, the Courier undertook what they called the “double V” campaign, the v standing for two victories, the victory against fascism overseas against the nazis and the victory against Jim Crowe at home. Rose had heard about the paper through a black woman who worked for her as domestic help. The paper instantly caught Rose’s eye for its sheer variety of perspectives. Ted Le Berthon, a white drama critic, Kumar Gohsal, an Indian ex‐pat and independence activist, S.I Hayakawa, a Japanese semanticist who later became a senator for California, and George S. Schuyler, a black man who had once held socialist beliefs turned libertarian conservative. Schuyler opposed segregation, Japanese Americans’ internment, and the eventual dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The Pittsburgh Courier was a beacon of diverse and often provocative thought that went against the grain of its time.
Rose saw the Courier as an excellent opportunity to expound her vision of individualism to a wide readership, an opportunity that she firmly grasped with both hands. The result of these rarely read columns is one of the earliest efforts to fully integrate the philosophy of lassiez faire and individualism with anti‐racist attitudes. Her columns consistently stressed the real and authentic individual’s importance over the fallacious constructs of race and class. Rose even went so far as to call on Americans to abandon the “ridiculous, idiotic and tragic fallacy of ‘race,’ [by] which a minority of the earth’s population has deluded itself during the past century”, she went further and said people should renounce their race and embrace individualism. But by no means was Rose falling into the age‐old trap of being supposedly color blind. She knew full well the state was rotten to the core, propping up racist institutions, which further perpetuated racist attitudes and behavior.
Rose admitted before reading the Courier she had unconsciously believed in the myth of the black race. She genuinely believed that lynchings and racial injustice were restricted to isolated incidents, but reading the Courier had changed her mind and shown her that she had been in her own words, an “utter fool” and “a traitor to my country’s cause, the cause of human rights.” The humility she shows in admitting her wrongs is something we can still learn from today when faced with the atrocities of systemic racism and the subsequent denial of said atrocities by honest but misinformed and misguided people. Rose explained that from a young age, schools taught white people that “that whiteness is the ineradicable mark of superior race,” . Environment and training created a myth white people willingly accepted without question. She recommended a remedy in spreading the message of racial justice and educating unwitting whites about their shortcomings.
In her columns, Rose advocated for free‐market capitalism, but she was a long way from living capitalists themselves. The “Big Boys” of industry had done their fair share of damage to capitalism by profiting from political connections to secure profits through regulatory laws stifling competition. So why advocate for capitalism at all if capitalists have often shown themselves to be of such low character? Rose argued, in a strategy similar to contemporary bleeding heart libertarians, Rose argued that capitalism and free markets benefited regular everyday people instead of the state‐controlled economy New Dealers proposed. For Rose, a free economy was emphatically not planned by a few technocrats and not enforced by the police. Instead, it was a result of the free choices of individuals.
In response to the great depression, she advocated for reviving free mutual associations to alleviate poverty, which some today might call mutual aid. Similarly, in education, she argued for a decentralized system of education in which parents could send their children to all kinds of schools suited to different demands and incomes to suit their needs. In her final days at the Courier, she attacked zoning, which she believed stripped individuals of the legal right to live in their own homes and instead merely allowed them to occupy it. As a whole, while writing for the Courier, Rose did not dilute her laissez‐faire beliefs in an attempt to convince her readers slowly — don’t understand if Rose was trying to do this deliberately slowly. Instead, she opted for articulating her personal philosophy to it’s fullest while impressively integrating her developing anti‐racist attitude. Throughout her columns pervades a serious optimism about the hopes for a laissez‐faire future in where “nearly everyone will know that all men are born equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.”
Throughout World War II, Rose was a staunch opponent of wartime restrictions and New Deal policies. Two events, in particular, brought her into the limelight. In 1943 a broadcaster and proponent of the New Deal, Samuel Grafton, praised social security and called for American teachers to educate German children about democracy. Rose quickly penned a letter saying that if American teachers went to Germany, teachers would say, we believe in social security, and the children would ask, then why did you go to war with Germany? Rose argued that the first social security efforts were secured by the autocratic Bismarck and expanded further by Hitler. Rose stated that Americans don’t want to be “taxed for their own good and bossed by bureaucrats.” She was deeply suspicious of the economic elements of national socialism she believed were inherent in the New Deal. A post office worker read Rose’s letter and brought it to the attention of the regional FBI office. A state trooper was dispatched to investigate Rose’s activities. When he arrived, he began to question Rose, who was obstinate towards him for obvious reasons. When the trooper said he didn’t like her attitude, she responded, “I am an American citizen. I hire you. I pay you. And you have the insolence to question my attitude? … What is this—the Gestapo?” After some more back and forth, Lane asked the flustered trooper if the postcard was subversive. His affirmative answer brought the retort: “Then I’m subversive as hell!”
Her second foray into the limelight protesting against the government were her efforts to become self‐sufficient living on her three‐acre farm in Connecticut. Rose opposed the wartime rationing arguing that “If a person admits government has the right to say if he can eat,” she declared, “there is no liberty left.” So she raised her own animals, grew her own vegetables, and made her own jam. Her income was so low that she happily advertised she no longer had to pay taxes to the federal government.
Following the publication of The discovery of Freedom and the end of the second world war, Lane never wrote another political philosophy book or wrote much of particular note bar a few columns and essays. From this point onwards, she dedicated herself wholly to creating a libertarian movement, a phrase she was possibly the first ever to use. She greatly admired the Freedom school headed by the eccentric radio commentator and businessman Robert LeFevre who would later serve as inspiration for the character Bernado de la Paz in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Lane took a great interest in younger people. She believed the philosophy of individualism had not had its Plato yet. Thus she took every opportunity she could to mentor and help children while also filling the childless gap in her own life. Lane bankrolled numerous people’s education, including a young Vietnamese girl and an Albanian boy she had met while with the Red Cross.
The most critical relationship Rose had was with Rodger MacBride. Rose was writing for the Readers Digest, working closely with Rodger’s father, Burt MacBride. Through Burt, Rose met the teenage Rodger. The pair quickly became close, with Rodger calling her grandma and spending weekends helping her with errands while also discussing philosophy, history, and economics with Rose. He even invited Rose to his prep school to give a lecture, which supposedly flabbergasted the teacher who had never met someone who thought like Rose.
Rodger grew up to study law and was eventually elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1962, becoming a libertarian gadfly constantly proposing laws to cut taxes. Rodger made history by being the first‐ever presidential elector in U.S. history to cast a vote for a woman when he voted for the libertarian party candidates John Hospers for president and Tonie Nathan for vice president.
While for many, it looked like libertarianism was a far cry away from ever being implemented, Rose had optimism. In a letter to a fellow libertarian, she discussed how the climate of opinion was dramatically changing. Years before, few held libertarian beliefs, but with the establishment of new organizations and new writers coming to the forefront, Rose believed the future was quite bright. Lane stayed busy writing, travelling, and lecturing, even reporting on Vietnam in 1965 at the age of 78. She was no layabout, that’s for sure. In 1968 Rose died peacefully in her sleep.
In her day, Rose Wilder Lane was a famed journalist, political activist, and author. Today her name is only spoken of in libertarian circles, and even most people probably don’t know a huge amount about her. But Rose Wilder Lane is one of the three founding mothers of libertarianism, along with Isabel Paterson and Ayn Rand. Credo, The Discovery of Freedom, and her columns for the Pittsburgh Courier all expound a principled unflinching love of individualism to it’s fullest extent. Spontaneity, creativity, and drive can only be harnessed, according to Rose, by leaving people free. But the lessons we learn from Rose do not just stem from her intellectual oeuvre but also her life. She was a self‐taught and self‐disciplined woman who made something of herself even when the odds were stacked against her for much of her life. I greatly admire her change of heart on race and her honest and open discussions of the difficulty of overcoming prejudice. Rose’s writings came at a time when liberal ideas were at their lowest point. Still, her passionate vision for a future not ushered in by governments but by free and energetic individuals set the foundation for the libertarian movement today.