I have an addiction to voluminous history books and Conceived in Liberty promised to scratch that itch from the very start. The five volumes span American history from the first colonial times to the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War.
Conceived in Liberty has the distinction of being much more detailed than a similarly sized historical survey of general American history, and a little less detailed than one would expect from a highly topical work (e.g. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin biography in three volumes).
Combine this with Rothbard’s revisionist approach to American history, and Conceived in Liberty is interesting.
Interesting or Good?
The issue with interesting as far as history books go is that sometimes the forest gets lost for the trees.
Conceived in Liberty is Rothbard’s attempt to illustrate the American founding as a struggle between liberty and power, especially state power.
The result is a mixed bag. My college classes in history focused on the Medieval period, though I have some modern and classical history to round things out. Where Rothbard does his best is in his focus on the end of feudalism and absolutism.
He rails against those who refuse to see the Revolutionary War as a revolution, something that applies to both the neoconservatives of his day and the contemporary critical theory historians who see the events of 1776 as a continuation of ideas rather than a break between them.
He also places scrutiny on the ideas that inspire people and the outcomes they achieve. Rothbard has a keen eye for seeing through the mysticism placed over the early Enlightenment era’s ideas.
Conceived in Liberty may be one of the best political histories of the Revolutionary period.
In his pursuit of revisionism, Rothbard is a mixed bag.
On one hand, he is ready to disabuse people of myths, and as far as I am aware scholarship has vindicated his claims.
He also writes most clearly about the ethical and moral dilemmas of the time of any writer, with a hearty condemnation of indenture and slavery that doesn’t sacrifice historical accuracy. This is to be expected, since Rothbard’s own philosophy has cogent arguments against these oppressions that align with his first principles.
However, in other cases Rothbard’s revisionism can become a weight.
Many of Rothbard’s assertions about the errors of the Continental government are ideological rather than strictly factual. While they may be entirely correct, they’re overly speculative.
One example of this is his statement that Charles Lee would have prosecuted the war better than George Washington. Rothbard makes a good case that Washington had many failures as a leader and that Lee’s guerilla tactics would have been far superior to the Continental Army’s traditional style of fighting. However, it feels like Rothbard wishes to be an armchair general and ignore potential benefits of a regular army’s influence on perception of the American colonies.
On the whole, Rothbard has an interesting take. He usually backs things up enough to stand against scrutiny. However, his occasional forays into speculation are the weak points of the book.
The real question for any large history like this is what it’s best at.
I’d say that the first two volumes are by far the superior ones. Rothbard’s strengths come across as a political thinker and economist, and the weaker points of conjecture are almost absent.
The strengths of these volumes center on two points:
- They are incredibly factual, often covering topics like colonial tax and slave rebellions that are not part of the standard discourse on American history.
- They are significantly less dry than the subsequent volumes, though this relative to Rothbard’s other writing, which is dry by most standards.
After the first two volumes, the fifth volume is the most interesting as an analysis of America’s political system in the revolution’s aftermath. It will primarily appeal to those interested in Rothbard’s work, however.
The fifth volume is almost historiographical as much as historical in focus, which makes for a nice change of pace.
The Prose and the Presentation
Rothbard is dry. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in Conceived in Liberty that even his style can’t fully erase, but if you want an exciting and engaging approach to American history you might be better off looking at Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope (affiliate link; my review), though McClay’s work is less focused on the colonial era.
One of the central issues and strengths of the text is its laser focus on particular periods. While not quite as focused as something like Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin or Bruce Chadwick’s 1858, Conceived in Liberty draws out personalities and events in enough detail to make them meaningful.
However, the cost of this is that the text drags on. Rothbard doesn’t have an aversion to covering details that may be only marginally relevant to the case at hand.
There are nuggets of gold where Rothbard’s passion carries a section of the text to great heights, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
With that said, I’d recommend this book to someone exactly like me in a heartbeat. If you’re interested in history, but not really interested in Rothbard’s views or the American colonial era, it’s a safe book to pass on.
Also, the audiobook has several instances of background noise, a couple repeated sections, and a few other minor audio issues. Over the course of an eighty-hour piece they’re not excessive, but they are noticeable.
I listened to Conceived in Liberty in audiobook format from Audible (affiliate link). However, it is available for free in digital format from the Mises Institute. Note that the version on the Mises Institute website only features the first four volumes, though a link to the fifth is available just below the ebook access options.