The Bookman is pleased to present this excerpt from a forthcoming book, Land & Liberty: The Best of ‘Free America’, which is edited and introduced by Allan C. Carlson, with a preface by Sir Roger Scruton. It will be published by the Wethersfield Institute.
By Allan C. Carlson
The Agrarian revival of the 1930s is most commonly associated with the Twelve Southerners linked to Vanderbilt University, who produced I’ll Take My Stand at the beginning of the decade. For the most part, their project was literary and theoretical: an intellectual defense and revitalization of an agricultural civilization in the Old South. The “Northern” response came from the circle of writers and activists who launched the journal Free America in 1937.
In many respects, Free America was the collaborative product of three men: Ralph Borsodi, Herbert Agar, and Chauncey Stillman. Borsodi was the eldest. Born in New York City in 1888 to Hungarian immigrants, his education was private and informal; in current parlance, he was homeschooled. Borsodi’s father was a printer, advertising salesman, and occasional author. He was drawn into the movement launched by Henry George’s 1879 volume, Progress and Poverty. These Georgists held that a single tax on the speculative value of urban private property would be both just and sufficient to fund most functions of local and state governments. Borsodi shared these enthusiasms and became editor for a time of The Single Taxer. He also met the Georgist author Bolton Hall, who introduced him to arguments in favor of agrarian self-sufficiency. In three best-selling books—This Ugly Civilization (1928), Flight from the City (1933), and Prosperity and Security (1938)—Borsodi advanced his critique of the existing American economic order. He pointed to the artificial nature of the joint-stock corporation, which granted privileges to commercial entities—limited liability, perpetual life, and the ability to raise capital through stock, bonds, and other debt instruments—that were denied to “natural families.” Borsodi also insisted that it was not machines, but rather centralized factories, that undermined healthy family living: “It is the factory, not the machine, which is reducing all men and all commodities to a dead level of conformity because the factory makes it impossible for individual men and individual communities to be self-sufficient.” Finally, he also condemned modern economic thought for ignoring the value of home production, tasks ranging from home carpentry, simple animal care, and vegetable gardening to homemaking skills. Such arguments led Borsodi to celebrate the productive home resting on at least several acres of land, and to call on all able Americans to reclaim such homesteads as places of family self-sufficiency.
Born 1897 in New Rochelle, New York, Herbert Sebastian Agar descended from an old Louisiana family. After prep school, he gained a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton, the latter in English. After teaching in a private school in New Jersey, he left for London, England, in 1928, where he became literary editor of The English Review and a correspondent for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He took still another editorial post at G. K.’s Weekly, the journal owned and edited by the novelist, poet, essayist, and Christian apologist Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Here he found answers to his question in the Distributism of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Its basic idea was simple. As Agar frequently stated, “power follows property.” Political democracy could function well only within a system of economic democracy, where productive property—homesteads, land, tools, and natural resources—was widely distributed among families. Put another way, true liberty could only exist within a nation where the great majority of citizens were holders of real property. Belloc and Chesterton drew their initial inspiration for these matters from the 1891 Papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII examined the growing “social question.” In this new age, Leo observed, liberal or capitalist economies saw ever more property being concentrated in ever fewer hands, along with a surging number of families left trapped in a new form of poverty—what Belloc later called “the servile state.” The solution to this crisis offered in Rerum Novarum was that the law “should favor ownership [of land and homestead], and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” It was in this way that “the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty [might] be bridged over.” The means to this end included land reform that transformed tenants into farm owners, the promotion of productive homesteads, limits on retail chain stores, the decentralization of industry, and worker participation in the ownership and control of necessarily big enterprises. This task, Agar explained, was as much a moral challenge as a political and economic one. Where contemporary Liberalism tried to find some way to reconcile restricted ownership with political freedom, without any prospect for success, this new Conservatism “offers risks and responsibilities rather than bread and circuses.” The instinctive desire for property ownership was still alive in America, Agar argued; “it is the task for conservatives to foster it.”
Chauncey Devereaux Stillman, the third creative spirit behind Free America, was also the youngest. He was born in 1907 to one of New York City’s most prominent and wealthy families. His great-grandfather Charles Stillman had left the ancestral home in Connecticut to go to Texas. There, this colorful figure created a fortune through silver mines, Mexican cotton, and real estate. Chauncey’s grandfather, James, returned East and became a banker, serving as President of National City Bank in New York, the predecessor to CitiCorp. Two of his daughters would marry Rockefellers. Chauncey Stillman’s father, Charles, stayed in the family business and became a prominent patron of the arts, befriending among others Mary Cassatt. While the specific steps are not clear, Stillman also became aware of the published work of Borsodi and the Distributists, which led to direct collaboration. He also became in these years a regular reader of Herbert Agar, becoming particularly enthusiastic over the latter’s Land of the Free.
The first issue of Free America appeared in January 1937. In his theme-setting essay, also entitled “Free America,” Agar still appealed to the Southerners as the primary inspiration for this initiative. As he wrote, during “the high unpleasant noon of Coolidge prosperity” and “[a]s if directed from without,” this “band of friends” began the ferment: “For example, Mr. Allen Tate and Mr. John Crowe Ransom were suddenly moved to write one another on the same day, raising the same questions of political philosophy and suggesting some of the same tentative answers. Neither of them had faced these questions before.” At about the same time, Agar himself had gone to England and came to know the English Distributists, “democrats whose ardor came straight from the French Revolution” and “whose thought was rooted in the spiritual affirmation of democracy which underlines the Christian faith.” These two schools of thought found a common enemy in Plutocracy and a common political agenda in the quest for “a wide distribution of productive property.” Agar stressed “the interesting fact” that the Southerners had “made [this] Affirmation before they had read a word of their British predecessors.”
The lead editorials for the first issue defined Distributism as “the meeting ground for those who are equally opposed to finance-capitalism, communism, and fascism,” with “the fundamental principle of distributism” being “decentralization.” The editors recognized “a fundamental community of aim in the Borsodi Homestead Movement, the Southern Agrarians and their allied Distributist Groups throughout the country, the Consumer Cooperative Movement, the Catholic Rural Life Conference, certain of the Protestant rural life organizations, and the Single Tax Movement.” The purpose of Free America was to craft a common ideology and social and political program for this coalition. As the editors summarized: “Free America aims to act as a forum wherein the identity of aim between many current movements may be discussed and crystallized, and apparent inconsistencies between some of them reconciled, to the end of building up a body of doctrine acceptable to all, and, based upon this, a program of action.”
In this quest for an “identity of aim,” certain distinguishing qualities stand out. Following on the quarrels over the American Review, Free America would repudiate both the soft-fascism and the literary anti-Semitism found in the pages of the former. The new magazine would also reject the romantic Medievalism and the monarchism found among some of the English Distributists (although, and importantly, not in G. K. Chesterton). Instead, Free America would be staunchly New World, favoring the democracy of Jefferson and Jackson [on their better days]. This affirmation of democracy would also be broadly understood to rest first and foremost on economic democracy, cast as prior to and necessary to political democracy. That is, productive property—homesteads, land, tools, and natural resources—must be widely distributed to enable a regime of liberty and democracy to flourish.
A third characteristic of Free America, evident from beginning to end, was a creative tension between respect for Scandinavian social democracy, found most completely in the commentaries of Herbert Agar, and the anarcho-communitarianism—a strain of libertarianism also found in figures such as the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy—almost perfectly associated with Ralph Borsodi. Key philosophical differences centered on the role of the state in effecting change. Practical disputes commonly focused on the nature and actual projects of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration’s “New Deal.” Finally, Free America would test every existing or proposed economic, political, and social matter by a common measure: how would the thing at issue affect the small and the human. If positively, then the magazine’s editors gave their support; if negatively, their opposition.
As with any thriving intellectual endeavor, Free America did evolve over time. There were three distinct phases. During the first period, from 1937 through mid-1939, the magazine focused heavily on philosophy, theory, and the quest for a fusion of ideas and movements. There was a real energy and excitement in these years, as men and women explored the prospects for a unified political, economic, and cultural program. In July 1937, the editors placed a purpose statement on the publication’s masthead: “Free America stands for individual independence and believes that freedom can exist only in societies in which the great majority are the effective owners of tangible and productive property and in which group action is democratic. In order to achieve such a society, ownership, production, and population must be decentralized. Free America is therefore equally opposed to finance-capitalism, fascism, and communism.” The last line, in particular, emphasized the ideological intensity of the project…. A quest for what was now a viable “fourth way” in the national and global cauldrons of the late 1930s.
Three other important symbols of ideological intent appeared in 1938. In January, the editors gave their product a subtitle: A Magazine to Promote Independence. The magazine also gained a “permanent emblem” that year: the “starry tree” designed by Graham Carey of Boston. Explaining its symbolism, the editors wrote that “the Tree of American Liberty must have its roots in American soil.” In addition, Free America introduced a monthly column, “The Changing Order.” It featured reports on developments across the nation and around the globe suggesting that the agrarian-distributist vision and program were not only gaining ground, but even serving as the wave of the future.
The second phase in Free America’s development began in September 1939 and continued until the end of 1941. In this period, the coming of a new global war and debate over how the United States should respond became prominent subjects. More specifically, how might decentralization and small, human entities be protected in a swelling gale of wartime centralization? Were agrarianism and family-scale agriculture still relevant in this new circumstance? In a most telling act, the editors eliminated in September 1939 the last line of their purpose statement (i.e., “Free America is therefore equally opposed to finance-capitalism, fascism, and communism”). Given the attack that month on Poland by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the equation of finance-capitalism with newly aggressive fascism and communism no longer seemed so relevant. With the fall of France in May 1940 and the consequent Battle of Britain, attention specifically turned to the question of American aid for the imperiled British. Herbert Agar, who in the mid-1930s had strongly urged America to stay out of European affairs, now became an especially ardent advocate of American entry into the war. Other contributors, though, still favored staying out, as the only way to preserve prospects for a decentralist order in America.
Also during this phase, the Southern Agrarians finally and formally joined the Free America project. In August 1939, Allen Tate became the Literary Editor of the magazine. For the next six months, the published book reviews changed in character. Earlier, they had largely focused on non-fiction volumes dealing with agrarian, distributist, and cooperative themes. Under Tate’s tutelage, though, the section swung noticeably toward the review of novels and poetry. And the reviewers now included a fair number of the original Twelve. Yet, such a shift at this point seemed odd and out of place … even then. Tate resigned as an editor in March 1940.
The magazine’s third phase ran from 1942 until its demise in early 1947. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, several of Free America’s editors were called into military service, most notably Chauncey Stillman and Herbert Agar: the former as an air combat intelligence officer with the Navy, serving on the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Lexington; the latter as Naval Attache to the Court of St. James, in England. Given this diminished editorial presence, Free America became a quarterly in June 1942.
Thematic content shifted as well. Philosophical essays on the nature of agrarianism and decentralization largely disappeared. So too did the use of the label and word, distributist. The great majority of articles now focused on personal experiences in self-sufficiency, gardening, small animal care, canning, and the like: the art and practice of rural do-it-yourself. Occasional essays tried to find decentralist straws in the wartime storm, as in the turn to “victory gardens” at home and the value of building new factories in the countryside as a measure of air defense. As the prospects for victory and peace swelled in 1944 and ’45, attention turned to possibilities for decentralization after the war. The Editorial in the Winter 1946 issue waxed optimistic about the future of family-scale agriculture and enterprise: “A small business of his own, or a farm which he can work himself, look good to the ex-G.I.” It also encouraged thinking on how to expand the presence and influence of Free America.
A year later, however, the editors chose to “make for port with our original colors flying,” and to cease publication. They gave two reasons. “[N]o crusading magazine … can make money,” they noted, and any effort to return to a monthly, or even expand into a weekly, would require a large infusion of cash. Even then, the only format with a chance to pay its own way would be one on “how” to live a productive rural life. Several such magazines already existed, they said, and such a full reorientation away from “why” would “have robbed Free America of its unique function and flavor.” Moreover, the war had scattered the editors around the country and globe; and so they remained. It had become virtually impossible to regather them in New York to discuss and plan “the affairs of the magazine.” Put another way, all had in some way or other moved on to new phases in their lives.
Notably, from the founding editorial board in 1937 only four remained: Ralph Borsodi; Herbert Agar; Chauncey Stillman; and Katharine Gauss Jackson. The three founding spirits of Free America were there, from beginning to end.
Allan C. Carlson is a senior fellow with the International Organization for the Family and the author of several books including Third Ways.