The First Liberty Library
October 1966 • Volume: 16 • Issue: 10

by Murray Rothbard

Dr. Rothbard is a professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Among his works are the comprehensive two-volume treatise, Man, Economy, and State (1962) and America‘s Great Depression (1963).

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.

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