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.