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Libertarian women’s history month: Isabel Patterson

18 Mar

Isabel Paterson (January 22, 1886 – January 10, 1961) was a Canadian-American journalist, novelist, political philosopher, and a leading literary critic of her day.    She was slight, just over five feet tall, with a delicate taste in food and drink, a deep love of nature, and a nationally famous sense of humor. Stubborn and sharp-witted, she was also one of the New Deal’s fiercest foes.

Along with Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand, who both acknowledged an intellectual debt to Paterson, she is one of the three founding mothers of American libertarianism. Paterson’s best-known work, her 1943 book The God of the Machine, a treatise on political philosophyeconomics, and history, reached conclusions and espoused beliefs that manylibertarians credit as a foundation of their philosophy. Her biographer Stephen D. Cox (2004) believes Paterson is the “earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.” Ayn Rand wrote in a letter in the 1940s that The God of the Machine “does for capitalism what Das Kapital does for the Reds and what the Bible did for Christianity.”


Born Isabel Mary Bowler in rural Manitoulin IslandOntario, she moved with her family to the west when she was very young. She grew up on a cattle ranch in Alberta. Paterson’s family was quite poor and she had eight siblings. A voracious reader who was largely self-educated, she had brief and informal public schooling during these years: about three years in a country school, from the ages of 11 to 14. In her late teen years, Bowler left the ranch for the city of Calgary, where she took a clerical job with the Canadian Pacific Railway. As a teenager, she worked as a waitress, stenographer, and bookkeeper, working at one point as an assistant to future Canadian Prime Minister R. B. Bennett.

This hardscrabble youth probably led Paterson to attach great importance to productive “self-starters”. Although she was articulate, well-read, and erudite, Paterson had extremely limited formal education, an experience she shared with Rose Wilder Lane, who was also Paterson’s friend and correspondent for many years.

The Bowler (Isabel’s maiden name) family traveled throughout the West and times were hard. She left home at 18 and began a series of jobs — so many she lost count. In 1910 she married Canadian  Kenneth Paterson, but left him within weeks. As to why she married him, no one knows.  Fans of Patterson (and of Ayn Rand) won’t all appreciate this speculation, but looking at Patterson’s photos, hearing about her derring-do adventures (like flying), her short, early, and singular marriage, and her tempestuous relationship with the young Ayn Rand, it’s hard not to see some lesbian potential.

These experiences provided fodder for her novels. During these years, in a foray south of the border, Paterson landed a job with a newspaper, the Inland Herald in Spokane, Washington. Initially she worked in the business department of the paper, but later transferred to the editorial department. There her journalistic career began. Her next position was with a newspaper in Vancouver,British Columbia, where for two years she wrote drama reviews.

In 1914, Paterson started submitting her first two novels, The Magpie’s Nest and The Shadow Riders, to publishers, without much success. It was not until 1916 that her second novel The Shadow Riders was accepted and published by John Lane Company, which also published The Magpie’s Nest the following year in 1917.

After World War I, she moved to New York City, where she worked for the sculptor Gutzon Borglum. He was creating statues for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and would later carve the memorial at Mount Rushmore. Paterson also wrote for the World and the American in New York.  Paterson was not just adventurous with her words — calling Eleanor Roosevelt “a pathetic fool” for instance — but the first time she flew, November 5, 1912, she set a record for reaching an altitude of 5,000 feet, flying higher than any woman had to that point. The 26-year old Canadian frontier girl sat beside pilot Harry Bingham Brown in the tiny Wright biplane, constructed of cloth and wood and said afterward, “It was the greatest experience of my life.”
In 1921, Paterson became an assistant to Burton Rascoe, the new literary editor of the New York Tribune, later the New York Herald Tribune. For 25 years, from 1924 to 1949, she wrote a column (signed “I.M.P.”) for the Herald Tribune’s “Books” section. Paterson became one of the most influential literary critics of her time. She covered a time of great expansion in the United States literary world, with new work by the rising generation of Ernest HemingwayF. Scott Fitzgerald and many others, African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the first American generation of the great waves of European immigrants.  Her friends during this period included the famous humorist Will Cuppy.  In 1928 she became an American citizen, at the age of 42.

Her favorite Depression book was Garrett’s The Bubble that Broke the World, and she understood the Austrian view that the Depression was a curing of the boom created by the government’s cheap money, and that the hard times continued because of government price supports and programs that hampered the liquidation of what Austrians would call malinvestments.
She railed against FDR’s gold seizure from a female point of view:
Never shall we forget the line of women we saw turning in their savings, under threat of ten years in jail and ten thousand dollars fine, while the multimillionaire Senator Couzens stood up bravely on the floor of the Senate and promised to “hunt them down” if they tried to hold out a few dollars


She was notorious for demonstrating her sharp wit and goring of sacred cows in her column, where she also first articulated many of the political ideas that reached their final form in The God of the Machine. Her thinking, especially on free trade, was also foreshadowed in her historical novels of the 1920s and 1930s. Paterson opposed most of the economic program known as the New Deal, which American president Franklin D. Roosevelt put into effect during the Great Depression. She advocated less government involvement in both social and fiscal issues.

By the late 1930s, Paterson led a group of younger writers, many of them other Herald Tribune employees, who shared her views. One was future Time magazine correspondent and editor Sam Welles.

Another was the young Ayn Rand. From their many discussions, Paterson is credited with adding to Rand’s knowledge of American history and government, and Rand with contributing ideas to The God of the Machine. Paterson believed Rand’s ethics to be a unique contribution, writing to Rand in the 1940s, “You still don’t seem to know yourself that your idea is new. It is not Nietzsche or Max Stirner… Their supposed Ego was composed of whirling words – your concept of the Ego is an entity, a person, a living creature functioning in concrete reality.”   Rand had studied history and philosophy in Soviet Russia, but she didn’t read widely. Just who provided Rand the education in the glories of free markets that most people identify her with?

“They’d sit up until four or five in the morning — and Ayn would be sitting at the master’s feet,” Rand’s niece remembers.
One night, when they were talking, I went to bed, but I could hear the conversation, and it was if Pat were the guru and teacher — and Ayn didn’t do that. Ayn would be asking questions, and Pat would be answering. It was very strange.
Isabel Paterson is the “Pat” Mimi Sutton was referring to — a “radical individualist in both theory and practice,” explains Stephen Cox in his The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America.
For all the fervor that Ayn Rand inspires, little notice is paid to the woman who most inspired her.
Both Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, tried to inspire confidence by keeping unsuccessful firms afloat at the expense of successful ones. Strangely, investors declined to be stimulated, no matter how fervently they were exhorted to trust government programs. For Paterson, that result was tediously predictable. She told readers she was “tired of being told that ‘credit depends on confidence.’ Fudge. Credit depends on real assets, sound money and a clean record. … When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”
To Paterson, the notion that federal experts can plan to ensure the people’s welfare was a ridiculous projection of childish fantasies—“a mother’s boy economic program with a kind maternal government taking care of everybody out of an inexhaustible income drawn from mysterious sources.” Perfect planning requires perfect foresight—and who possesses that?
Paterson’s Golden Vanity, one of the few good novels about the Depression, focuses on reputed experts’ outrageous failures of foresight. Its climactic scene is a confrontation between an investor and the financier she entrusted with her money—a man who worked, with the government’s assistance, to create a baffling maze of bad investments. When she hears him admit, “We could not foresee…,” she has finally had enough. “Why couldn’t you foresee?” she demands. “If you can’t foresee, what are you paid for?” She is wrathful, and there is dignity in her wrath.  I haven’t read it but is sounds like a scene from Atlas.
The fundamental problem, Paterson proposed, is confusion of the economy with politics. In 1932, when Hoover was still in office, she said that “our ‘best minds’ … have already got the political machinery dangerously entangled with the economic system, disrupting both; and they are now demanding that the government should save them from what they’ve done to it.” As others stood for separation of church and state, Paterson stood for separation of state and economy. She wanted no new programs to save an economy that government programs had already disrupted. Readers wrote to her, asking her to identify her own plan for the government to solve the nation’s problems. She replied, “What these correspondents really demand is dope. If we don’t believe in their dope, what dope can we suggest in place of it? None whatever. We do not even know a remedy for gullibility.”
Her idea was simply to leave people alone to make their own investments, to earn profits and keep them, and to liquidate unprofitable enterprises.  She remembered the nation’s relatively quick recovery from the economic crisis of her girlhood, the depression of the 1890s: “This country experienced bankruptcy in the nineties. Part of the loss was borne by foreign bondholders. That part of the situation is now reversed. It is a much worse bankruptcy. But that is all it is.” She knew that once the incompetent were permitted to go bankrupt, the competent could “pick up the pieces.”
Such notions were contemptuously disregarded by the public intellectuals of the 1930s, men who considered Paterson a reactionary lady novelist, lacking the ability to comprehend big, hairy-chested Keynesian or Marxist theories. Edmund Wilson, America’s leading literary critic, informed Paterson that she was “the last surviving person to believe in [the] quaint old notions on which the republic was founded.”
She maintained, however, that “the principle of the lever remains the same.”  Among the rising generation of conservative and libertarian intellectuals whom she influenced was a young escapee from the Soviet Union, Ayn Rand. At that time, Rand was an author without an audience. An avid reader of Paterson’s weekly newspaper columns, she sought the older writer’s acquaintance during the dark days following the election of 1940, when the Republicans ignominiously lost to Roosevelt for a third time. During the next few years, Rand sat at Paterson’s feet, learning about economics, politics, and American history. When Rand published her breakthrough novel, The Fountainhead, in 1943, she inscribed her gift copy to Paterson, “You have been the one encounter in my life that can never be repeated.”
Soon afterward, Rand started the long process of writing the 1,168-page Atlas Shrugged, a work of original genius that was nevertheless distinctively influenced by Paterson’s ideas. Both women were rigorous individualists, but when it came to images of the capitalist system as a whole, Rand yielded to Paterson.
In Rand’s opinion, The God of the Machine, Paterson’s great work of economic and historical theory, “does for capitalism what Das Kapital did for the Reds” and “what the Bible did for Christianity.” In her book, Paterson conceptualized capitalism as an enormous circuit connecting producers and consumers throughout the world, using real money and real profits to generate new efficiencies and larger amounts of energy. She stipulated that government’s proper role was to safeguard the infrastructure of this system, keeping it free from force and fraud. If government went beyond that and tried to manage the economy, it could only divert its energy and, eventually, short-circuit and destroy it.
This is exactly the way in which Rand depicts the world in Atlas Shrugged. The novel’s central story concerns a railroad and the people who try to keep it running, despite the government’s best efforts to connect it to projects that sap its energy. With every new government plan to stimulate a lagging economy, the railroad’s profits dwindle, its lines shorten, industrialists who rely on it go bankrupt, and consumers have less access to the means of life. Eventually, there is a massive breakdown. The circuit of production and consumption can be reconnected only by individuals who plan their own economic behavior. The greatest of these is the man who best understands how energy is generated.
It is a compelling picture of the world —one that demonstrates the importance of the literary imagination as a generator of intellectual energy. Indeed, if modern libertarian ideas had been forced to wait until professional economists and politicians conveyed them to the public, they would never have been conveyed. The task required people of imagination who were willing to offer America an alternative vision of itself. To put it bluntly, the task required people who could really write.  Paterson’s The God of the Machine was one of four magisterial libertarian works to be published in the dark days of 1943. Although her book was more well-known than Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, which was released that year, Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom, and especially Rand’s The Fountainhead were much more popular.
In the first third of The Fountainhead, economic ideas do not dominate. It was only in the remainder of Rand’s first great success that, “after many months of intense discussions with Paterson about political philosophy and American history and institutions, does she develop the political meaning of Roark’s experience,” Cox explains.
Lane, like Rand, had the benefit of picking Paterson’s brain, and Cox writes, “It is possible that Lane derived many of her key concepts from her all-night conversations with Paterson.”
However, Discovery and God of the Machine are very different books, as Cox points out: “Libertarian readers have generally turned to Lane for emotional satisfaction and to Paterson for intellectual challenge.”
“Just who was it that provided Rand the education in the glories of free markets?”
Paterson made her living as a novelist and columnist. However, while her column in the New York Herald Tribune was “Turns With a Bookworm,” she was given the latitude to write about most anything she wanted, which often turned out to be economics and politics.

Paterson and Rand promoted each other’s books and conducted an extensive correspondence over the years, in which they often touched on religion and philosophy. An atheist, Rand was critical of the deist Paterson’s attempts to link capitalism with religion. Rand believed the two to be incompatible, and the two argued at length. Their correspondence ended after they quarreled in 1948. During a visit to Rand at her home in California, Paterson’s remarks about writer Morrie Ryskind and abrasive behavior toward businessman William C. Mullendore, other guests of Rand, resulted in Rand’s disillusionment with “Pat.”  In 1948, an argument ended their friendship. As Paterson had written, “one genius is about all a house will hold,” and each of these geniuses had a very considerable temper. But there was an even more important reason for the break-up: Paterson’s belief in God.  Similarly, Paterson had broken with another friend and political ally, Rose Wilder Lane, in 1946.

Writer Albert Jay Nock wrote that Lane’s and Paterson’s nonfiction books were “the only intelligible books on the philosophy of individualism that have been written in America this century.” The two women had “shown the male world of this period how to think fundamentally… They don’t fumble and fiddle around – every shot goes straight to the center.” Journalist John Chamberlain credits Paterson, Lane and Rand with his final “conversion” from socialism to what he called “an older American philosophy.”
Paterson further influenced the post-WWII rise of lettered American anti-statism through her correspondence with the young Russell Kirk in the 1940s, and with the young William F. Buckley in the 1950s. Buckley and Kirk went on to found the National Review, to which Paterson contributed for a brief time. However, she sometimes sharply differed from Buckley, for example by disagreeing with the magazine’s review of Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged.  Buckley Jr., laying the foundation for the modern conservative movement with the creation of National Review in 1955, identified Paterson as one of the people he most wanted to write for him. He got her, too—for a while. She left NR because—an individualist in every respect—she preferred not to be edited.

As her own fame supplanted Paterson’s, Ayn Rand allowed the older woman’s influence on her to fall into the shadows, though she did mention her book to her fans, to the students of her philosophy at the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and in the bibliography of her book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.  Nor did she ever completely disavow her link to the “one encounter” that had decisively influenced her career.
Russell Kirk, the philosopher of American conservatism, had his own quarrelsome relationship with Paterson. Yet, he said, she “stood out courageously, in defiance of the Lonely Crowd. I thought that everyone must be reading her … and could never forget her.”
Biographer Stephen Cox sums up her life:  Probably no one who encountered Isabel Paterson easily forgot her. Now a new generation needs an introduction. In this moment when, under stress, basic ideas are being recovered, Atlas is surging in popularity, and the historic failures of the New Deal are being re-examined, it is time to revisit her wit and learning. “The principle of the lever remains the same.”  
In her retirement, Paterson declined to enroll in Social Security and kept her Social Security card in an envelope with words “‘Social Security’ Swindle” written on it.
Paterson died on January 10, 1960, and was interred in the Welles family plot at Saint Mary’s Episcopal Churchyard in Burlington, New Jersey.


  • “Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends… when millions are slaughtered, when torture is practiced, starvation enforced, oppression made a policy, as at present over a large part of the world, and as it has often been in the past, it must be at the behest of very many good people, and even by their direct action, for what they consider a worthy object.” (The God of the Machine)


Libertarian historian David Beito notes that Patterson opposed the use of nuclear weapons in WWII:  Novelists Zora Neale Hurston and Isabel Paterson had much in common including opposition to the New Deal and a shared belief individualism. Both also opposed the dropping of the atomic bomb. In 1946, Hurston, who later supported the presidential campaign of Robert A. Taft, wrote that she was “amazed at the complacency of Negro press and public” towards Truman’s foreign policy actions. According to Hurston, Truman “is a monster. I can think of him as nothing else but the BUTCHER of ASIA. Of his grin of triumph on giving the order to drop the Atom bombs on Japan. Of his maintaining troops in China who are shooting the starving Chinese for stealing a handful of food…. Is it that we are so devoted to a ‘good Massa’ that we feel that we ought not to even protest such crimes? Have we no men among us? If we cannot stop it, we can at least let it be known that we are not deceived. We can make any party who condones it, let alone orders it, tremble for election time. Carla Kaplan, ed., Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 546.
At about the same time, Paterson cited the atomic bomb as an example of Truman’s use of science “to fry Japanese babies in atomic radiation.” Their deaths did not even have practical value to Paterson, who had predicted an almost immediate surrender of the Japanese upon the landing of a U.S. invasion force. The only bright spot for her was that Truman compromised his demand of unconditional surrender by letting the Japanese to keep the emperor. Stephen Cox, The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2004).