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 philosophy, economics, 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 Island, Ontario, 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.
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.
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.
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.
- “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)