Garet Garrett: Far Forward of the Trenches
Joseph Sobran discovered these Garet Garrett essays “one night, long ago, at the office of National Review, where I then worked.” As the flagship of modern conservatism, National Review supported the Cold War and the hot war then raging in Vietnam.
“Two questions occurred to me,” Sobran writes. “One: ‘Why haven’t I heard of this man before?’ Two: ‘If he’s right, what am I doing here?”
I discovered these essays at 16 in a Seattle bookstore that specialized in right-wing opinions. The bright blue paperback was called The People’s Pottage. The book was one of the twelve “candles” of the mysterious John Birch Society, though the author had died before the society was founded. In his day he had been a member of the mainstream press.
Who was Garet Garrett? He was a stylist, right from the first paragraph. His writing had an unusual clarity of belief, and the ominous tone of a man convinced that his country had been steered down the wrong road.
Garrett’s beliefs were once the stuff of conservatism, and in 1954 his obituary in the New York Times labeled him a conservative. But the positions he defended—a pre–New Deal constitutionalism, an America-first foreign policy, a gold-backed currency and economic laissez-faire—are far forward of the trenches defended today by mainstream conservatism. His belief in laissez-faire would be called libertarian today. On tariffs and immigration he anticipates the nationalist conservatism of Patrick Buchanan. On foreign policy he occupies the ground that Buchanan and most libertarians share in opposition to today’s Republican order.
In 1967 Garrett was new to me. Strangest was his essay, “Rise of Empire,” in which he argued that in undertaking to defend freedom everywhere, America had given up the Republic. The terms of this argument were conservative, but was the conclusion? My idea of a conservative was Sen. Barry Goldwater, whose policy on overseas Communism was the opposite of Garrett’s.
Who was Garet Garrett? How did he pronounce his name? The book I bought in 1967 said he had retired to a cave on a riverbank. A troglodyte indeed.
Thirty-five years later I went looking. I found a small academic biography, Carl Ryant’s Profit’s Prophet (1989), and a chapter in Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right (1990). I found 13 Garrett books, including several of what might be called economics novels (The Driver, The Cinder Buggy), a novelistic essay (The Blue Wound), a political novel (Harangue) and an economic biography (The Wild Wheel). There were acres of journalism, much of it in the Saturday Evening Post and a forgotten magazine called American Affairs.
Scattered here and there were statements about the man himself. Garrett was five feet five and had blue-gray eyes. In 1937 his editors at the Saturday Evening Post said he had “an apparently inexhaustible supply of nervous energy and the most completely controlled and incisively logical mind we’ve ever come across.”
He was the son of a tinker, born in downstate Illinois in 1878 as Edward Peter Garrett. He grew up on a farm in Iowa and learned to direct a team of horses at age ten. Schooled only through the third grade, he educated himself by reading books.
He left home at 18, hopping a freight for Chicago. “It was a hard, unfriendly city,” he wrote. “If you were hungry, you would let it go for a long time without asking for anything, for if you asked, you were a bum.” It was there, he recounted in the Saturday Evening Post, that he hung his only shirt up to dry on a bush and the wind blew it into the river while he dreamed. Shirtless, he hopped a freight for Cleveland.
Garrett began his career as a printer’s assistant at the Cleveland Press. He soon became a reporter. During the McKinley administration he moved to Washington, D.C., where he began writing under the name Garet. The name stuck, and he legally adopted it. He pronounced it GARE-et GARE-et.
In 1900, when J.P. Morgan was putting together the United States Steel Corporation, Garrett moved to New York and became a business reporter. In The Cinder Buggy (1923), he describes the steelmen holding court with the press. He was there. During the early years of the century, he wrote pieces for investors under the pen name of John Parr. He also made a lifelong friend of Bernard Baruch, who would become a confidant of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
By 1915, when neutral America was on the sidelines of World War I, Garrett was dispensing opinions from the editorial board of the New York Times. The paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, wanted the Times to be neutral on the war. But Garrett wrote in his journal a month after the Lusitania went down, “Over and over I protest that we are more pro-English than the English.” On February 29, 1916, he wrote, “Neutrality is so rare that I sometimes ask myself if it is not an affectation. Yet I believe in it.” He would later proclaim World War I “a total loss.”
In December 1915, the Times sent Garrett to Germany. He wrote a 10-part series and brought home an official message that Germany was willing to negotiate for peace. He met with Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who was pro-British and not interested.
In 1916 Garrett went to the Tribune. “I was impatient to do things, and it was hard to get anything done at the Times—anything new,” he wrote. After the war he left newspapers, shifting his efforts to magazines and books. In 1922 he settled in at the Saturday Evening Post, which ran his articles and serialized his books for the next 20 years.
Garrett’s early journalism was not politically flavored. As a young man, he recalled, “I took the form of government as a fact to begin with, like the fact of one’s parentage, and did not think about it at all.” After about 1920 his work took on a point of view.
Garrett believed in liberty and self-reliance, and not as two separate things. He was not eager to justify his belief. Some things just are, and liberty and self-reliance was who Americans were. Dependence on the state was an Old World idea, like the divine right of kings.
Liberty, he believed, makes the individual strong. In Satan’s Bushel (1924), he pictured an old man urging farmers to be strong like a tree. The elms, the old man says, “have no sick religion of equality. They contend with each other for advantage. What they have in common is an instinct—one way of fighting against all the other plants. That is what the farmer needs.”
Garrett also argued that liberty makes the nation strong. In The Cinder Buggy, he wrote of the first entrepreneurs of steel: “they were free egoists, seeking profit, power, personal success, everyone attending to his own greatness. Never before in the world had the practice of individualism been so reckless, so purely dynamic, so heedless of the Devil’s harvest.” Yet to prepare the nation for World War I, he wrote, “it happened—it precisely happened—that they forged the right weapons.”
There was also an egalitarian aspect. The America he remembered (and it was probably the rural America) was a place that combined self-reliance and a kind of social equality. “To be poor is no disgrace,” Garrett wrote in 1947. “In the whole civilized world that was only true here.”
Keeping the American identity justified a certain separatism. Though at home Garrett was for laissez-faire, at the border he became a nationalist. In 1920 he supported the Jones Act, the law that reserved shipping between two US ports to US crews and ships. He didn’t want America to be at the mercy of the British merchant marine. In 1924 he supported the law curtailing immigration. Immigrants, he argued, did not think like Americans.
“The new immigration is in a notable degre
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