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The Essential Library of Liberty (Part 1)

  • Timothy D. Terrell
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When I write and teach on economics and public policy, I am sometimes asked for a list of readings I would recommend. So, in this article are five I consider important to a "library of liberty," with more to follow in a few days. Some of these are over four centuries old, and others have appeared in the last decade. Some are relatively quick, easy reads, while others are vast tomes suited only for the most diligent. Of course, any short list of books (or long list, for that matter) would have serious shortcomings. Such a list does not take into account the differences in foundational knowledge across readers, or the fact that some books that have a profound impact on one person will be incomprehensible or mind-numbing to another. And there are, I must assume, many excellent works of which I am not aware, or have neglected.


That disclaimer being stated, it is likely that at least one of the works on this list will be helpful to most readers. Particularly if one is in the commendable habit of lending books to others, it is hard to go wrong by making these books available to friends and family.

  1. Contra Vindiciae Tyrannos (A Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), by Phillipe du Plessis Mornay.

    This great Calvinistic work, first published in 1579, deals with some of the key political questions that Christians have been asking since the earliest persecutions. It is divided into four "questions," all of which are important for Christians to study today.

  • Whether subjects are bound and ought to obey princes, if they command that which is against the law of God
  • Whether it be lawful to resist a prince who doth infringe the law of God; by whom, how, and how far it is lawful
  • Whether it be lawful to resist a prince who doth oppress or ruin a public state, and how far such resistance may be extended; by whom, how, and by what right or law it is permitted
  • Whether neighbor princes may, or are bound by law to aid the subjects of other princes, persecuted for true religion, or oppressed by manifest tyranny

    Phillipe du Plessis Mornay (1549-1623) was a French Huguenot who argued for the precedence of the people over a king, and against the absolute right of kings to rule. "No one is a king by nature," he wrote, and "a king cannot rule without a people, while a people can rule itself without a king." This does not justify lawlessness or vigilantism against the king (George Buchanan, the same year, published his book The Right of the Kingdom in Scotland, which allowed for tyrannicide by individuals). As Murray Rothbard summarized the position, "The people as a whole are above the king, but the king is above any single individual."

    Christians have been guided by this book for centuries. As R.J. Rushdoony stated in his book This Independent Republic, it was "held by John Adams to be one of the most influential books in America on the eve of the Revolution." Today, this is a valuable book for any Christian interested in political issues to have in his library. It is of timeless importance.

2. Lex, Rex (The Law and the Prince), by Samuel Rutherford.

Without a doubt, this is one of the greatest books on Christian political philosophy ever written. It is not an easy read, partly because it was written in 1644 and the English is somewhat tedious for modern readers, but it is worthwhile. Rutherford's teaching criticized the "divine right of kings" doctrine and set up Scripture as the standard by which to judge the actions of civil government. Resisting tyrants, he said, is a Scriptural duty.
This book was instrumental in the reformation taking place in Rutherford's time. During the period that followed the death of Charles I, from about 1651 to 1688, Scotland was a place of persecution for Presbyterians. Some were martyred for their beliefs, and Rutherford did not escape persecution himself. Murray, in his Life of Samuel Rutherford, writes that Lex, Rex was considered by the government as "inveighing against monarchy and laying the ground for rebellion;" and was ordered to be burned in Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and London. Anyone found in possession of a copy was to be treated as an enemy of the government. Rutherford himself lost his livelihood and positions in the university and church, was placed under house arrest, and was charged with high treason. Upon receiving his summons to appear before the Parliament at Edinburgh, the dying Rutherford uttered his famous words, "I have got summons already before a Superior Judge and Judicatory, and I behove to answer to my first summons, and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folks come."

3. Christianity and the State, by Rousas J. Rushdoony.

One of the attractive aspects of R. J. Rushdoony's writing, to me, is its clear, logical approach to complex philosophical problems. This is a much easier read than the first two books on this list, not only because of the modern English, but because of the short, self-contained chapters. Forty short chapters on the biblical doctrine of the civil magistrate are packed into less than 200 pages. Rushdoony was extremely well-read on the issue of Christianity and civil government, and the footnotes as well as the long quotations from nearly forgotten works are helpful to the serious student. Some critical events in the historical development of a Christian theology of the state are covered here, such as the Edict of Milan and the conciliar movement. Rushdoony has not neglected the important developments before the Protestant Reformation. In his persuasive manner, he explains that modern statism is an example of the religion of humanism. Certainly this is one of the most useful books I have on Christian political philosophy.

4. Savior or Servant: Putting Government In Its Place, by David Hall.

David Hall, a Reformed pastor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has obviously put a phenomenal amount of research into this book, and it is an excellent resource. There is a vast amount of information here, on politics in the Bible and the development of Christian thought on civil government from the Reformation forward. The first 15 centuries A.D. get a little shortchanged, but that complaint is tempered by the fact that Rev. Hall has provided some 400 pages of wonderful material here. Discussions of some of the greatest Christian thinkers are here — Aquinas, Augustine, Beza, Calvin, Knox, Kuyper, Luther, Rutherford, and many more. This would be a good choice as a textbook for a course on the biblical view of the state.

5. Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises.

Human Action is Ludwig von Mises's magnum opus, the cornerstone of the Austrian school of economics. Mises, who fled Austria ahead of the Nazis before World War II, taught in the United States for many years and authored thousands of pages advocating individual liberty and strictly limited civil government. Christians may find a few things in this book to disagree with, but there is no doubt that Mises contributed a great deal to the argument against a bloated, deified state. This is not a short work, and those seeking lighter reading on these topics might start with Mises's shorter book Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow. The best edition of Human Action to buy is the reprint of the first edition, called the Scholar's Edition, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

See Part 2


  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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