Garet Garrett, the Great

It’s time for liberty lovers to (re)acquaint themselves with Garet Garrett, a prolific voice of the Old Right. It’s not that everything the largely homeschooled farm boy wrote was right – he reconciled himself to the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and some restrictions on trade and immigration – but that what his “unsanctioned voice” got right, especially about the New Deal, was analytically powerful, yet largely forgotten today. That’s unfortunate, because today’s Great Reset repeats many of the same patterns of authoritarian control that Garrett identified and excoriated.

Biography, like history more generally, can contain multitudes of lessons. So I have tried, over my career, to revive several once-important but now largely obscure public figures, including forgotten financial founding father Thomas Willing, and Wilma Soss, America’s first major female financial broadcast journalist and PR consultant. As with the others, I was initially drawn to Garrett because what little we know about his personal life was just so darned interesting. He was born Edward Peter Garrett in Illinois in 1878 but, like both of his parents, he changed his first name around age 20. He pronounced his new first name (one r, one t) exactly like his last name (two rs, two ts), the same as garret (two rs, one t), the habitable top floor of Victorian-style houses. Given descriptions of Garrett’s personal style when in public, Dapper Dan might have been a more Dickensian, and accurate, moniker for himself.

Garrett bumbled through his first two marriages, but was legally separated from his second wife when, at age 51, he was shot three times while out on a date with an attractive 30-something at an upscale Manhattan speakeasy. Despite taking .25 caliber slugs to his thigh, lung, and neck, he survived to marry a third time, to a woman 32 years his junior who had served as his secretary and nurse. He moved with her to a farm he had bought in the mid-1920s, on the Tuckahoe River, south of Atlantic City. To escape this alcoholic third wife, he built on the property a “cave,” a cement-block writing retreat. His house also sported a screened-in porch rendered necessary by its proximity to the aptly named Mosquito Landing. In 1954, Garrett was buried in a cemetery at the head of the Tuckahoe. His simple tombstone only lists the names and life dates of himself and his third wife.

Garrett’s career was even more interesting than his personal life. He left the farm at age 15 and made his way east, working odd jobs until becoming a printer’s devil, and then a journalist for the Cleveland Press. In 1894, he covered the formation of Coxey’s Army in Massillon, Ohio and the Pullman Strike. In 1898, he was off to the old Washington Times to cover the McKinley administration, and two years later to New York to cover the financial beat. 

In 1913, Garrett became editor-in-chief of the weekly New York Times Annalist: A Magazine of Finance, Commerce and Economics. A well known member of the financial press, he met, corresponded with, and reportedly even hobnobbed with some of the key elites of the era, including Bernard Baruch, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, Alf Landon, Rose Wilder Lane, and Adolph Ochs. Before America’s entry into the Great War, he visited Germany to interview that country’s head of war production, Walter Rathenau, and later returned to assess the Weimar Republic’s fiscal and monetary woes. He also visited the Philippines when not busy driving all over America, decrying its government roads after every bump and pothole.

In addition to journalism, Garrett made a living writing books, fiction and nonfiction. His 1922 novel The Driver is probably his best known fictional work today because it resembled Ayn Rand’s 1957 Atlas Shrugged. Both have a character named Galt and describe the challenges involved in running a railroad during a depression. Both also describe the mechanisms by which private-sector initiatives would spur economic recovery, if given the chance. Garrett’s closest personal friend in his later years, Richard Cornuelle (1927-2011), may have been the conduit. Cornuelle, another too-little-studied figure in the pantheon of liberty, was a Mises student and one-time confidant of Rand. 

Garrett’s biggest claim to fame, though, may have been his freelance writing and editorial work at the Philadelphia-based Saturday Evening Post (SEP) between 1922 and 1942. Sure, he had worked for The New York Times at a time when that meant something positive, and toiled for The Wall Street Journal and New York Evening Post before rejoining the Times, and later the New York Tribune, in editorial capacities. But his work at SEP, especially his critique of the New Deal, was so important that Sinclair Lewis declared in his 1935 dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here that if America went fully fascist, Garrett would be one of the first handful of writers cast into prison

Garrett was mistrusted by government officials, in part because he made clear that the power to regulate was the power to control regulated businesses, not the power to stop bad behaviors. In 1931, not long after he was shot, he published a nonfiction book, The Bubble That Broke the World, that essentially made the same Austrian argument about the monetary causes of the Great Crash of 1929 that Rothbard would make in 1963.

In addition to exposing how the New Deal diverted America from its original, classical liberal path, Garrett tried to thread the needle on foreign policy. Like Edward Atkinson, Garrett was a nationalist who opposed American imperialism. Putting “America First” meant not running headlong into foreign entanglements and wars likely to cost the nation, and many of the individuals composing it, more than it benefited them. So before each world war, Garrett seemed dovish at first, before turning into a screaming hawk when it became clear to him that America had to join the hostilities. “What is the good of being free,” he asked Rose Wilder Lane in 1940, “if you cease to exist?” 

Soon after war finally came to America in December 1941, Garrett was ousted from SEP and could not get a government job because he had been branded an inveterate isolationist. Moreover, his anti-New Deal writings still stung many in the administration. He leveraged his farm carpentry and mechanical skills to land a job in the local shipyard building military freight boats until his advanced age and old bullet wounds sent him back to his south Jersey farm. Blacklisted by major print media outlets, unable to get a radio job due to his raspy voice – caused by the bullet he took to the neck in 1930 – and without a paper allotment for his personal press  – which he knew how to operate from his deviling days – Garrett could do little but update and polish “The Revolution Was,” an essay excoriating the New Deal that SEP had found too radical to publish in 1938. It proved a big hit in 1944; Leonard Read personally purchased thousands of copies to distribute before the presidential election.

About the same time, Garrett assumed the editorship of a new magazine for The Conference Board eventually called American Affairs. He wrote much of it himself, but also attracted contributors ranging from movie producer Cecil B. DeMille to Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Overall, he was critical of the international trade and monetary agreements that had emerged from the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. 

When American Affairs folded in 1950, Garrett took a stipend from the William Volker Fund, which also supported the likes of Hayek and Mises. In his final years, Garrett published a few more books, including a 1952 biography of Ford entitled The Wild Wheel, and republished his hit “The Revolution Was” essay in 1953 to lead off The People’s Pottage, Garrett’s most popular nonfiction book. The theme was that the American people, like the Biblical Esau, had sold their birthright, liberty, for a mess of pottage, a bowl of bean soup. 

Garrett’s final book, The American Story, was a mostly classical liberal “biography” of America written for the textbook market. Garrett’s voluminous papers and library might have survived him, but his wife died only a year after he did, at age 45. Her executors did not understand their import, so they were burned or sold off.

In that final book, and overall, Garrett was largely silent about the US government’s attacks on the civil liberties of foreign nationals, especially those espousing socialist creeds, and he was something of an economic nationalist. For those reasons, some scholars call him a paleolibertarian or a fusionist, a thinker who tried to reconcile classical liberalism with conservatism. Edward Peter called himself Garet, but never labeled himself ideologically. We could easily consider his first name an anagram for what his stance against the New Deal was, g-r-e-a-t, while also recognizing that some of his views resemble a dusty old attic.

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