A 'Little House' still looms large
An overlooked hero of American politics just got a quintessentially Iowan salute.
The Iowa State Fair’s butter cow sculpture featured Laura Ingalls Wilder, the “Little House on the Prairie” author with Iowa ties. When I visited in the final hours of the fair, Iowans still were lining up to see the dairy wonder.
She doesn’t get the credit she deserves, but Wilder might be the most influential right-wing author of the 20th century, and certainly the most beloved. Her books established a uniquely Midwestern passion for limited government that resonates in American politics decades after her death.
More than 60 million of Wilder’s books have been distributed in 100 countries. Compare that to an estimated 4 million copies of Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative.”
Millions of children have been introduced to individualist values through Little House stories. In one especially memorable scene, a young Laura on the Fourth of July declares a fundamental libertarian truth: “No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. … This is what it means to be free.”
Wilder was resentful of government intervention in frontier life, and later outraged at Democrats’ New Deal policies. However, it was Wilder’s daughter who would focus those ideals into a movement.
Little House enthusiasts debate about daughter Rose Wilder Lane’s involvement in writing the novels. Letters and transcripts reviewed in the 2016 biography “Libertarians on the Prairie” suggest the basic stories were Wilder’s, while Lane wrote in themes and storylines.
Lane published essays and exchanged ideas with leading right-wing figures of her day, including President Herbert Hoover, whose library in West Branch maintains a collection of Lane’s papers. She once described her own political views as “the slightly restrained anarchy of capitalism.”
The Little House enterprise provided crucial material support to early libertarian projects, first through Lane and then through Roger MacBride, Lane’s adopted grandson and heir to the Little House fortune. A few years after her death, Lane’s followers created the Libertarian Party. MacBride was a faithless Republican elector in the 1972 election, giving the brand-new party its first electoral vote, and its nominee in 1976.
Lane published a political manifesto, “The Discovery of Freedom,” in 1943, the same year as Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead.” Their underlying views differed sharply — Rand celebrated the exceptionalism of fictional individuals; Lane marveled at the power of people to improve their lives through the free market.
Lane’s political philosophy echoes her mother’s novels — both saw the natural world as chaotic, yet preached free men and women can conquer through peaceful cooperation.
Sadly, Wilder is remembered as mostly a children’s novelist, and Lane largely is a footnote in history. Instead, both should be recognized as founding mothers of the small-government movement.
The Little House flavor of Midwestern individualism was born on the prairies of Iowa and neighboring states. It remains palpable in politics today. Indeed, a butter cow seems a fitting tribute.
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