The Myth of the Libertarian Wild West

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The Pink Flamingo first ran this article on January 3, 2011.

NOTE: For those who don’t know The Pink Flamingo, in my real life I specialize in the Wild West, with two novels and two non-fiction books having been published on the subject. I am currently working on a third which should be out in October. If you are not a regular reader of The Pink Flamingo you might not know that I am one of the leading experts on the life of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone. Every fact I have in this piece can be documented. It is based on nearly 20 years of research.

Clifford F. Thies did a review of True Grit for the Libertarian Republican. Eric Dondero considers it an individualist inspired movie. For the record I have not seen it. I saw the original and read the book, which is not a tale of revenge, or a tale about a lawman, but the coming of age story of a very determined young woman. Anyone who has ever had the miserable misfortune to go to a movie in Ruidoso knows the reason why. Before moving here, I was a once a week movie person. The last movie I went to see in a theater was Star Trek. Thies wrote:

“...Is True Grit a “conservative movie?” Well, how could any movie that reprises a John Wayne movie not be? So maybe I should ask the question why is it a conservative movie? Because it shows that men and women, such as we are, varying degrees of imperfect, can rise to the occasion. We can make a difference. We can be heroes. Because it celebrates the people from which this country was formed, without apology or sugar-coating. It just tells it like it is, or was. And, because it shows that we have to stand up against evil….”

I fully agree with some of his assessment. There was a battle between good over evil, but today we have a tendency to glamorize the effort. As I mentioned previously, the original story was a coming of age story about a very pig-headed young woman, who paid, and paid dearly, for her quest for revenge.

There is NOTHING libertarian or actually very conservative about the American West. Until the late 1880s, unless one was in a town, people were still few and far between. They were dependent upon one another for their very survival. The myth of the great “American” individualist did not apply. It could not. The real individualists were the Mountain Men of an earlier era. They were also few and far between, shunned by society and shunning society. The man who set out to take his family and live on his own was considered a suicidal fool and a murderer for rarely did he or his family survive.

That is NOT libertarian.

Photo Copyright 2007 by SJ Reidhead

Contrary to popular libertarian myth when two men were settling an area they were pioneers. You get three of them and you have a town, complete with a name. As soon as there were a half dozen men in a town there would be a saloon. By the time there were ten, one of them had been elected sheriff, needed to keep law and order especially when dealing with the saloon.

That is NOT libertarian.

When there were about fifteen or twenty men (their families did not count) you had an elected mayor and town council. The newly named town would also be laid out in very exact streets, blocks, and town lots. The new sheriff would be needed to keep one of the original settlers from taking advantage of the others by running a town lot scam.

That is NOT libertarian.

Photo Copyright 2009 by SJ Reidhead

The sheriff would have his deputy. The mayor and the town council would be making all sorts of laws, rules and regulations. If the sheriff was like Virgil Earp, he would be working a speed trap down main street to raise money for the city coffers. The Pink Flamingo is well aware that losertarians like John Stossel like to wax poetic about the founders and frontier America with the lack of traffic rules, but he’s not telling the truth.

That is NOT libertarian.

The settlers were very well organized. They had to be to survive. Those organizational skills were highlighted in the formation of towns all over this country. They understood that people did not live in a Utopian world where they were fully capable of governing one another without laws, rules, regulation, or government intervention. These people were realists who understood that without those laws, rules, and regulations men and women lived down to the lowest common denominator possible.

That is NOT libertarian.

Photo Copyright 2010 by SJ Reidhead

While the men organized the towns, made their laws, and drank in the saloons, women demanded churches. They demanded laws to prevent prostitution. They required laws regulating the sale or spirits, and demanded they not be sold on Sunday. They required schools for their children. They formed aid societies, had fund-raisers, church and school bazaars, demanded community centers and the towns be policed so that their children could safely play on the streets.

They demanded blue laws to close down the saloons on Sunday. It was a way, they thought, to get the saloon workers and the drinkers into church.

That is NOT libertarian.

If a man was mistreating his family, the women of a community would see that he as run out of town. The men of the community would see that he never abused another family again. They took care of incest. In Puritan New England, every family was regulated by the community to see that children were not abused. When they were, the offending spouse was kicked out of the town. Their property would be confiscated and given to the family. The abusing parent was NEVER allowed near their children again. (If this were done today, every durn libertarian in the country would be screaming.)

Photo Copyright 2005 by SJ Reidhead

That is NOT libertarian.

Women demanded clean drinking water. They demanded the milk sold to their children was clean and safe. They required the streets be cleaned. Saloons, they demanded, be on a separate side of town. Hurdy Gurdy women were NOT allowed near their children. Fire departments were required to protect their homes. Laws were enacted delineating when and where a gun could be worn and fired.

That is NOT libertarian.

In the Wild West, people looked after one another. In Tombstone there were three hospitals. When one of the miners developed smallpox, EVERY man, women, and child in Tombstone was required to be vaccinated. This included the Earps, Doc Holiday, John Behan, Johnny Ringo, the Clantons, and all of the Cowboys. (I have the documentation in my book).

That is NOT libertarian.

They were political. The moment a town was formed, the men in it took sides. They were either Democrats or Republicans. Wyatt Earp was a life-long Republican. In many ways the Cochise County War was a political battle between the Democrats (Cowboys, John Behan, etc) and the Republicans (Earps, Clum, Peabody, Parsons).

That is NOT libertarian.

Photo Copyright 2009 by SJ Reidhead

The fact is, there was no concept of libertarian. When things were out of hand, townspeople demanded the Feds step in and control crime. They demanded a military presence. Cops were the highest paid members of a community, the most respected. It was about law and order. There were courts, judges, DA’s, attorneys, and prosecutors. There were prisons for men and women who broke the law. They demanded the Federal Government place draconian laws on the “heathen” Indians.

That is NOT libertarian.

It was a world of don’t ask and don’t tell. There were saloons for African Americans. 60% of all cowboys in the west were Black. Any number of cowboys, no matter what the race, were gay. A person’s gender identity did not matter as long as they were stand up men or women who did their job and did not make trouble for others. There were saloons for gays. I suspect John Breakenridge, who was eventually a sheriff of Cochise County was gay. Wyatt Earp’s business partner was gay, living with a companion. I have letters where Josie invited the pair to stay with them. As long as a person blended into the community and worked for the betterment of that community, they were welcome.

That is NOT libertarian.

Photo Copyright 2009 by SJ Reidhead

Women in the towns forced community participation in the arts. They demanded, and almost always received community orchestras, theaters, and community sponsored artistic events. There are examples on record where they would demand a town provide money to bring a theatrical troop, opera star, lecturer, or Shakespearean actor into town. Towns would run opera houses and theaters. They provided parks, band-stands, fireworks, bands, and provided an infrastructure for community betterment. It was about making the world better for one’s children, not about the selfish, narcissistic pandering to very disturbed individuals like Ayn Rand.

That is NOT libertarian.

If you delve into the writings and interviews with the old timers, there is a streak of conservation that runs through their lives. One of the reasons many of these men and women migrated to the Wild West was because the loved it. They loved the land, the deserts, the mountains, the prairie, and the open spaces. Wyatt Earp lamented the loss of the buffalo, and waxed poetic about a way to preserve them. He and Bat Masterson were huge supporters of Teddy Roosevelt. They especially liked this ideas about creating National Parks. The old timer in the west wanted the beauty and the land of the west that they loved to be preserved for future generations.

That is NOT libertarian.

Like everything else, libertarians approach the world in a strange way. Either they are abjectly ignorant of history, lie to themselves, or simply make things up to fit their vision of the world. There is no historical nor factual reality in the way that they attempt to assimilate history in their own little way. They are lying to themselves and to everyone else when they do this. It’s like John Stossel and his idiotic determination that we don’t need traffic rules and regulations. We have always had them, in this country.

The far right is waxing poetic about the new version of True Grit. What they fail to even mention is what the cost of the determination of law and order in the Wild West. They are glamorizing it, failing to even bother to note the consequences of the actual lives involved.

Take Wyatt Earp as an example. The Gunfight at the OK Corral and the subsequent Vendetta Ride to avenge the murder of his brother Morgan ruined his life. He paid for his actions every day for the rest of his life. It was not glamorous. His brother Virgil was left crippled. His youngest brother, Warren, was eventually murdered.

The Wild West was very much a land of rules and regulations. Law and order was terribly important. It was required for a new society to form. To think otherwise is simply conservative or libertarian revisionism. The Pink Flamingo detests revisionism when it comes to history.

And yes, this is simply another gratuitous way to get yet another clip from one of my favorite movies into a post. It is also proof that there was no libertarian philosophy in the west. If it were libertarian, this never would have happened – and it happened just this way (more or less).

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One thought on “The Myth of the Libertarian Wild West

  1. The Thing That Calls Itself Conservative and the libertarians (depending upon which libertarian you talk to — I think many call themselves this because they have nowhere to go in the two major parties) embrace a myth of the west — their myth.

    Part of my family went west, with some eventually returning to the midwest and south (some were actual mountain men, but it was to make money trapping and trading so they could eventually settle down and raise a family; some were Indians — who were not as the movies always portray them, warring with settlers, and contrary to how they are portrayed by white people, did have a sense of property rights which was often the cause of the conflict, a couple were of mestizo/creole mix who became ranch hands — all with the eventual goal of making money and then finding a place to settle down, just like the white immigrants in my family — no rugged ubermen living in lonely perfection for any of them!) — things were a lot more communitarian (another word that has been abused of its true meaning) and liberal/conservative than is given credit for (people were liberal in the sense that they were open to trying new things if they might work and conservative in the sense that they valued their traditions — a sort of live and let live balance for the most part, when this balance broke down they had chaos, and nobody really enjoyed that as the stakes were too high). There just wasn’t enough people or enough leisure to be anything else. It was hardly utopian, but it wasn’t dystopian either (which if the myth were actual reality, it would have been).

    The TTCIC and their pet libertarians (maybe that’s the way to describe that branch) don’t seem to grasp that their mythic west is far more in common with Nietzche (and possibly a European vision of “the West” and America — which all you have to do to understand how wrong they got it is to read May or sit down to a performance of The Girl of the Golden West; my dad always chuckled about “the plains of Louisiana”) than what was reality.
    For myself, I always preferred the reality of it: it’s a far more wonderful and fascinating story.

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