A Libertarian Western

Also available in .mp3.

The 1965 film Shenandoah is a great libertarian western starring the iconic Jimmy Stewart as a farmer from Shenandoah, VA, named Charlie Anderson.  The film is set during the War Between the States, a time of great turmoil in America.  Importantly, the film has strong antiwar and propertarian themes.

Charlie Anderson lives in Virginia, a Confederate state.  One might naturally suppose, therefore, that he is a supporter of the Confederacy.  One would be wrong, however.

Make no mistake, Anderson doesn’t support the Union, either.  No, Mr. Anderson is against the war entirely.

“They come closer everyday, pa,” says Anderson’s eldest son, Jacob, referring to Union soldiers.

“They on our land?” Anderson asks.

“No, sir.”

“Well, then, it doesn’t concern us,” Anderson explains.  Thus the tone is set for the rest of the movie.

Anderson loves his children.  He raised them to say what they think, and to live honest lives.  Although he is not a religious man, his wife, Martha, who died sixteen years earlier, was.  And so, despite his dim view on faith, he takes his family to church every week.  This leads to a mildly humorous scene where the pastor asks Anderson why he even bothers to come to church each week.  “It was my wife’s last request,” Anderson explains curtly.

While at mass one Sunday, the pastor claims that the three most important duties are (1) duty to God, (2) duty to the state, and (3) duty to one’s neighbour.  This is a rather disgusting sermon, as no true duty to the state can ever exist.  The state, after all, is merely a criminal band, and nothing more.  Most of its edicts are in defiance of natural law, and ought to be ignored and trampled upon by all honest men and women.

When a Confederate soldier asks Mr. Anderson when he’s going to take the war seriously, Anderson explains in a stern voice, “My corn I take serious because it’s my corn, and my potatoes and my tomatoes and fences I take note of because they’re mine.  But this war is not mine and I take no note of it!”

When the Confederate soldier tells Mr. Anderson that it seems strange to quite a few people that none of his sons are in the army, Anderson responds by saying, “Well it don’t seem strange to me with all the work there is to do around here.”

“Then I’ll come right to the point, Mr. Anderson,” says the soldier, “I came out here to get ’em.”

Anderson chuckles.

“Did I say something funny?” asks the soldier.

“You came all the way out here to get my boys, huh?”

“Yes, sir, I did.  Where are your sons now, Mr. Anderson?”

“You wanna see ’em, do ya?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

Anderson calls his sons one by one.  When they all arrive, Anderson turns to the soldier and says, “Now if you’ve got anything to say to ’em, you go ahead; they’ll listen.”

“There’s a Yankee army breathing down your neck, Mr. Anderson—I don’t think you realise—”

“You’re town-bred, aren’t you?” interrupts Anderson.

“I don’t see what that has to do—”

“I’ve got five hundred acres of good, rich dirt, here, and as long as the rains come and the sun shines, it’ll grow anything I have a mind to plant.  And we pulled every stump, and we cleared every field, and we done it ourselves without the sweat of one slave.”


“‘So’!?  So, can you give me one good reason why I should send my family, that took me a lifetime to raise, down that road like a bunch of damn fools to do somebody else’s fighting?”

“But these are my sons!  They don’t
belong to the state.”—Charlie Anderson

“Virginia needs all of her sons, Mr. Anderson.”

“That might me so, Johnson, but these are my sons!  They don’t belong to the state.  When they were babies, I never saw the state coming around with a spare tit!  We never asked anything of the state, and never expected anything.  We do our own living and thanks to no man for the right.  But seeing as how you’re so worried about it, I’ll tell ya:  If any of my boys thinks this war’s right, and wants to join in, he’s free to do it.  You all hear that!?  Did you hear it!?  You wanna dress up like these fellas, go ahead; here’s your chance.”

None of Anderson’s sons volunteer.  The soldier realises he has lost this battle.

One has to love Anderson’s argument.  He’s right, after all: nobody “belongs” to the state.  Every individual has a natural, innate right to individual sovereignty, to self-ownership.  Insofar as the state thinks of us as its property, it is nothing more nor less than a gang of tyrants and slavemasters.  As Henry David Thoreau wrote in his great essay “Civil Disobedience,” “this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way.  It does not keep the country free.  It does not settle the West.  It does not educate.  The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.”

Not long after departing from the Anderson farm, these young Confederate soldiers encountered some Union soldiers, got shot, and died.  The Andersons hear the gunfire from their farm and head out to investigate, and discover the dead boys.  Solemnly, Anderson asks, “What d’you do with dead soldiers?”  He sends his sons Nathan and Henry to go fetch the army, so that they may come to bury the fallen boys.

“Does it concern us now?” asks Jacob.

“You go to the house, get something, cover them up,” Anderson replies.  Jacob understands: his father still regards the war as none of their business.

One day, men from the government arrive at the Anderson farm.  This time, it’s not soldiers, but rather men in suits.  When one of the men says he will take some of the Anderson horses, Anderson yells, “What do you mean you’ll take them?”

After some brief chatter, the man introduces Anderson to Mr. Caroll, Mr. Osbourne, and Mr. Marshall—three “federal purchasing agents”—who are “buying horses for the cavalry.”

Anderson informs these government men that the horses are not for sale.

“Well that may be, but I just think I oughta tell ya, we’re authorised to confiscate any we can’t buy.”

“What’s confiscate mean, pa?” asks Boy, Anderson’s youngest son.

Anderson answers bluntly and accurately:  “Steal!”

Refusing to let the government men steal their cattle, their property, the Andersons fight the government thugs.  One of the government thugs pulls a gun out, and is about to commit murder, when suddenly Jennie Anderson, bearing a rifle, shoots the gun out of the government thug’s hand.  She commands the government thugs to leave the Anderson property, which they do—without having taken even one of the Anderson horses.  Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Jennie ends up marrying a Confederate soldier named Sam.  Immediately after the wedding, Sam receives word that the Union has “broken through” and that he would have to leave.  He turns to his new bride, saying, “I’ll hav’ta leave ya; you know that, don’t you?”  Jennie nods sorrowfully.  Sam continues, “Do you understand?”

“Do you?” Jennie responds, holding back the tears.  With those two words, Jennie expresses her disdain for war, for this horrendous circumstance that leads men to leave their families and fight in bloody conflicts.  I am reminded of Linda & Morris Tannehill, who, in their 1970 book The Market for Liberty, describe governmental defence as being, in reality, “defense of the government, for the government…by the citizens.”

Sam has no response, but hugs his new wife, whom he is about to leave.  While I regard Sam as a fool, I do not question the sincerity of his love for Jennie.

Sam isn’t the only one who ends up leaving.  Unfortunately for Boy, one day, while out chasing racoons, he is captured by some Union soldiers who mistake him for a Confederate soldier.  They end up taking him prisoner.

When Charlie Anderson finds out, he has one simple thing to say to his family:  “Now it concerns us.”

Anderson and his boys are thereafter on a mission to locate Boy and bring him home.  But before they leave, Jennie expresses interest in also coming along.  Anderson tells her not to come, pointing out that she is a woman.

“Yes, I’m a woman,” Jennie replies, “but I don’t see anybody here that I can’t outrun, outride, and outshoot.  I’ll unstrap for you, papa, and unhook, and I’ll even sit here and watch you ride out of sight.”

“And then what?” asks Anderson.

“And then I’ll follow.”

“That’s what I thought.”

And so Anderson, most of his sons, and Jennie ride off together in search of Boy.

One has to love the individualist feminist message.  Yes, Jennie is a woman.  She recognises that fact.  But why should that stop her?  If she can pull her own weight—which she can—she should be recognised as an equal to her brothers.

When the Andersons arrive at a Union camp, and inform the general of the situation, the general asks, “He isn’t a Confederate?”

“No, sir; he’s an Anderson, and that’s all he is.”

Unfortunately, while the general is sympathetic to Anderson’s plight, he doesn’t have Boy.  Thus, Anderson gets the bureaucratic run-around from the various authority figures he encounters.

Anderson and his children take over a train filled with prisoners of the Union army.  Anderson informs the conductor that he is going to empty the train and then burn it.  The conductor is shocked, and wishes to know why Anderson plans to do this.

“It’s not the kind of train I favour,” Anderson tells him.

The Andersons do not find Boy on the train, but by a twist of fate, they do find Sam.  Thus, Sam and Jennie are thereby reunited.

When the conductor tries to convince Anderson not to burn the train, Anderson tells the man, “You run a sad kind of train, mister.  It takes people away when they don’t want to go, and won’t bring them back when they’re ready.  But I’ll leave it to the ones who were on it.”

The newly-freed men opt to burn it.

Elsewhere, Boy escapes from his captors.  He eventually makes his way home.  But the ending of this tale is bittersweet, for Anderson’s daughter-in-law and two of Anderson’s sons die.  Jacob dies right in front of Anderson, at the hands of a Confederate soldier.

Anderson is positively heartbroken by the loss.  He is about to strangle the soldier, but stops himself.  With pain in his voice, he asks the soldier how old he is, and discovers that the soldier is only sixteen.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Anderson says to the young man.  “I want you to live.  I want you to live to be an old man, and I want you to have many, many, many children, and I want you to feel about your children then the way I feel about mine now.  And someday, when a man comes along and kills one of ’em, I want you to remember!  Okay?  I want you to remember.”

War is not glorious.  War is brutal.  The statists would love for you and I to disregard the deaths of those who die, to merely write off the deaths as “collateral damage” or whatever other euphemisms they like to use.  But these are human beings, humans who, because of the disagreements of powerful men, will no longer be able to love, to enjoy television or food or friendship, to enjoy just being alive.  All of that gets ripped away from them—not just for a day or for a week, but forever.*

These are human beings—every single one of them—and most leave behind loved ones, whether that be parents, siblings, children, spouses, or even friends.  The evil Joseph Stalin is often attributed as saying, “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.”  It behoves us to always try to remember that every death, whether it be murder or involuntary manslaughter, whether it be in times of peace or times of war, is a tragedy.

Before the film ends, we find Charlie Anderson speaking to his wife’s grave.  “There’s nothing much I can tell you about this war” Anderson says.  “It’s like all wars, I suppose.  The undertakers are winning it.  Oh, the politicians will talk a lot about the ‘glory’ of it, and the old men’ll talk about the ‘need’ of it—the soldiers, they just want to go home.”

When this movie was released in 1965, the U. S. war in Vietnam had just begun, and antiwar sentiments had not yet began to swell in America.  Libertarians, of course, had opposed the war from the start, but at this time, the public sentiment in these united states was generally in favour of deployment.  Thus, the average moviegoer did not draw any connection between this film and the war when it was released.  A few years later, however, antiwar activists looked back on this libertarian western fondly.

The antiwar and propertarian message in this film, however, should be looked upon in a broader context.  The message, after all, is timeless.  All wars really do resemble the description given by Mr. Anderson.  Whether it be the War Between the States, the Vietnam War, or our present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments wage them for the perceived benefit of the political class, and they get us to fight for them.  Let us, therefore, dream of a brighter future, a future where property rights are respected and where governments, insofar as they continue to exist, are so weak and powerless that they cannot compel even one man to fight on their behalf.


*   I am indebted to the late Harry Browne for this unforgettable perspective.  See Harry Browne, “Why I Am Obsessed with War,” (28 January 2005).