Remembering Roger MacBride

The news of the passing of John Hospers brought renewed attention to his receiving an electoral vote in the 1972 presidential election, as the first nominee of the Libertarian Party. The man casting that vote, Roger MacBride (who passed away in 1995), has often been described as a “faithless” elector, because he was allegedly “committed” to voting for the incumbent, Richard Nixon.

Well, Roger would argue that he was neither a faithless nor renegade elector. He was an expert on the history of the Constitution and the thinking of the Founding Fathers, and once even did a research paper/thesis on the history of the Electoral College. In fact, he may have known more about it than any other person, since he literally wrote the book on it: The American Electoral College, which was published by Caxton Printers in 1963. Roger believed that there was no binding requirement for electors to uphold the popular vote, but that they were free to vote their conscience. He was doing his duty.

I knew Roger fairly well. We met in 1976, when I was in Boise, Idaho, doing radio and TV ads for the Steve Symms campaign. He flew in in his tricked-out private DC-3 campaign plane –which he piloted. I also knew Rose Wilder Lane very well starting back in 1959. She became a regular visiting teacher at Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School in Colorado. I had a dinner party for her and for all Los Angeles-area libertarians at my parents’ home around 1960. I used to go up and stay at her little cottage in Danbury, Connecticut, throughout the 1960s. She died in 1968.

As is well known, Roger became her unofficial adopted “grandson.” More importantly, he produced the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series and inherited the vast Laura Ingalls Wilder/Rose Wilder Lane literary estate, becoming immensely wealthy. Roger met Rose when he was a teenager. She wrote for Reader’s Digest, where Roger’s father was an editor. They became very close and he called her “grandma” (she was more than 40 years his senior). After graduating from Harvard Law, he became her attorney and then heir.

Roger purchased the Jefferson-style Esmont House in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1968. (His law offices were in Charlottesville.) Esmont was strongly influenced by Jefferson’s distinctive architectural style and touches. While there is no proof that Jefferson or any of his employees were involved in either the design or construction of Esmont, the details of the house show an intimate familiarity with all of Jefferson’s favorite design elements.

Roger took an unattached brick kitchen and enlarged and modernized it to use as his office and library and wine cellar. His considerable and significant library was in a temperature- and humidity-controlled section of the building, as was the wine cellar.

Roger was a good friend of Burton Gray, who lived in his ultra-modern, glass-and–stone, Ayn Rand-style house with his own library and wine cellar, in Great Falls, Virginia. At social gatherings at Burton’s, he and Roger would always rag on each other about their wine cellars — each claiming that he had the best and that the other’s wines were over the hill because all they did was store them in their cellars and never drink them at their primes. I vaguely remember some debate as to whether Esmont was a genuine Jefferson house or not. I don’t know what happened to Roger’s library. Deecy Gray donated Burton’s library to George Mason University.

Ironically, in 1977, when Roger still lived in Esmont, the house was nominated for inclusion in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. It was officially added in 1980. (I assume it had to be approved by Roger because he was still living in it.) The Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission also approved its nomination. Once you’re on the list you’re screwed. You can’t modify, modernize, add insulation, or do just about anything without going through a long and onerous approval process — and even then it may be rejected. It’s almost impossible if you’re a maverick, a right-winger, or somehow cross with whoever is the local green preservationist busybody. Folks have had to testify before Congress and sue in state and federal courts to try to undo the chains, to be allowed to modernize their homes. They usually lose and ultimately sell their homes at a loss. Thankfully, Roger’s legacy is stronger and longer lasting than any physical structure.