When John Hospers was an 18-year-old freshman at Central College in Pella, Iowa, he took an astronomy class with Dean Henry Pietenpol, who soon realized there was a problem. “You know more about this than I do,” Pietenpol told Hospers and turned over the class. For the rest of the semester, Hospers taught college juniors and seniors about light years, galaxies and Saturn’s rings.
Despite his passion for all things astronomical, Hospers ended up in a field that had little to do with stars—unless you count the academic celebrity kind. He became a college professor, aesthetics philosopher, textbook author and the first Libertarian candidate for president—even earning one electoral vote.
Hospers was born in Pella in 1918, and the small Dutch town was key in forming his political philosophy. His great-grandfather led the second emigration from the Netherlands to Pella in 1849. “Concepts like government assistance were completely alien to these settlers,” Hospers wrote in a memoir. “Life was precarious, but when illness or natural catastrophe struck, relatives and neighbors were there to give assistance. It would not have occurred to them to ask for money from the government any more than to rob their neighbors’ houses. God had given them rich land, was that not enough?”
After graduation, Hospers earned a master’s in literature from the University of Iowa and a doctorate in philosophy from Colombia University. His dissertation on meaning and truth in the arts remained in print for 35 years, and he taught philosophy at universities around the country.
One day, Hospers went to a lecture at Brooklyn College by Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged, founder of the objectivist philosophy and an icon for libertarians to this day. Afterwards, Hospers invited her to lunch. She promised him an hour; they ended up talking for four. The two philosophers became close friends, often discussing the role of government until 4 or 6 a.m.
Hospers credited Rand as a muse for both his writing and his teaching, and she reminded him that his was the most important profession in the world. In 1971, he published Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow, the first academic book on the subject.
It was that book that secured his nomination as presidential candidate for the Libertarian party, created in 1972. Hospers wasn’t sure it was even a good idea for such a new party to field a candidate, but he accepted with aplomb, cracking jokes about it with colleagues. “I was a little bit thrilled and a little bit terrorized,” he wrote. “I was a college professor, and the next day a candidate for the nation’s highest office.”
Hospers knew he had no chance of winning, but he used the opportunity to spread the burgeoning ideas of libertarianism. Hospers later wrote about the “ignorant and hostile questioning” that came from voters, particularly the question “What will you do for me if elected?” His response was unconventional: “I’ll leave you alone to live your life as you choose.”
When the Electoral College met, an elector from Virginia rejected his promise to vote for Nixon and threw his hat to Hospers instead. The candidate called it the biggest surprise of the election. He was flooded with letters and calls of congratulation.
Despite his brief flirtation with political office, Hospers’s true love was teaching and writing. Kevin Robb, who taught with Hospers at the University of Southern California (USC) for many years, says that he shined in the classroom. Dozens of students would crowd around him after class until he would finally shout, “I need lunch!”
“It became an important friendship in my life,” says Robb. “John was one of the most genuine, decent human beings you’ll ever meet. He was personally a shy man, but he was marvelous once he was on his feet.”
John Hoedeman, a lawyer in Minneapolis, was first introduced to libertarianism at USC, where he read Hospers’s book in class. He believes that many young people of his generation found the movement through Rand’s books and then deepened their understanding through Hospers.
“When it came to putting the economic science of freedom into the words of politics, I think John Hospers probably did that better than anybody else before him,” says Hoedeman.
He calls Hospers a frontrunner in the libertarian movement, whose ideas have been taken up by the tea party and Congressman Ron Paul. Robb says that Hospers would likely disagree with some of the stances of the modern movement, especially on social issues, but the attention he brought to libertarianism was a factor in its rise to prominence.
Hospers retired from USC in 1988 and passed away in 2011. But his work is still influencing new generations of thinkers looking for a different way.
“And so it is: hope springs eternal,” wrote Hospers. “And perhaps this hope can still be realized, here in America, while we are alive and able to witness for ourselves the unfolding of events, and perhaps even able in some degree to influence them.”