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Reaching Active Minds: Ayn Rand and the Ford Hall Forum

For twenty years Boston’s historic forum hosted Ayn Rand’s most controversial viewpoints in annual talks.

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Sixty years ago — on Sunday evening, March 26, 1961 — Ayn Rand walked to the lectern at Ford Hall Forum in Boston, Massachusetts, to read the speech she had written for the occasion. “As an advocate of reason, freedom, individualism, and capitalism,” she declared, “I seek to address myself to the men of the intellect, wherever such may still be found.”

Two hours later, having delivered a challenging talk and fielded questions from a captivated audience, Rand had inaugurated an important new relationship based on mutual respect for a shared value: a thinker’s need to address other thinking individuals.

The very next day, the Forum mailed a letter inviting Rand to appear during its next season. Rand promptly accepted. She would go on to compose twenty speeches for Forum audiences over the next twenty years. As an assistant wrote years later on Rand’s behalf: “The Ford Hall Forum is the only organization under whose auspices Miss Rand cares to speak.”1

Ayn Rand’s quest to reach independent thinkers

Rand began her first Forum talk by explaining why she, an advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, had chosen to address “an audience consisting predominantly of liberals — that is, of my antagonists.”2 The answer, she explained, lay in the increasing difficulty she had encountered in reaching individuals with active minds.

She was unable to find such individuals among conservatives, whom the audience must have supposed were her natural allies. She was disgusted with them because, while allegedly defending individualism and capitalism, they relied upon appeals to tradition and religious faith leavened by a “cracker-barrel sort of folksiness.” As for liberals, Rand longed for the intellectual arguments that characterized their advocacy of collectivism in the 1930s: “I disagreed with everything they said, but I would have fought to the death for the method by which they said it: for an intellectual approach to political problems” based on reason, logic and science.

Unfortunately, Rand explained, in the years after World War II both camps had moved away from an intellectual approach to political problems. “There are no intellectual sides anymore,” Rand observed, “nothing but an undifferentiated mob of trembling statists who haggle only over how fast or how slowly we are to collapse into a totalitarian dictatorship, whose gang will do the dictating, and who will be sacrificed to whom.”

Having blasted any audience preconceptions of her as a partisan conservative, Rand asked her listeners: “What social or political group today is the home of those who are and still wish to be the men of the intellect? None.” Independent thinkers, she observed, had become “homeless refugees,” the “displaced persons of our culture.” She then expressed her belief that “more of them may be found among the former liberals than among the present conservatives. I may be wrong; I am willing to find out.”

Rand spoke from experience. For decades she had traveled in conservative circles, achieving prominence with publication of The Fountainhead in 1943 and with her writing and congressional testimony in the late 1940s opposing communist propaganda in American films.3 But despite many efforts to forge intellectual alliances, Rand had failed to persuade conservatives that their approach to defending capitalism was futile. After the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, she was scorned by prominent conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., whose National Review published a scathing review of the novel.

But Rand would not give up. To promote her new novel and argue for her controversial ideas, she began accepting invitations to speak publicly, delivering complex speeches to packed houses at universities such as Princeton, Yale and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.4 Invitations multiplied after the announcement that her first book of nonfiction was about to be published. For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand would feature a title essay surveying the history of Western civilization and arguing that philosophical ideas move the world — but only when they are spread by the efforts of myriad intellectuals who apply them to particular fields and transmit the results to all areas of the culture. Metaphorically speaking, Rand saw herself as a philosophical commander-in-chief whose task was to inspire formation of an intellectual army capable of understanding and spreading her system of reason, individualism and capitalism.

As a radical thinker, however, Rand faced special challenges in communicating her ideas. As she told an editor at Esquire magazine, her views were “unorthodox and difficult to summarize in today’s frame of reference,” lending themselves to misunderstanding and misrepresentation.5 This awareness conditioned her approach to public speaking. She sought to engage her listeners’ minds without needless distraction. She had no interest in debates, nor in arguing with interviewers who might be uninformed about her ideas. She was open to questions, but not to statements of opinion by anyone who sought to exploit her popularity to get their own points across.

In short, Rand knew she must reach individuals willing to bring the right method to political discussions: a fact-based, intellectual approach. In the Ford Hall Forum, she encountered a venerable institution devoted to promoting that very value.

The Ford Hall Forum

Rand and the Ford Hall Forum were contemporaries: she was born in 1905, and the Forum was founded in 1908. Modeled after the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City, which had made its reputation hosting speakers such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Mark Twain,6 the Forum described its mission this way:

Here, in the Ford Hall Forum, the man who cares can strike a match and hold it closer to the subject for which he is searching. He can question or challenge the man who is shaping his mind. It was for this man that the Forum has survived the years and for whom its motto was chosen: “Let there be light.”7

Each Forum season consisted of twenty Sunday-evening events, split between fall and spring. All programs lasted two hours and followed the same format, designed to maximize intellectual engagement. The first hour was reserved for the speaker’s uninterrupted address, with the second hour devoted to unrestricted questions from the audience. Forum moderators made sure that questions were actually questions, not statements or speeches.8By early 1960, Forum leaders were concerned about a lack of intellectual diversity on the platform. Frances Smith, an insider who would later serve as executive director, president and chairman of the board, recalled:

The program committee at the time found that as we looked over the programs for a number of years that we were really overloading the programs with left-wing people giving talks, and we felt that it wasn’t a good, balanced program, which is what we wanted to present. So the committee sought somebody who was of a more conservative nature who would be interesting enough to draw an audience, and that’s why we asked her.9

In pondering a solution, the committee would doubtless have been aware of the excitement surrounding Rand’s recent appearance at Yale University. On February 17, she had spoken to a crowd of six hundred on the topic of “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” an event reported at length in Time magazine.10

On May 18, the Forum’s treasurer, Louis B. Smith, wrote to Rand with an invitation to make her first appearance. “I don’t know if you are familiar with the Ford Hall Forum,” his letter began, “but it is the oldest continuous Forum in the United States” and is “dedicated to the discussion of the many serious problems of the day.” Smith offered Rand a choice of several dates in 1960 and 1961.11

According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand’s close associate, she was reluctant at first to accept. “She did not know the Forum’s distinguished history, and expected a group of unruly antagonists,” Peikoff recalled.12 But she did accept, and after some scheduling difficulties the date was set for March 26, 1961, which coincided nicely with the planned March 14 publication of For the New Intellectual.13 That book’s theme gave rise to the topic she selected for her first Forum address: “The Intellectual Bankruptcy of Our Age.”

It was a talk calculated to shake the Forum’s predominantly liberal audience out of any complacency they might have felt concerning the intellectual landscape around them. Rand marshaled evidence blaming liberal intellectuals for a tragic failure of historical proportions — the failure to identify the true nature of capitalism and defend it morally. That dereliction of responsibility, Rand argued, had left an intellectual vacuum in which the original nineteenth-century meaning of the term “liberal” had been reversed. No longer did it refer to defenders of individualism and economic freedom — now it referred to advocates of collectivism and government controls. Meanwhile, Rand explained, the meaning of “conservatism” was shifting, too, away from designating defenders of individualism and freedom. The result, Rand warned, was a culture in which it was impossible to rationally discuss the merits of capitalism. She closed her talk by appealing to those in her audience who might be liberals “in the original sense” to understand the culture’s need for “a new radical, the fighter for capitalism.”

It was not a message that Boston’s intelligentsia welcomed, but to the Forum’s credit, the unpopularity of Rand’s position did not disqualify her from the podium. Quite the contrary. The day after Rand’s appearance, Louis Smith sent an enthusiastic letter of appreciation and invited her to appear again next season. “Before the day is out,” Smith wrote, “I want to drop you this note in order that I may tell you how pleased we were with your coming to the Ford Hall Forum last night.” Remarking on the interest and enthusiasm displayed by the audience, he celebrated Rand’s appearance as “another banner night for the Forum.”14The esteem was mutual. “She loved it,” Peikoff remembered. “The audience that evening did not agree with her, but they listened, then peppered her with intelligent questions, the kind she always enjoyed answering.”15 Responding to Smith’s invitation, Rand wrote: “I am happy to tell you that I was very impressed with the Ford Hall Forum, the style and efficiency of its operation and its remarkably intellectual atmosphere, which is very rare these days.” Describing her appearance as a “memorable and most enjoyable occasion,” she said: “I shall be delighted to appear again next year.”16

Rand’s Twenty Years at the Forum

Rand’s next appearance at the Ford Hall Forum took place just seven months later, with a lecture titled “America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business.” She continued to speak annually (with only a few exceptions), sometimes on the fall program, sometimes the spring. Her twenty lectures surpassed all other Forum speakers but one (the liberal author Max Lerner spoke twenty-six times from 1938 to 1976).17As the accompanying list shows, Rand addressed a wide variety of topics over the years, including art, censorship, capitalism, antitrust, abortion, the moon landing, the military draft, egalitarianism, inflation, Ronald Reagan and the religious right. At the height of her popularity, thirteen hundred attendees would fill the main auditorium while another five hundred would be ushered to a separate room where they could listen on a loudspeaker.18 “People came from all over the world to hear her,” recalled Frances Smith. “They came from Africa, from the Bahamas, from all parts of the United States.”19 Said Leonard Peikoff: “I have seen the lines of people waiting in the sometimes bitter Boston cold for ten hours or more until the doors to the lecture hall would open and her Ford Hall speech begin.”20

Rand’s question-and-answer sessions became legendary among Objectivists, generating many of the extemporaneous gems collected in Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, edited by Robert Mayhew. The crackling excitement of those audience encounters, audible on the many recordings of her appearances, was enhanced by the Forum’s remarkable moderator, Judge Reuben Lurie, who handled most of Rand’s appearances.

Lurie began each event by introducing Rand in a way that was factual, respectful, and not oppositional, which Rand appreciated. She especially appreciated Lurie’s confident mastery of the question sessions. He called on audience members, admonishing them to ask a question, not make a speech.21 Because the questioners’ voices were not amplified, Judge Lurie would repeat the question — often condensing it — so that the entire audience could hear it. Lurie’s unique intellectual and vocal style lent each Q&A session an energy that Rand appreciated.

In the aftermath of one appearance, at which Judge Lurie had reprimanded Rand for beginning an answer too soon, a fan wrote Rand a letter harshly criticizing Lurie. Through an assistant, Rand came to Lurie’s defense: “He is a man of unusual intellectual distinction, and the best moderator she has ever had the pleasure and honor to work with. His attitude toward her has been one of unimpeachable courtesy and understanding for over 10 years. He was right to reprimand her, and Rand apologized: she had heard the question, but the rest of the audience had not, and the proper procedure is for the moderator to repeat the questions through a microphone.”22

Despite Rand’s success in attracting large audiences, the Forum struggled financially throughout the years she spoke there. This troubled her, and so she helped out in several ways. In the matter of her fees, there is some indication that she accepted significantly less money than other speakers, and in later years she stopped requiring a fee altogether.23 She also donated her support to at least three large fundraising events. In 1971, she traveled from her New York City home to be a principal speaker at a $50-a-plate luncheon in Boston honoring Judge Lurie and Louis Smith; the event attracted almost four hundred attendees for the establishment of an endowment fund.24 In 1977, when the Forum “needed some money desperately,” Rand agreed to be the guest of honor at another Boston fundraising luncheon.25 This event attracted an overflow crowd of eight hundred.26 In addition, Rand contributed to a fundraising auction by donating the original manuscript of a Forum talk bearing her handwritten corrections. The item brought the highest price of the evening, approximately $10,000.27

Responding to a questioner who found this unpaid support paradoxical in light of her philosophy’s stress on the virtue of selfishness, Rand argued that helping the Ford Hall Forum was entirely in her self-interest. She challenged the questioner’s implicit premise that “the only possible values one can derive from any activity are financial,” which amounts to “placing your self-interest terribly low, and terribly cheap.” Public speaking, for Rand, had value because it served her purpose of “spreading ideas which I believe to be right and true.” To call her efforts altruistic was to imply that her only goal was to enlighten others.

That would mean that I have no interest in a free society, that I have no interest in denouncing the kind of evil which I can see and want to speak against — that all that is not to my selfish interest, it’s only to the interest of my audience and not to mine. That would be an impossible contradiction. If I believed it, I wouldn’t be worth two cents as a speaker. I believe that I have the most profound and the most selfish interest in having the freedom of my mind, knowing what to do with it, and therefore fighting to preserve it in the country, for as long as I’m alive, or even beyond my life. I don’t care about posterity, but I do care about any free mind or any independent person who may be born in future centuries — I do care about that.28

At the 1977 luncheon in her honor, Rand stated that “the Forum, to her knowledge, is the only lecture organization in the country that takes ideas seriously as a matter of policy; it presents speakers of every viewpoint, treats them with scrupulous objectivity, and attracts audiences who have active minds. In this regard, she said, the Forum represents the best of nineteenth-century liberalism, because they are committed to upholding the freedom of the mind.”29

Epilogue

At that same luncheon in her honor, Rand was presented with a hand-lettered parchment stating: “The Ford Hall Forum expresses its admiration and profound respect to Ayn Rand, novelist, editor, playwright and philosopher.”30

She has graced the Forum’s platform to present her views to overflow audiences; always she has expressed her position with vigor and clarity and responded to questions from the floor without hesitation or cant; in so doing, she has become a legend to Forum audiences, some of who came to applaud vigorously and some of whom came to disagree violently, but all of whom remained enthralled by her presentation and her intellectual brilliance.

In late 1981, Rand fell ill. When it became clear in early 1982 that she would not be well enough to deliver her April talk in person, she asked Leonard Peikoff to read it in her place. Initially there was some hope that she could answer questions from the audience through a telephone hookup, but all such plans ended with her death on March 6.

On April 25, 1982, Leonard Peikoff delivered the talk that Rand was scheduled to give for the 1981–82 season, “The Sanction of the Victims.” Peikoff himself would go on to deliver fifteen lectures of his own at the Forum, from 1983 to 2003. And the Ayn Rand Institute’s executive director, Yaron Brook, followed in his Objectivist predecessors’ footsteps with five talks (2006–2012).31

Introducing Rand’s posthumous speech, Peikoff shared Rand’s opinion of the contrast between the Forum’s conduct and the hypocrisy of intellectuals who preach an open mind but remain closed to unorthodox views: “The Ford Hall Forum, Miss Rand always said, was different; it was honest; it was open to dissent and to new ideas, and therefore did represent a really intellectual organization, whether she agreed with their other speakers’ ideas or not.”32

Image credits: Ford Hall Forum, “Ford Hall Forum felt banner, undated,” Moakley Archive & Institute, accessed March 18, 2021, https://moakleyarchive.omeka.net/items/show/9256. Ford Hall Forum program for 53rd season, courtesy Ayn Rand Archives, Ayn Rand Papers, 107_19C_001_003.

Ayn Rand at the Ford Hall Forum

March 26, 1961. Audio (later recording of the same speech for a radio audience). Edited text is available in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought.
December 17, 1961. Audio (recording of the same speech in another venue). Edited text is available in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
December 16, 1962. Audio (same talk recorded separately as a radio address). Edited text is available in The Ayn Rand Column.
April 19, 1964. Audio. Edited text is available in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
April 16, 1967. Audio. Edited text is available in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
November 19, 1967. Audio/video (lesson on ARI Campus). Audio. Audio and edited text. Edited text is also available in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.
December 8, 1968. Audio. Edited text is available in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought.
November 14, 1971. Audio. Edited text is available in The Ayn Rand Letter.
October 22, 1972. Audio. Edited text is available in The Ayn Rand Letter.
October 21, 1973. Audio. Edited text is available in Philosophy: Who Needs It.
October 20, 1974. Audio. Edited text is available in Philosophy: Who Needs It.
April 11, 1976. Audio.
April 16, 1978. Audio. Rand surveys all seventeen of her previous Ford Hall Forum talks and comments on how things have changed since.
April 26, 1981. Audio. Edited text is available in The Ayn Rand Letter and The Objectivist Forum.
April 25, 1982. Video (Ayn Rand delivering the same speech earlier at another venue). Edited text is available in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought.

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Footnotes

  1. Letter dated December 4, 1972, from Rand to Thomas Johnson, Ayn Rand Papers, 041_01A_008_001.
  2. An edited version of the lecture appears in Ayn Rand, The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought, ed. Leonard Peikoff (New York: Meridian, 1989). Although the 1961 event was tape recorded, no surviving copy has been found. However, Rand recorded the text without an audience, probably for radio broadcast, and that recording is available here.
  3. See Ayn Rand, “Conservatism: An Obituary,” in Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967 Centennial edition); Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri, eds., A Companion to Ayn Rand (Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), 351–57; Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and “Song of Russia” (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005).
  4. For much more on Rand’s public speaking activities across the entire span of her career, see Shoshana Milgram, “Ayn Rand, Public Speaker: A Philosopher Who Lived on Earth,” lecture delivered at Objectivist Summer Conference 2006 in Boston, available at the Ayn Rand eStore.
  5. Letter dated August 30, 1959, from Rand to Harold Hayes, Ayn Rand Papers, 001_01A_005_001.
  6. “History,” The Cooper Union. The Forum has no relation to the Ford Foundation, established by Henry Ford in 1936. Rather, the Forum took its name from the building where the first lectures were held. The Ford Building was erected on Boston’s Beacon Hill by the Boston Baptist Social Union. The Forum retained its name after 1928, when the sessions moved to a new venue and left Ford Hall behind. By 1961, when Rand gave her first lecture, the Forum’s home was Jordan Hall, a performing space in the New England Conservatory of Music on Gainsborough Street in Boston. In 1974, the venue moved again, to an auditorium on the campus of Northeastern University, just a few blocks from Jordan Hall. The Forum survives to this day, now under the auspices of Boston’s Suffolk University.
  7. William Worthy, “Ford Hall Forum: Boston at Its Best,” Boston Globe, December 15, 1968, 6.
  8. Rand might have experienced some trepidation about her upcoming appearance if she was aware of an ugly episode at the Forum on October 23, 1960. Democratic congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, near the end of her question-and-answer session at the Forum, was victimized by an assault in which people threw eggs from the balcony onto the speaker’s platform, missing Douglas but hitting several others. The attackers escaped. Boston Globe, October 24, 1960. (It is not known whether Rand ever became aware of this incident.)
  9. Scott McConnell,100 Voices: An Oral History of Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 2010), 222. From the beginning, Forum speakers were chosen from the political left. Talks by Lincoln Steffens, W. E. B. Du Bois, Louis Brandeis, and various socialists and communists led the Baptist Social Union to end its affiliation, and the Daughters of the American Revolution blacklisted the Forum in 1928. (Herbert Black, “Ford Hall Forum Survives Blacklists, Riots, TV to Mark 50th Anniversary,” Boston Sunday Globe, October 26, 1937, 6–A). Leftist bias continued throughout the ensuing decades. If Rand had investigated the matter, she would have found speakers in the year 1959 such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., Margaret Mead, Sen. William Proxmire, TV producer David Susskind, progressive politician Henry Wallace and Communist politician Earl Browder. Because the Forum’s leaders saw Rand as a defender of individualism and freedom, it was understandable that they classified her as a conservative. However, her talk left no doubt on that score — she identified herself not as a conservative but as a “radical” fighter for capitalism.
  10. “Down with Altruism,” Time, February 29, 1960, 94–5.
  11. Ayn Rand Papers, 106_19A_002_001.
  12. Rand, Voice of Reason, introduction by Leonard Peikoff, x.
  13. Letter dated October 23, 1960, from Rand to Selma Levenberg, in Michael S. Berliner, ed., Letters of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1995), 584.
  14. Letter dated March 27, 1961, from Louis Smith to Rand, Ayn Rand Papers, 107_19B_002_001.
  15. Rand, The Voice of Reason, introduction by Leonard Peikoff, x.
  16. Letter dated March 31, 1961, from Rand to Louis Smith, Ayn Rand Papers, 107_19B_003_001.
  17. These tallies are based on Wikipedia’s all-time listing of approximately twelve hundred Forum speakers and their topics.
  18. McConnell, 100 Voices, 223.
  19. McConnell, 100 Voices, 222. Although only nine of the nineteen talks she delivered in person took place in the spring, fans sometimes referred to Rand’s appearances as the “Objectivist Easter.” (Susan Chira, “Followers of Ayn Rand Provide a Final Tribute,” New York Times, March 10, 1982, 31). Leonard Peikoff endorsed the phrase, noting that Easter has a pagan Greek origin symbolizing “the rebirth of light after the darkness of winter.” Rand, Voice of Reason, introduction by Leonard Peikoff, x.
  20. Rand, Voice of Reason, introduction by Leonard Peikoff, ix.
  21. As an example of Lurie’s wit, his son’s written remembrance recalls a night at the Forum (not an Ayn Rand appearance) when, “after he had gently but repeatedly reminded a questioner to come to the point of his question, the somewhat flustered individual indignantly asked ‘Isn’t this an open forum?’ ‘To be sure,’ replied Dad, ‘But it isn’t open all night.’”
  22. Letter dated December 4, 1972, from Rand to Thomas Johnson, Ayn Rand Papers, 041_01A_008_001.
  23. In a Forum Q&A session, an unidentified questioner once asserted, in Lurie’s phrasing, that “part of the reason for the financial difficulties of the Forum derives from the fact that the fees charged by speakers have grown really quite enormously. And you, on the other hand, have been the constant friend of the Forum and have not sought to take advantage of this.” (Ayn Rand, “Censorship: Local and Express,” address to the Ford Hall Forum, October 21, 1973, Q&A session [second question]). Also, Frances Smith recalled: “We always needed money. We didn’t pay her to speak, but we were paying many of our speakers, . . .” McConnell, 100 Voices, 226.
  24. Boston Globe, May 20, 1971, 53.
  25. McConnell, 100 Voices, 225.
  26. The Objectivist Calendar, No. 8 (May 1977).
  27. McConnell, 100 Voices, 226.
  28. Rand, “Censorship: Local and Express,” Q&A session (second question).
  29. The Objectivist Calendar, No. 8 (May 1977).
  30. The Objectivist Calendar, No. 8 (May 1977).
  31. Wikipedia, “Ford Hall Forum.”
  32. Ayn Rand, “The Sanction of the Victims,” prefatory remarks by Leonard Peikoff, in The Objectivist Forum, 3 (April 1982), 1.
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Tom Bowden

Tom Bowden, J.D. and former civil litigator, is a research fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute.

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