Front Page Titles (by Subject) The History of Liberalism - Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
The History of Liberalism - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, July/September 1978, vol. 1, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The History of Liberalism
“Liberalism.” In New Studies in Philosophy, Politics Economics and the History of Ideas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 119–151.
Two distinct traditions shaped liberalism in the nineteenth century. One tradition, originating in Greco-Roman antiquity, took its modern form in the political doctrines of the English Whigs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This British tradition stressed individual liberty secured by “a government under the law.” The second and more radical tradition shaping liberalism arose on the Continent and dominated the French Enlightenment. This tradition differed from the evolutionary British approach and advocated a “rationalist or constructivist view which demanded a deliberate reconstruction of the whole of society in accordance with the principles of reason.” In policy matters, both traditions agreed in opposing conservative and authoritarian edicts, and in favoring freedom of thought, speech, and press. The British tradition emphasized the freedom of the individual and his protection by law against all arbitrary coercion. The Continental tradition tended to stress democratic participation in government.
The liberal ideals of individual liberty have their roots in ancient Greece, and particularly in the Stoic doctrine of a universal law of nature (which limited the power of all government by the rule of reason) and equality before that law. Onto these Greek roots, the Romans grafted a highly individualistic private law and a respect for private property. Aquinas and the medieval scholastics sharpened the analysis of natural law as a moral standard for judging governments. Searching for a consistent and impersonal justice, the English Common Law fitted into this rational concept of natural law. Later, the Spanish Jesuits of the sixteenth century introduced liberal policies into economic analysis and thus anticipated the work of the eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith.
The British and Continental liberals reached their apogee of influence during the nineteenth century with such landmarks of British liberal reform as the Reform Act of 1832, the repeal of the corn laws (under the leadership of the radical liberals Richard Cobden and John Bright), and the establishment of international free trade. These laissez-faire champions wedded a Smithian free trade position to strong anti-imperialist, anti-interventionist, and anti-militarist attitudes. Under the liberals' moral watchword of “Peace, Retrenchment and Reform,” Bright and the liberal Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone pursued a peaceful foreign policy. What eventually weakened classical liberalism was a creeping utilitarianisn which, in the name of equality adopted a positive attitude to state intervention. The growth of socialism, imperialism, and centralizing impulses of the First World War further eclipsed the liberal spirit.
Consistent liberalism has seen political and economic liberalism as inseparable. The basic principle of freedom under the law “implies economic freedom, while economic control, as the control of the means for all purposes, makes a restriction of all freedom possible.”