Benjamin Constant distinguished between the Liberty of the Ancients (“the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community”) and that of the Moderns (“where individual rights and commerce are respected”) (1816)

Benjamin Constant

In this section of his essay Constant argues that the right to engage in commerce and the protection of property rights which makes this possible is one of the key factors which distinguished modern liberty from ancient liberty:

The effects of commerce extend even further: not only does it emancipate individuals, but, by creating credit, it places authority itself in a position of dependence. Money, says a French writer, ‘is the most dangerous weapon of despotism; yet it is at the same time its most powerful restraint; credit is subject to opinion; force is useless; money hides itself or flees; all the operations of the state are suspended’. Credit did not have the same influence amongst the ancients; their governments were stronger than individuals, while in our time individuals are stronger than the political powers. Wealth is a power which is more readily available in all circumstances, more readily applicable to all interests, and consequently more real and better obeyed. Power threatens; wealth rewards: one eludes power by deceiving it; to obtain the favors of wealth one must serve it: the latter is therefore bound to win.

It is interesting to reflect on the context in which this essay was written. In 1816 Napoleon had been defeated for the second time, the economies of Europe had been wasted by 25 years of war, international commerce had been severely disrupted, millions of men had been under arms, hundreds of thousands had been killed or wounded, the French republican experiment had been brought to a close, and the monarchs were re-established in their thrones. In this climate Constant writes this important essay drawing a clear distinction between the liberty of the ancients (formal political liberties for some so long as all other freedoms were under the control of the state) and the liberty of the moderns (representative government, respect of individual rights, the rule of law, and the right to engage in commerce). The right to engage in commerce is central to this essay as Constant and other French liberals of the time believed that Europe had turned an historical corner and that it was entering a new “era of commerce and industry” and leaving behind it the “era of war and despotism” which had come to an ignominious end under Napoleon.