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Liberalism is an economic and political doctrine advocating free enterprise, free competition and free will. It has its roots in the Western Age of Enlightenment. Because of its wide acceptance in modern Western world, it influences many political movements.

Liberalism developed along two paths; political and economic. Political liberalism focused on the concept of government by consent. It derived its name from the Liberales of Spain who drew up their 1812 constitution in opposition of the arbitrary powers of the Spanish monarchy. [1] Its roots went further back, to The Enlightenment and beyond. Its first success was in the American Revolution, though it was largely based on British Parliamentarianism and the first, constitutional phase of the French Revolution. It advocated Republicanism, but many Liberals also advocated a limited, constitutional monarchy in the interests of encouraging stability. Its members stressed the rule of law, individual liberty and the universal rights of man. They tended to rein against inbuilt establishments, such as the crown, church or aristocracy. Nineteenth century Liberals also highly valued property, which they saw as the major source of responsible judgment and citizenship. Nevertheless, these Liberals were reluctant to support more radical schemes such as universal suffrage or radical egalitarianism.

Economic liberalism focused on the concept of free trade, and on the associated doctrine of laissez-faire, which opposed protectionism or government interference in economic affairs. It stressed the rights of men to engage in commerce without undue interference. It energies were directed at one hand to dismantling barriers which had proliferated within and between countries and on the other to battling against collectivist organization, from the Ancient guilds to the new trade unions.

Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century

Liberalism was often associated with the emergent Middle Classes; it certainly appealed to that wide constituency placed firmly between the old nobility and industrial masses. It did however, reach out beyond this electoral base to student associations and academics in the 1820s, to freemasonry, to cultural dissidents, to educational and penal reformists, to the aristocratic British whigs and Polish magnates and even dissident army officers in Russia.[2]

Liberalism in Britain

Britain became a home for some of Europe's most vocal Liberals in this period; David Ricardo (1771-1823) with his Principles of Political Economy,[3] furthering the work of classical economists like Adam Smith. Ricardo and his followers took practical action in the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League and in the campaigns of the Manchester School. He was aided by other free trade activists such as John Bright (1811-89) and Richard Cobden (1804-65). In political philosophy John Stuart Mill's (1806-73) works stand as a monument to a tolerant and balanced brand of Liberalism. Mill defended laissez faire economics, but only on the grounds that the power of capitalist employers was matched by the rights of employees' trade unions. He endorsed the principles of the Utilitarians as advocated by his philosopher father, James Mill (1773-1836), but only if happiness were not confused with pleasure. His essay, On Liberty (1859)[4] produced the standard manifesto of individual human rights, which in his view should only be impinged where they stand on the rights of others. In The Subjection of Women (1869)[5] he makes a clear argument for the Feminist cause, maintaining that there is nothing in the differences between the genders that warranted their possession of different sets of rights.

Judged by continental standards Britain was arguably more advanced than the other nations of Europe at the time. Britain already had in place several Liberal leaning institutions which had been in steady evolution since the Middle Ages. Britain could claim to be home of the 'mother of parliaments', of the rule of law (The English Common Law system), of the Bill of Rights, and of Free Trade. British society was the most modernized in Europe, and was the first nation to experience the Industrial revolution and therefore supposedly the most open to Liberal ideas. Political attitudes were largely pragmatic, and the grounded ideological debates that could be seen in Germany, France or Spain had largely bypassed the island nation, since there was largely a consensus on the issue of political establishment. The monarchy continued to be kept in check following the English Civil War, its powers gradually diminishing as the centuries wore on. In Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) the monarchy found itself a purpose in its cohabitation with parliament; her office and extensive family acting as a discreet force for influence abroad. There were Republican sympathies in Britain among some political circles, but no serious attempt was made to abolish the monarchy or to introduce a constitution.[6]

On the flip side, Britain's evolutionary model ensured political reform was largely a slowly paced affair. Radical reformers often had to counter with an unwilling political establishment who either didn't want change, or only wanted it a very slow pace. The Corn Laws, for example, held out against Free Trade until 1846. Civil marriage and divorce only became possible in 1836 and 1857 respectively. The demands for universal suffrage by the Chartists in 1838-48 wasn't realized in their own lifetime. The Church of England was never disestablished, except in Ireland (1869) and in Wales (1914). The old feudal privileges of the House of Lords weren't trimmed until 1911, and even then it was largely down to the intervention of the monarch. The two party system which had seen the old Tories and Whigs reborn as the Conservatives and Liberals respectively delayed the implementation of a socialist movement and of much social legislation. Under W.E. Gladstone (1809-98) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), who dominated the political scene in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and who had reformist inclinations, domestic reform fell subservient to the best interests of the Empire. Ireland never achieved the Home Rule it had sought under Charles Stewart Parnell, thwarted by the arcane House of Lords. Although Liberal policies were sought for the dominions, they weren't pursued for the Colonies at large. In later decades they lagged behind Germany in social legislation and France in domestic democracy.

Liberalism in France

France was another natural battleground for the emerging Liberal philosophy. The French political scene was colored by the entrenched positions of conservative Catholic monarchists and anti-clerical Republicans. These positions were further complicated by a number of seemingly paradoxical figures, such as the ex-Jacobin Republican turned 'Citizen-King' Louis Philippe (r. 1830-48) and the supposedly Liberal and revolutionary turned Emperor Napoleon III (r. 1848-70) The result was a series of alternative conservative and Liberal regimes with several revolutionary outbreaks. The Bourbon Restoration of Louis XVIII (r. 1815-24) and Charles X (r. 1824-30) was overthrown by the July Revolution of 1830. The July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe was overthrown by the revolution of 23 February 1848. The short lived Second French Republic was overthrown by the Second Empire (1851-70) which in turn was overthrown by the humiliating Franco-Prussian War and the violence of the Paris Commune. The Third French Republic (1870-1940) lasted seventy years, but it was marked by the extreme instability of its governments, most potently marked following World War I.

Political liberalism in the 21st Century

In the highly charged political environment of the United States of America, "liberal" tends to mean almost anything except the 19th century usage. Conservatives, particularly political broadcasters, tend to use it as an epithet. The more "left" liberals tend to self-identify as "progressives". More mainstream liberals often prefer "moderate" or "centrist".


  1. Norman Davies, Europe, a history (Oxford, 1997) p. 802
  2. See the Decembrists, a group of army officers who plotted against autocracy
  3. George J. Stigler, Ricardo and the 93% Labor Theory of Value The American Economic Review, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Jun., 1958), pp. 357-367 in JSTOR
  4. On Liberty, the essay
  5. The Subjection of Women, the essay
  6. Britain, even to this day, still doesn't have a single written constitution