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A Brief Account of Liberalism

A Brief Account Of Liberalism

When we speak of democracy today, we really mean liberal democracy, a product of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of liberalism. The success of the modern sciences of seventeenth-century Europe accounted for a spirit of political optimism in the eighteenth century in the hope that unaided reason would discover and implement the right political order. Enlightenment thinkers believed that humans were not naturally depraved and that the first and essential condition for the good life was to free the mind of ignorance and superstition, particularly from religion. Once the mind was free of religious thought, it would be able to direct and conduct a peaceful, orderly, and stable society that would be characterized by toleration, political rights, and liberty. This intellectual movement eventually became known as the political ideology of liberalism.

Liberalism as a social movement and political philosophy sought to replace the aristocratic hierarchy and established authorities with the principle of equality, particularly under the law, and the granting of broad personal freedoms, especially in religion, thought, and the press. The first great liberal thinker was John Locke, who was influenced by Thomas Hobbes, and who at the end of the seventeenth century wrote his Second Treatise of Government. In this work, Locke began with a state of nature in which all people were equal and desire self-preservation, liberty, and property, ultimately concluding into a social contract between the citizenry and the government. The government would protect the citizens’ natural rights in exchange for limited power to protect civil and political society. The state would not be an absolute one, as Hobbes had advocated, but rather be limited by the rule of law, separation of powers, and the right reserved to the people to revolt against the government if the state broke its contractual obligations with the people.

Like Spinoza before him, Locke also dedicated a great amount of attention to religious toleration, making a variety of arguments to defend it: some were based on Scripture, others theological, and another set that focused on the nature of legitimate governmental power, whose concerns are limited to temporal mattes. For Locke, religious opinion was a private matter, thereby making religious persecution intolerable (except for atheists and Catholics). These ideas of toleration would find themselves codified in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Montesquieu, whose Spirit of the Laws was written in the mid-eighteenth century, based legitimate government not only on consent, as had Locke, but also took into consideration the great variations in culture, history, and circumstances among nations. He developed a liberal political theory that emphasized the importance of personal security, which explains his shift from Locke’s separation of two powers (legislature/judiciary and the executive) to three (legislature, judiciary, and executive). Without personal security, Montesquieu argued, citizens could never truly be free in their society.

Liberalism continued to gain new adherents in Scotland during the eighteenth century, with David Hume, Thomas Reid, and Adam Smith, and in France, as led by Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet (and later in the nineteenth-century by Benjamin Constant), who sought to undermine the religious orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church in their belief of progress through the efforts of unaided human reason. Immanuel Kant also contributed to the development of liberalism by giving autonomy a central role in his philosophy: individuals should act free of external compulsion so their choices are truly their own. The guidance for correct actions would be controlled by reason and must conform to universalizable principles, such as treating individuals always as ends instead of means. The role of the state was to protect every citizen’s liberty to perform his acts as long as they do not encroach on the liberty of others.

The American Revolution was the first great liberal revolution in the world (British liberalism was gradual and progressive instead of revolutionary). The Declaration of Independence drew upon Lockean principles for its proclamations, and the United States Constitution contributed to liberalism with its notions of federalism, separation of powers, judicial review, and Madison’s argument of “ambition counteracting ambition” in Federalist Papers 10 and 51. The state of American democracy perhaps would be most brilliantly analyzed by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, where he believed that religion was essential to the support of democracy because it provided the necessary moral code of behavior for a society that lacked a clear, hierarchical class structure.

Liberalism in nineteenth-century England was dominated by the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Social utility, understood as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain, was held to be the criteria for political action. These thinkers also were strong advocates for social and political reform as represented by the Liberal Party under the leadership of Cobden, Bright, and Gladstone. These principles would be articulated in L.T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism which was published before the outbreak of the First World War and identified civil, fiscal, social, economic, domestic, local, racial, national, and political liberty as the key characteristics of liberalism.

In the United States, liberals drew upon the progressive impulse of the Edward Bellamy, Herbert Croly, and John Dewey that influenced Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Program and Kennedy’s and Johnson’s implementation of civil rights and creation of social welfare programs for minorities and the poor in this country. The Warren Court also expanded civil rights in such areas as defendants’ rights, reapportionment, religious freedom, free speech, obscenity, and privacy. And later in the academy, liberalism was powerfully presented in the works of John Rawls: government should remain neutral with respect to teleological questions of the human good. Instead of determining the content of those goods, the state should only provide a framework or procedures for individuals to pursue their own goals irrespective of their merits.

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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