World History 2 108 - 7.4.2 Liberalism

Like nationalism, the political philosophy of liberalism is rooted in Enlightenment principles and born of the revolutionary struggles of the eighteenth century. Its underlying goal is freedom from restraint, more specifically freedom of expression, popular sovereignty, representative government, and the protection of private property and civil rights. The liberalism of the nineteenth century is different from the liberalism of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however. The meaning of the term has changed over time, and, although people who are regarded as liberals in the twenty-first century United States generally advocate for government assistance for the poor and government intervention to ensure equality, nineteenth-century liberals opposed government intervention. Liberalism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive; nationalist leaders like Mazzini, for instance, also adopted many liberal principles. Nevertheless, a distinction between political and economic liberalism evolved from the work of Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith.

Based on Locke’s emphasis on the consent of the governed and the natural rights of life, liberty, and property, political liberalism promotes limited government and the right to oppose any political authority that does not carry the consent of the people. These goals can be ensured by imposing limits on government authority and guaranteeing rights to all citizens in a written constitution. Religious toleration and the separation of church and state also became fundamental principles of liberalism in the eighteenth century. All played a significant role in shaping revolutionary movements in Britain’s North American colonies, Haiti, and France, all of which issued written constitutions asserting the sovereignty of the people. Enlightenment ideas of natural rights—tested through a series of revolutions—developed into a lasting commitment to consent of the governed and equality before the law in the liberal political philosophies of the nineteenth century.

One of the most celebrated proponents of liberalism in the nineteenth century was the English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued for the protection of individual rights from censorship and tyranny. On Liberty, his classic treatise published in 1859, emphasized the importance of toleration and stressed that multiple ethical codes could coexist peacefully in a given society. Mill asserted that people should be free to make ethical choices governing their own lives without government intrusion or obstruction. As an advocate of equality, moreover, he was an important supporter of women’s rights, and his essay On the Subjection of Women played an influential role in the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement.

Whereas Mill and Locke focused liberalism on principles of natural rights and equality, economic liberalism derived from the Enlightenment theories of Scottish economist Adam Smith. Smith, whose theories shaped the burgeoning capitalism of the era, argued for the principle of laissez-faire, the idea that economic affairs should be free of government interference. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759, he asserted that self-interested participation in a free market would be regulated by unseen forces—an “invisible hand”—that any sort of government interference would only disrupt. If individuals were permitted to seek financial success free of government restraint, according to Smith, everyone else would benefit from the greater prosperity that would ensue. Although Smith’s laissez-faire theory focused primarily on economic concerns, like Mill and Locke, he was a proponent of freedom from government restraint and protection of natural rights as underlying principles of successful government.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax