Liberalism is the West’s unique gift to human freedom. While the roots stretch back to antiquity, it is only recently that liberty was assumed a basic human right. The great expansion of intellectual, artistic, scientific, political and economic growth coincides with the establishment of modern constitutional democracies based upon liberal theory, achieving all through freedom. This was delivered by such incomparable geniuses as John Locke and America’s Founders, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
And yet, no sooner had this great human achievement been accomplished when critics, such as Karl Marx and Vlad Lenin appeared demanding the theories of classical liberalism be put aside and its fruits shared by force. On the verge of a new dark age, liberty lovers must now fight back against the forces of tyranny or watch as our great achievements for freedom and prosperity are liquidated. This essay is the beginning of a two-part expose on Liberalism, which first explores its history.
Before giving its history, first we must define Liberalism. To many, the progressive movement seems to generally represent ideas that are pro-humanist, demanding separation of church and state and also advocating expanding social welfare programs. While all of these are true insights, we can much better define the term.
Liberalism was traditionally described in terms of liberty—or the application of freedom to human persons and society. Ralph Raico defines the basic term:
Liberalism ... is based on the conception of civil society as by and large self-regulating when its members are free to act within the very wide bounds of their individual rights. Among these, the right to private property, including freedom of contract and exchange and the free disposition of one’s own labor, is given a high priority. Historically, liberalism has manifested a hostility to state action, which, it insists, should be reduced to a minimum.
For a century there has been a clash in defining the term “liberalism.” Now, for theories focused upon enlarging human freedoms, we must employ the phrase “Classical Liberalism.” The other, more recent type of thought claiming to be “liberal”, mostly associated with socialism uses the generic term liberalism. How this divergence occurred is here again detailed by Ralph Raico:
“Classical liberalism” is the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade. Up until around 1900, this ideology was generally known simply as liberalism. The qualifying “classical” is now usually necessary because liberalism has come to be associated with interference with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals. This version of liberalism—if such it can still be called—is sometimes designated as “social,” or (erroneously) “modern” or the “new,” liberalism.
Ralph Liggio comments upon modern liberals:
Some of the people who claim to be liberal, I never refer to as liberal. I call them “collectivists” or “social democrats.” Classical liberalism is liberalism, but the current collectivists have captured that designation in the United States. Happily they did not capture it in Europe, and were glad enough to call themselves socialists. But no one in America wants to be called socialist and admit what they are.
Liggio traces the foundation of liberalism to the ancient world becoming more accustomed to global trade and cosmopolitan cities, and the mercantile laws which thrived therein. The free men of ancient Rome are also seen as being mild precursors. Yet it was not until the printing press was invented that liberalism took root, because it is premised upon an enlightened populace employing a free press, expressing free speech premised on liberty of consciences, drawing from a liberal arts education.
The roots of Liberalism grew partly from England’s common law history, such as constitutional theory and the Bill of Rights tradition. Constitutionalism is a rule of law idea which writers like Samuel Rutherford championed in such works as Lex Rex. Various Englishmen advocated for liberty during the days around the Puritan Revolution. Other Europeans also assisted in its creation. For example, Dutchman Hugo Grotius outlined the Natural Law theories underlying much liberal theory. And desiring Bible-adegined freedom, Italian Cardinal Robert Bellarmine expressed his opposition to the Divine Right of Kings theory:
Bellarmine in his De Officio Principis, points out the dangers and defects of absolute monarchy, and after describing how God refused to grant the Israelites a king (I Kings, viii, 7-19), concludes, “All these incidents clearly indicate that God did not desire his people to have absolute kings as the Gentiles had them, because He foresaw that they would abuse such power.”
Many other important writers helped frame what we now refer to as Classical Liberalism, some whom cannot be described as truly liberal, such as Thomas Hobbes. Others advocated for freedom across the board, like Algernon Sidney in his Discourses Concerning Government—which cost him his life—and John Locke’s immortal Two Treatises on Government.
It was Locke as the extraordinary figure of Liberalism who bridged three worlds—he reached back to past medieval Christian resistance to tyranny, updated it to his own age, and so prepared the necessary doctrines to create a new world. George Sabine writes of Locke’s Second Treatise:
It reached back into the past, right across the whole period of the civil wars, and joined hands with Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, which had summed up the political thought of England at the close of the Reformation and before the break between the parliament and king. Through Hooker Locke was joined with the long tradition of medieval political thought back to St. Thomas, in which the reality of moral restraints on power, the responsibility of rulers to the communities which they ruled, and the subordination of government to law were axiomatic…The medieval tradition which Locke tapped through Hooker, was an indispensable part of the constitutional ideals of the Revolution of 1688. The years of the civil wars had changed but not destroyed it. Locke’s problem, therefore, was not to reproduce historically the thought of Hooker but to gather anew the abiding elements of that thought and to restate them in the light of what had happened in the intervening century.
Locke is described by Kim Ian Parker, in The Biblical Politics of John Locke, as an author who deeply intuited Biblical ideals, then relentlessly placed them into his own philosophical conclusions. For example, in the beginning of his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke grounds his entire political argument upon Adam and God’s interactions in Genesis.
Chapter I: Of Political Power
It having been shown in the foregoing discourse:
Firstly. That Adam had not, either by natural right of fatherhood or by positive donation from God, any such authority over his children, nor dominion over the world, as is pretended.
Secondly. That if he had, his heirs yet had no right to it.
Thirdly. That if his heirs had, there being no law of Nature nor positive law of God that determines which is the right heir in all cases that may arise, the right of succession, and consequently of bearing rule, could not have been certainly determined.
Ralph Raico says the Levellers, the radical English Christians who demanded a new classless society built upon biblical lines after the Puritan Revolution, aka the English Civil War (1642-1651) were fellow founders of Liberalism. Overall, Liggio describes how Liberalism was a special child of the West:
Although its fundamental claims are universalist, liberalism must be understood first of all as a doctrine and movement that grew out of a distinctive culture and particular historical circumstances. That culture was the West. Its womb was the particular human society that underwent “the European miracle.” The historical circumstances were the confrontation of the free institutions and values inherited from the Middle Ages with the pretensions of the absolutist state of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The main point is there was a long history of opposing absolutist power in the West, mustered by intrepid freedom fighters, much of it a legacy of the Church. When the royalty of Europe began to extol tyranny based upon a Divine Right theory, supported by such writers as Robert Filmer, the founders of Liberalism pushed back. Liggio writes:
The Levellers were a movement of middle-class radicals who demanded freedom of trade and an end to state monopolies, separation of church and state, popular representation, and strict limits even to parliamentary authority. Their emphasis on property, beginning with the individual’s ownership of himself, and their hostility to state power…furnished the prototype of a middle-class radical liberalism that has been a feature of the politics of English-speaking peoples ever since. Later in the century, John Locke framed the doctrine of the natural rights to life, liberty, and estate—which he collectively termed “property”—in the form that would be passed down, through the Real Whigs of the 18th century, to the generation of the American Revolution.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, written during the American Revolutionary period, gave a strong intellectual base to the notion of a free market where liberty was applied to capitalism.
The French also contributed to Liberalism, especially in economics. Such writers as Frederic Bastiat wrote priceless treatises urging the need for economic freedom and the power of the free market to provide answers for the growth of the economy, human wealth and happiness. In fact, Bastiat’s writings had a massive impact upon President Ronald Reagan’s own faith in the free market.
Swiss-French author Benjamin Constant especially stood for the idea of a constitutional-based government with a bill of rights where the power lay with the people, not the government. This ideal, which totally opposed the classical pagan model, was developed during the Middle Ages in reaction to the evolution of the individual’s right to liberty. Wrote Constant:
For forty years, I have defended the same principle: freedom in everything, in religion, in philosophy, in literature, in industry, in politics—and by freedom I mean the triumph of the individual both over an authority that would wish to govern by despotic means and over the masses who claim the right to make a minority subservient to a majority…The majority has the right to oblige the minority to respect public order, but everything which does not disturb public order, everything which is purely personal such as our opinions, everything which, in giving expression to opinions, does no harm to others either by provoking physical violence or opposing contrary opinions, everything which, in industry, allows a rival industry to flourish freely—all this is something individual that cannot legitimately be surrendered to the power of the state.
Fellow Frenchman Augustin Thierry showed how it was first the medieval merchants who won various freedoms from city leaders, as revealed in city charters. The French also led in demands for freedom of the press and also for education that was not state-controlled. Thomas Jefferson himself said he preferred a state without government but a free press, as opposed to the opposite.
The high point of classical liberalism is arguably the American Revolution and the writings of those great visionaries, the Founders and Framers. Pamphleteer Thomas Paine’s works, such as Rights of Man, were very important in preparing Americans for independence.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) consulted Paine while drafting the Declaration of Independence (1776). Jefferson unites the myth of the ancient constitution and the Lockean natural rights tradition to prove England had breached its contract with the colonists. The people therefore had the right to revolt and form a new government; in referring his case to a global audience, he emphasizes the universality of his philosophy. In particular, Jefferson focused on creating an independent citizenry capable of maintaining the democratic republic…
Constitution author James Madison clearly revealed a Lockean natural law foundation coupled with a Montesquieu-style separation of powers. The federalism he created pitted the self-interests of factions against each other to keep any group from acquiring the power to offend others’ rights. One right which he tried to define and explore throughout his life was the right of property. His 1792 “On Property” notes the radical extent to which he defined an individual’s claim to his own:
He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.
The history of liberalism is fascinating, being a celebration of the very best of human achievement and representational government—all achieved simply by offering mankind freedom, hedged-in mostly by virtuous self-restraint. And what sensitive person can resist the compelling genius of Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
But the modern confusion between socialism and classical liberalism has produced great evil. In the second part of this story we will examine that evil in detail.
Next: Part 2
Kelly O’Connell is an author and attorney. He was born on the West Coast, raised in Las Vegas, and matriculated from the University of Oregon. After laboring for the Reformed Church in Galway, Ireland, he returned to America and attended law school in Virginia, where he earned a JD and a Master’s degree in Government. He spent a stint working as a researcher and writer of academic articles at a Miami law school, focusing on ancient law and society. He has also been employed as a university Speech & Debate professor. He then returned West and worked as an assistant district attorney. Kelly is now is a private practitioner with a small law practice in New Mexico. Kelly is now host of a daily, Monday to Friday talk show at AM KOBE called AM Las Cruces w/Kelly O’Connell
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