Liberalism refers to a system of thought that focuses on the good of the whole of society as opposed to its neglect in the service of the restricted few. Liberalism began at a time of rejection of traditional feudal values, structures, and institutions; the opposition to hierarchical forms of government; and the attack on aristocratic privilege. Liberals, the adherents of the philosophy of liberalism, have supported modernizing change as leading to increased freedoms for the individual, the establishment of democratic governments worldwide, and the development of the idea of government as a guide and protector of human happiness. 

          Liberalism’s first great apostle was the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Conflict, crisis, and civil war dominated the political history of England during the seventeenth century. In 1660 after over a decade of exile Charles Stuart was restored to power in England as King Charles II. Thomas Hobbes the English philosopher defended the Restoration of the monarchy in England. Humans, sinful by nature, require the strong imposition of government authority, Hobbes argued. Strong central government is necessary to corral the passions of humans, to impose order upon chaos. Hobbes’ vision was fulfilled during the reign of Charles II. It was a different story for his successor James II. Parliament, representing the English people, forced James from power in what the English called the Glorious Revolution. A new king, William, agreed to limitations upon his power. Centuries of struggle by the English people had come to a conclusion in the conquest of royal oppression and the accession of law as the true ruler of England.

          John Locke was the philosopher of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke had experienced the vast changes that England underwent during the seventeenth century, not only in politics, but in the English economy and thought as well. The power of the landed English aristocracy was slowly waning in light of the continued expansion of manufacturing and trade. Merchants involved in rudimentary corporations employed workers intent on achieving material success. The English economy was breaking away from a landed, agrarian base toward a money economy rich in opportunity for entrepreneurs willing to take risks with capital to invest and to build. Some investors supported colonies in America and Asia; hard-working commoners traveled to such far away places to make their fortune. Political philosophers worked out the theory of mercantilism to justify colonial expansion, arguing that colonies would provide raw materials and serve as markets for English goods. Capitalistic expansion and the consequent attack on the old aristocratic, feudal structures was reflected in politics. After centuries of struggle the English Parliament of the seventeenth century, representing the people of England, stood equal to the King.

          John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government provided the philosophical underpinning for the dramatic political, social, and economic changes occurring in England. Locke sought from the beginning to distance himself from the thinking of his predecessors, particularly Thomas Hobbes, who in Locke’s words believed “that all government in the world is the product only of force and violence, and that men live together by no other rules but that of beasts, where the strongest carries it, and so lay a foundation for perpetual disorder and mischief, tumult, sedition, and rebellion.” On the contrary, Locke argued that government is not an angry paternal authority, rather an extension of the goodness of human nature itself. Humans in the state of nature, Locke believed, are competitive but not violent toward one-another. They discover soon enough that by joining together they can more successfully take what they need from nature to survive. This mutual need for greater survival, even happiness, is the basis of government. Humans don’t absolutely require government; rather government is a choice, a voluntary association, which is formed by rational people who realize it is in their own best interest. Humans do operate according to self-interest, yet working for the self does not have to mean warfare, chaos, and competition requiring constant government intervention. Humans, rational by nature, join together into a compact for mutual protection and happiness. Naturally one among their number is chosen to manage the whole. And as long as this one leader, or king, works for the interests of the people, they will obey; otherwise the compact, the association or government, will be dissolved.

          Locke’s theory of property was as follows: He believed that God the Creator endowed the world with sufficient resources to care for all humans. Locke thought that humans should use care with the creation, practice economy with the world’s resources, use only what is necessary and spare the rest for another’s use. Private property was one of Locke’s natural rights (the others being life, liberty, and health). Since humans are inherently free and equal, the resources of creation are therefore equally available for the use of all humans. When, however, a person forages for an item of food, such as acorns, which are initially in this “public domain,” upon retrieving the acorns by one’s own labor, the acorns become a possession of the one who retrieved them. Labor toward the accumulation of goods that are initially open to all human use is the basis of private property. The entrepreneur is the one who expends the most labor to accumulate the most goods. But Locke was adamant that one must labor to achieve only what is necessary, and nothing more.

          England’s Glorious Revolution, as Locke understood it, stood for freedom, equality, liberty, the open society, the good of society and of man, and a government that works for the people rather than to accentuate its own power. These were precisely what Thomas Jefferson, the early American philosopher, third President of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the Declaration of Independence, believed about the rights of Americans living under the British government. Jefferson and other Americans believed that King George III and the English Parliament had by 1776 generally rejected the principles of its own government as defined by John Locke and implemented during the Glorious Revolution. Jefferson followed Locke’s thinking closely when he proclaimed: “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 a 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.” There is no better statement of liberal philosophy than these words of the Declaration of Independence.

          Actions do not, however, always follow the precise meaning of grand words. Jefferson, for all of his great ideas, was a slave owner throughout his life, not manumitting his slaves until his death fifty years later in 1826. More striking is the example of the French Revolution. French thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau were inspired by Locke to press for a government and society in France based not on the privilege of birth, but on human equality. The French people broke the compact with the French monarchy in 1789, creating in time a government based on the principles of equality. “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” echoing Jefferson and Locke, proclaimed that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only upon the common good.” Freedom, unfortunately, can sometimes reduce itself to anarchy, as American and French conservatives often feared. The French Revolution in time degenerated into a power struggle and blood bath that had hardly anything to do with the rule of law, so dear to Jefferson and Locke.

Liberalism in England continued to focus on the ideas of Locke even as Great Britain fought to retain its empire. Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher who wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, argued that self-interest among humans resulted in healthy competition that did not need government regulation. This was in contrast to the British mercantilist system of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the advocates of which believed in strict government supervision of trade.

Nineteenth-century liberals continued to voice the concerns and develop the ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. In England, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill expanded on the moral thinking of Adam Smith, creating the philosophy of utilitarianism, which sought the greatest good for the greatest number in a society. The Industrial Revolution and new technology deriving from changing ideas of science inspired the same sense of optimism and dedication toward continued progress among nineteenth-century thinkers that had defined previous expressions of liberalism. Liberal thinkers generally embraced the opportunities for social and cultural change suggested by the new philosophies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The social and behavioral sciences became important professional fields for those who sought ways to reform social structures, institutions, and human behavior. The challenges of the Industrial Revolution-such as the increasing poverty; class disparity between bourgeosie and proletariat; and urban crowding, filth, crime, and pollution-were treated as challenges incumbent upon the process and progress of modernization. Socialists such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Progressives such as Jane Addams and Woodrow Wilson, and Humanists such as Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, embraced new ideas and their implications for society. Naturalism, the philosophy inspired by Charles Darwin; behavioralism, inspired by Sigmund Freud; materialism, the product of Karl Marx; relativism, the offshoot of the theories of Albert Einstein; existentialism, the vague catalog of ideas identified with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche; and the dada movement and other such nihilist philosophies, tended toward the aim of the common good, social justice, free will and freedom, a rejection of traditional ideas and assumptions, and the value of diverse, open societies.

Politics and economic policies reflected the changes in modern society. In both England and America, conservative politics (signified by the Republicans in America, and the Tory party in Great Britain) gave way after the turn of the century to the liberal politics of reform-the Democrats in America and the Labour party in England. “Laissez-faire” economic policy was slowly discarded as liberal politicians such as David Lloyd George and Ramsay McDonald in England and Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in America adopted interventionist policies wherein government would have a more direct role in economic development and bring government into the fight of the common person for good wages, good working conditions, help when ill or aged, and the general promise of a satisfying material existence.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, for example, began decades of social and economic reform conforming to a liberal agenda of broadened government policies and agencies to help the poor, disadvantaged, unemployed, retired, and disabled. The New Deal was in direct response to the Great Depression, which caught the Republican Hoover administration by surprise. The Democrat Roosevelt further implemented the initial liberal policies of Woodrow Wilson to fight the depression of the 1930s. Roosevelt’s consequent “alphabet soup” of acronyms for a dizzying number of social and economic programs still inspires today’s liberal politician. The New Deal churned out the Banking Act, creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to back investor’s deposits in case of bank runs and closures. Farmers were helped with the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), which paid farmers to destroy crops and increase land lying fallow so to lessen agricultural supplies and raise farm prices. The New Deal helped the unemployed with a variety of programs. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) brought young men out of the urban areas into the countryside to work on conservation and forest projects in return for a bed, three square meals a day, and a little money. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Public Works Administration (PWA) provided government funds to employ men in public works projects, helping to build the infrastructure of America and helping the confidence of fathers and husbands who were glad once again to bring home good wages to wives and children. The Social Security Act (SSA) created the Social Security Administration (and the Social Security Number and Social Security Card) to protect America’s senior citizens from ever knowing the same degree of want as had older Americans during the Great Depression.

          Subsequent liberal presidents were so inspired by the New Deal to continue its policies and programs. Truman’s Fair Deal and Kennedy’s New Frontier culminated in Johnson’s Great Society, which brought to America the liberal vision of civil rights. These Democrat presidents were not so successful in foreign policy. Johnson’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam resulted in the dawn of the New Left, the venue for which were America’s college campuses, the members of which were largely student radicals.

          Today’s liberal continues to embrace issues and actions that conservatives find offensive and controversial, but which to the liberal seems appropriate for people concerned with individual rights and government leadership of social and economic reform. The liberal continues to embrace modernization and its consequences, finding in relativism and secularism opportunities for continued human progress.


Aaron, Daniel. Writers on the Left. New York: Avon, 1961.

Berman, Ronald. America in the Sixties: An Intellectual History. New York: Free Press, 1968.

Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: the Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers. New York: time Incorporated, 1962.

Locke, John. Treatise of Civil Government. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1979.

About theamericanplutarch

Writer, thinker, historian.
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