ODWS icon

The Open Door Web Site



Keith Woodall's Lesson Notes Index

Introduction to Ancient Athens
Introduction to Ancient Rome
The Industrial Revolution



Liberalism was the second great European doctrine to affect the world. Its central feature was the rights of the individual, particularly the right to be free from the constraints imposed by any arbitrary authority, which usually meant non-representative governments. Its development is intimately linked to the rise of the bourgeoisie, (middle class), although in central Europe, where the middle class was weak, liberalism was championed by the "enlightened" members of the nobility. Still, liberalism developed in its classical form in western Europe, and has remained essentially a middle class (bourgeois) movement.

Liberal doctrines were first clearly defined and implemented during the English Revolutions of the 17th. century. The Revolution of1649, in which religious toleration, was one of the principal demands of the "Independents" (a faction within the New Model Army) witnessed also demands for social and political changes that nobody had dared express before There were demands for universal male suffrage ( the right of all men over the age of 21 to vote in parliamentary elections), and a minority even demanded votes for women. Although most of these demands were rejected the First English Revolution of 1649 did lead to:-

  1. parliamentary control of government.
  2. the existence of different political parties.
  3. the recognition of the need for these political parties to be able to oppose, freely and publicly, the government in power.

For the first time in history a ruler had been removed from power because he was judged to have betrayed his duty to the greatest of all authorities - not God but the people. The problem that still had to be resolved, not only in England but later in America and especially in France was who constituted "the people"?



John Locke

Portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller



Custom Search


In England the right to vote (the franchise) was strictly limited, by property qualifications, to the wealthy. This meant that the lower middle class and the workers, who were the majority of the population, were left voteless and were excluded from any participation in the governing of the country. The English Revolution of 1649 was the first bourgeois (middle class) revolution.

Without any doubt the man who first established the principle of the rights of the individual, which is the principle underlying all liberal ideals and so important in the American and French Revolutions, as well as the English, was John Locke. Locke had written a series of pamphlets concerning the relationship between a government and its duties towards its people during the reign of James II in England (1685-1688). In 1688 the English rejected James II, who was forced into exile (at St. Germain-en Laye), and it was Parliament (the elected assembly) that chose the next king of England. William of Orange, "Stadhouder" of the United Provinces who was Parliament's choice. On accepting the kingship William was obliged to accept the Bill of Rights (1689) which strictly limited his authority by law. Thus the world's first Constitutional (or Limited) Monarchy was created. This is known as the "Glorious Revolution" because the king was chosen by Parliament and Parliament was chosen by "the people"; but at this time "the people" were the wealthy middle class. The majority, the poor, were totally ignored.

In 1690 the works of John Locke were published and they proved to be a political time-bomb, not so much in England, but in America and in France in the 18th. century. In his work "On Civil Government", he explained why the people of England were right to reject King James II in 1688. His argument (put very simply) was as follows:

Man, at birth, is endowed by nature with "natural rights" and they are "imprescriptible"- (none of them can be taken away, without the consent of the person concerned). Every person has the right to life, to freedom of expression (by word or in writing), to freedom of religious belief etc. In brief, Locke stated that the only constraints on the freedom of a person to do what he (or she) liked were the freedoms of other individuals.

This was the basic argument which Locke put forward to justify the rejection by the English people of their king in 1688. He argued that the only purpose of a government was to guarantee the "natural rights" of every person. James II had tried to rule as an "absolute monarch" in the style of Louis XIV, therefore, the English people not only had the right, but the duty, to get rid of this king because he had attempted to impose a form of government which violated these fundamental "natural rights". Locke went even further when he stated that "the people" have the right to remove a government by force, if necessary, if it does not guarantee the rights of the individual, and that "the people" may then replace it with a government of their own choice. In a word democracy.

Locke's ideas were, in themselves revolutionary, emphasising as they did, the rights and the liberties of the individual, but those who tried to implement this principle in following centuries were confronted by an important dilemma:


What is the more important, the welfare of an individual at the expense of society as a whole or the welfare of society at the expense of the individual?

The American Revolution (1776 - 1783) was the next example of a society in revolt of "free men" against a "tyranny". The constitution of the United States, ratified in 1791, was greatly influenced by the principles of John Locke and his emphasis on the rights of the individual. The U.S. constitution carefully and specifically determined the roles of:

  1. the President (the executive)
  2. the Congress (the legislature) formed from the Senate and the House of Representatives.
  3. the Supreme Court (the judiciary) along with other federal and state courts

    according to Locke's principle of "the separation of powers".

It is significant, and by no means fortuitous, that the first ten articles of the U.S. constitution are also called "The Bill of Rights".

N.B. The principle of "separation of powers" is often, wrongly, attributed to Montesquieu in his famous work "l'Ésprit des Lois" published in 1748. Montesquieu never claimed that it was his idea and the fact that it was attributed to him is because the French Revolution, greatly influenced by the writings of the "philosophies", of which he was one, became an international revolution, unlike the English which remained a purely local affair.

The American Revolution (1776-1783) further contributed to the definition of liberalism. Religious toleration, the extension of the franchise and the creation of a government based on a clearly established constitution were to be a model of "liberal enlightenment", and yet like its English predecessor, the American Revolution carefully restricted political power to the propertied middle class. This was achieved by limiting the right to vote to the propertied classes, and by organising elections in such a way that no "undesirable" political faction could gain control of all the institutions :-

  • The President was to be elected for a term of four years.
  • Senators were to be elected for a term of six years.
  • Congressmen (those elected to the House of Representatives) were to be elected for two years.


It has to be said that the American form of liberalism and its insistence on the rights of the individual, was blighted by the existence of hundreds of thousands of black slaves. They were totally ignored by the U.S. constitution of the time because they were considered not to be citizens of the republic.

(N.B. The Civil War (1861 - 1865) legally released the blacks from slavery but this certainly did not make them free citizens of the United States. It was only in 1953 that the Supreme Court decided that, regardless of colour, all free-born Americans were full citizens of the United States. Until this decision was made American blacks suffered from what was called "equal but separate development", in other words an America for the whites and an America for the blacks, with all the inequalities that that implied. It was only in the 1960s that the "Civil Rights Movement", led by Martin Luther King, began to change this situation).

The principles of liberalism were even more firmly stated by the French Revolution of 1789. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen published in August of that year proclaimed, in ringing phrases, the liberties of the individual. Yet French liberalism too, was primarily a bourgeois concept. The Declaration and the constitutions based on it which were instituted during the revolutionary period, stressed that the right of property was "inviolable and sacred", and the Constituent Assembly, in June 1791, passed "la loi Le Chapelier" which forbade workers to collectively demand higher wages from their employers (middle class businessmen). The Napoleonic Codes, which were to prove the most durable and influential of all his works, prohibited the creation of trades unions and the organization of strikes.

The form of liberalism that emerged from the English, the American and the French Revolutions was primarily concerned with the creation of constitutional parliamentary government and equal civil rights, or equality before the law. It was not concerned with equal social and political rights.

Even in this restricted sense liberalism was on the defensive during the period that followed the Congress of Vienna in 1815. This was a period of reaction against the "excesses" of the revolutionary years, and the restored monarchies, with the willing assistance of the aristocracy and the clergy, attempted to turn the clock back to pre-1789. In most cases these restored monarchs ruled autocratically with no constitutional checks to their authority. Even where constitutions did exist the franchise was so severely restricted that not only the workers but most of the middle class were excluded. For this reason the period after 1815 was marked by liberal as well nationalist agitation.

Where the ruling power was foreign the revolutionary movements were nationalist in character, as in Greece against Ottoman Turkey, in Poland against Russia, in Belgium against Holland and in Hungary against Austria. Where the governments were native but unrepresentative the revolutionary movements were liberal, such as in France where the restored Bourbon dynasty was overthrown in 1830 and replaced by the self-styled "bourgeois monarch" Louis-Philippe d'Orléans. In Britain too, liberal demands had led to the passing of the "Great Reform Bill" of 1832 which increased the number of voters from about half a million to 813 thousand!

As the 19th.century passed, liberalism, like other historical movements, changed significantly in character. It could not continue to concern itself primarily with bourgeois interests at a time when the workers were becoming more assertive as a result of increasing education and more effective trades union organization. Consequently there was a marked shift from the early form of classical liberalism to a more democratic variety. Equality before the law was supplemented by equality of the franchise and by the end of the 19th.century manhood suffrage had been adopted in most western European countries. Even the hallowed principle of economic "laissez-faire" first promulgated by Adam Smith in his "Wealth of Nations" and which proposed that supply and demand were the only factors relevant to the creation of wealth, were profoundly modified. Hitherto, intervention by the government in economic and social matters had been regarded as mischievous and futile meddling in the functioning of "natural" laws. This theoretical proposition was totally unacceptable to the vast majority of workers. Civil liberties and the right to vote did not relieve them from poverty and the insecurity produced by unemployment, sickness, disability and old age. So they used their voting power and union organization to demand social reforms. Because of this pressure a new democratic form of liberalism developed which recognised the responsibility of the state for the welfare of its citizens. Western European countries, led by Germany, adopted social reform programmes, including old-age pensions, minimum wage laws, sickness, accident and unemployment insurance and strict control of hours and conditions of work. These reforms of democratic liberalism were the prelude to the creation of the welfare state which is a characteristic of the nations of western Europe today.

Despite its attempts to adjust to the demands of a changing world liberalism has steadily lost ground since the end of the19th.century. The main reason seems to be that it has failed to obtain the support of the working classes. In general the workers have turned to various forms of socialism, of the Marxist or Social-Democratic varieties, so liberals in most countries have been squeezed between the conservatives on the right and the socialists on the left. This is true not only in Europe but even more so in the former colonial territories, where the overwhelming majority of those who are politically conscious are attracted by nationalism, as a reaction to foreign domination, or to socialism, as a reaction to poverty and the lack of native capital and of a native middle class.


The Open Door Web Site is non-profit making. Your donations help towards the cost of maintaining this free service on-line.

Donate to the Open Door Web Site using PayPal







© The Open Door Team 2017
Any questions or problems regarding this site should be addressed to the webmaster

© Keith Woodall 2017

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.

Hosted By
Web Hosting by HostCentric