The Development of Liberalism


Ancient Greek Democracy

460 BCE - 320 BCE

During the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the governments of many city- states in Ancient Greece were run by the system of direct democracy. For example, in Athens, any male citizen (there were limitations on who was a citizen), could participate in the main democratic body. This assembly would meet at least once a month to debate and vote on various issues. Decisions were made by voting. In some cases voting was done by raising hands, however in others there were secret ballots where individuals would write on a broken piece of pottery.

Ancient Greek Democracy contributed to classical liberalism in the way it gave individuals more rights and freedoms in terms of the political affairs of the society. It gave male citizens the individual right to vote and make decisions, as well as freedom of speech during debates and discussions. It placed a great amount of emphasis on the individual. It also greatly influenced the idea of equality amongst individuals in a society, as the implementation of direct democracy abolished the political distinctions between aristocrats and lower- class citizens. Lastly, Ancient Greek also demonstrated the principle of the rule of law, as any citizen, no matter what social class they were a part of could be banished from the city- state for ten years, which was called ostracism.

Magna Carta


The Magna Carta was a charter written by King John of England in response to a possible rebellion by the barons in England. The charter is a charter of liberties, which placed the King and all future rulers under the rule of law. Therefore, all monarchs would be held accountable to the same law that other individuals in society were held to, and would be seen as equal to others under the law. It also gave subjects the fundamental right to be free from unlawful imprisonment. It was the first written constitution in European history, and although it was not always enforced, it did reflect the principles of classical liberalism.

Rule of Law, which is the idea that everyone is equal before the law and held accountable to the same laws is a major principle of classical liberalism. The Magna Carta reflected this principle by holding the King to the same law the other nobles were held to. As well, it also extended fundamental rights to the King's subjects, which also reflects the principle of individual rights and freedoms.

The Renaissance

1350 - 1550

The Renaissance was a movement that began in Italy proceeded the Middle Ages. It was characterized a birth in the philosophy of humanism, which placed great importance on the individual and viewed humans as good and rational beings. Renaissance humanists based these ideas upon ancient Greek and Roman texts, as well as teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Renaissance caused the arts to flourish and become important aspects of society.

Renaissance humanists emphasized the importance of the individual, which is the foundation of classical liberalism. Humanists perceive individuals as rational beings, and it is because of this that humans should have individual rights and freedoms, economic freedom, private property, be equal under the law and be able to act in their own self interest. The principles of classical liberalism are based upon the beliefs of the early humanists.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy

1400 - 1776

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was a confederacy made up of five and later six nations. The nations agreed to abide by the Great Law of Peace, an oral constitution which promoted peace among the once warring nations. The Great Law of Peace included principles such as the division of power amongst the different branches of government, equal participation of citizens and the establishment of individual rights and freedoms. In the confederation, each nation had its own council with chiefs, which were chosen by the clan mother to deal with internal issues in each nation. There was also a Grand Council which dealt with issues affecting the six nations as a whole. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is regarded as the one of the first and longest lasting participatory democracies in the world.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy clearly demonstrates the importance of equality amongst individuals in a society, including between men and women, which is a major component of classical liberalism. This idea was extremely rare for the time period, and still is in some societies. The confederacy extended great individual rights and freedoms to those of the six nations, allowing them all to have the right to a voice in their government, as well as freedom of speech and religion. The ideas in The Great Law of Peace deeply impacted the ideologies of other societies, including the American Declaration of Independence, and therefore helped to spread the ideas of classical liberalism.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which was founded upon The Great Law of Peace is also an example of a society protecting the collective interest of the group as a whole, as the unity of the six nations allowed for greater security. Therefore, one could argue that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy also spread the ideals of modern liberalism.

The Reformation

1517 - 1648

The Protest Reformation was a response to the growing corruption of the Catholic Church. The Reformation was founded upon the humanist philosophies, which encouraged individuals to study and consider information for themselves, instead of just accepting what authorities say as absolute truth. The Reformation was sparked by German monk Martin Luther nailing his ninety - five thesis to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church. The events of the Reformation led to a split of the church into Catholics and Protestants. Similar Reformations took place in Switzerland, led by Ullrich Zwingli and England, which resulted in divisions among different protestant denominations.

The Reformation contributed to the development of classical liberalism as it continued to challenge the individual to think for themselves. Martin Luther went on to take advantage of the printing press and distributed his writings in order that they would be accessible to common people. This resource allowed individuals to become educated themselves and come to their own conclusions on different issues. This continuing belief that humans are rational and can stand up to authority and make their own decisions including what they believe in regards to religion continued to build the foundation of classical liberalism principles.

The Enlightenment

1685 - 1815

The Age of Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, was a century characterized by the idea that "humanity could be improved through rational change." It continued to question tradition authority, such as that of the monarch and the church. Many scientific discoveries, including Kepler and Galileo's discoveries in astronomy were made during this time. Enlightenment thinkers, such as Rene Descartes also emphasized the idea of the scientific method, where people made testable hypothesizes and developed experiments to prove them. This century was characterized by rational thought and belief in science.

The Enlightenment and the way in which in questioned traditional authority continued to build the foundation of the principles of classical liberalism. The way in which Enlightenment thinkers and scientists challenged pre-existing authority indirectly impacted the idea of a limited government, as it demonstrated that authority should not be telling individuals what to believe, but rather should exist to protect rights and freedoms. The continued theme throughout this era of history that humans are rational human beings contributed to the idea that individuals should have rights and freedoms, be able to own property, have economic and act in their own self interest.

Industrial Revolution

1750 - 1850

The Industrial Revolution was a shift from an economy based on feudalism to industrialization in Great Britain. The factors leading up to the industrial revolution included new technology being invented as a result of the growing acceptance of science, hence putting many individuals out of work. As well, the Enclosure Acts took land away from many lower- class farmers and instead made it private property, leaving a large available work force. As well, through mercantilism, British merchants became very wealthy and able to invest in growing industries. The industrial revolution resulted in fast urbanization, which led to great poverty and horrible living conditions. Factory conditions were also very poor for workers, who weren't paid high amounts and worked long hours. Child labour was also present in many factories.

Classical liberalism was in part a response to the industrial revolution. During the industrial revolution, working- class individuals in Britain did not have individual rights and freedoms, and were not considered equals to their employers. Factory workers were subject to great abuse in the workplace. Classical liberalism places importance on the individual and therefore the ideas around it worked to provide a better quality of life for these working- class individuals.

The Enclosure Acts, which took public land and made it private property is a principle of classical liberalism. As well, the free economy in which government did not initially intervene with working standards etc. is another principle of classical liberalism. However, classical liberalism also emphasizes equality and individual rights and freedoms, however, way in which land was taken from farmers and the poor working conditions of factory workers is not a demonstration of the principles of classical liberalism.

The American Revolution

1776 - 1783

The outbreak of the American Revolution was a result of growing tensions between Britain's thirteen North American Colonies and British authorities. The government of Great Britain had been attempted to raise taxes on the colonists, whilst still restricting their representation in parliament. The British government attempted to reassert authority with the Coercive Acts, however the colonists responded with the First Continental Congress which "denounced taxation without representation." The Second Continental Congress then announced independence from Britain on July 4, 1776. A continental army was also formed, which eventually defeated the British troops.

One way the American Revolution contributed to the development of classical liberalism is the way in which colonists initially fought for economic freedom from Britain. They did not accept the way in which the British government was taxing them hence placing restrictions on their economy. The colonists fought for their own self- interest, against the controlling British government. As well, the American Revolution also granted colonists greater individual rights and freedoms, as the First Continental Congress demanded representation in parliament, hence emphasizing the importance of the individuals living in the colonies.

The French Revolution

1789 - 1799

The French Revolution broke out as a result of the ineffective monarchy under Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the financial situation in France as well as the strict social structure of the ancient regime that resulted in large numbers of greatly impoverished yet heavily taxed peasants. When a tax reform was suggested which included universal land tax, the aristocracy revolted, causing Louis XVI to summon the Estates- General. The Third Estate, or common people of the society fought for equal representation, and began to meet alone, adopting the name the National Assembly. The National Assembly wrote the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen," which was founded on democratic principles and Enlightenment ideals. The French Revolution then degraded into a reign of terror, as the revolt ended up killing the monarch, and anyone who even dared to question the revolution. The French Revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.

During the French Revolution, the Third Estate, or common people in French society fought for equal rights and freedoms. The "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen" embodies the ideas of classical liberalism (except for the fact that it did not include women), which places importance. This declaration emphasized the idea that all men were born equal, and therefore called for a nation where individuals should be free and protected equally by law. The French Revolution called for greater individual rights and freedoms, along with the implementation of the rule of law. Another example that demonstrated the rule of law was the use of the guillotine. Although it was a killing device, it used to be reserved only for high- class individuals, however during the French Revolution it was used for all individuals, again demonstrating equal rights and equality before the law.

Changes to the Class System

1800 - 1900

During the 19th Century, the idea that individuals were born into a certain social class and could not move out of that class began to die away. Instead, because of the principles of classical liberalism, class distinctions were based on wealth or economic prosperity. Economic freedom and and private property allowed individuals greater opportunity to improve upon their economic class, and gave individuals a more equal opportunity to be economically successful in their life.

Classes based on economic prosperity instead of social classes allows for comparatively more equality between individuals in a society, as through principles such as economic freedom and private property individuals have more of an opportunity to acquire wealth. As well, a society that grants individuals economic freedom and the right to own private property continues to spread the ideas of classical liberalism. Giving every individual the opportunity to be successful improves the standard of living of that individual, which continues to promote the principles of classical liberalism.