The Development of Liberalism


Ancient Greek Democracy (5th Century BC)

508 BC - 322 BC
  • First known democracy in the world. It was very different from the Modern Democracy. Citizens could be involved in the running of Athens and could be elected for important positions.
  • Athens had a direct democracy. This meant that each citizens had an equal opportunity in the governing of Athens. It has influenced today’s current form of democracy because this direct democracy allowed regular citizens to protect their rights and freedoms.

Magna Carta

  • The Magna Carta was a document signed by King John after negotiations with his barons and their French and Scots allies at Runnymede, Surrey, England in 1215.
  • The Magna Carta led to the constitutional rule of today and also influenced the American Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. One of the clauses in the Magna Carta defends the freedom and rights of the English Church; another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns. The Magna Carta also clearly established the principle of right to privacy.

Renaissance (14 - 16th C)

1450 - 1600
  • The Renaissance is a period in the history of Europe beginning in about 1400, and following the Medieval period.
  • The Renaissance means "rebirth". At that time, people started taking an interest in the learning of ancient times, in particular the learning of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance is often said to be the start of the "modern age".

Haudenosaunee Confederacy (15th C)

Approx. 1500 - 1776
  • This was one of the first democratic systems the world has ever had. They came together by abiding the “Great Peace of Law”.
  • The key principles of the Great Peace of Law are division of powers among the government, equal participation, including women, rights and freedom to speak one’s mind and follow their choice of religion. The federal structure of the U.S. constitution was influenced by Haudenosaunee confederation, as were notions of individual liberty and the separation of powers.


1517 - 1648
  • The Reformation is known as restructuring of the European Church. Martin Luther believed the Church had become corrupt and possessed too much power. He demanded the Church to be reformed.
  • Influence of humanism: made the power of the Church waned and faith of the rational nature of human beings grew.

The Enlightenment (18th C)

  • The Enlightenment was a movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment's ideas about thinking with reason, having personal freedoms, and not having to follow the Catholic Church were important in creating capitalism and socialism.
  • European philosophers (e.g. John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson) helped promote the ideas about human nature that led to the development of classical liberalism. They questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. Overall, classical liberalism was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and rational thought.

Industrial Revolution (18 - 19th C)

1750 - 1900
  • The Industrial Revolution resulted in extreme changes in the social, economic, and political aspects of the lives of all citizens. Several factors contributed to the revolution such as, technology, private property, individual rights and freedom and self-interest and competition.
  • Nations began to compete the power and wealth, which led to nationalism and imperialism.

American Revolution

  • The ideas of Enlightenment contributed to the American Revolution. At that time, each of the group of colonies of Great Britain had its own name and government.
  • American colonies declared independence from Great Britain and created a form of government that was controlled by its citizens. These American colonies suffered under the British monarchy’s rule for a long time and after the American Revolution, American citizens were no longer able to be ruled by a foreign government--they needed an authority that was invested in its citizens.

French Revolution

1789 - 1799
  • People fought for equality rights and freedom. The people wanted freedom from the rigid class structure in which the nobility and the members of the Church had more rights than regular citizens. After, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was signed in 1789.
  • The people had been able to eliminate class distinctions and replace them with a more equality and freedom of the citizens.

Changes to class system (19th C)

  • Society began to change as the ideas of classical liberalism took hold. Social classes began to be eliminated while a class structure based on wealth began to emerge.
  • The principle of classical liberalism encouraged more economic opportunities. It valued private property and economic freedom. People had greater opportunities to become wealthy and join a higher economic class.