The Development of Classic Liberalism

By: Ceilidh Stewart


Ancient Greek Democracy

500 B.C. - 300 B.C.

This time period was renowned for its democratic system and active public participation in the government. During this time only male citizens were allowed to participate in democratic functions, and this accounted for only a small portion of the population. This form of government abided by majority rule, and each citizen represented themselves rather than an appointed individual representing a group or many people.

This early form of democratic government, although different from modern democracy, laid the foundation for modern western civilization. Classic liberalism is based strongly on the ideas of individual importance, and participation through inclusive forms of government in which equality and involvement are central. Also Greek societies abided by the rule of law, which was referred to as ostracism, and believed strongly in equal treatment before the law, which is another aspect that later contributed to classic liberalism. Therefore, it is evident that the Ancient Greek societies contributed to the development of classic liberalism through the early use of democracy.

Magna Carta


The Magna Carta was a charter written with the intention of resolving ongoing conflicts between King John and his subjects, primarily the barons. It established a new relationship between the crown and its subjects, and attempted to re-balance power within the state. The Magna Carter was one of the earliest written documents outlining the rule of law, and the establishment of fundamental rights and freedoms for citizens. Although it was not properly enforced, and so was annulled soon after, it presented the classic liberalistic views in regards to equality before the law, even for rulers, and it also ensured individual rights and freedoms to each person.

The Magna Carta contributed to the development of classic liberalism through the introduction of many of its main ideals, such as the rule of law, and individual rights and freedoms. It is often regarded as the foundation to modern democracy in England, and still remains a significant symbolic power in regards to individual rights and equal treatment before the law, which are central to classic liberalism.


1300 - 1500

The Renaissance was a hugely influential time period following the depression of the Middle Ages. It resulted in cultural, economic, artistic, and social reform and is renowned for the birth of humanism philosophy. The news ideas born from the Renaissance spread throughout Europe and allowed culture to flourish.

The Renaissance contributed greatly to developing the idea of individual importance in society, and the growth of humanism views contributed to the idea that humans are rational beings who deserve individual rights and freedoms. Classic Liberalism was developed through the sense of individual awareness that grew under the influence of the Renaissance philosophers, and the ideas that were bred during this influential and artistic time.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy

1400 - 1776

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a confederacy made up of six First Nations tribes that were once at war, but decided to unite and abide by the Great Law of Peace, which was their oral constitution. The key guiding principles of the Great Law of Peace were: divisions of power, equal participation by citizens, and clearly stated rights and freedoms. The nations came together to from a strong, cohesive group referred to as the Six Nations. The Haudenosaunee Confederation is recognized as one of the most ancient and longest existing democracies in the world.

The strong emphases placed on equality between all members of society, and the clear respect for individual rights and freedoms demonstrate a direct contribution to the development of classic liberalism. Also, historians have made links between the Great Law of Peace and the American Constitution and have found obvious liberalistic influences from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in today's modern nation, further demonstrating the development of classic liberalism as a result of the Six Nations.


1517 - 1648

During this time period many individuals such as Martin Luther, and Henry VIII began to question the corrupt Church, and demand that the power be redistributed within the Church. Although the Reformation began in Germany, similar situations were occurring in Switzerland,and England, and they were all influenced by humanist philosophies which encouraged them to think for themselves instead of accepting decisions made by authority absolutely. Protestants rebelled against the corrupt Church and many battles occurred, resulting in many of the Protestant religious communities of today.

The Reformation contributed to developing classic liberalism because it encouraged individuals to think for themselves, and contribute to building the societies that they individually viewed as best. The use of the printing press, and translation of the Bible also allowed individuals to educate themselves and develop their own opinions. The influence at the heart of the Reformation that individuals should stand up to authority for what they believe in also contributed to developing classic liberalism.

The Enlightenment

1700 - 1815

The Enlightenment was a time of great philosophical and intellectual development that would later impact civilizations worldwide, and many of the great ideas born of this time period would fuel liberalistic ideals and result in many rebellions and revolutions. The thinkers of the Enlightenment presented the ideas of human potential and individual importance which would later be the foundation for classic liberalism. During this time philosophers scrutinized society, the role and importance of the individual, as well as questioned traditional authority.

The Enlightenment was crucial in the devlopement of classic liberalism, due to the importance placed on the individual, and emphasis put on humans as rational and reasonable. These ideas contributed to the development of ideals such as rights and freedoms, private property, and the ability for humans to act out of self-interest. The Enlightenment was a period of great change and the ideas developed during this time largely contributed to building the classic liberalism that we have today.

Industrial Revolution

1700 - 1800

The Industrial Revolution marks a time period during which many changes occurred, most significant was the transition of Britain from a society based on mercantilism and agriculture into one of modern industry. The movement to industrialization from the feudal system is due in large part to the Industrial Revolution, and resulted in many large economic, social and political changes in the lives of British citizens. Many of the factors that contributed to these changes were technological advancements, the increase in a sense of self-interest and competition, as well as a huge amount of investment capital and cheap labour due to the increasing urban population.

During the Industrial Revolution new ideas about human potential and individual worth led to the beginnings to liberalistic ideologies. Although during this period working conditions were very poor, and there still was no strong sense of social equality, it was a huge step toward economic freedom, and contributed to developing the liberalistic views that formed free-market economy. The aspects of individual self-interest and competition were apparent during the Industrial Revolution and classic liberalism was a strong influence in the development of this capitalist society. This time period further contributed to developing classic liberalism, and it had a lasting impact that is still seen today through free-market economies worldwide.

American Revolution


The American citizens during this time no longer wanted to be ruled by a foreign government, or abide by the rules of a foreign queen after having suffered so much under their rule, and so having been influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, they declared independence. With the creation of the "Declaration of Independence" they established themselves as an independent republican government that would be ruled by the citizens rather than a monarch.

Ideas of individual rights and freedoms, as well as sovereignty of the people were at the forefront of the American Revolution, and it was these liberalistic ideals that founded the "Declaration of Independence" and established a citizen controlled government. The American Revolution continued in the development and support of classic liberalism, and succeeded in influencing liberalistic ideals in individuals around the globe.

French Revolution

1789 - 1799

The French Revolution is regarded as one of the most significant historical events in the development of classic liberalism. During this period a feudal class system was creating an extreme division between the rich and poor, and the worsening financial situation of France was beginning to become more evident. Many lower class citizens were questioning the system and began to take arms against the King and the social hierarchy that oppressed them. During the French Revolution citizens fought for their freedom, and above all for equal rights, which were embodied in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen".

The French Revolution demonstrated many of the aspects that are most central to classic liberalism, such as individual rights and freedoms, and the protection of civil liberties. The French Revolution demonstrates one of the first events during which the ideas of the Enlightenment began to develop into a true ideology, which we now know as classical liberalism. This event further developed the growing sense of liberalism that was spreading throughout Europe, and also greatly contributed to founding the classic liberalism that is still present in France and even Canada today.

Changes to the class system


As the ideals presented through classic liberalism began to be integrated into society, changes to the class system also began to emerge. Class distinctions based on birth right began to die out as divisions as a result of wealth began to become apparent. Private property, economic freedom, and the ability for individuals to act out of self-interest allowed equal opportunity for improved economic situations and better quality of life.

A class system based on wealth in which every individual possess the same rights and freedoms, and opportunity to compete and work out of self-interest began to result in a radically different society from the ones controlled by a feudal system. The principles of classic liberalism continued to be developed through the use of a free-market economy and equality as a result of the individual rights and freedoms that were upheld in society.