The Development of Liberalism


Ancient Greek Democracy

508 BC - 322 BC

The Athens Greek democracy was one of the first democracies to ever exist and was probably the most important in ancient times. Other Greek cities set up democracies but none were as powerful as that of Athens. It remains a unique experiment in a democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right. Participation was by no means open to all citizens, which is why it didn't represent the principles of liberalism.

Democracy is one of the most used forms of government in the world today. The early examples of the democracy that the world has had before help form and influence today’s current form of democracy.

Magna Carta (1215)


The Magna Carta is a document that is one of the most celebrated documents in English history. It is an agreement that solved the conflict between King John and his men over taxes and disputes with the Pope. It is recognized as a cornerstone of the idea of the liberty of citizens.

The content of the Magna Carta was designed to re-balance power between the King and his subjects, especially between King John and the barons. The King conceded the fundamental principle that even as king, he was not above the law. The Magna Carta limits the power of rulers, and introduces the idea of lawful process and the idea of a jury. This simply means the kings would not have as much power as before.

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 (14th - 16th C.)

1450 - 1600

The Renaissance was a time of cultural, social, intellectual, political, and artistic reform. During this time, Europe rose up from the economic depression of the Middle Ages and finally experienced financial growth. This could be seen as a bridge from the Middle Ages to the modern times.

Instead of clinging to the traditions of the past, Europeans looked forward to the future with optimism. Inventions in this period, such as the printing press led to the increased rate of education. The Printing Press enabled the common to access information that were previously had only been available to the higher class.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy (15th C. - 1776)


The Haudenosaunee Confederacy encompasses the sovereign Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. 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. This was one of the first democratic systems the world has ever had.

The Confederacy’s Great Law of Peace is also recognized for influencing Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to write the American constitution. The Confederacy dissolved after the defeat of the British and allied Haudenosaunee nations in the American Revolution.

Reformation (1517 - 1648)


The Reformation is the name given to the restructuring of the Church in Europe. It began with a German pastor named Martin Luther who believed the Church had become corrupt and possessed too much power. He demanded the Church to be reformed. Over the next few years through the influence of humanism, new dominations were constructed according to various ideas, such as decision-making based on reason, which made the power of the Church waned and faith of the rational nature of human beings grew.

Industrial Revolution (18th - 19th C.)


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.
As better and more efficient technology was used to farm the land, more food was produced but fewer workers were needed. People began to demand greater political rights to accompany the greater economic freedom. Nations began to compete for power and wealth, which led to nationalism and imperialism.

The Enlightenment (18th C.)


The Renaissance and Reformation led to the greater belief in the importance of the individual and the power of reason. As these ideas became more popular, European philosophers helped promote the ideas about human nature that led to the development of classical liberalism. The Enlightenment or Age of Reason ultimately promoted the belief in the principles of classical liberalism.

American Revolution (1776)


The ideas of the 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 abused by the a foreign government.

French Revolution (1789)


During the French Revolution, 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. The people got fed up with this injustice and eventually, the Declaration of the Rights of Man was signed in 1789.

Changes to the Class System (19th C.)


Society began to change as the ideas of classical liberalism took hold. Social classes began to die away while a class structure based on wealth began to emerge. Classical liberalism valued the individual as unique and encouraged more economic opportunities. It valued private property and economic freedom. Under classical liberalism, people had greater opportunities to become wealthy and join a higher economic class.