The Development of Classical Liberalism


Ancient Greek Democracy (Athens)


The first recollection of a Democratic government was in Athens. It was the first Greek city state to fully develop democracy. Athens' system was a direct democracy, and the participating people voted directly on things, such as legislation and executive bills. Not everyone was allowed to participate in the vote, only those that met the requirements. In order to vote you had to be an adult (18 and over), male, and neither a foreigner, slave, or a woman. Athens was by no means the only city in ancient Greece to have a democratic government system, however it is the only one that historians can trace some of the specific sixth-century events that led to the institution of democracy. This would be the first instance that we see of classical liberalism and it's connotation! By the Greeks implementing the right for citizens to vote, and not just people of a certain class or status, we see both the first contribution to classical liberalism as well as the first time citizens' choice was implemented in the government. Overall, this was the start of ordinary citizens having an influence and power in the government, and which paved the way tremendously for both liberalism and citizens being able to protect their freedoms.

Magna Carta (1215)


The Magna Carta is one of the most important and influential documents in English history. This was the document that solved the dispute between King John and his men over taxes and conflict with the Pope. The document is recognized as the cornerstone of the idea of the liberty of citizens. Also, it is considered the document that established the principle of Right to Privacy, as well as Equality before the Law.


1400 - 1700

The Renaissance was a time when people started questioning everything that was said to them. The definition of Renaissance is Rebirth, and this was truly reflected in what occurred. It was a period during European history, from the 14th to the 17th century, regarding the cultural bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. Renaissance Humanists believed in individual human worth and dignity, reason over faith, and that people can choose their own nature. This was a stark contrast to what was the common idea at the time, which was that a person's true nature was divined by a higher power. The Renaissance contributed to democracy as it brought in a lot of new ideas and thinkers. One of these great thinks was Thomas Hobbes, who is considered one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

Haudenosaunee Confederacy

1500 - 1776

The Haudenosaunee were members of a confederacy of Aboriginal nations known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. It appears that their ways of life and system of government had a strong influence on those that wrote up the U.S Constitution. This is seen by how the U.S Constitution strongly reflects the Haudenosaunee constitution, as both constitutions stress the importance of unity and peace and providing freedom to seek out one owns success. The Haudenosaunee Confederacies, called the "Great Peace of Law", had many radical ideas and contributed greatly to classical liberalism. The key principles of the "Great Peace of Law" are division of powers among the government, equal participation; including women, rights to speak one's mind and follow their choice of religion. These all are reflected in Constitutions around the world.

The Declaration of Independence (1766) which states (“All men are created equal and endowed by the Creator certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”), was an echo of John Locke’s statement “Life, Liberty, and Property.” The Declaration of Independence was created thanks to the theories and contributions of two men that wanted to see a change. A change in social construct, the political system, economics, and so much more. Those two people were John Locke and Adam Smith, and they contributed greatly to what we have come to know as Liberalism and the need of the Declaration of Independence.


1517 - 1600

The Reformation, which is referred to as the Protestant Reformation, was a severance in Western Christianity originally initiated by Martin Luther, and continued by John Calvin and other early Protestant Reformers. When Luther first started his movement, he could have never thought that he would contribute to leading the world to democracy, however, in the end he did. The movement he started has led relentlessly in that direction. Protestants demanded the right not to choose their rulers, but only the duty or opportunity to challenge them. In performing that duty, the Scottish radical John Knox wrote in 1558 "All man is equal." He didn't mean it the way it is today, as he only meant men when that statement was said, however the idea had a life of its own. A generation after Knox, the Scottish King James VI even accused his Protestant subjects of plotting a "Democratic form of government".

The Enlightenment

1685 - 1815

The 18th century is known today as the "Century of Philosophy", or "The Enlightenment". The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that grabbed hold of old concepts and tossed them away in favour of new concepts and ideas. This period included a wide range of ideas focused primarily on reason as the main source of authority and legitimacy, and it advanced ideas like liberty, religious tolerance, progress, and even constitutional government. We really see liberalism gaining popularity during this time, especially as the contributions of Enlightenment philosophers, such as John Locke, who is considered the "Father of Liberalism".

Adam Smith is Born (1723-1790)

Adam Smith (born 1723) was another very important person. He was the one who took the foundation John Locke had created and started building a house! Adam Smith is known as the Father of Economics, as well as creating Capitalism, believing in Free Market and Free Trade, and Privatization of Property. Smith also disagreed with high taxation, regulations, and tariffs. He stood against monopolies, Government intervention in Economics, and Mercantilism. Many of these principles are reflected today in liberalism.

American Revolution

1775 - 1783

The American Revolutionary War's purpose was fighting for Freedom and Liberty from Great Britain. Liberal ideas are what drove the colonists to completely reshape political thinking in the American Revolution of 1775, and which completed its purpose. The end of this war saw the removal of an overseas King with the Constitutional Republic.

French Revolution

1789 - 1799

The French Revolution was the focused on freedom from hereditary aristocracy (a principle which liberalism is against). People started hearing about Liberty and Equality, and some decided to start rising up. This resulted in creating a movement which led to the French Revolution, leading to a radical change in Europe and the world. The results of the French Revolution were impactful and many economic barriers that had protected higher society and royalty from law were abolished. The principle of Equality before the Law was established during that time.

Declaration of the Rights of Man established (August 26, 1789)
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is one of the most important documents that came out of the French Revolution. The papers explain a list of rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly separation of powers, that today are a part of liberalism.

Industrial Revolution

1800 - 1900

The Industrial Revolution is a transition from agricultural and man-made production to machine driven production in factories. The way the Industrial revolution contributed to classical liberalism is by laissez-faire capitalism, economic freedom, and the eventual destruction of rigid class structures.

Changes to the Class System


Society began to change and the class system radically transitioned towards classical liberalism values, such as individual worth, economic opportunities, private property, and economic freedom. People now had the opportunity to work up towards a higher economic class, and a chance to change their own lives and social standing.