Development of Classical Liberalism


Athenian Democracy

508 BCE - 322 BCE

Athenian democracy (or the Ancient Greek democracy) was revolutionary and reflected the principles of classical liberalism in many ways. One foundation of the Athenian government was that the people would make decisions for themselves through a direct democracy. This reflects the idea that humans are naturally reasonable and are capable to make decisions for themselves. The Ancient Greeks did not rely on a monarch with God-given power to make decisions for the citizens. This helped to contribute to the principle that human beings deserved the right to make their own decisions about their lives. Since the democratic Greek society was extremely successful, it helped to give Enlightenment thinkers proof that humans were, in fact, rational in nature.

Magna Carta

1215 AD

The Magna Carta was the first document to establish the concept that the law applies equally to all individuals, including the king. It was issued by King John of England, who reigned from the years 1199 to 1216. The ideas about justice presented in the Magna Carta contributed to the concept of the Rule of Law, which is very important in classical liberalism. Prior to this document, there was nothing preventing the king and other nobles from evading justice. However after the document's conception, it was established that laws must apply equally to all, an idea which carried on into the ideas of classical liberalism.


1400 AD - 1600 AD

The Renaissance was a time of great social change in Europe. Europeans became increasingly interested in ancient Greek and Roman culture, and began placing increased importance on the individual. This newfound interest revived the idea of the ancient democracy that the Greeks had, and brought this type of government back into the limelight. In addition, an increased value placed on individuals led to the development of improved freedoms and rights for individuals. As common people gained worth, they also began making decisions for themselves instead of having their life determined by the choices of nobles, lords and monarchs.
The Renaissance not only brought the Athenian democracy and its many liberal principles back to life, but also led to the development of many of the principles of classical liberalism, including the rights, freedoms and liberties that human beings have.
(Perspectives on Ideology, page 68-70)

Haudenosaunee Confederacy

1400 AD - 1776 AD

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy was an alliance between six nations. Together, they created an ancient type of constitution called "The Great Law of Peace", which outlined the way to harmonious living among the nations. In many ways, their government was a very sophisticated democracy, and shared many characteristics with classical liberalism and modern day governments. One similarity to classical liberalism is that the Great Law of Peace outlined certain rights and freedoms inherent to all individuals. These included freedom of speech and religion. This likely was an influence of modern classical liberalism, as an important aspect of many democratic societies today is that individuals have the freedom to voice their opinions and practice the religion of their choice. In addition, the Great Law of Peace outlined that government should be divided into branches of executive and legislative powers. This property is applied in many democracies today, and has led to peace in many nations.
(Perspectives on Ideology, page 116)


1517 AD - 1648 AD

Much like the Renaissance, the Reformation drew on the ideas of ancient civilizations. After the great social, spiritual and technological advancement during the Renaissance era, people were left unhappy with the church that controlled them. When Martin Luther translated the bible and it was mass produced on the Gutenberg Press, the information which people previously relied on the church to receive was now in their own hands. As the common people began to interpret the bible in their own way, absolute faith in God and the church decreased, and rational thought flourished. This led to belief in the natural rationality of human beings as well as the value of each individual. These ideas are very important in classical liberalism and are very prevalent in the modern world.
With the ability for everyone to interpret the bible came an increased sense of equality as well. Now that Priests and Clergy members were not the only people who could read the texts, all members of the Christian faith became equal; as Martin Luther said, they became the "priesthood of believers".
(Perspectives on Ideology page 70)

The Enlightenment

1700 AD - 1800 AD

The period of the Enlightenment placed great importance on the values of liberty and progress. During the Enlightenment, societal organization shifted from a hierarchical system to one where the individual was the focus. As people became increasingly important, certain rights and qualities became inherent. These ideas all contributed to the emphasis placed on the individual that is central to classical liberalism. Europeans began to see the world scientifically and rational thought became increasingly common. As rationality increased, it became more clear that human beings were capable of making their own decisions about their lives. Over time, reliance on monarchs and the church decreased and individuality was born.

Industrial Revolution

1750 AD - 1850 AD

The Industrial Revolution brought great changes in Europe, specifically in Great Britain. Not only did many people move from the countryside to cities and towns, but many farmers became factory workers. All of these changes had both positive and negative effects on the country. Suddenly, human rights were at the forefront as poor working conditions plagued the people. Individuals became increasingly aware and intolerant of their mistreatment. As people fought to improve their situation, living situations saw improvement for the first time in centuries. Also, inventions such as the printing press and the greater use of printing led to an increase in literacy among the common people. When the ability to read became more widespread, citizens demanded to be allowed to participate in government. With greater political participation by the masses came greater restrictions on government, the ability for individuals to make their own decisions and more individual rights and freedoms. All of these aspects are key to classical liberalism.
In addition to increased desire for rights and political power, the industrial revolution also saw the development of a middle class as more and more people became successful. As there was now a greater number of wealthy, successful people, the nobles, lords and monarchs had less power. Ultimately, this led to the empowerment of the common people, and they became capable of achieving the power that they so desired.

American Revolution

1776 AD - 1783 AD

After the American Revolution, the American Constitution was formed. Not only did this outline policies of restriction on government, guaranteed civil liberties, rights and freedoms, but it brought power to the people to control their government. All of these ideas were founded during the revolution and represented a stark contrast to to the governmental system that existed under the rule of the British. As the newly independent Americans fought to establish a government that suited their ideas of how a country should be run, they put into action many of the principles that we now know to be central to classical liberalism. The American Constitution was the first example of a nation run on classical liberalism as we know it today.

French Revolution

1789 AD - 1799 AD

Arguably, the French Revolution was the death of the Feudal system that dominated most of Europe. As Feudalism was replaced by a more democratic government where individuals had a role, the principles of classical liberalism began to flourish in Europe. Since the French Revolution drew inspiration from its counterpart in America, many of the same principles came into play. The French people began to rebel against their dictatorial monarch and started to fight for their rights as individuals. King Louis XVI slowly but surely lost his power of the people of France and in his absence, a society where individuals have freedoms and importance began to develop. Eventually, with the creation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, these concepts began entrenched in French society, and the liberal ideas which would eventually spread throughout the whole of Europe were born.

Changes to Class System

1800 AD - 1900 AD

As the class system based on social status disappeared and one based on wealth formed, the common man gained much more opportunity. It was no longer impossible to move between classes and individuals were now capable of advancing in society. The great differences between the wealth and power of nobles, lords and clergy members, and the poor common class diminished. A middle class emerged, which helped to bridge the difference between the impoverished lower class and the powerful elite. More citizens gained power in the nation which allowed individuals to begin making their own decisions. Power fell out of the hands of the wealthy and into the whole of society. Individuals gained the freedom to take control of their lives, leading to the development of the many individualistic principles of classical liberalism.