The Rise, Decline, and Reemergence of Classical Liberalism
by Amy H. Sturgis
© The LockeSmith Institute, 1994
No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the written permission of THE LOCKESMITH INSTITUTE, except for brief quotations used in reviews or critical essays/articles.
The Rise - part 2
William Godwin (1756-1836) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
In the midst of the American and French Revolutions, a British pair was concerned with revolutionary ideas of a different kind. William Godwin, hailed by some as the father of English anarchism, blended earlier forms of classical liberalism. His belief in the self-perfectibility of man and the law of progress reflected Enlightenment emphasis on reason and evolution. His theory of natural rights descended from John Locke; Herbert Spencer, discussed later, would credit Godwin's exposition on natural law as highly influential to his own philosophy. He produced one powerful work, Political Justice, in 1798. Godwin's wife is remembered as a pioneer in her own right. In her short life Mary Wollstonecraft paved the way for classical liberal feminism by expanding natural rights theory to apply to women. Her 1792 work Vindication of the Rights of Women names women as co-inheritors of the individualist tradition with men. It would be 56 more years before her words were followed by political action by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the American who would write The Declarations of Sentiments and Resolutions (1848) and claim women's rights with the language of the Declaration of Independence. (As Wollstonecraft's intellectual heir, Stanton also fought the 14th Amendment because it defined citizens as male; she also organized the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.)
Anne Louise Germaine de Stael (1766-1817) and Benjamin Constant de Rebecque (1767-1830)
Unlike the case of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, de Stael and Constant framed their beliefs as responses to the throes of rebellion. They were native French citizens, published within the same decades and, for years, partners in an open romantic affair.
Germaine de Stael was the daughter of Louis XVI's most popular Controller General of Finance, Swiss banker Jacques Necker. Well-educated and cosmopolitan, de Stael married a Swedish diplomat, maintained a relationship with Romantic August Schlegel, and held an intense personal rivalry with Napoleon Bonaparte, who for a time even restrained publication of her work in France. Her 1788 Letters to J.J. Rousseau and 1807 Corinne, of Italy were followed by her 1810 On Germany. In this work she asserts that Protestantism is a prerequisite for liberty, because only the "priesthood of the believer" doctrine creates the individualistic morality a free society requires. This argument would be echoed by Alexis de Tocqueville, treated later, and generations of thinkers. Her seminal work Considerations on the French Revolution (1818) offers a defense of the 1789 Revolution's vision of civil equality and constitutionalism while condemning the 1793 Revolution's terror and egalitarianism. Through this analysis de Stael provides a noteworthy exposition of French classical liberalism.
Unlike Whig and Anglophile de Stael, Benjamin Constant felt comfortable with democracy and actively participated in French government. From 1799 to 1802 he served as a member of the Tribunat, he acted as Councilor of State during the Hundred Days of 1815, he framed Napoleon's Constitution for the monarchy after the Hundred Days, and he became a deputy to the Chamber in 1819. Like de Stael, however, he felt German philosophical influences. His assertion that "...it is for self-perfectioning that destiny calls us" reveals the thought of his friend, aesthetic individualist Wilhelm von Humboldt, discussed later (Constant 559).
He perceived history as an evolution from ancient liberty, or equal public involvement and powerlessness before the state, to modern liberty, or recognition of a private sphere untouched by government. He did not see this end achieved by the French revolution, however. Those who had fought the aristocracy were nonetheless unprepared for universal participation, he argues. The transitional medium between the two liberties resulted in both limited monarchy and limited popular rule, which he terms "le juste milieu" (Merquior 50-51).
Constant's works include his plea for a parliamentary monarchy, Political Principles Applicable To All Governments (1815) and his novel Alphonse (1816). His characteristic vindication of liberty and constitutionalism is most effectively presented in Heart of Constitutional Politics (1818-1820). He stresses the need to limit the authority of a government through a constitution, which leads him to criticize Rousseau's notions of the social contract and the general will. After witnessing the Terror and Jacobin dictatorship established using Rousseau's rhetoric, Constant sees that his fellow Frenchman did not define any mechanism to limit the power he described; thus "... The Social Contract, so often invoked in favor of liberty, is the most terrible auxiliary of every form of despotism" (Constant 280).
Jean Baptiste Say (1767-1832)
Say gathered business experience in the economically advanced England before returning to France to support the Revolution. Like Constant, he became a member of the Tribunat in 1799. At this time many criticized England's new industrial order; for example, the French Simonde de Sismondi expected capital investments would sometimes force production to outrun consumption, and the English William Spence argued capital investment in areas other than agriculture created insecurity and fluctuations (Fusfeld 49). In reply to such criticisms, Say produced the 1803 piece. Here debuts Say's Law of Markets, which states that supply creates its own demand, or, the commercial creation of output generates income, making possible more investment, spawning a new production cycle. In short, a person cannot demand without supplying. Thus the criticisms of capital investments were erroneous, as the critics ignored the ongoing process such funds made possible.
After 1804, Say began a cotton spinning factory in northern France. The Bourbons sent him to study economic conditions again after Napoleon's fall. He returned to teach political economics and eventually became the first Chair of Political Economy at the College of France. His later works include the Catechism of Political Economy (1817), Letters to Malthus, and The Complete Course of Political Economy (1828-1830). His law of markets dominated mainstream economics for years until eclipsed by the rise of collectivism and socialism in the early 20th century.
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835)
Wilhelm von Humboldt represents the melding of German Romanticism and classical liberalism, producing what E.K. Bramsted has termed aesthetic individualism. This philosophy of the person for his own sake and the self as art influenced other thinkers such as Constant; John Stuart Mill acknowledged his own tremendous debt by using his quote as the epigraph to the 1859 classic On Liberty.
The Prussian administrator, diplomat, and founder of the University of Berlin proposed that the individual's highest purpose is bildung, or self-cultivation. In order for a person to achieve "the highest and most truly proportionate development of his powers to a complete whole," each must possess freedom and a variety of experiences (Humboldt 340). The legitimate function of the state, therefore, is to act as the nachtwachterstaat (night watchman) protecting citizens by reacting to trespasses, not by proactively interfering. Isaiah Berlin later termed this concept "negative liberty," denoting a "freedom from" rather than a "freedom to." All other governmental activity robs people of individuality by imposing identical rules on unique people and of dignity by not allowing them to make decisions or take responsibility.
Humboldt's political works consist of The Limits of State Action, written at the age of 24, and two essays, "The Purpose of Man" and "The Purpose of the State." None were published during his lifetime. Limits, released in 1851, in fact appeared only nine years before the work it so influenced, Mill's On Liberty.
David Ricardo (1772-1823)
London-born Ricardo ran his own successful business when he first became familiar with Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. He soon grew active in the Corn Law controversy and published letters and essays like 1810's The High Price of Bullion. His major work arrived in 1817, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. In this work he proposes a labor theory of value and discusses income distribution between capital owners, landlords, and workers. Like Say, he sees investment capital as the catalyst for the production cycle; therefore, he believes capital accumulation feeds economic expansion and maximization of profits. His most vital contribution, however, is his addition to Adam Smith's concept of absolute advantage.
Smith argued that the country with the lowest production costs for a given product should produce that product. Ricardo responds that trade would benefit two nations if each concentrated its production on the product at which it relatively excels. This is now called the Law of Comparative Advantage.
Ricardo continued his political involvement by serving in the House of Commons from 1819 until his death. His intellectual dialogue with Smith's theories and his economic accomplishments lead some scholars to consider him a late (and English) stepson of the Scottish Enlightenment. Its completion may therefore be marked by the publication date of Ricardo's classic.
Felicite Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854)
Lamennais made the significant attempt to reconcile the Church with classical liberalism and thus became the father of French liberal Catholicism. Ordained as a priest in 1816, Lamennais began a newspaper called L'Avenir, whose slogan read "God and Liberty," to publicize his message. An 1830 issue explains: "We are afraid of liberalism. Catholicize it and it will be born again" (Bramsted 394).
His journalism defines the six political freedoms which he demanded of the French state. The first of these is freedom of religion, particularly important in France due to the intertwining of the Catholic Church and the government after the Concordat. The others include freedom of instruction, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of election, and "abolition of the disastrous policy of centralisation" (Lamennais 498-501). In these demands he shows himself a true classical liberal; his innovation lies in combining his philosophy with the Church, when others before and after him argue that the only faith that holds compatible tenets is not Catholicism, but Protestantism.
Although he traveled to Rome to persuade the Pope of is philosophical convictions, the Vatican denounced him. He finally stopped performing his priestly duties and pursued a larger audience for his message. His 1835 work Words Of A Believer was a popular success, translated into several languages and read widely throughout his lifetime. Lamennais proved by his example that classical liberalism was not incompatible with Catholicism, and he planted the seeds of his thought among believers previously unexposed to it.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
Like his American disciple William Graham Sumner, Spencer's classical liberalism remains linked with the concept of Social Darwinism. Spencer wanted to apply scientific methods to the humanities and integrate social phenomena (such as societal evolution) into a larger, holistic pattern (as in evolution in general).
This philosopher, born in Derby into a Wesleyan home, produced many works including The Proper Sphere of Government (1843), Social Statics (1851), and Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857). From 1848 until 1858 he served as sub-editor of the influential publication The Economist. In his desire to unite the disciplines into an overarching study of humanity he produced the nine-volume The Synthetic Philosophy over the period from 1855 to 1893, addressing subjects from ethics to biology. His The Man Versus The State appeared in 1884.
Spencer's greatest contribution to classical liberal thought is his explanation and consistent application of The Principle Of Equal Freedom; he asserts that, morally, every person should be free to do as he wills provided he does not infringe on anyone else's freedom. Extending this reasoning proposes that no one is duty-bound to help or provide for another. Thus, those individuals capable of sustaining themselves will survive and further human evolution. Spencer recognizes this approach as the competitive laissez-faire model of economics expanded from economics to human experience in general (Greenleaf 59, 69).
Many criticisms of the state followed from this reasoning. In "Over-Legislation" (1853) he notes: "Though we no longer presume to coerce men for their spiritual good [Spencer's emphasis], we still think ourselves called upon to coerce them for their material good: not seeing that the one is as useless and as unwarrantable as the other" (267-268). Although he was optimistic about the upcoming industrialism, his thoughts were overshadowed by increasing state action and dependency. He distrusted democracy and majoritarianism. By the time of The Man Versus The State, Spencer despaired over the regressive trend of "re-barbarization" he observed like Voltaire had before him; he compared modern man's worship of the state to primitive, ignorant fetish-worship (Mack xix, Spencer 94). His defiant writings serve as powerful statements of classical liberal individualism applied across the lines of disciplines and eras. Similarly, his later thought foreshadows the despair of anticipated decline for classical liberalism.
The Manchester School (1835-1859)
The Manchester School originated in opposition to the Corn Laws in England. These laws, dating from the Middle Ages and strengthened in 1815, granted monopolies to domestic corn producers. As the population grew and the corn supply failed to expand accordingly, the House of Commons resisted attempts to allow importation. The loose collection of officials and writers known as the Manchester School proposed the repeal of the Corn Laws in favor of trade, and in 1846 their efforts were rewarded.
Richard Cobden (1804-1865), the momentum behind the school with his colleague John Bright, addressed more than this single issue. In 1835 he was penning anonymous letters to newspapers concerning Manchester's incorporation. England, Ireland, and America (1835) and Russia (1836) display classical liberal perspectives on domestic and international subjects unified by Cobden's desire to eliminate barriers to progress. For example, he argues that America had more resources to invest into private production than England because England tied many of its resources into its large military establishment. Trade brings peace because the trading parties' self-interest demands it. Therefore, Cobden asserts, diverting military funds to production removes an obstacle to economic progress that trade will render useless anyway. Dedicated to laissez-faire economics, international trade and arbitration, pacifism, and reform, Cobden served after 1841 in the House of Commons and saw his philosophy grow to be the prevalent one in British office. Fellow British politician Joseph Chamberlain summarizes the Manchester School's ideology well:
This doctrine of Mr. Cobden was a consistent doctrine. His view was that there should be no state in our domestic concerns. He believed that individuals should be left to themselves to make the best of their abilities and circumstances, and that there should be no attempt to equalise the conditions of life and happiness. To him, accordingly, protection of labour was quite as bad as protection of trade. To him a trade union was worse than a landlord. To him all factory legislation was as bad as the institution of tariffs (Greenleaf 33).This expression of classical liberalism outlived the Manchester School, which ended with the 1859 retirement of the last of the active sympathizers from public office, Assistant Secretary of Treasury Sir Charles Trevely. Later thinkers such as Frederick Bastiat (who lived from 1801 to 1850 and penned the satirical "Petition from the Manufacturers of Candles" in 1845 and the celebrated The Law in 1849) acknowledged the influence of Cobden and his colleagues on their personal philosophies.
American Transcendentalism (1835-1882)
The American Transcendentalist movement follows in the optimistic, melioristic individualism of Condorcet and Humboldt and in certain ways precedes 20th century Objectivism. This strain of classical liberalism runs parallel to the more pessimistic thought of Madison, Spencer, de Tocqueville, Mises, and Hayek. These two perspectives reappear in the classical liberal tradition and reflect the basic assumptions about the nature of man: one that he is perfectible, and the other that he is fallen.
The movement began during the Jacksonian Era's backlash against oppressive institutions. Popular renewed faith in humankind spilled over to the church, causing the Unitarians to call for a more direct relationship between man and God/Truth. William Ellery Channing spearheaded this new Reformation and "sought in effect a new priesthood of all believers"; the priesthood tenet, notably, is the fundamental reason why pre- and post- Lamennais thinkers called Protestantism a prerequisite for classical liberalism (Grimes 202). His publication of Essay On Slavery (1835) marks the beginning of Transcendentalism.
Lecturer and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) first gained attention from his 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard entitled "The American Scholar." In it he challenges people to become "Man Thinking" by using nature, history, and experience to discover truth instead of relying on others' interpretations. Like Ayn Rand after him, he placed the greatest emphasis on the unlimited worth and potential of the individual: "The world is nothing, the man is all...in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all (Emerson 62). He continued with Self-Reliance in 1841, furthering his "intellectual form of rugged individualism" (Grimes 204).
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) criticized the shallow materialism and lack of diversity in his modern society much like Emerson. His major work appeared in 1849 entitled Civil Disobedience. His interest in the individual produced an indifference to society and its institutions. From this perspective Thoreau outlines the political strategy of passive resistance to governmental policies individuals deem intolerable, which he calls civil disobedience. From actions of resistance and personal responsibility he pictures people eventually achieving self-government and the state atrophying into nonexistence. Thus when he says "That government is best which governs not at all," he is calling less for immediate anarchy than for an evolution toward its final achievement (Thoreau 356).
The perceptions of the Transcendentalists reflect a Romantic past and influenced later optimistic thinkers. Although its influence lived on, the movement may be said to have ended with the death of the respected Emerson in 1882.
Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859)
While the Manchester School fought the Corn Laws and gained power within the British government, Alexis de Tocqueville of France was writing his reflections on the government and society of the young American nation. A magistrate in the Versailles law courts, de Tocqueville was sent to the United States to study its penal code. This observation led to the publication of his most powerful work, Democracy in America (released in two parts in 1835 and 1840). He followed Democracy with a decade-long tenure as Deputy in the French Chamber as an Independent, his 1856 work Ancient Regime and the Revolution, a period in the Constituent Assembly, and 1893's Recollections at the end of the July monarchy and the Second Republic.
Unlike the personal nature of Transcendentalism or the economic nature of the Manchester School, de Tocqueville's classical liberalism was political. His works focus on the issues of democracy and equality in particular. For example, he proposes that individualism, which he distinguishes from egoism, threatens the morality of the community and its institutions in the United States. He worries about the lack of civic virtue displayed in the land he observed. A tyranny of the masses will arise from ever-expanding equality, he warns, and prey on the bureaucracy-dependent citizens. He argues that both the bureaucracy and the masses in a democracy threaten the precious liberties of individuals. Anglophilic like Montesquieu and de Stael before him, de Tocqueville's Jansenist heritage never allowed him to share the optimistic views of social progress some of his countrymen possessed. His works continue to provide one of the best critiques of the democracy and equality, revealing how they can grow to be threats to the freedom of individuals.
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
Perhaps the single best window into classical liberalism, John Stuart Mill represents the crossroads of English, French, and German strains of thought. The son of James Mill, utilitarian and author of the first English textbook of economics, John grew up with the teaching of Jeremy Bentham and his Hedonistic Calculus. He also read the Greek and Latin classics, Smith, Ricardo, and others; his intensive early study led to a breakdown in his twenties. After this period he turned to the private task of developing a more liberal utilitarianism to resolve the philosophical tensions he observed.
He joined the British East India Company at the age of 17 and retired 35 years later as the Chief of the Office. This business experience inspired the 1848 Principles of Political Economy in which Mill accepts the labor theory of value, defends the domestic price of a good as its natural price, and explains how profits are disseminated among trading countries, His 1869 On The Subjugation of Women expresses his support of women's suffrage. Autobiography appeared in 1873. Mill's most celebrated writings include On Liberty (1859), Considerations on Representative Government (1861), and Utilitarianism (1863) and develop his political theory. They provide the key to understanding the paradoxes with which he struggled.
Mill represents the English classical liberal tradition of independence by warning against the tyranny of opinion that silences other voices and calling for a form of intellectual toleration. He also shows sympathy for the French tradition of self-rule by creating an ethical sphere of privacy in his theory, a space for each individual which the state and the majority cannot touch. Neither toleration nor privacy fit easily with the Benthamite equation for imposing the system producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Most noteworthy, however, is Mill's revision of the "greatest happiness" maxim itself. The strong influence of the German tradition, Humboldt's aesthetic individualism in particular, dictated an emphasis on the individual and his act of self-cultivation. Mill therefore alters his view to include quality of happiness as well as quantity in judging utility, with those higher pleasures of self-realization ranking higher in quality:
...some kinds [Mill's emphasis] of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone (138-139).
In attempting to reform utilitarianism, Mill developed fusions of classical liberal thought. Tensions remained. When could the sphere of privacy be invaded? When must a dissident vote be silenced to keep others from harm? Who would or could determine the quality of happiness or pleasure? His works seem to agree that, in most instances, people, either alone or in voluntary associations, make decisions concerning themselves better than the government. Mill therefore advocated limiting the state. His wrestling ended in a pessimistic philosophy more aware of societal entropy than evolution, with later socialistic themes perhaps anticipating modern liberalism. His synthesis of different strains of thought, however, underscores the consistency and yet the diversity of the rich classical liberal tradition. His publications also mark the end of the rise of classical liberalism.