Skip to main content
Belmont University logo

The Rise - Part 1

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 1

The phrase "the rise of classical liberalism" does not mean that a consistent and unified set of beliefs emerged intact in the late 17th century from the mind of John Locke. The fragmented tenets of classical liberalism had actually existed for centuries; Locke drew them together. Before they were joined to form classical liberalism and "rise" to philosophical credibility and acceptance, however, these tenets were part of the West's ongoing dialogue of ideas.

It is appropriate to pause and mention the lineage of some of these principles chronologically. Although the mainstream Greek and Roman conceptions of the individual were dependent upon membership in the community, ancient precursors to the idea of the a priori rights-bearer existed. For example, the skeptical Greek Sophists possessed a conception of equality that caused rhetoricians such as Alcidamas to denounce belief in natural slavery. Both Plato and Aristotle referred to Sophists elaborating the theories of the social contract (Glaucon and Lycophron, respectively). Pericle's Funeral Oration praises how the Greek polis treated the citizens equally beneath one law and provided for their freedom. Cicero, whom Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek credits as main precursor to classical liberalism, represented the individualist phase of the Roman code by his defense of natural law

Although stained by intolerance in the post-Constantinian era, Christianity offered a religion far less collectivist than the pagan pantheons or Hebraic law. As the Alexandrine Church Fathers rediscovered the classics and contemplated perfectibility, notions of self-cultivation gained wider acceptance. During the medieval period, the Scholastics broadened the study of the classics to include economics and political science. Spanish Fathers from the School of Salamanca, for example, synthesized Greek, Islamic, and Patristic thought to produce a theory of market prices which anticipated later Scottish Enlightenment arguments.

The Reformation divided Christian teaching, leaving individualism in the hands of Protestantism via the "priesthood of the believer" doctrine and natural law theory to Catholicism. In fact, Dutchman Hugo Grotius served as a natural law apologist in the face of Renaissance skepticism at the dawn of the 17th century and offered an early explanation of what later would be termed minimalism. The rise of absolutism in the West challenged liberty from economic, political, and philosophical angles. Some English citizens rebelled by building onto the myth of an ancient constitution that provided liberty to the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman conquests. Thus the vision of a constitutionally limited state with equality under the law gained desperate attention. By the time of the English Civil War, a group called the Levellers produced Agreements of the People calling for a written constitution derived from a compact of the people. Movement leader Richard Overton's 1746 An Arrow Against All Tyrants reveals the sophistication and maturity of the classical liberal components of individualism, property, and limited government almost half a century before John Locke:

To every Individuall [sic], in nature, is given an individuall property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himselfe, so he hath a selfe propriety...mine and thine cannot be, except this be; no man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans; I may be but an Individuall, enjoy my selfe, and my selfe propriety, and may write my selfe no more than my selfe... (Pease 141-142).

John Locke serves as the founder of classical liberalism by tying these principles together in a definitive manner, providing a thorough foundation upon which later minds could build. He, in short, offered the theses around which the classical liberal dialogue revolves.

The period considered as the rise of this ideology refers to the eras in which classical liberal thought enjoyed philosophical credibility and some measure of popular acceptance. This may be measured by works' publication, thinkers achieving positions of authority and prominence, the toleration of and perhaps aquiesance to classical liberal critiques of existing policies and practices, etc. I explore the chronology of this tradition in the following study of its thinkers and movements. Dates presented for movements address the times in which heavy publication or activity took place, and do not imply that the influence of these movements ceased at a particular point; in all instances I have attempted to justify the movements' dates, but I recognize these are tools of expediency rather than demonstrable facts.

John Locke (1632-1704)

Puritan-born John Locke trained at Oxford to become a physician. History, however, recalls him as a political theorist, responsible for such works as A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690), Some Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest, Raising the Value of Money (1692), and A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity (1695). His remembrance of Cromwell's dictatorship and his father's participation in the Civil War led him to a great respect for the authority of law. Which laws should be observed, however, posed a question for this intellect. His first great foundational contribution to classical liberalism is his exploration of rights theory. Searching for the basis and importance of rights led him to an exposition of natural law. Individual rights, infused with divine origin, gain a priori significance; laws then can be organized into a hierarchy of sorts. For example, any state law in opposition to the natural law that recognizes individual rights should not be obeyed. Conversely, the Christian nature of these rights denies persons absolute autonomy, as Locke demonstrates in The Second Treatise:

(B)ut though this be a State of Liberty, yet it is not a State of License, though Man in that State have an uncontroleable [sic] Liberty, to dispose of his Person or Possessions, yet he has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it (68).
Locke's second contribution is his view of humanity. Beginning his political analysis in the theoretical state of nature, Locke proposes that people coexisted in relative peace. Acquiring property by mixing labor with resources, they found few obstacles save the inconvenience of being their own judges in cases ideally wanting impartiality. This implies that humanity is generally good and capable of coexistence in liberty, an assertion opposing Thomas Hobbes' earlier view and later opinions as well that hold humans are fallen and unable to achieve harmony or peace. Thirdly, Locke provides the principle that political sovereignty comes only from the consent of the governed. Following this point to its conclusion, Locke admits that a government's breach of the contract between the state and the citizens (in which they agree to be under its authority) gives the people the right of revolution.

Perhaps most importantly, Locke perceives personal liberty as dependent upon private property. This property must be secure under the rule of law, else those without could manipulate a system to acquire from those who possessed. His definition of property hinges on the addition of personal labor, thus making ownership an intimate act of creation. He extends this definition to include religious beliefs, political ideas, and, as previously mentioned, one's self to an almost absolute degree.

Locke's contributions truly fathered a political philosophy that would spread and evolve for centuries. His descendants affirmed his justifications for inalienable rights and yet struggled with the unresolved tensions between divine natural law and the fallible humanity that must interpret it.

The Scottish Enlightenment (1714-1817)

One decade after the death of John Locke, Bernard Mandeville ushered in the era of the Scottish Enlightenment with his 1714 publication of Enquiry Into The Origin of Moral Virtue, or The Fable of the Bees. Mandeville's rhyme, by using an extended analogy between humanity and bees, asserts that all individuals act on their self-interest. Its denial of conventional morality as primary personal motivation for action and its slogan "private vices, publick virtues" made it a very controversial publication. Its wide publicity, however, set the stage for Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and Henry Homes (Lord Kames) to form a classical liberal movement. The Scottish Enlightenment offered a moral philosophy, or at least methodology, and an economic answer to the mercantilism which gripped Europe. The works and thoughts of its largest figure Adam Smith serve as a representative of both of these facets.

Although his name is largely associated with economics, Smith was the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His 1759 work The Theory of Moral Sentiments explores the origins of moral approval or disapproval in the effort to judge what is necessary for orderly social existence. He admits that individuals are necessarily pulled toward interaction by interest in others and desire for their approval, yet they also care deeply about themselves.

Smith makes no clear division between his moral studies and his economic beliefs, instead allowing one to fuel the other. He recognizes that self-interest motivates all individuals, yet he sees a natural manner in which this could serve everyone's needs. He explains this in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):

Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me what I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest (119).
In the atmosphere of free domestic and international trade, Smith argues, a division of labor leads to prosperity. He focuses on describing this division and the market processes that allow and enhance it. While doing so he discredits the ideas of mercantilism that bewitched Europe, such as the belief that hoarding specie made a nation wealthy. In critiquing this widely held perspective, Smith joined the French Physiocrats (to one of whom, Francois Quesnay, he dedicated Wealth of Nations). He also articulates the theory of absolute advantage, stating that the country with the lowest production costs for a given product will produce that good; the stepson of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Ricardo, would later alter and refine this point. His On The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation of 1817 marks the end of this movement.

Smith also produced Essays on Philosophical Subjects in 1795. By drawing on historical examples and observable subjects, Smith and his colleagues promoted an empirical methodology for studying human behavior. They also recognized that the characteristics of such behavior existed without human knowledge. Smith's famous "Invisible Hand" description of the market refers to such patterns' lack of human orchestration. Their united attack on mercantilism links the members of the Scottish Enlightenment with a concurrent movement across the English Channel.

The French Enlightenment (1717-1778)

The relationship between the French Enlightenment and the growth of French classical liberalism can best be explained in contrast to England's experiences. In England, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 ushered in a long period of Whig leadership characterized by order, stability, and individualism. France's feudalistic traditions and absolutist framework did not provide such a welcoming atmosphere for innovative thought. Authoritarianism arrived in the form of the government and also the Roman Catholic Church (which explains the strong anti-clerical classical liberal reaction in France that was absent elsewhere). The attempt to break free of such power caused Enlightenment reason and classical liberal individualism to progress together, providing mutual support and reinforcement (Gray 16-17). Several of the giant philosophes such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Condorcet therefore cross over into the ranks of great classical liberal thinkers.

The classical liberal branch of the French Enlightenment began with the 1717 publication of The Persian Letters, the first great contemporary criticism of the ancient regime and the first modern study of comparative governments, by Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755). In this work his concern both for toleration and for a productive citizenry is evident. He criticizes the powerful Church for persecuting the Huguenots, firstly because persecution is inherently offensive to personal rights of conscience and secondly because the Church is robbing the economy of the industry of hard workers. He brands such intolerance a "total eclipse of reason" (Bramsted 114).

Montesquieu understandably admired the British system. He traveled to observe it more closely between 1727 and 1731. This journey provided information for his great work The Spirit of the Laws (1748) in which he describes, albeit imperfectly, the British system as a series of checks, balances, and separations of power. Governments fall into the categories of republics, monarchies, and despotisms, he asserts, with the third ruled by arbitrary power instead of law. His insights concerning governmental structure would inspire many national leaders such as the United States' constitutionalist James Madison and Russia's reformer-Empress Catherine II, who praised it as "the prayer book of monarchs" and set aside daily study time for it (Florinsky 511-512).

Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778) wrote his plays, treatises, and books as Voltaire. Among his works are two compilations of articles, 1734's Philosophical Letters and 1764's Philosophical Dictionary. He also contributed to Diderot's expansive volumes of the revolutionary, underground Encyclopedia. He argues for the use of reason as the guide for man's actions and for toleration, to be manifested by acceptance of religious and philosophical diversity and adoption of a humane penal code (both no doubt came from his personal taste of imprisonment). Unlike Montesquieu before him and Condorcet after, Voltaire did not believe in an inherently evolving state of humanity. Driven by an anti-clerical passion causing him to compare contemporary Christians to Christ's executioners rather than his fellow-martyrs, he expects periods of progress to be followed by regressions. This does not lessen his fervor for personal rights and reform, however. He ends his novel Candide with the injunction: "We must cultivate our garden" (Voltaire 120).

Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), friend of Voltaire and Jacques Turgot, was active in the politics of France as well as its thought. A member of the Paris Commune beginning in 1789, he became a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1791 and drafted the new Declaration of Rights in 1793 as a Convention member. His academic pursuits included defining and analyzing ten stages of history; this sweeping perspective convinces him of the progressive evolution of humankind. J. G. Merquior notes that Condorcet stresses the political elements of knowledge and consent which were antithetical to the "Jacobin voluntarism" gaining momentum in France at that time, making him the "very opposite of Robespierre" (33). Imprisoned after criticizing the 1793 Constitution and being discovered without a passport, he was found mysteriously dead in his cell in 1794. His well-known Sketch for A Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind captures the breadth of Condorcet's beliefs in a single work. It is appropriate that classical liberalism's first martyr provides an encouragement to his intellectual descendants in his posthumously-published masterpiece:

And how admirably calculated is this view of the human race, emancipated from its chains, released alike from the dominion of chance as well as from that of the enemies of its progress... It is the contemplation of this prospect that rewards him [the philosopher] for all his efforts to assist the progress of reason and establishment of liberty. He dares to regard these efforts as a part of the eternal chain of the destiny of mankind... (312).

The French Physiocrats (1759-1776)

Toward the end of the French Enlightenment an economic movement added its voice to that of the philosophes. Adam Smith admits that, with its faults, the Physiocratic movements produced "perhaps the nearest approximation to the truth that has yet been published upon the subject of Political economy" (Blaug 24). Its roots rest with Cantillon, whose pre-Smith Essay on the Nature of Commerce (written in the 1720s but not published until 1755) first systematized a comprehensive view of economics. He notes that specie flow creates different effects depending on how it is injected into the economy; exportation surpluses eventually prove more beneficial than increased domestic production, for example (Blaug 21).

The Physiocrats arose in response to French mercantilism, best personified by Louis XIV's Controller General of Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert. "Colbertism" included emphasizing planned industry to the neglect of agriculture and raising the land tax to fund both the War of Spanish Succession and the splendor of the Sun King's court. Left a secondary power under Louis XV after the Seven Years' War, France needed solutions; the Physiocrats proposed lifting trade restrictions, focusing on agriculture, reducing all taxes to a single rent tax, etc. Francois Quesnay's Tableau Economique (1759) marks the movement's beginning and describes the circular flow of money and the interdependency of different markets.

Classical liberalism found its champion in Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Controller General of Finance under Louis XVI from 1774 to 1778. Departing from strict Physiocratic allegiance to agriculture, he argues for freedom of labor and trade as well as an increase in both agricultural and industrial production. A letter to Abbe Terray underscores Turgot's foresight:

The price of food, the nation's wealth, the price of labor, the growth of population are all linked together; they establish themselves in equilibrium according to a natural process of adjustment; and this adjustment is always made when commerce and competition are entirely free (Bramsted 138).
His policies did not find implementation, but his influential writings such as Elogy and Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Riches state the position of physiocratic thought while anticipating future classical liberal economic arguments. For this reason, the date of the end of the movement coincides with his last publication.

The American Democratic-Republicans (1776-1820)

As both the French Enlightenment and Physiocratic movement drew to a close, the colonists on the North American continent prepared to prove that the classical liberal seeds of the past century had found fertile soil in the New World. One of those responsible for generating the momentum propelling America to independence was pamphleteer and author Thomas Paine (1737-1809). An Englishman arriving with personal recommendation letters from Benjamin Franklin, Paine had been in North America only two years when he anonymously published Common Sense (1776). Although he argues (in this work as well as in American Crisis, 1777, and the two volumes of Rights of Man, 1791 and 1792, respectively) from a Lockean framework of natural law, the passion with which he writes is reminiscent of French anti-authoritarianism: "Government even in its best state is a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one..." (Bramsted 195).

His eloquent explanation of consent of the governed reached nearly every adult in the colonies through his pamphlet. Notably, after the conception of the United States of America, Paine journeyed to France to spread his message to the next set of revolutionaries. At this time he also challenged thinker Edmund Burke, calling for an overthrow of the British monarchy in Rights of Man. He was made a French citizen by the Legislative Assembly, elected as a member of the Convention, associated with Condorcet, and imprisoned with the fall of the Girondins. In 1802, he returned to the United States having written and spoken for his political vision in England, America, and France and participated in the two great revolutions of the 19th century.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) consulted with Paine while drafting the American Declaration of Independence (1776). In this statement, Jefferson unites the myth of the ancient constitution and the Lockean natural rights tradition to prove that England had breached its contract with the colonists. The people therefore had the right to revolt and compact together to form a new government; in referring his case to a global audience, he emphasizes the universality of his philosophy. Beyond the Declaration, Jefferson's perspective appeared in his letters, political papers, and policies as Secretary of State and President. He and his lifelong friend and colleague James Madison spearheaded the Democratic-Republican party to oppose the Federalists' desire to centralize and increase governmental power, leading both of them to the nation's highest office.

In particular, efferson focused on creating an independent citizenry capable of maintaining the democratic republic, and he found his key in the yeoman farmer. He believed the self-sufficient landowner possessed the ability to cultivate himself and therefore treasure his freedom. Jefferson's emphasis on liberty as self-realization anticipated the German classical liberals to be mentioned later.

James Madison also served as Secretary of State and President but his contributions appeared well before he assumed these positions. The originator of the Virginia Plan at the Constitutional Convention and final father of the United States Constitution, Madison clearly revealed a Lockean natural law foundation coupled with a Montesquieu-style separation of powers. The federalism he created (and explained in The Federalist Papers, which he co-authored with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in 1787 and 1788) pitted the self-interests of factions against each other to keep any group from acquiring the power to offend others' rights. One right which he tried to define and explore throughout his life was the right of property. His 1792 "On Property" notes the radical extent to which he defined an individual's claim to his own:

He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights (267).

Although his influence lived on in the very fabric of the United States governmental structure, Madison stepped out of the spotlight at the close of his second term as President in 1816 and the Democratic-Republican movement may be said to have ended.