The Birth of Classic Liberalism

Classic liberalism arose in opposition to state-imposed religion and aristocracy in the 1600 – 1700’s during the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and America.[1][2][3]

Enlightenment in this respect is the emphasizing of reason and individualism rather than traditional authority structures (namely absolute Monarchies and the Divine Right of Kings).

Enlightenment typically champions values of liberty, progress, science, tolerance, wisdom, and fraternity (as Kant explains for instance), but the exact meaning of enlightenment and the view on the meaning of these subsequent terms differs from one philosopher to another.

The political version of enlightenment is liberalism, the idea that all men are created equal, and have a right to life and liberty, and that this should be reflected in government. This concept is at the heart of the French, British, and American revolutions, but again the exact meaning differs by country, faction, and philosopher.

The movement that was pro-aristocracy, order, and tradition that opposed liberalism, is called conservatism.

Classical liberalism can be separated into to types, radical classical liberalism (like the French Revolutionaries and America’s Anti-Federalists) and moderate classical liberalism (like the English Whigs and Federalists).

Liberalism evolved over time from classic liberalism to social liberalism (as liberalism was influenced by socialist thinkers like Marx and radical democrats like Rousseau, and also Presidents like Lincoln and Roosevelt who pushed back against institutions like slavery and Gilded Age big businesses.)

Meanwhile, the meaning of conservatism has changed over time depending on what type of liberalism it opposed (but can generally be defined as classical conservatism and social conservatism; opposing each type of liberalism respectively).

TIP: See liberal vs. conservative for the types of liberalism and conservatism and detailed definitions, this page focuses on the history liberalism specifically. Also see Federalists vs. Anti-Federalists for a look at the two forms of classical liberalism in practice. See also the history of the political parties.

TIP: If you don’t want to be ruled by Barons (money), Churches (religion), and Kings (aristocracy) “then you might be a liberal”. Below we explore the different types of liberalism including classical liberalism, social liberalism, and libertarianism (another basic government types). First, the following three videos explain liberalism, enlightenment, and the important related concepts of “a social contract and the state of nature.”

Classical Liberalism: A Primer – Economics, History, Law, Limited Government (2002). This is a summary of the history liberalism.

FACT1698’s Bill of Rights in England is the first modern Bill of Rights. John Locke was part of the movement that secured these rights.

All About the Enlightenment The Age of Reason. The Age of Enlightenment is the birth of Liberalism. The political parties of today are most versions of liberalism (aside from some extreme forms of conservatism).

FACT: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, first codified in 1789 in France, is a foundational document of both liberalism and human rights. See a history of Human Rights documents.

The Enlightenment: Social Contract. A fun look at government with 8-Bit Philosophy.

FACT: The Age of Enlightenment is also called “the Age of Reason“. Most, but not all, of its philosophers focused on reason over the passions (or at least focused on using reason to temper the passions).

A Quick History of Enlightenment and Liberalism – From Locke, to Keynes, to Rawls, to Today

Both the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of liberalism can be viewed as starting with the father of liberalism John Locke (1632 – 1704), although he was informed by thinkers like the Greeks, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and the events of the English Civil War.

Although Britain’s Glorious Revolution happens in Locke’s time, in 1688, and other thinkers inspire Locke, the Age of Enlightenment begins with those who read Locke’s works and were influenced by it. The most well know of his readers may be Voltaire, Smith, Kant, and even America’s founding fathers including Jefferson and Madison.

LITERATURE – Voltaire. One of the “fathers of liberalism” Voltaire. Voltaire helped popularize Locke, Descartes, and Newton in his Letters Concerning the English Nation (London, 1733) where he praised the English trade system for it’s bringing people of all religions together, an underhanded criticism of state-imposed religion in France at the time.

Liberalism generally favors democracy, a republic, constitutional monarchy, or representative democracy as a form of government. It also favors liberty for individuals (and to some extent collectives), private property ownership, capitalism as an economic system, separation of powers (church and state, and branches of government), limited laws, and generally values science and wisdom (enlightenment).

Liberalism focuses on progress and liberty. Liberalism comes from the Latin word liber, which means free.

This liberalism and enlightenment, including the related capitalism of Adam Smith, was the brand of “democracy” that was spread to most of the world starting in the 1700’s. It embraces the principles America was founded on and is where the story of modern political parties and governments begin (if we ignore Greeks like Plato and Aristotle for a moment).

The core philosophies can be seen in the works of philosophers like Baron de Montesquieu who pushes for separation of powers and republicanism in the 1750’s, and Voltaire, who pushes for civil rights, freedom of religion, and a fair trial around the same time. Most thinkers of the time were playing off of John Locke’s earlier idea that all men have a right to life, liberty, and private property in his Second Treatise of Government (a statement Jefferson mirrors in the Declaration of Independence, with another important concept “the freedom to pursuit happiness” added in). Later the Constitution and Bill of Rights would solidify liberalism via the liberal ideas of separations of power, freedom of religion, free speech, free press, free assembly, and more were added (mostly by Madison, the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights).


TIP: Two other important thinkers of the time deserve mention here. Rousseau explored the concept that man in a state of nature as a “noble savage” (in the Social Contract), despite his common but unimpressive views on women (see his debate with Mary Wollstonecraft) it was Rousseau, an empathetic liberal-Romanticist, who first introduced sensibility, and not just sense, into liberalism. Rousseau, along with others like Voltaire and even America’s founders like Morris, can be seen as social liberals in some ways (as they, at least in-part, favor a government that promotes social justice, instead of just being anti-monarchy and aristocracy). Hobbes, a very different type of figure, expounded on the concept of a social contract, an argument for Government being necessary as man in a state of nature is savage. In a way, Hobbes was the first “big government liberal,” writing his most famous work before Locke in 1651. Read Leviathan by Hobbes or see the videos below.


POLITICAL THEORY – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Classic Liberalism V. Social Liberalism and the Revolutions

It is important to note that the liberalism of Locke didn’t go in one direction. Rather it split into a few different directions which can be viewed through the lens of America, by the difference between the French of British Revolutions, or by the British parties “the conservative Tories and the Liberal Whigs.”

Revolutionary France 1789 – 1799, which like Jefferson’s party that grew out of the American Revolution (1776), favored a more lawless style of liberalism (closer to today’s libertarianism; AKA radical classical liberalism). Meanwhile, the type of liberalism that grew out of the British Revolution (beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which establishes the first modern liberal state), is a more conservative liberalism (moderate classical liberalism) that favors modernization and law (not to be confused with traditional conservatism which simply opposes liberalism of all kinds).

Later we get a social liberalism under figures like Mill and Keynes (who more pave the way than are social liberals in their own right, especially true for Mill), although Kant begins to discuss this in his work Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with concepts like the categorical imperative and in truth the Athenians like Plato, Epicurus, and Aristotle had long discovered social liberalism and applied it to a Representative Democracy (which they claimed to be a Pure Democracy). Likewise, earlier thinkers like Rousseau (as noted above) can be seen as part radical liberal and part social liberal.

Later, when Marx comes on the scene, a new form of liberalism “socialism” is born. Thus, social liberalism can be defined as a mashup of classical liberalism and socialism.

PHILOSOPHY: Immanuel Kant – Kant rejected the libertarian version of classic liberalism, this divergence in the understanding of freedom has led to a political polarization in modern times.

FACT: The friends with everyone from Adam Smith to Thomas Paine Benjamin Franklin, the pro-French-revolution Thomas Jefferson, and anti-Burke Thomas Paine all helped spur on the French Revolution (and the American one, and almost another English one). See Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) which hearkens back to Locke’s ideas… about the rights of man.

Flavors of Liberalism

Classic liberals favor limited government. Conservative liberals favor traditional aristocratic values (sometimes including the marriage of church and state). Social liberals seek social justice and modernization (despite having to accept more government power as a result). Learn more about the basic political party types here.

  • Classic radical Jeffersonian liberalism, is a laissez-faire philosophy which puts liberty above all else, and uses either no state power or limited state power to ensure liberty. Moderate classical liberalism, like the English Whigs and Federalists favored, tends to favor republics and central power, more than the more democratically minded radical liberalism (hence the original naming of the American parties as Democrats and Republicans). Both use the economic style of Adam Smith, essentially lightly-regulated free-market capitalism.
  • Conservatism, on the other hand, is always a push toward traditional values (regardless of period), so in the 1700’s this is the Tory party, and in thinkers like Hume and Burke (although both were better characterized as liberal conservatives).
  • Meanwhile, what we can call “Social liberalism” is a style of government that favors regulation and legislation that ensures liberty and social justice. FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society Programs are social liberalism. There is disagreement about when this kind of thinking begins. I like to think of thinkers like Mill and presidents like Lincoln as social liberals, others argue it starts later and correctly point to Mill being a laissez faire classical liberal. This is more of a statement of Lincoln and Mill being some of the first to fuse classical liberalism with “new liberalism”, this synthesis becomes social liberalism.[4]

TIP: Those who favor trade are either classic or social liberals. If they are laissez-faire they are classic liberals, if they are for state involvement, they are more social liberals. Please note that all the terms are ultimately semantic.

TIP: A true conservatism of Locke’s time can be seen in the text he is famous for criticizing Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha. Most conservative parties from 1688 forward are a type of liberal conservatism. Napoleon, the dictator, was a liberal dictator. Even Hitler claimed to favor a type of fascist liberalism for nationals (national socialism).

Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of the Left and Right. The Tyranny of the Majority. The odd consequence of democracy, and one of the main gripes of Burke and Plato. Conservative liberals like Burke help to show where the modern left and right originate. Think of Burke as an old-Whig/neo-Tory.

American Liberalism

America embraced all the above types of liberalism and established the oldest liberal governing document still in effect (the Constitution amended with the Bill of Rights). The amended Constitution and other founding documents read like a checklist of liberal ideologies, but even at the founding of the country traditional conservatives were still valued. This can be seen in the difference between Jefferson’s Democrats and Hamilton’s Whigs. Likewise in Britain, the Whigs are “the liberal” party and the Tories are “the conservative party”.

Liberalism goes through ups and downs but meets a big test in the Civil War.

The Jefferson style classic liberalism had led to Southern states having “the liberty to own slaves.” Enlightenment thinkers believed that men couldn’t be slaves, for the most part, so something had to change.

The Rise of Social Liberalism

Lincoln in many ways becomes the first modern social liberal in America when his anti-slavery Republicans (formerly Whigs) insist that liberty can’t only be ensured if there is social justice. From here you get the roots of America’s rather tense political system as the types of liberalism diverge further, and conservatism gains favor.

Thinkers like John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes, playing off the ideas of thinkers like Kant and Rousseau, help “save” liberalism via social liberalism (which favors the safety net and tends to see things like education and healthcare as basic human rights).

John Stuart Mill: An Introduction (On Liberty, Utilitarianism, The Subjection of Women).

Modern Social Liberalism, Neoliberalism, Libertarianism, Etc

Modern Keynesian economics (social liberal, or mixed market, capitalism) is based on modern social liberalism (think FDR and social safety nets meant to ensure liberty for the collective). The original limited government, the “classical liberalism” of Jefferson, was much closer to what we today call the libertarianism philosophy. This is not the American political party of libertarians who have right-wing ideological viewpoints, but a moral libertarianism where, as Kant put it, “a free will and a will under moral laws are one and the same.” Again, no on fully agrees on the meaning of liberty and thus, the exacts differ from one thinker to another.

Eventually, in the modern era, the Keynes school merges with the Whig-like Hamiltonian conservative liberalism (neoliberalism) to bring America its pro-business and pro-safety-net figures like FDR, LBJ, and even Clinton, and Obama.

The modern Republican party (from 1964′ onward) espouses a mix of classic liberalism and conservative values. It begins to push against the social welfare state and Keynesian globalism. The more corporate-friendly Republicans are represented by Thatcher and Reagan (neocons). Meanwhile, the pro-state-level-religion and anti-modernization Republicans are in the same tent pushing a more traditionally conservative view.

Today we look to thinkers like Robert Nozick and John Rawls to help us better understand the split of liberal ideals into different parties and the conservative movements that sprung up in opposition.

You can learn more about the American political parties switching platforms, or the basic types of political parties here.

John Maynard Keynes’ Contributions to Economics and Finance: Keynesian Theory (2002). An overview of Keynes’ economic social liberalism, in ways the foundation of modern liberalism.



  1. Age of Enlightenment”
  2. Liberalism”
  3. History of liberalism”
  4. Social Liberalism”

"The Age of Enlightenment and the Birth of Liberalism" is tagged with: Abraham Lincoln, Adam Smith, American Politics, England, Fathers or Mothers of a Field, France, Human Rights, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, John Maynard Keynes, Left–right Politics, Liberalism, Liberty, Thomas Jefferson, United States of America

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