There were no liberals...

before 1820.

"Students of this and countless similar studies [of "early liberalism"] were never invited to consider the fact, long before known to other sorts of historian, that the political concepts of liberalism and radicalism both came into existence at a particular time, neither earlier or later, and for specific reasons. To attempt to write the history of liberalism before the 1820s is thus, in point of method, akin to attempting to write the history of the eighteenth-century motor car. There work, of course, forms of transport which performed many of the functions which the motor car later performed, the sedan chair among them. Yet to explain the sedan chair as if it were an early version of the motor car, and by implication condemn it for failing so lamentably to evolve into the motor car, is to turn a modern error of scholarly method into a failure of man in a past society." -- Clark, Jonathan Charles Douglas. 1986. Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventh and Eighteenth Centuries. Cambridge; London [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, p. 102.

Gordon S. Wood on a fundamental Whig assumption:

"Community interests are superior to individual interests."

The desire to call Locke, Hume, Smith et al. "liberals" is a liberal projection into the past in search of "roots" to justify a recent political development.

UPDATE:  "The community was considered superior in its interests to those of individuals. Contrary to Locke’s teaching, the community could expropriate land and property in payment of debts or for community purposes. Virtually all those rights to which we now attach such great importance could be abridged by the local or colonial legislature for the good of the community."


  1. Hmm. What, then, do you think of Bernard Bailyn's characterization of "libertarian" thought in colonial / Revolution-era America? Surely Bailyn did not mean to imply that the colonials regarded themselves as "libertarians" -- that would clearly be anachronistic. Nevertheless, his usage seems appropriate to me insofar as it fairly, if imperfectly, characterized their beliefs in terms that we modern readers can readily understand. Could one not make a similar argument on behalf of regarding, say, Locke, and perhaps the Levellers, as being early liberals or at least their spiritual ancestors?

    Even if not, I don't see why a liberal would need to "justify" liberalism by citing Smith or Locke in support. The substance of liberal thought should stand or fall on its own merits. Whether liberal views are correct or justified is far more important than whether the likes of Locke or Smith called themselves liberals.

    It seems to me that debates over the propriety of such labels are of relatively minor importance. I'm rather more inclined to agree with a philosopher who said: "If we express our ideas clearly and positively in our writings, what further need is there to label these ideas with some current phrase? Everyone connects with such a phrase quite definite traditional associations, which reflect only inadequately what the individual has to say. I express my thoughts; I designate my aims. I myself feel no need to label my philosophy with some customary phrase."

  2. I'm not sure I follow. The argument is that the concept of liberalism was invented in 1820, and therefore the underlying movement or socio-political orientation that the concept refers to could not have existed in the French Revolution or American Revolution; or in fact any time before the concept was invented. Is that the argument?

    1. "therefore the underlying movement or socio-political orientation that the concept refers to could not have existed in the French Revolution or American Revolution; or in fact any time before the concept was invented."

      COULD not have?! No it COULD have. It just didn't.

    2. But the claim is that "the political concepts of liberalism and radicalism both came into existence at a particular time...for specific reasons...THUS [writing about the history of liberalism prior to this date is] akin to attempting to write the history of the eighteenth-century motor car".

      X, thus Y.

      The claim is that it follows from the fact that liberalism as a concept was born at a certain date, that liberalism as an actual phenomena was not born prior.

    3. "for specific reasons"

      You didn't see that bit?

    4. I not only saw it, I quoted it. How does Y follow from the fact that the concept of liberalism was birthed for specific reasons?

      "A concept is created at time A for specific reasons, thus the referent didn't exist previously" is a strange claim.

      If you are implying that the use of the words "for specific reasons" implies that the actual argument being made is along the lines of "for very specific reasons (undisclosed to readers of this quote) liberalism could not have existed prior to the creation of the concept", that seems a strange contortion begging many more questions.

    5. Whigs: "The community was considered superior in its interests to those of individuals."

      What book did Smith write again? The Wealth of Individuals?

    6. Not sure if this was intended to be addressed to what I wrote. If so, I don't understand.

    7. Yes, John, think about it: Smith's concern was the wealth of Nations. Wood says that an important component of Whig theory is that the social good comes before the individual good. Don't these point to a huge difference between Whig theory and liberalism?

  3. Can you give background on the origins of the 1820 date? I don't know the origin of that.

    I'm not sure I agree although I can't say for sure since I don't know what 1820 is a reference to - we often invent names for things after they're around for a while. After all, we don't know they deserve names until after they've made an impression in a lot of cases!

    Were their no "classical" economist because they didn't call themselves that? This seems a little silly. Classical is a name for a set of people that thought similar things. It's an umbrella term but the umbrella is small enough to be coherent.

    This is how I've used the term liberal for pre-1820 thinkers that had big pieces of liberalism (which is not to say they didn't have other ideas too, of course... we're always dealing in umbrellas of varying breadths).

    What's wrong with this? What's the 1820 cutoff?

    1. Newman's tenets of liberalism:

      1. No religious tenet is important, unless reason shows it to be so.

      Therefore, e.g. the doctrine of the Athanasian Creed is not to be insisted on, unless it tends to convert the soul; and the doctrine of the Atonement is to be insisted on, if it does convert the soul.

      2. No one can believe what he does not understand.

      Therefore, e.g. there are no mysteries in true religion.

      3. No theological doctrine is any thing more than an opinion which happens to be held by bodies of men.

      Therefore, e.g. no creed, as such, is necessary for salvation.

      4. It is dishonest in a man to make an act of faith in what he has not had brought home to him by actual proof.

      Therefore, e.g. the mass of men ought not absolutely to believe in the divine authority of the Bible.

      5. It is immoral in a man to believe more than he can spontaneously receive as being congenial to his moral and mental nature.

      Therefore, e.g. a given individual is not bound to believe in eternal punishment.

      6. No revealed doctrines or precepts may reasonably stand in the way of scientific conclusions.

      Therefore, e.g. Political Economy may reverse our Lord's declarations about poverty and riches, or a system of Ethics may teach that the highest condition of body is ordinarily essential to the highest state of mind.

      7. Christianity is necessarily modified by the growth of civilization, and the exigencies of times.

      Therefore, e.g. the Catholic priesthood, though necessary in the Middle Ages, may be superseded now.

      8. There is a system of religion more simply true than Christianity as it has ever been received.

      Therefore, e.g. we may advance that Christianity is the "corn of wheat " which has been dead for 1800 years, but at length will bear fruit; and that Mahometanism is the manly religion, and existing Christianity the womanish. {500}

      9. There is a right of Private Judgment: that is, there is no existing authority on earth competent to interfere with the liberty of individuals in reasoning and judging for themselves about the Bible and its contents, as they severally please.

      Therefore, e.g. religious establishments requiring subscription are Anti-christian.

      10. There are rights of conscience such, that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters, religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.

      Therefore, e.g. individuals have a right to preach and practise fornication and polygamy.

      11. There is no such thing as a national or state conscience.

      Therefore, e.g. no judgments can fall upon a sinful or infidel nation.

      12. The civil power has no positive duty, in a normal state of things, to maintain religious truth.

      Therefore, e.g. blasphemy and sabbath-breaking are not rightly punishable by law.

      13. Utility and expedience are the measure of political duty.

      Therefore, e.g. no punishment may be enacted, on the ground that God commands it: e.g. on the text, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed."

      14. The Civil Power may dispose of Church property without sacrilege.

      Therefore, e.g. Henry VIII. committed no sin in his spoliations.

      15. The Civil Power has the right of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and administration.

      Therefore, e.g. Parliament may impose articles of faith on the Church or suppress Dioceses. {501}

      16. It is lawful to rise in arms against legitimate princes.

      Therefore, e.g. the Puritans in the 17th century, and the French in the 18th, were justifiable in their Rebellion and Revolution respectively.

      17. The people are the legitimate source of power.

      Therefore, e.g. Universal Suffrage is among the natural rights of man.

      18. Virtue is the child of knowledge, and vice of ignorance.

      Therefore, e.g. education, periodical literature, railroad travelling, ventilation, drainage, and the arts of life, when fully carried out, serve to make a population moral and happy.

    2. "that had big pieces of liberalism"

      Sedan chairs had "big pieces" of motor cars, right?

    3. Sedan chairs seem to miss the crucial element. I'm not sure Smith or Hume do in the same way. If you want to argue the case that's fine, but most people probably wouldn't be convinced.

    4. "If you want to argue the case that's fine, but most people probably wouldn't be convinced."

      That's hilarious:

      1) As if my main concern in life is marketing.

      2) I first encountered this line of thought in Clark (a leading historian of this period) last week. I thought "Hmmm, what's this about." Then I saw Wood's summary of Whiggism, and said "I see! That is totally different than liberalism!"

      3) But yes, most people stick with their preconceived notions whatever evidence confronts them. I even know a guy who has a blog title making that point.

  4. Both of you are ignoring the actual post! Look at Wood on fundamental Whig assumptions: "The community was considered superior in its interests to those of individuals."

    That is radically different than liberalism!

  5. And yes, as Clark points out, sedan chairs had things in common with motor cars!

  6. Did my comment get lost? I posted it a day or two ago but it's not showin' up! :(