3.5 Liberalism

Ideologies of Change

Nationalism’s supporters tended to be members of the middle classes, including everyone from artisans to the new professional class associated with commerce and industry in the nineteenth century. Many of the same people supported another doctrine that had been spread by the Napoleonic wars: liberalism. The ideas of liberalism were based on the Enlightenment concepts of reason, rationality, and progress from the eighteenth century, but as a movement liberalism came of age in the post-Napoleonic period; the word itself was in regular use by 1830.

Nineteenth-century liberals were usually educated men and women, including the elites of industry, trade, and the professions as well as the middle classes. They shared the conviction that freedom in all its forms—freedom from the despotic rule of kings, from the obsolete privilege of nobles, from economic interference and religious intolerance, from occupational restrictions and limitations of speech and assembly—could only improve the quality of society and the well-being of its members. In something of a contrast to the abstract nature of national identity among nationalists, liberalism had straightforward concrete beliefs, all of them reflecting not just abstract theories but the concrete examples of the liberal American and French Revolutions of the prior century. Perhaps liberalism’s most fundamental belief was that there should be equality before the law, in stark contrast to the old feudal order of legally-defined social estates.

From that starting point of equality, the very purpose of law to liberals was to protect the rights of each and every citizen rather than enshrine the privileges of a minority. Whereas “rights” had meant the traditional privileges enjoyed by a given social group or estate in the past, from the king’s exclusive right to hunt game in his forests to the peasants’ right to access the common lands, rights now came to mean a fundamental and universal privilege that was concomitant with citizenship itself. Liberals argued that freedom of speech, of a press free from censorship, and of religious expression were “rights” that should be enjoyed by all. Likewise, most liberals favored the abolition of archaic economic interference from the state, including legal monopolies on trade (e.g. in shipping between colonies) and the monopolies enjoyed by those craft guilds that remained – the “right” was part of the liberal paradigm as well.

Just as had the French revolutionaries in the early phase of the Revolution, most liberals early nineteenth-century liberals looked to constitutional monarchy as the most reasonable and stable form of government. Constitutions should be written to guarantee the fundamental rights of the citizenry and to define, and restrict, the power of the king thus staving off the threat of tyranny. Liberals also believed in the desirability of an elected parliament, albeit one with a restricted electorate: almost universally, liberals at the time thought that voting should be restricted to those who owned significant amounts of property, thereby guaranteeing social stability.

Unlike nationalists, liberals saw at least some of their goals realized in post-Napoleonic Europe. While its Bourbon monarchy was restored in France, there was now an elected parliament, religious tolerance, and relaxed censorship. Britain remained the most “liberal” power in Europe, having long stood as the model of constitutional monarchy. A liberal monarchy emerged as a result of the Belgian Revolution of 1830, and by the 1840s limited liberal reforms had been introduced in many of the smaller German states as well. Thus, despite the opposition of conservatives, much of Europe slowly and haltingly liberalized in the period between 1815 and 1848.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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