Classical Liberalism

Classical Liberalism was a school of thought that firmly believed in the rights of the individual and in the free market. It believed that individuals have the right to freely express themselves, whether through religion or not, and that individuals have the right to private property. The government does not have the right to “legally plunder,” as Bastiat put it, the property of anyone, just as private individuals do not have the right to steal from their fellow men. When the government takes from the people, it is no less a crime then if an individual took from another individual. The government should also stay out of the economy to the greatest extent possible, according to the liberals, and allow the free market to run its course. Frederick Bastiat (1801-1850), mentioned above, wrote a satire entitled The Petition of the Candlemakers which exposed the absurdity of the government in intervening with foreign competition in the market (mercantilism). The classical liberals did not advocate for a perfect democracy with every individual involved with decision-making. Bastiat believed that it would be as unjust for the world to violate the rights of one man as it would for one man, if he could, to violate the rights of the whole world. Herbert Spencer, another important classical liberal thinker, believed that majorities do not have the authority to do anything they want based solely on the fact that they comprise the majority. Liberalism also held that society and societal organization are not the product of a blueprint drawn up by “wise men,” but by the free behavior and association of individuals. The philosophy of Classical Liberalism believed that people have certain rights, and that these people should be able to do anything that they want as long as they do not violate these same rights held equally by others. Limited government wherever it intervened in the lives of the people was a crucial factor in the thought of the classical liberals, and remains a cornerstone in the ideas of their successors, the Libertarians.

The Carlsbad Decrees

During the early 19th century, a great fear of revolution spread across Europe. This fear was caused by the violent revolution in France at the end of the 18th century. In 1819, a radical German nationalist fraternity member murdered a conservative playwright and provoked what are known as the Carlsbad Decrees. These decrees were created by the Austrian Foreign Minister, Klemens von Metternich (who represented Austria in the Congress of Vienna), and dissolved the radical fraternities, fired radical professors, and allowed only the publication of state-approved literature. This kind of reaction to revolutionary forces occurred also in Naples, Spain, and Russia. This kind of suppression of free speech would not lead to greater stability, however, but to more revolution in 1830 and later in 1848.

The Congress of Vienna

In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, the countries of Europe gathered together to discuss peace arrangements in the Congress of Vienna (1814). They wanted very much to avoid another general European war, so they established several principles to preserve stability. These principles were legitimacy, the balance of power, and compensation. Legitimacy was the idea that the people who were born to their thrones were the legitimate rulers of their country. This principle was exercised in the reestablishment of the Bourbon dynasty in France with Louis XVIII. In order to preserve stability, the congress decided that resources should be divided evenly and balanced between the major powers of Europe to prevent a struggle. Belgium and the Netherlands were forced together, with the Netherlands in charge, in order to provide a foil to French power. This did not last long, however,  because the Belgians revolted in 1830 against their Dutch king and won. The last principle is compensation, by which if one power receives more territory, the other powers should receive some as well in order to maintain the balance of power. After the Napoleonic wars, Britain, Russia Prussia, and Austria received territories in many places to compensate for losses incurred. The Congress of Vienna marked a change in the thinking of international politics since the 18th century, in which everyone was preoccupied with undermining their rivals. On the contrary, the Congress of Vienna was focused on repairing the damages of war and with working together to prevent it in the future. They were mostly successful, as a major European war did not occur for one hundred years. However, the same principles applied in the Congress of Vienna were not applied in the treaty of Versailles, and another worldwide conflict came soon after.

Abolition of Slavery in England

We in the United States are very proud of the war we fought that brought about the end of slavery at the cost of around a million people’s lives. However, England, with a far longer history of slavery, was able to peacefully abolish it more than thirty years before the United States.


1787 Medallion for the British Anti-Slavery Campaign

In 1787, a man named William Wilberforce met with a group of anti-slavery activists and became one of England’s most important abolitionists. Their main arguments against slavery were that it clearly went against natural rights, it was inhuman, it was not economically advantageous, and it impaired national security. The first two arguments are quite obvious, but the second and third require more thought. Slaves do not get very much personal motivation from their work, and have very little incentive to work hard when compared to a paid worker. Also, it is often the case that slaves are only needed to work during certain seasons, such as harvest time, but their owners have to maintain them in terms of food and lodging year round. As for national security, it had been thought that the slave trade had enlivened British naval power, but research by Thomas Clarkson (another 1787 abolitionist) revealed that the horrific conditions on the slave ships were killing off England’s sailors and weakening the navy. By 1807, William Wilberforce and the other abolitionists had amassed enough support that the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed, abolishing the slave trade in England. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which ended slavery in England and compensated the slave holders. England was not the only country to abolish slavery peacefully. On the contrary, the United States was one of the few countries that abolished slavery with a violent war, and was among those with the most difficult integration afterwards.

The Industrial Revolution

A period of great development in almost all aspects of life, the Industrial Revolution was an event that has shaped the world we live in today. During the period from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, a great boom of manufacture occurred in Britain and spread to other countries. New technology enabled greater production than ever before. The invention and perfection of the steam engine gave mills and factories a power-source beyond wind or water, freeing them from geographical limitations. Other inventions perfected manufacture in other fields, as well as creating new ones. Population had been increasing at a rate of 1% per decade from 1100 to 1700, but increased 10% per decade from 1700 to 1900, corresponding roughly to the Industrial Revolution. Many agree that the Industrial revolution improved nearly everyone’s way of life. However, the standard of living during the Industrial Revolution has been a subject of debate. According to Nicholas F.R. Crafts, the real income per capita doubled in England between 1760 and 1860, and the income of the lowest 65% increased by over 70%, a substantial increase to be sure. Some argue that the movements of reform during that period were due to a worsening of conditions, but in reality there was previously no choice but to live in poverty. The Revolution offered a chance for people to improve their fortunes, and consequently be jealous of others’. Today the debate largely concerns when the standard of living increased, not if it did. The pessimists believed that it only increased after the 1840s or 50s, while the optimists are of the opinion that it started earlier in the 1810s or 20s. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the Industrial Revolution profoundly affected the society we live in, and has improved the standard of living for many people.

Mary Wollstonecraft

In the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote that the educational system for women was flawed, and consequently detrimental to the way women behaved. She considered the disposition of women in her time to be frivolous and petty, and believed that the way they acted was far beneath their dignity. She wanted women to have equal educational opportunities along with men, and criticized men for being “more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.” She did not want women to concern themselves chiefly with inspiring love and desire in men, but in improving their own virtues. Wollstonecraft was not disparaging of the matriarchal position of women (as the later feminists were), but believed that women needed to be properly educated in order to raise their children up virtuously. She wanted greater educational opportunities for women so that they could live up to their full potential.

Friedrich Gentz on the American and French Revolutions

A profound distinction was made between the American and French revolutions in Friedrich Gentz’s essay (whose name speaks for itself), The Origin and Principles of the American Revolution, Compared with the Origin and Principles of the French Revolution.  It said that the French Revolution was based on radical change, while the American Revolution was focused on preserving the tradition that it had inherited from England which was being destroyed.

Gentz described the American revolution as “a revolution of necessity”, because revolution was the only way to avoid a far worse situation that Britain was imposing. The early Americans did not seek to create an ideal society, or to increase their own prosperity from what it had been before. They wanted to go back to the old way of doing things, not to create a new way altogether. Gentz quoted a letter that was sent by the colonists to the king in September of 1775, which stated “we most solemnly assure your majesty, that we wish nothing more ardently than the restoration of the former harmony between England and the colonies”. It is clear how Gentz viewed the American, but his views on the French revolution had a different tone.

In contrast to the American Revolution, the French Revolution was totally offensive. It did not seek to defend the old way of doing things, instead it abolished completely the old system. Gentz described the American Revolution as having a direct object to achieve, and once this was achieved then all revolutionary activity ceased. In the French Revolution there was no single object, and the revolution went “in a thousand various directions”. Afterwards there was the Reign of Terror, in which many were gruesomely killed. In contrast, the Americans did not systematically root out those who had opposed the revolution at all.

This view of the American Revolution as a very conservative event, and the opposite for the French Revolution, seems to have the influence of Edmund Burke. Edmund Burk had a dim view of the French revolution as well, and believed that tradition should be always respected. He believed that change can exist, but it should be gradual and deliberate rather than chaotic, as in the case of the French. It is quite obvious how these ideas are present in the thinking of Gentz.

Friedrich Gentz believed that the American and French Revolutions were fundamentally different. The French Revolution was concerned with bringing about radical change, while the American Revolution wanted to stave off the changes that were being imposed upon the colonies by the British government. These two events could not have been more different in the eyes of Gentz.

The French Revolution

One of the most influential events in Western Civilization, the French Revolution had its beginnings in the age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment centered around the use of reason not only to determine scientific truths, but also to formulate laws and principles that govern the way mankind functions. It was also fueled by the extravagance of Louis XIV, who engaged in war after war and depleted the economy. The condition of the French economy had deteriorated since the reign of Louis XIV. There was much spending during his many wars, and the people were taxed to the very limit. King Louis XVI inherited a country that was a ticking time bomb. Between the extravagance of Louis XIV and the ideas of the Enlightenment, something was bound to happen. The French Revolution sought to create a society organized from the ground up by pure reason, with a utter disregard for any inherited institutions.

Louis XVI was forced to call the Estates-General in 1789 for the first time 175 years. It consisted of the three Estates that comprised the French people: the nobility, the clergy, and the rest. The Third Estate, that which comprised the common people, greatly outnumbered the other two Estates. The Third Estate was upset that did not have more influence, as the First and Second Estates would likely outvote the Third in many matters. Therefore, the Third Estate demanded that Louis change the voting system, incorporating voting by head instead of by Estate. It also demanded that Louis double the number of delegates that it could send to the Estates General. Louis consented to the latter, but he refused to allow voting by head. This was the main change that the Third Estate had wanted, and without it the second one was pointless.

The Third Estate met at a tennis court in June of 1789, and refused to disband until a constitution was established, and the king consented. However, things heated up further with the famous storming of the Bastille on July 14. The people believed that many political prisoners were being held there, so they formed a mob to liberate these prisoners. As it turned out, only seven inmates were being held, and they were mostly common criminals. Then came the night of August 4, at which the nobility were persuaded to give many of their privileges, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man was adopted. The Revolution built up steam with the confiscation of all Church lands in order to pay off some of the enormous debt, and the adoption of a new constitution in 1790 that established a limited monarchy. The clergy were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the state, and about half refused. Those priests who refused are referred to as “refractory”, while the ones who obliged are referred to as “constitutional”. In 1791 another constitution was established that limited the king’s power even further, allowing him only the authority to temporarily veto a law. This period, from 1789 to 1791 is known as the moderate phase. Things heated up far more in the years to come.

The radical phase saw the slaughter of the king’s royal guard in 1792 and the capture of Paris by a more radical group of revolutionaries. There also occurred the September Massacres, in which 1100 prisoners were killed, including 200 priests and three bishops. Finally, in January of 1793, the king was placed in a sort of mock-trial, was found guilty and was executed. Thus began the infamous “Reign of Terror”, rooting out Catholicism wherever it was found and guillotining anyone who found themselves against the current tide of the revolution. Robespierre, a major figure in the revolution who became increasingly powerful, passed a law that prevented the defense of anyone who went on trial for their life. Finally things went so far out of control there was what is known as the “Thermidorian Reaction”, during which Robespierre himself was executed on the ninth of Thermidor, 1794 (the old month system was abolished by the revolution). The revolution ended with this reaction, paving the way for an emperor to rise out of the ashes and restore order, just as  Caesar Augustus had done in Rome over 18 centuries before.

The French Revolution was a period of a great uprooting of old inherited institutions. The revolution was an embodiment of the ideas of the Enlightenment. It proclaimed the use of reason in the belief that society could be organized around it. It completely reorganized the structure of everything, from the political authority to the very month system. It eventually became so radical that the main proponent was executed and the revolution ended. The way was paved for someone to take absolute authority after the unrest and destruction of the Reign of Terror, a general named Napoleon.

The Dispute Between the Colonists and Great Britain

The dispute between Great Britain and the Colonists that lead to the American Revolution at its core concerned the role of tradition in the constitution. The actions of Great Britain went against tradition in the colonists eyes, and therefore infringed upon their rights as British people. The idea of the constitution had changed in Great Britain in the 18th century. The new belief was that the Parliament had supreme authority. The Colonists, on the other hand, subscribed to the previous century’s idea of the constitution which centered on traditional restraints on the government. It was not the Colonists who were putting forth a new system in the American Revolution, but the government of Great Britain. The Stamp Act was a great example of how Britain was doing things that were new. It required that a stamp be put on various types of document, showing that a tax had been paid. This tax, along with the Sugar act, went against tradition because the Colonists had no representative in the Parliament of Great Britain. Therefore, it went against the 1689 Bill of Rights. The belief of the Colonists was that traditional practices exercised restraint on the government of Great Britain, while the Britons themselves believed that Parliament had supreme authority. The position of the Colonists was not new or revolutionary, in fact it sought to return back to the original way of doing things.

Enlightened Absolutism

During the 18th century, in the age of the Enlightenment, some European rulers who had embraced the idea of absolute monarchy became interested in Enlightenment philosophy. These rulers believed in the absolute rule of the sovereign, but they also advocated the ideas of the Enlightenment, and in some cases even corresponded with major Enlightenment thinkers.

Frederick William II, king of Prussia, had a personal relationship with one of the most famous Enlightenment thinkers, Voltaire. Voltaire had tried to persuade Frederick William to keep out of the War of the Austrian Succession, but to no effect. In fact, he was later sent back by France to encourage him to redouble his efforts when the tides turned agianst . Frederick William himself was concerned with judicial reform and religious toleration, both of which were encouraged by the Enlightenment.

In Russia, Catherine the Great also had a correspondence with Voltaire, in addition to a friendship with Diderot. Diderot was the famous contributor and editor of the Encyclopédie, the most significant work of the Enlightenment. Catherine the Great instituted a new education policy, but it was not widely taken advantage of because the population was hesitant. She also encouraged religious toleration, extending it to Catholics and Jews. Under Catherine Church lands were made into government lands, and the offices of the clergy were paid by the crown, ensuring their allegiance. Catherine engaged in judicial reform as well, which, although not a great victory, did succeed in abolishing torture.

Under Joseph II in Austria many Enlightenment ideas, especially those having to do with religion, were promoted. His mother, Maria Theresa, banned the Jesuit order and used their seized wealth to fund schools. Joseph instituted a program of religious toleration that was the most extensive of any Catholic country of the time. He also passed the Edict on Idle Institutions, which suppressed one third of all the monasteries in Austria. Joseph reformed the legal system, punishing the Aristocracy in a manner similar to the commoners and making these punishments better fit their respective crimes. He eased the condition of the serfs, but they reverted back to their previous state when he died. He also started a compulsory education system to foster greater patriotism.

These countries are some examples of the phenomena of “Enlightened Absolutism” which spread across Europe in the 18th century. In some cases, the rulers of these countries had correspondence and even friendship with prominent Enlightenment thinkers. The ideas of the Enlightenment, including religious toleration, social and legal reform, and a greater reliance on reason above religion were all promoted in this form of absolutism.