Liberalism was the most widespread ideological response to the French Revolution. Its main virtue seemed to be that it could reconcile both the Industrial and French Revolutions in a single political approach. Liberalism emphasized both economic and political freedom. On the economic side, it advocated a limited government that allowed people to engage freely in economic activity. The term to describe this position is laissez faire. On the political side, it emphasized the civil liberties that had originally been part of the revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Liberals could, thus, claim that their ideology fit the latest historical conditions. They were not against recent economic or political changes; they were simply realists in a changing world. Here liberals distinguished themselves from a host of enemies, such as Conservatives, who wanted to turn back the clock, diehard Revolutionaries who wanted political terror, and an emerging group of social critics that we now call Marxists. We will talk about Marxists in the next lecture.
The term Liberalism emerged in the nineteenth century. It derived from the Latin word liberalis, or “pertaining to the free man,” and was a reaction to what many liberals saw as revolutionary excesses. (The gendered nature liberalism persisted throughout the nineteenth century, as liberals generally did not include women in their worldview.) Nonetheless, Liberals did profess that they wanted to increase personal autonomy. Yet, for them the expansion of autonomy could not come through the cataclysm of revolution. Liberals countered both conservatives and revolutionaries with an emphasis on the idea of progress. For liberals, all change in the political and economic system had to be predictable and controllable, which is why they emphasized constitutions and procedures. Liberalism was, therefore, about channeling the forces of change through a legal process that alleviated bad conditions without yielding to mob rule.
Fear of the mob is what drove Liberalism’s break with much of the Enlightenment. Like Burke, Liberals disliked the Enlightenment’s penchant for abstractions. They opposed a broad doctrine of natural rights, seeing it as politically dangerous. Instead, they took a pragmatic view. Borrowing from Burke, they believed that rights have evolved historically. For Liberals, the point was to make sure that the evolution continued and was both smooth and predictable. This emphasis on procedural change was rooted in two beliefs. The first was that free people are generally better people. The second was that even the best people can be overcome by passion. Thus, the way to make people free without lapsing into chaos was to have clear constitutional procedures that allowed measured change. In essence, Liberals believed that the end of more freedom could never be separated from the means used to gain freedom. This was the only way that the twin specters of conservative reaction and revolutionary excess could be avoided.
There were two centers of liberal thought in the nineteenth century, Britain and France. There were other Liberalisms in Europe, especially in Germany, but these debates borrowed much from France and Britain, and were weaker politically than the two main schools. Nonetheless, although British and French Liberalisms were alike in their basic ideas, each had different origins. British Liberalism derived from the enlightened tradition of Utilitarianism. This tradition of thought emphasized the application of reason to social and political problems. The emphasis on reason combined with a long tradition of parliamentarism to make public politics fundamentally about creating rational laws. Thus, throughout the nineteenth century, British liberals strove for better laws. The French tradition, in contrast, was rooted in the failures of the Revolution and the post-Napoleonic Restoration. French liberals felt that France needed better state structures than the existing ones. Thus, in France thinkers emphasized plans for designing a better and more liberal state, setting aside the problem of individual laws. We will see how this difference in emphasis sent French and British Liberalisms in different directions.
I will begin with the British tradition. Here we turn to Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the last great theorist of the Enlightenment. In 1789, Bentham published An Introduction to the Principles of Moral Legislation. In this book, Bentham set down, in effect, a road map for all future Liberalism. Bentham believed in the power of reason to effect change. Thus, he argued that people needed to apply reason to all social and political problems, with the goal of reforming both state and society along more rational lines. How does one judge what is a rational policy? Bentham held that people should apply one principle to politics: the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number of People. This meant breaking with a long corporate tradition that balanced the interests of different orders against each other. Who was truly happy had traditionally mattered very little, especially if the unhappy people were also peasants.
This was a powerful intellectual approach. For Bentham, the best policy was the one that allowed the most people to follow their own self interest. This approach had two effects. First, it undermined traditional conceptions of social privilege. If people had to be allowed to follow their own interests, then they must also be allowed to free themselves from arbitrary laws. Second, this approach was also an attack on the Enlightenment’s belief in Natural Law. Self interest is rooted in the given conditions of a society; it is not an abstraction that is subject to multiple interpretations. This led Bentham to what he called his felicific calculus, or the calculus of pleasures and pains. The Greatest Good could, so Bentham believed, be determined by weighing pleasures against pains. What brought the most pleasure and least pain to the largest number of people was, therefore, the best policy. You should note here that this idea completely undermines Romantic politics. Counting up pleasures and pains was, at root, an emotional process, nor did it allow for tradition or hierarchy.
Thus, Bentham held that laws should give people the freedom to pursue their own interests. This meant that the best political system was one that was based on universal manhood suffrage (Bentham left out women) and print freedom. Ideas had to flow freely if people were to decide what was in their interest. To that end, Bentham wanted to expand suffrage and end censorship. These twin pillars of Bentham’s thought became the foundation of nineteenth-century British Liberalism. Two of Bentham’s more famous followers are the economist James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill. James Mill did more than any other person to spread Bentham’s ideas. He was a prominent public writer and vociferously opposed both the French Revolution and Romanticism. His most famous works include an article entitled “Government” that appeared in the first editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and his book Elements of Political Economy (1821). The article “Government” was particularly important, because it provided the philosophical underpinnings for Britain’s first major reform in the voting system of the nineteenth century, the Reform Act of 1832. A series of reforms would follow this one, with the result that by 1928 every Briton that had reached the age of twenty-one had the right to vote.
Although he had a difficult relationship with his father, John Stuart Mill joined the liberal cause. J.S. Mill went much further, however, than his father in considering the nature and foundations of society. He was a multi-faceted thinker, but his greatest contributions came in political economy and political philosophy. During the 1840s he published series of works on political economy in which he considered whether property relations were themselves becoming a problem for society. Mill studied the emerging socialist literature carefully, and although he was not a socialist, he did believe that politics needed to provide solutions to what he called “social questions” before unrest made a rational form of politics impossible. His most famous work, however, is On Liberty. Published in 1859, this text is the cornerstone of all subsequent Liberal argument on freedom of thought. In the context of what I have said about Utilitarianism, it is notable for two reasons. First, it holds an absolute belief in the ultimate good of free expression. Even if some people will use this freedom badly, overall more good comes from free debate than does bad. Second, it is terribly elitist. One of the text’s main concerns is to argue that free thinkers needed protection from social pressure to conform. Whereas previous thinkers had been concerned about state censorship, Mill was now concerned about the censorship that the uninformed or uneducated could practice. You should keep these things in mind as you read the text.
Now, we turn to the French school of Liberalism. As I mentioned earlier, French thinkers were not interested in how to pass more rational laws; they wanted to understand how to create stable political structures. I begin tracing this theme with Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). Born in Lausanne, Constant was Franco-Swiss, and his father was a minor official in Dutch state service. Constant traveled widely as a youth and also studied in Germany, England, and Scotland. During the 1790s, he was a partisan of the French Revolution, but later he joined the Napoleonic government. He was soon disappointed by Napoleon’s authoritarianism and left France to live in exile in Geneva.
Constant believed in individual freedom above all. In this respect, he was heavily influenced by the German Romantics. He spent time in Weimar, where he met Goethe and Schiller, and became friends with Friedrich and August Schlegel. He also had a long relationship with the French discoverer of German Romanticism Madame de Staël. Having seen both the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods, he concluded that the France needed a state system that protected individual liberty. In his view, the masses could be a dangerous force, which meant that a state was necessary to keep freedom within bounds. But Constant was also deeply disappointed by the Bourbon Restoration in 1815. The behavior of Louis XVIII showed that if a King had absolute power, personal liberty could be destroyed as well. Constant favored a constitutional monarchy that balanced the powers of the legislative and executive parts of the French government, and he also favored strict constitutional guarantees for personal freedom, such as freedom of the press and religion.
Constant’s ideas became the foundation of French Liberalism between 1815 and 1830. When a Revolution did come in 1830, the people demanded the kind of state that Constant and his liberal allies had planned. Fittingly, it seems, Constant died in 1830, at exactly the moment when his ideas triumphed. Constant’s followers set up a constitutional government that was called the July Monarchy. (I will say more about this in a future lecture.) Under the new constitution, France had a constitutional monarch, and an active chamber of deputies. Unfortunately for the Liberals, the Chamber of Deputies was perceived as being too elitist, because very few Frenchmen met the stiff property requirements for voting. During the next two decades, the Constitution of 1830 became ever less popular, as greater segments of French society demanded the right to vote. This led, eventually, to another revolution in 1848, which established the second French Republic and expanded the franchise dramatically. With each revolution, French Liberals believed that France was moving toward liberty. The problem, however, with his process was that each new regime had legitimize itself anew, which encouraged opponents of the government to engage in ever more radical critique.
The instability of French politics between 1815 and 1848 led to the emergence of another liberal critique from Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville became increasing suspicious of the political changes, holding that France was now confronting a new problem: the liberal state was turning toward democracy. Tocqueville disliked democracy, because he felt that the yearning for equality that had characterized French politics since 1789 endangered liberty. In a Democracy the majority always overwhelms the individual.
It was no accident, of course, that de Tocqueville was an aristocrat. He had certain nostalgia for the aristocratic life. But he also realized that the ancien régime was gone for good. His famous travels in America had convinced him of this fact, and he published his thoughts in his classic work Democracy in America. Tocqueville saw America as a vanguard of the future, because it suffered from the leveling tendency that afflicted his own country, but it was also stable. This meant that the United States would survive, but it also showed how democracy was haunted by the tyranny of the majority. Democracy discouraged eccentric behavior, and required of people that they fit in. Tocqueville concluded that democracy was more equal, but also less free than aristocratic regimes. Thus, the real question for liberals was how to maintain freedom within democracy.
To find an answer to this question, Tocqueville turned to aristocracy. Aristocrats have the freedom to be unusual, he held, because they have family traditions that defend them against social pressure. Thus, for Tocqueville, the key to freedom was to maintain intermediary groups that protected the individual from democratically elected governments. In Tocqueville’s view, Liberalism could not survive without these kinds of protections. He held that Americans found such intermediary groups in the church. The problem for Europe was that the church and the aristocracy were gone. Thus, Europeans needed to create secondary institutions that provided protection for freedom. This is an echo of the general liberal dislike of abstraction. Tocqueville wanted intermediary organizations to be founded in daily experience, not broad doctrines. This was especially important to him, since another Napoleon came on the scene in 1848. Napoleon III, the great general’s nephew, traded on his uncle’s name in an attempt to gain power in France. Ultimately, he succeeded and France dropped its liberal constitution in exchange for another empire.
This is the context in which we need to understand Tocqueville. He knew that the Old Regime was gone, but he also recognized that other dangers to freedom had presented themselves, such as democracy and tyranny. The key was, therefore, to seek traditions that still functioned and to use them against these new dangers. It never quite worked out in France, but Tocqueville’s ideas are still influential. He and the other liberals that I have discussed continue to inform our understanding of politics today.