Liberalism: How the Term Got Started and What It Originally Meant

The Origins of the Use of ‘Liberal’ in
a Political Sense of the Term:
William Robertson and Adam Smith
Daniel B. Klein & Will Fleming
Some people today call themselves
They are called “liberal” by some
others, as well
•“liberal” = Democrat
•“conservative” = Republican
“liberal” from 1600 - 1769
Top 20 Collocate nouns
(within ≤ 3 words)
, 1740-1769
•Until 1770 or so, “liberal”
was only very scarcely ever
used as a political signifier
When does a political meaning begin?
Answer: Around 1770
liberal system, liberal principles, liberal plan,
liberal views, liberal ideas, liberal policy
The adjective “liberal” gave rise to
the noun “liberalism”
•“Liberalism” is rising in dark blue
What was the political meaning?
What was liberalism?
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, italics added:
“For classical liberals—sometimes called the ‘old’ liberalism—liberty and
private property are intimately related. From the eighteenth century
right up to today, classical liberals have insisted that an economic system
based on private property is uniquely consistent with individual liberty,
allowing each to live her life —including employing her labor and her
capital—as she sees fit. Indeed, classical liberals and libertarians have
often asserted that in some way liberty and property are really the
same thing; it has been argued, for example, that all rights, including
liberty rights, are forms of property; others have maintained that property
is itself a form of freedom. A market order based on private property is
thus seen as an embodiment of freedom. Unless people are free to make
contracts and to sell their labour, or unless they are free to save their
incomes and then invest them as they see fit, or unless they are free to
run enterprises when they have obtained the capital, they are not really
What was liberalism?
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
“Classical liberalism stressed not only human rationality but the importance
of individual property rights, natural rights, the need for constitutional
limitations on government, and, especially, freedom of the individual
from any kind of external restraint. Classical liberalism drew upon the
ideals of the Enlightenment and the doctrines of liberty supported in the
American and French revolutions. … The writings of such men as Adam
Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill mark the
height of such thinking.”
“New Liberalism”
“New Liberalism”
• Carlton Hayes, 1922: “The new Liberalism
therefore starts with the assumption that it is
the duty of the state to secure for all its
citizens such conditions of life as will make
real liberty possible. Intellectually Mr. Muir is
the heir of Sismondi and Michael Sadler, the
foes of historic Liberalism; and the Liberalism
which he proclaims is indebted less to the
precepts of Smith and Ricardo than to the
theories of Guild Socialists and even State
“New Liberalism”
• L. Atherley-Jones, 1889: “…[T]he
exclusion of the Liberal Party from power
seems likely to be indefinitely
prolonged—unless, indeed, the leaders
adequately recognize the transformation
of the old into the new Liberalism, and
adopt their policy to the requirements of
the people.”
“New Liberalism”
Terms that changed after 1880
equality, equity
law, rule of law
Reforms of the Liberal Party
The Liberal welfare reforms (1906–1914) were passed by
the British Liberal Party after the 1906 General
Election. This legislation shows the emergence of the
modern welfare state in the UK. They shifted their
outlook from a laissez-faire system to a more
collectivist approach.
The reforms demonstrate the split that had emerged
within liberalism, between modern liberalism and
classical liberalism, and a change in direction for the
Liberal Party from liberalism, in general, to a party of
modern liberalism and larger, more active
In the United States, “liberal” is adopted by
the collectivists and progressives, and then
gets associated with the Democrats.
...leading to today
“classical liberal”
Now, let’s go back to the beginning
•So, why did the classical liberal
philosophy adopt the term “liberal” in
the first place?
•Who originated it?
The political meaning began around
liberal system, liberal principles, liberal plan,
liberal views, liberal ideas, liberal policy
The chief originators
William Robertson
Adam Smith
William Robertson
The Scottish historian and Principal of the University of Edinburgh also used
this term in a way similar to Smith. Some examples:
1769, The history of the reign of the Emperor Charles V: with a view of ...,
Volume 1:
“The revival of the knowledge and study of the Roman law, co-operated with
the causes which I have mentioned, in introducing more just and liberal
ideas concerning the nature of government, and the administration of
“Every little community subsisting on its own domestick stock, and satisfied
with it, is either unacquainted with the states around it, or at variance
with them. Society and manners must be considerably improved, and
many provisions must be made for public order and personal security,
before a liberal intercourse can take place between different nations.”
William Robertson
“When the manners of the European nations became more gentle, and
their ideas more liberal, slaves who married without their master's
consent, were subjected only to a fine.”
“...but the ideas are singular, and much more liberal and enlarged than
one could expect in that age. A popular monarch of Great Britain could
hardly address himself to parliament, in terms more favourable to publick
liberty. There occurs in the History of France a striking instance of the
progress which the principles of liberty had made in that kingdom, and of
the influence which the deputies of towns had acquired in the States
“That may have been the case, but these men possessed the confidence of
the people ; and the measures which they proposed as the most popular
and acceptable, plainly prove that the spirit of liberty had spread
wonderfully, and that the ideas which then prevailed in France concerning
government were extremely liberal.”
William Robertson
“...the spirit and zeal with which they contended for those liberties and rights
without which it is impossible to carry on commerce to advantage. The vigorous
efforts of a society attentive only to commercial objects, could not fail of
diffusing over Europe new and more liberal ideas concerning justice and order
whereever they settled.”
“The Aragonese were no less solicitous to secure the personal rights of
individuals, than to maintain the freedom of the constitution ; and the spirit of
their statutes with respect to both was equally liberal.”
From a 1776 letter to Smith:
“You have formed into a regular and consistent system one of the most intricate
and important parts of political science, and if the English be capable of
extending their ideas beyond the narrow and illiberal arrangements introduced
by the mercantile supporters of Revolution principles, and countenanced by
Locke and some of their favourite writers, I should think your Book will occasion
a total change in several important articles both in police and finance. ...many
of your observations concerning the Colonies are of capital importance to me. I
shall often follow you as my Guide and instructor.”
William Robertson
A year later in 1777, Robertson published his History of the Discovery
and Settlement of America, in which he wrote:
"What may be the effects of opening this communication between
countries destined by their situation for reciprocal intercourse
cannot yet be determined by experience. They can hardly fail of
being beneficial and extensive. The motives for granting this
permission are manifestly no less laudable than the principle on
which it is founded is liberal; and both discover the progress of a
spirit in Spain, far elevated above the narrow prejudices and
maxims on which her system for regulating the trade and
conducting the government of her colonies was originally founded.
...The nation has adopted more liberal ideas, not only with
respect to commerce, but domestic policy."
Did Robertson “borrow” from
Smith’s jurisprudence lectures?
There is evidence that Smith thought that
Robertson had “borrowed” from Smith’s
lectures on jurisprudence.
But “liberal” is not used in the political
sense in the surviving texts of Smith’s
lectures in jurisprudence.
Smith’s most important passages
“The industry and commerce of a great country he [Mr. Colbert, the
famous minister of Louis XIV] endeavoured to regulate upon the
same model as the departments of a publick office; and instead of
allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon
the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice, he bestowed
upon certain branches of industry extraordinary privileges, while
he laid others under as extraordinary restraints.”
On the system of the Physiocrats: “According to this liberal and
generous system, therefore, the most advantageous method in
which a landed nation can raise up artificers, manufacturers and
merchants of its own, is to grant the most perfect freedom of
trade to the artificers, manufacturers and merchants of all other
Smith’s most important passages
“ representing the wealth of nations as consisting, not in the
unconsumable riches of money, but in the consumable goods
annually reproduced by the labour of the society; and in
representing perfect liberty as the only effectual expedient for
rendering this annual reproduction the greatest possible, its
doctrine seems to be in every respect as just as it is generous
and liberal.”
“That in every profession the fortune of every individual should
depend as much as possible upon his merit, and as little as possible
upon his privilege, is certainly for the interest of the public. It is
even for the interest of every particular profession, which can
never so effectually support the general merit and real honour of
the greater part of those who exercise it, as by resting on such
liberal principles.”
Notable early promulgator
Dugald Stewart
•“At Edinburgh he lectured on the principles
of government and political economy in
1800–8 to an influential group of students
who were to do much to form Whig and Tory
opinion in the early 19th century.” (Phillipson in
New Palgrave)
Dugald Stewart
•“In 1785 he succeeded Ferguson in the chair of
moral philosophy, which he filled for a quarter of
a century and made a centre of intellectual and
moral influence. Young men were attracted by
his reputation from England, and even from the
Continent and America. Among his pupils were Sir
Walter Scott, Jeffrey, Cockburn, Francis Horner,
Sydney Smith, Lord Brougham, Dr Thomas Brown,
James Mill, Sir James Mackintosh and Sir
Archibald Alison.” (1911 Ency Brit.)
In Stewarts “Account” of Smith
•“those liberal views of commercial policy”
•“the liberal policy of modern times”
•“Such are the liberal principles”
•“his liberal system”
•“Some of these liberal principles found their
way into France”
Liberal, adjective: Relative frequencies of top 20
Collocating nouns (within ≤ 3 words), during three 30
year periods.
Top 20 collocates for the period 1770-1799
Liberal, adjective: Relative frequencies of top 20
Collocating nouns (within ≤ 3 words), during three 30
year periods.
Top 20 collocates for the period 1800-1829
Some still use “liberal” in the old
Economists like Adam Smith
Economists like Adam Smith
Liberals like Adam Smith
•If we can agree that liberalism is the
philosophy of Adam Smith, then we just
have to come to agreement about what
Adam Smith’s philosophy was!

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