Liberalism Part II: Classical Liberalism 

Gabrielle Etzel Culture, Education, Governance, History, Law, National, People, Political Analysis, Politics Leave a Comment

Gabrielle M. Etzel is a recent graduate of Grove City College with a B.A. in Political Science and a minor in Economics. She is a freelance Political Analyst, Writer, and Editor in Chief of The Unvarnished Blog<>, and Contributing Editor to The Yonkers Tribune.

Have you ever wondered why political parties that preach similar values–like justice, equality, prosperity, and liberty–have radically opposing policy proposals on how to achieve these goals? The Unvarnished Blog’s four-part series on liberalism seeks to delve into the dominant political ideology of the western world in order to answer this exact question. In a format designed to inform, engage, and entertain, this series aims to distill the convoluted history of political thought into the most important elements that you need to know to make sense of this tumultuous political climate. 

Liberalism Part II of IV: Classical Liberalism

ICYMI – In case you missed it – Click onto the following hyperlink to access Part I of the IV part series. …

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American politics—as with the political climates of many countries in the Western world—is like a sinking ship: politicians, who claim to have some superior skills in navigation, frantically jump from one crisis to the next in their attempt to plug the holes in our national sailing vessel; but the average American (who still cares enough to try to make sense of this ridiculous journey) can’t help but question to where we are sailing and for what reason.

To understand the purpose and direction of our national voyage, examining political ideologies and value-systems becomes more important than specific policies or headlines in the news cycle.

As explained in Part I of this IV series,, liberalism is the ideology of freedom and prosperity based upon equality before the law. Although liberalism has branched out over time to encompass both the individualistic “right” and the progressive “left,” liberalism began as a nonsectarian understanding of basic human rights.

Classical liberalism—or the first generation of liberal philosophy—focuses on the freedom of the individual with respect to governmental authority. In ideological terms, classical liberalism more substantive than a set of policy measures for one party or another because its main focus is the preeminence of individual citizens’ rights—a concept fundamental to the development of western democratic governance.

History of Liberalism

It is important to note that classical liberalism did not develop in a vacuum. Prior to the late 1600s, the European society valued the ideas of the sanctity of the individual and the value of human life. Although pre-liberal political thinkers were more collectivistic and absolutist in their support for a hierarchical social structure, pre-modern Europe laid a solid foundation for an ideology of freedom based upon human rights. In terms of the ideology tree, classical liberalism was a seed planted in the soil of society-wide respect for human dignity (at least in theory if not always in practice) and would not have survived without this cultural sustenance.

What initiated the evolution of the traditional philosophies of Medieval scholars into the foundations of liberal thought? A new boldness to reexamine old principles using more thorough logical reasoning. Great thinkers like Galileo and Newton transformed the physical sciences by questioning existing assumptions and building upon new findings. So too did political philosophy undergo a significant advancement in the 17th century.

In this academic awakening—known as the Enlightenment—many philosophers drew upon the Christian tradition of their forefathers as a foundation for their re-envisioned political ideals. Several English philosophers, particularly John Locke, sought to build a case for individual rights based upon the Natural Law tradition of Medieval Catholic scholars, including St. Thomas Aquinas. With a respected superiority of a universally applicable moral law over the arbitrary laws created and established by a prince or king, political philosophers began to question the absolutist rule of monarchies, challenging the status quo by logically extrapolating upon older concepts.

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Religious Foundation of Natural Rights

John Locke—arguably the most influential English political philosopher in the modern era—based his understanding of human rights on the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation. According to Locke’s logic, with the existence of an ethical law that supersedes those of human government, all people are equally subject to the natural rules of justice. Thus, Locke argues that every individual has an equal right to the sanctity of his life and property by virtue of his humanity. As Locke explains in the introductory pages of his Second Treaties of Government:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business (page 6).

From this, if God created every individual human person, then no mere human has the natural right to tyrannize others via abuse of governmental power.

The American Founding Fathers drew significant inspiration from Locke’s political ideas, especially his natural rights theory. Even without being as blatant in their Christian language as Locke, the authors and signers of the Declaration of Independence overtly reference this spiritual—if not religious—foundation of natural rights:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed….

Basing their actions upon “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” the first generation of Americans fundamentally recognized individual rights as the proper locus of political power, bringing revolutionary ideas in political theory into even more revolutionary practice.

Freedom with Respect to Government—Not Without Limits

What distinguishes the Classical Liberal principles of Locke and the American Founders and Framers is their reliance upon a higher ethical code of conduct that provides healthy restraints on individual freedom. Although Classical Liberals recognize the inherent rights of man to protect their life, liberty, and property, classical liberalism’s emphasis on the rights of a citizen with respect to his government do not exclude the importance of other behavior regulators—ranging from informal social norms of behavior to organized religion—in the maintenance of a free society.

In other words, the mantra of the pure Classical Liberal is “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should!”

While the exact religious beliefs of many of the American Founders and Framers were evolutionary if not wholly unorthodox, a significant majority recognized that a government based upon individual rights and freedoms without a society-wide acceptance of an ethical code would promote chaos. In a 1798 letter, John Adams recognizes the necessity of a public set of ethics with respect to governance, saying:

But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep…simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by…morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition…Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other… 

Even John Locke—who argued that Atheism should not be punished by the state because of the deeply personal nature of religious convictions—recognized the necessity of moral boundaries that govern behavior.

As we will examine in the next installment of this series, as Classical Liberalism took root and began to expand as a dominating ideology in the West during the 19th century, this basic acceptance of a universal ethical code that guides individual behavior became less of an emphasis, eventually producing the first offshoot branch of the Liberalism ideology tree.

Original publication by The Unvarnished Blog on Wednesday, November 6, 2019.

Gabrielle EtzelLiberalism Part II: Classical Liberalism 

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