Given that terms like these—liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, et cetera—are thrown out all the time, it is important to have some understanding of where these terms come from. My goal for this and its subsequent topical posts is to condense this history into an abridged narrative. Please keep in mind that the history of ideas is so abundantly rich and diverse that a blog cannot do its full intricacies justice. Indeed, full series could be written on the topics I hope to summarize in a series of blog posts. I hope my readers will give me the grace to necessarily avoid the full exploration of nuances that come up constantly in the history of terms and ideas.
The Enlightenment & the Divine Right of Kings
In that similar vein of clarification, there is no possible way to satisfactorily address the vastness of the Enlightenment. As the Middle Ages led into the Renaissance, and the Renaissance into the Enlightenment during the 1600 and 1700s, many old ideas, anchored in Europe since the Dark Ages, were beginning to be challenged, some for better and some for worse. And although the ideas fostered during the Enlightenment could be quite different depending on the person and area studied, this refusal to follow the entrenched ideas of the Middle Ages were a common feature throughout. The supremacy of the Catholic Church was being challenged (where it had not already been overthrown by the Reformation Wars). The old beliefs about human nature—taught generally consistently by the Catholic Church as being inherently sinful in the Christian tradition—were being challenged. The old hierarchies were being challenged. For the sake of brevity, I couldn’t possibly exhaust the list, and most readers will find the list a mix of good and harmful ideas.
Of particular note in our story, the old idea of the Divine Right of Kings was being challenged, as well. This was the idea that the monarch of a country had a divine right to rule because they had been appointed to the position by God and confirmed by the Pope (or the Archbishop of the Anglican Church after King Henry V of England pulled England away from the Catholic Church because the Pope refused to let him divorce his wife).
The implication of this idea was that the king was above the law; he had absolute power because, in essence, he was the law. In France, kings would rule with increasingly centralized power and capitalize on this idea of absolutism. In England, the story was a bit different.
The Struggle in England
Though I cannot relay the full story here, England had localized democratic traditions going back prior to the Norman (people from the Northern French region of Normandy) takeover of the country by William the Conqueror in 1066. Some of these persisted, and after a series of kings attempted to establish themselves as absolute dictators in the Norman and French tradition, the English Parliament, in 1215, forced King John IV to sign the Magna Carta – the “Great Charter” – providing some limits on his power and Parliamentary control over taxation, as well as habeas corpus for all free men in England.
Mixed results followed for some centuries, and the struggle between Parliament and the King of England came to a head in the English Civil War of 1642-1649, followed by a decade of quasi or real military rule by Oliver Cromwell, followed by a return to the monarchical line until 1688. In that year, Parliament went over the head of King James II and invited his daughter and her Dutch husband (who was king of Holland at the time) to come rule in England on condition that Parliament’s demands in the English Bill of Rights be honored by the new monarchs. In a remarkable event known as the Glorious (or Bloodless) Revolution, King James II quietly retired (after all, his dad had been decapitated by the Parliament’s allies in the civil war) as William and Mary took his place and submitted a great deal more power to Parliament.
The English & Scottish Traditions of Natural Law
At the same time as many of these events, a number of English (and Scottish) Enlightenment writers were publishing their ideas. Scottish writer Samuel Rutherford published Lex Rex in 1644, a book emphasizing the supremacy of law over kings, a direct attack on absolutism and Divine Right. This helped influence a young Englishman, John Locke, who would later publish his own political philosophy laying out a case for limited government and a clear defense of natural law.
(I don’t have time to distinguish between the various Scottish vs. English influences on natural law, but they certainly had extensive mutually-influential impact, such as Rutherford’s influence on Locke. Readers can explore that further, if they like. For our purposes, we’re going to somewhat loosely categorize them together.)
The basic idea of natural law was, as John Locke would put in the clearest terms, the individual’s right to life, liberty and property. Samuel Rutherford, a Presbyterian (the more formal Scottish version of Anglicanism), approached these ideas from a reformation-based background, arguing much of his case on the basis of Scripture. John Locke, whose spiritual views amounted to a vague deistic worldview, argued for the right to life, liberty and property on a more secular basis. Though others certainly had influence in English and western tradition, the impact their ideas had on Great Britain (the greater England, Wales and Scotland Island) and the United States can hardly be understated. Thomas Jefferson, directly drawing on Locke’s language, would attempt greater inspiration with the words, “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the American Declaration of Independence.
Still, we must understand that these were not entirely new ideas. That Parliament had forced the signing of the Magna Carta as far back as 1215 testified to the importance of some limitations on the Divine Right idea, and while it wasn’t a full codification of natural law, its grant of habeas corpus to all free men was a significant step in affirming a key part of natural law: a promise of the protection of a person’s rights in the courts (and protection against being held without charge). By modern standards, Parliament members were not particularly prodigal in their ideas that all people had extensive individual rights, but there was a distinctly growing tradition in England, going back centuries, that gave all Englishmen a strong sense of natural law, to some extent or another, and that the king’s power should be limited by Parliament or law was both a product of this tradition and helped fertilize it. This formed a basis for what was known as English Common Law, a tradition of upholding property rights, allowing for jury trials, and various other elements built into the legal system that helped protect some individual liberties, especially for those among the upper classes and the large-landholder aristocrats (this point will be important going forward, so keep it in mind).
This background will help to provide key context as we begin to explore, first, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they emerged in England. As we proceed, I’ll also clarify how this contrasted with views on the same terms in Continental Europe especially with the advancement of socialism in the late 1800s, but will spend more time looking at how these, and terms like progressivism and libertarianism developed and impacted ideas in the United States. It’s a complicated world exploring ideas like this, but I hope to lend a bit of light to such a complex subject.
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