The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 4 – Liberalism in 18th & 19th Century Great Britain)

Let’s jump right in. In this part, I’m going through the key elements of liberalism in Great Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In case you missed any of the previous parts:

In my approach to this rather sweeping scope and sequence, I am going to first discuss key thinkers (primarily John Locke) in the development of distinctly liberal thought in the political sphere and then in the economic sphere. Then, I’ll look at specifically how liberal ideas had an impact on British politics and policies more directly.

John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke & Other Key Theorists in Liberal Political Theory

As already stated numerous times, the character perhaps most foundation to classical liberalism is John Locke, who we already mentioned briefly in part 1. Given the profound influence on many thinkers and particularly on many of the American Founders, Locke’s ideas merit a bit more expansion than I have offered so far. As Edmund Burke is often cited as the “father of conservatism,” so Locke is considered the “father of liberalism.”1

Despite his work as a physician to the Earl of Shaftsbury (a key founder of the Whig Party who probably influenced many of Locke’s ideas), John Locke committed much of his time to philosophy and writing, producing, among other works, his primary disposition on political philosophy, The Second Treatise of Government.

Though I will not reproduce a full analysis of Locke’s theory, I do want to lay out some of his foundational ideas. To begin, Locke believed that all people are entitled to what he called the “law of nature.” He writes first that the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” A few paragraphs later, he clarifies this law of nature:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaching all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberties or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign Master—they are his property” and “there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another.”²


Continuing through his Treatise, Locke then theorizes that the reason that men leave the “state of nature” and join together in political society is for the protection of those rights. In gathering together, Locke believes that people have formed a sort of “social contract,” whereby they consent to be governed by the very status of being in civil society (called social contract theory). In this civil society, they then create for themselves a government (which Locke specifically calls a commonwealth) for the protection of natural rights, and that commonwealth is only legitimate insofar as it gains its power from the consent of the governed. When the government fails to protect natural rights, it can and should be resisted and, if necessary, replaced.³

Any readers familiar with the American Declaration of Independence cannot miss Locke’s profound impact on its primary author, Thomas Jefferson.

To safeguard the government’s prescribed role as protector of individual liberty, Locke advocated a clear separation of political power into the law-making (legislative), law-enforcing (executive) and judicial branches. Of course, it’s all but impossible to miss the impact his ideas had on the American Constitution, as well.

Locke’s ideas expanded beyond his Treatises on Government. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke also argued adamantly for the separation of church and state and for religious toleration, writing that “no man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect.”4 His ideas on religious toleration and the separation of church and state would, of course, as any student of American History understands, have profound influence on the debate over these issues in the North American British colonies.

A final note before moving on. Neither modern American conservatives nor most current libertarians fully adhere to all of John Locke’s principles or premises. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand the impact of his ideas on American political life, both in the conservative and classically liberal traditions, without a more complete understanding of these fundamental tenants.

Though perhaps the greatest voice of his day advocating for natural rights, Locke was not alone. We’ve already mentioned Samuel Rutherford in part 1, but even some French thinkers would have an impact on the liberal tradition in Great Britain.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Voltaire is a key example. A poet, playwright and humanist who spent much of his time in England, Voltaire is largely remembered for his political writings like the satirical Candide. In his writings, Voltaire argued against arbitrary power and specifically for free speech and religious toleration.

Another writer in the liberal tradition (and, incidentally, also in the conservative tradition, depending on the ideas discussed) is David Hume (1711-1776). Though an entire section could be written on Hume, as well, it must be suffice to say that he spent much of his writing arguing for the liberal idea of minimal government.

And born nearly a decade after Locke’s death, John Stuart Mill would also write a passionate treatise advocating for liberty in his essay conspicuously titled, On Liberty. I’ll mention him again in a bit.


Key Theorists in Liberal Economic Theory

Supplemental to the political theorists were numerous economists who either self-consciously or inadvertently can be identified in the same liberal vein. As Locke argued for political liberty, economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo would argue for economic liberty.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

The name most people are familiar with, naturally, is Adam Smith, a Scottish economist boasting his major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). We find ironies with Smith as with Locke; as a professor of moral philosophy, it is his economic writings that have earned him the title by many, “the father of modern capitalism.” (Note that some current free-market economists contend this title.)

Though by no means the key originator of these ideas, Smith made the now well-known case for free trade and deliberately opposed the mercantile ideas of the day. Mercantilism is (in layman’s terms) the economic theory that wealth is fundamentally finite and it is in a nation’s best interest to maintain a favorable balance of trade (more exports than imports) in order that more wealth enters a country than leaves. In summary, Smith is probably most well-known for his advocacy of laissez faire—or “hand’s off”—economic policy. In truth, Smith drew much of his understanding from others. This same anti-mercantilist ideology was perhaps first promoted by a group of economists in France known as the physiocrats.

(Readers hoping for a more extensive description of the economic ideas of the day will have to forgive me; click the links for further reading. Particularly interested readers may also research Cantillon, an Irish-French economist preceding Smith who laid much of the anti-mercantile groundwork. He would play a key role in the development of economics as a field of study broadly and in Austrian Economics specifically.)

In summary, then, the French physiocrats, Adam Smith and other classical economists were largely united in their view that markets, both domestic and international, ought to remain largely free of government intervention, a position that aligned itself with and became a key part of liberalism going forward.


I want to touch briefly on one other vein of thought that is often tied, in historical context, to the liberalism of the era we’re discussing: utilitarianism. To be sure, not all liberals adhered to utilitarianism, and not all utilitarians can be considered liberals. But that a few key figures did does tie the two movements together to a limited extent.

John Stuart Mill

But first, what is utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is the idea that favors policy that maximizes social utility, that is, whatever improves the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Advocated first largely by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), utilitarians believed that government should pursue policies that improve social utility (or happiness) for the most people. (Some even went so far as to try to calculate pain and pleasure in what Bentham called “hedonistic calculus.”)

While not premised on principle, as for liberals such as John Locke, utilitarians often ended at liberal conclusions such as free trade, civil liberties and political equality, inevitably uniting many of their policy positions.

As already mentioned, James Mill (1773-1836) and his son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), are two well-known thinkers in the utilitarian and liberal streams of philosophy. Though both passionately agnostic and anti-Christian, they wrote both economics works and political philosophy pieces such as Mill the younger’s On Liberty.

Liberalism in British Politics

Okay, time to get to the practical influence of liberalism on English politics. We need to back up in time for a moment. In the last part, we looked at the development of the Whig and Tory parties surrounding the question of whether to allow James II to become king of England, which he finally did in 1685. Whiggism, originating in the fear that James would bring Great Britain back into Catholicism, became tied more and more with liberal ideology over the following centuries. Part of the reason for this was that Whigs based their policy positions on the longstanding natural law traditions in England that afforded the land-holding gentry some, if limited, sovereignty over their government.

As time went on, the ideas of John Locke helped to solidify the philosophical grounding to many Whig positions. Drawing on not only Locke, but as far back as Classical Roman Republicans, a series of essays called Cato’s Letters circulated Great Britain.5 Using historical characters to expose contemporary issues, Cato’s Letters dealt with government corruption, natural law, freedom of speech and political resistance, among other things. Published while Whigs held Parliamentary power from 1720 to 1723, Cato’s Letters helped inspire many in English society, as well as the North American English colonists.

What of specific policy prescriptions of the liberals? Let’s jump ahead to the early 1800s, where we see a few key clear-cut liberal policies come into effect.

One already mentioned in the previous part was Catholic Emancipation. Liberals and Whigs were the most ardent in their advocacy that Catholics be allowed to meet in public and serve in public office. Ultimately, in an effort by both liberals and the conservative Duke of Wellington, Catholic Emancipation managed to be passed in 1832.

Another major issue put forth by liberals was the Reform Act of 1832.

It is important to draw out one more clear point here. During the later 18th and early 19th centuries, liberalism pursued democratic expansion—the inclusion of greater numbers of people in the political process. The theory behind this is best understood in context. With the backdrop of Divine Right (discussed in Part 1), absolutism becoming stronger in neighboring France, and a hierarchical system that put power in the hands of the aristocracy, liberals saw some of the best safeguards of liberty to be in the greater “voice” of the people as a check against the arbitrary power of oligarchs. (That many people would soon come to see democracy as a way for large numbers of people to vote themselves political privileges and monetary transfers was not particularly clear to liberals at the time. More on this development later.)

Charles Grey (1764-1845)

And it was in this push for greater democracy that the Reform Act of 1832 was passed. Passed under Whig Charles Grey (for whom the tea Earl Grey is named), the Reform Act vastly expanded suffrage (by relaxing land-owning requirements for voting) and rearranged parliamentary districts (called boroughs) to ensure more equal representation. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in such massive demographic shifts and boroughs that were either vastly over-represented or under-represented, that it had become a major Whig goal to reform the entire Parliamentary district system.

The Reform Act was met with substantial opposition from Tories, who feared that a greater voting base would degrade politics into a sort of rough and tumble sport while removing it from those with the higher levels of education and nobility. It is also an important note to remember that almost all taxes were paid primarily by the land-owners. Conservatives feared that by giving suffrage to those who paid little or no taxes, the political process could, in fact, become vulnerable to taxes being raised under the pressure of those who would not pay them.

Despite opposition and with the help of political maneuvering, Charles Grey managed to get the Reform Bill passed.

Encouraged by this, the Chartism working-class movement of the 1830s-1850s sought to expand these democratic and, at the time, liberal gains. The Chartists pushed for universal male suffrage, voting by secret ballot, the elimination of property-requirements for members of Parliament, a more evenly balanced constituency for these members, and annual elections. For the time being, these measures failed in the British Parliament.

Finally, liberals were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. While the slave trade had already been passed in England (with the advocacy of conservative William Pitt the Younger), it was also during Charles Grey’s tenure during which all slaves were freed in the entirety of the British empire, a longstanding goal of many liberals.

And this concludes the foundational ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they developed in Great Britain. Many readers will already see how these ideas impacted the development of the United States, in some cases in opposition to each other, and at times in unison. In the coming posts, we’ll head over to the specifics of this narrative in the American colonies before coming back to look at these ideas on continental Europe, the emergence of socialism, the modern trends in conservatism and liberalism, and so much more. Thanks for reading!

¹A quick Google search turns up many articles testifying to these titles. 

²The hyperlink before is to a full-length text. The quoted portions come from pages 2-3 of the Dover Thrift Edition.

³Ironically and contrary to the understanding of previous scholarship, it turns out that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was written prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, discussed in parts 1 and 3.

4Same version as footnote #2, page 116. 

5Cato the Younger was the Roman Republican who, after attempting and failing to prevent Julius Caesar’s rise to virtual dicatorship, eventually committed suicide. In addition to inspiring his namesake essays circulating Great Britain, his story also inspired many in the American Colonies, especially Patrick Henry.

(If you enjoyed or benefited from this post, I'd be honored if you'd like and share it!)
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *