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.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 3 – Conservatism in 17th & 18th Century Great Britain)

In Part 1, I laid out a bird’s eye view of how natural law translated into its common law protections in England and in Part 2, I attempted to share how the terms conservatism and liberalism can be defined. So does that make 17th century Great Britain notably liberal (given liberalism affinity with liberty) or conservative (given conservative affinity with tradition)? As noted in Part 2, you could argue both ways. But let’s get into the details and you can decide for yourself. That takes us back to the English Civil War. In this part, I’ll take you from this event to the mid-1800s, specifically looking at the early Whig and Tory parties and the development of conservatism in British politics.

But first, why is this important to modern readers? Because many modern American Conservative values are rooted in the writings and ideas of the British conservatives of this time period.

Charles I (1600-1649)

The Whigs and the Tories

Before we get to the 18th Century, let’s expand on a few details alluded to in Part 1. The English Civil War broke out in 1642 and would finally be settled with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at the hands of Parliament and its military commander, Oliver Cromwell. To oversimplify the matter, Charles ended up at war with Parliament for his numerous attempts to dissolve Parliament and rule in absolutist fashion as his neighbor, King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) of France when they restricted Charles’ access to taxation and other elements of power as laid out in the Magna Carta and later documents. The war, more about power than political theory, was nevertheless embodied a sort of symbolic conflict between the king and his supporters and country and their political representatives—absolutism vs. representative government. (It should be noted that only the land-owing aristocracy of England both paid national taxes and voted, as it was understood that tax-paying citizens should be responsible for the representatives using those taxes.)

Puritan leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ruled in the British Commonwealth until his death in 1658. His son was unable to keep the loyalty of Parliament and the army, and Parliament, disenchanted with the Cromwells, invited Charles II (the son of executed Charles I) back from exile in France (where he also admired the absolute rule of Louis XIV). To most of Parliament, Charles II was the same disappointment as his father.

James II (1633-1701)

Charles II (1630-1685)

This is where we see the earliest development of what would later become distinct political parties in the English Parliament: the Whigs and the Tories. Though these groups were not formalized until much later, the question that would start to divide them was: Who should succeed Charles II, who did not have a son of his own? Charles had a brother, James, a Catholic, who was in line to rule upon Charles’ death. Members of Parliament who began to unify against the ascension of James to the throne became known as Whigs, and those who generally supported James as king were known as Tories. The Whig argument centered around fears of a recurrence of the days of England’s notorious “Bloody” Mary, the Catholic queen who had attempted to return England to Catholicism through often violent means. Tories, on the other hand, notwithstanding their own concerns of a Catholic King in a country where it was culturally-expected to be anti-Catholic, were inclined to grant royal prerogative. This was the idea that the succession of kings is a matter outside the hands of Parliament.

Whigs won the electoral debate in Parliament, which passed the Exclusion Bill, barring James from the throne. The bill was expectedly vetoed by King Charles, and when he died in 1685, James came to the throne as James II despite Parliamentary efforts. However, within three short years, James had managed to isolate both Whigs and Tories, and 1688 marked the astonishingly peaceful transition of power as James’s sister Mary and her Dutch husband William came to the throne and James himself quietly slipped out of London.  This was the Glorious Revolution discussed in Part 1.

The English Bill of Rights and similar measures passed in the immediate wake of the Glorious Revolution and agreed to by King William and Mary solidified parliamentary sovereignty in England. This would put the bulk of future policy debates primarily in the hands of the members of Parliament, and though the issues would change, the Whigs and the Tories would persist and eventually formalize into more distinct political sides.

The Development of Conservative Thinking

Amidst these significant changes in English politics and the ultimate ascendancy of Parliament in the political process, the Whigs and the Tories would increasingly become more aligned with liberalism and conservatism, respectively. In this part, we’re focusing on the latter.

Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

Two key people must be discussed as particularly influential in conservative thought: Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke and the more well-known Edmund Burke.

Bolingbroke’s period of influence came about shortly after yet another short but turbulent political episode. After the death of William and Mary, Mary’s younger sister, Anne, also died  after a short period as queen (in 1714) without an heir. When Whigs in Parliament decided to invite the German Hanoverian King George to be the British King George I, a plot emerged to place James III, son of James II, on the throne. Those supporting this measure were known as Jacobites (named for the Latin word for James: Jacob), who twice tried to accomplish their goal (known as the “Jacobite Uprisings”). Tories, having their political beginnings in support of the royal prerogative of the very much disliked James II, were naturally suspected of sympathy toward the Jacobites, resulting in Whig dominance of Parliament during the period. Bolingbroke, a Tory, was also implicated and spent some time in exile before regaining favor and returning to England.

A key early conservative thinker, Bolingbroke (1678-1751) is one of the first to clearly lay out what would become known as conservative values. First, he argued that the primary unit of society is the family, and all law should be centered around the family unit rather than the individual. Second, though deistic himself, he supported the established and government-sponsored Church of England. Third, he believed that politics could only affect limited influence on society. And finally, he favored the land-owning aristocracy and looked down on the growing merchant and middle class. All four of these would, to one extent or another, come to be key elements of conservative principles.

Edmund Burke (c.1729-1797)

The second key figure in the development of these principles was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), considered by many to be the father of modern conservatism in both England and the United States. Ironically, and as a further demonstration of the nebulous nature of terms, ideas and labels, Burke was a Whig and is also often cited as a key thinker in the liberal tradition. In and out of Parliament, Burke never produced a clear political treatise (there is some debate over the only one he did produce as a young man, but most of his political theory is drawn from his later political career and bits and pieces of his writing). Conservative in his approach to politics, Burke nevertheless favored some political reform, such as Catholic Emancipation. If enacted, this would free Catholics to meet publicly in England and open up further opportunities to Catholics, an idea shunned by many, if not most, outspoken voices in Parliament and England. The measure was rejected. Burke also supported the American Revolutionaries. None of these approaches would seem particularly conservative to many observers.

If Burke wasn’t strictly conservative in these regards, what gains him the title “Father of Modern Conservatism”? Specifically, his conservatism comes through in his writings, primarily in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 (the French Revolution began in 1789). First of all, he makes the very conservative case that the structure, traditions and relations of society are organic and develop over time through unique human interaction, not as some mechanical, impersonal or forced process. He is here arguing broadly against a growing humanistic culture, a worldview glorifying the ability of people to guide and orchestrate society toward some form of perfection (we will later call this progressivism). He is more specifically countering French philosophers who argue that society can be “reset.” Second, he argues that political change must be made very gradually; not through revolution or radical uprisings. Keep this second point in mind going forward.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

Conservatism in English Politics

Far more involved in British politics from the mid-18th to mid-17th centuries were a a few key characters instrumental in transforming conservatism from a vague ideology to a semi-organized political approach. The first, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), a Tory, would serve as Prime Minister (the youngest in English history) during the French Revolution of 1789. Like Burke, he favored some reformist policies, but was conservative in his belief that change should be limited, gradual and organic. Particularly, he feared the spread of revolution to England, and took measures to repress free press and free speech in his Sedition Laws, suspended habeas corpus, and banned trade unions, which he believed fostered discontent in the working classes. This particular fear of an overflow of the revolution into Great Britain from France was reflected in the writing and words of many conservatives during the era, and conservatives saw it as crucial to avoid any chance that this could happen.

Overall, Pitt’s actions characterized political conservatism: a premium put on keeping order at the expense of individual liberty. (Many Americans will recall this is during the same time that American President John Adams would sign the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.)

Robert Peel (1788-1850)

The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

Tories would dominate Parliament for the first part of the 19th century. Key figures among them, especially after the resignation and death of Pitt, would be George Canning and Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), both of whom followed in the politically conservative stream of Burke and Pitt, working to maintain order, but also pursuing the more liberal Catholic Emancipation.  Still, it wasn’t until Robert Peel (1788-1850) that Tories began to consider themselves conservatives in a self-conscious fashion and in the sense that we understand Bolingbroke and Burke retrospectively. Peel would serve as a leader in the House of Commons and had a few stints as Prime Minister, during this time creating the first modern municipal police force in London and finally managing to work with the Duke of Wellington to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1829. A later policy position ended up with a split in the Conservative Party, but the fundamental points of conservatism had been laid. We’ll look at this split in a later post.

What Did Conservatism Look Like in Great Britain?

In addition to Tory/Conservative dominance in the Parliament during the early 1800s, conservative authors and poets were representative of the cultural phenomenon of conservative. Names such as Sir Walter Scott are familiar to some readers, among others like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter, Coleridge, wrote specifically in 1830 on how the integral union between the church and state formed a backbone of English society (On the Constitution of Church and State); a church was the unifying center of every community across England, he argued. Many of these writers were influenced by the Romantic Movement, a cultural and artistic emphasis on emotion, beauty and the subjectivity of feeling (and a pendulum swing away from the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment).

So, despite its varieties, what commonalities bound conservatives together in the 18th and 19th Centuries in Great Britain? I’ll conclude with a concise list. (Obviously, some of these will overlap with current emphases of American Conservatism and some will not.)

  • Support for established institutions, particularly the Anglican Church (and its status as government-sponsored)
  • An emphasis on slow, organic political and social reform, if any, with an acute skepticism of government as an agent of change
  • A praise and support for tradition
  • Recognition of society as an organic, naturally occurring organism rather than being mechanical and systematic
  • A prime importance put on maintaining order, using government restrictions on liberty to maintain it, if necessary, and to ensure that revolutionary fervor not spread

Thanks for sticking with me this far! In the next post, we’ll look further and the development of liberalism in Great Britain, and then move to America in the founding era after that. Subscribe to know when the next one is posted (and to get my enjoyable emails)! See you then.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 1 – Natural Law Traditions in Great Britain)


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 idea, supported by the ecclesiastical coronations from Charlemagne onward throughout the Middle Ages in numerous European kingdoms, 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.

King John IV signs the Magna Carta, June 15, 1215

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.

Samuel Rutherford

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.

John Locke


Locke’s major political work, Two Treatises of Government

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.

(Because of the nature of series like these, make yourself aware of when the next one is published by subscribing!)

What is Fascism?

Many people claim—most often with despair—that we’ve elected a fascist president to the American White House. And a worse offense could not be fathomed by many who thought the time had finally come for a woman president.

Now, I’m not a Trump supporter or a Trump opponent. Though it may seem like a paradox, I take a broader and a more specific view. If you want more thoughts on that, sign up for my email! So, having said that, I don’t have any agenda in this post with encouraging readers to any extent of support or disdain. As with many of my posts, my purpose here is to bring clarity, not to utilize hyperbole to influence opinion. I believe that good opinion must be well-informed.

So, the accusations have been sounded: Trump is a fascist! And yet, I would guess that many who throw this term around do so with a tragic level of ignorance about the genuine meaning of the ideas involved with and behind fascism.

And to be clear (does that sound a bit too Obama-ish?), fascism isn’t a clear-cut set of ideas. Although Germany and Italy both followed fascist ideologies, there were certainly differences. Still, a generally good idea of the commonalities of various fascist regimes can be accurately identified.

So what is fascism? A bit of history helps, as usual.

Benito Mussolini

Fascism as a formal ideology with a political platform was founded by Benito Mussolini in Italy. During World War I, Italy had joined the fight on the side of the Allies in time to benefit, they hoped, from the peace terms. Yet, many in Italy were unsatisfied with the terms that finally emerged from Paris in 1919. Additionally, war debt and economic stagnation plagued the country, like most countries in Europe, and the popularity of socialism and its extreme version of Marxist-communism saw a huge leap in popularity.

Keep in mind that many socialists were actually opposed to communism, a point I’ll clear up in coming posts. But for now, it is suffice to say that a general desire for social and economic control by the government had become increasingly popular since the early 1800s, and the desire to implement this control by revolutionary means and authoritarian regimes saw a surge in the wake of World War I.

A quick point of distinction. Marxist ideas (ie, communism) place the worker as the center and central unit of society. Ultimately, Marxism advocates for the dissolution of political boundaries in favor of a united working class and the elimination of private property in favor of commonly-shared means of production and eventual social, economic and political equality. That this can never actually be realized notwithstanding, it was reaction to this idea that spurred the creation of the Fascist Party.

In Italy, the Fascist Party was started as a distinctly anti-Bolshevik (many communist parties took the name of their Russian counterpart) party. At its heart wasn’t the plight of the working class, but rather the pursuit of national glory. In direct rejection of the dissolution of political boundaries, its adherents sought to glorify the nation-state, epitomized by the government of that nation-state. And more specifically, the glorification of the nation-state being the foundation for political morality and the highest of ends, violence in pursuit of power and glory was not only condoned; it was celebrated. You might call fascism fiercely aggressive nationalism. Fascists and Bolsheviks broke out in fire fights across Italy prior to Mussolini’s rise to power in 1921, and when he was in power, Mussolini had no qualms about banning all other political parties and ensuring the “disappearance” of any potential political rivals. We see similar trends in Germany with the rise of the Nazi Party and their first attempt at sparking revolution in Germany in 1923 (which failed). Clearly, later actions by the Nazis in Germany followed the fascist praise of violence with precision.

On the economic front, fascism is profoundly socialist and admittedly anti-capitalist. (I discuss related terms and ideas here.) Mussolini and fascists in other countries, like the Nazis in Germany, ultimately sought to control and oversee the economy with strict regulation and direct take-over of major industries, setting up government-protected and directed monopolies. Bear in mind that this was the common trend of western society (and had been for a decades) and it was Mussolini’s economic policies that Franklin Roosevelt in the United States admired and sought to emulate (without the direct violence).

Romanesque Fasces

One more point of interest. In pursuit of the glorification of the Italian nation-state (created as a merging of multiple distinct regions in the 1860s), Mussolini adopted the Roman symbol: fasces. Obviously, this is where the name comes from. It is a symbol of national unity, strength, glory and power. The ax included epitomizes its praise of aggression. The fasces, in line with other Romanesque cultural elements adopted by the U.S. government, can be found in our capital, but often without the ax.

Knowing what fascism is and where it comes from helps to debunk the idea that fascism is merely passionate nationalism*. It is its celebration of violence to achieve its ends that distinguishes fascism. And despite and cultural conservatism it brings with it (such as celebrating the cultural traditions of the nation), it is also distinctly anti-capitalist and authoritarian.

If you’re up for a more extensive reading on Fascism, here is a link to a very thorough article over at At that post, author John T. Flynn presents comprehensive research and come to the following list of the components of fascism as implemented through policy. As the author says, fascism “is a form of social organization…

  1. In which the government acknowledges no restraint upon its powers — totalitarianism
  2. In which this unrestrained government is managed by a dictator — the leadership principle
  3. In which the government is organized to operate the capitalist system and enable it to function — under an immense bureaucracy
  4. In which the economic society is organized on the syndicalist model, that is by producing groups formed into craft and professional categories under supervision of the state
  5. In which the government and the syndicalist organizations operate the capitalist society on the planned, autarchical principle
  6. In which the government holds itself responsible to provide the nation with adequate purchasing power by public spending and borrowing
  7. In which militarism is used as a conscious mechanism of government spending, and
  8. In which imperialism is included as a policy inevitably flowing from militarism as well as other elements of fascism.”


(A note on coming posts: Back in my post, “The Issue of Standards”, I discussed the ambiguity of the typical left-right paradigm. The terms conservative and liberal carry a complex, confusing and dynamic—changing—history. As I am able, this will be the focus of coming posts. Sign up for my email to know when each one is posted!)

*I’ll have a post in the future expanding on what nationalism is; history always presents a much more complex and interesting picture than the media narrative.

Middle East Conflict – Part 4: The Current Mess in Syria

A quick TV sound bite just doesn’t do justice to the current mess the U.S. has decided merits its own entanglement in and attention to in the Middle East. That’s what this post will ultimately attempt to clear up.

My first three posts on the Middle East conflicts laid out important background necessary to understanding the current scenario. You can access those here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Now on to our fourth part (but perhaps not our last…?).

Recall the U.S. interventions discussed in the previous post. If you need a refresher, I’d recommend revisiting that post before continuing with this one. If you’re prepared with where we’re at in the narrative, then read on!

There is one more event that I need to discuss to help build our context, this one vaguely alluded to in the previous post. To complicate the web of policy, prior to the First Iraq War in 1990-91, the U.S. policy had actually been in support of Saddam

A group of Iranians during the 1970s

Hussein during his war with Iran (1980-1988). In 1979, after a long-brewing backlash against the U.S.-backed Shah in Iran, demonstrations turned into revolution—or perhaps more accurately described, as is often the case in revolution, in multiple revolutions with varying ends. Ultimately, fundamentalist Shi’ite Muslims won the day, installing the Ayatollah as sovereign in social, religious and political life, and transforming what had progressed into a remarkably secular culture back toward their version of Shari’a.

Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989)

In all this mess, the U.S. was a natural adversary of the new regime. In addition to propping the Shah up back in 1953, they also allowed him sanctuary in the U.S. in 1979 when Iranians demanded he stand trial in Iran.

Consequently, when strongman dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, declared war on and invaded Iran the following year in 1980, the U.S. (and other Western countries) readily offered financial and supply aid. The long and bloody war essentially ended in a draw. (Incidentally, the Ayatollah’s effective halt to the Iraqi army and the war itself helped rally

far greater support for the Ayatollah among Iranians than prior to the war). And it was just a few years later that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sparking the U.S. retaliation that resulted in the 1990-91 operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. And we’ve made it back to that part of the story.

You’ll have to forgive me for unsatisfactorily omitting narrative elements that help to clarify the Second Iraq War beginning in 2003. For now, it is sufficient to explain that after the First Iraq War, the United Nations had demanded a close eye be kept on Saddam Hussein, and biological, nuclear and chemical development facilities were to be accessible to inspectors on demand. At first relatively compliant, Hussein slowly restricted their access throughout the 1990s, prompting U.S. bombing of Iraq under President Bill Clinton in 1998. But it wasn’t until 2003, with an alleged goal of taking out presumed nuclear weapon programs (which proved nonexistent), that we began a full-fledged invasion.

That story is important in regard to the current situation in Syria. Of the Iraqis, about 60% adhere to the Shi’ite tradition and 20% to the Sunni tradition. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had risen through the ranks through the revolutionary activity of his uncle, and once dictator, implemented both some secular socialist policy, and strict one-party rule (a common theme for the Middle East dictators of the second half of the 20th Century, if you haven’t caught that). While I’m not going into extensive detail regarding the terrors of his regime, he put down opposition brutally, killed thousands of Kurdish Iraqis with poison gas, and bombed some his own towns. At the same time, he allowed for some economic and educational freedoms not known before in Iraq. A mixed record with terrible abuses, to be sure!

Why does all this matter? Because when the U.S. deposed him in 2003 (declared a stunningly rapid success at the time), it opened the floodgates to Al-Qaeda, a Sunni-based military, members of which flowed into Iraq from Afghanistan and other nearby states, building on the already angry rhetoric spewing from people like their leader, Osama bin Laden. For a decade, the U.S. found itself caught in in the middle of a vicious civil, sectarian war. Oddly enough, that put the U.S. on the side of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, which, with the U.S. military, virtually kicked the ruling Sunnis and their adherents out of Bagdad (which is now 85-90% Shi’ite). Numerous Sunni militias formed in opposition, and many eventually joined Al-Qaeda.

But we still need to link back to Syria. Don’t worry; we’re still headed there.

After a few years of siding with the Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq (which of course, inadvertently supported the Ayatollah in Iran), the Bush administration began a policy switch (called the “Redirection”) in 2006, shifting support back toward Sunni groups, but primarily in neighboring Syria. Wikileaks documents from that time expose a deliberate desire to provoke a Sunni uprising in Syria with the intention of destabilization there. This was corroborated by further leaked Pentagon papers in 2011. Now operating under the Obama administration, these latter documents state that, “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria, and this is exactly what the supporting powers [of anti-Assad groups] want in order to isolate the Syrian regime….”. Who is referred to as the supporting powers? The U.S. and her allies. The same leaked documents listed “The West, Gulf Countries and Turkey” as the “supporting” powers, while also listing “Russia, China and Iran” as the powers supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime (background described in Part 2). (In fairness, the same leaked document admitted that such a organization as mentioned would threaten the peace process of Iraq.)

Quick clarification: The “Salafist” ideology referenced here is the radical Islamic fundamentalist ideology that drives Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other ideologically-affiliated groups.

In other words, U.S. policy in Iraq was in support of Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups, while at the same time favoring, or at least not opposing (but to be clear, not directly facilitating) the creation of a fundamentalist group in eastern Syria that would destabilize that country and help promote the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. (Yes, I know the big question is “why.” Keep reading; I will get there.)

That fundamentalist group proved to be ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. policy actively supported ISIS (and obviously, the U.S. is no friend of ISIS; quite the opposite), but it is hard to imagine the creation of ISIS without U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

But I get ahead of myself…again.

Opposition to the Assad regime in Syria grew steadily in 2011 into a full-fledged sectarian, multi-faced civil war that many of my readers will have followed on the news for years, now. From the beginning, U.S. policy has been clearly on behalf of “moderate” rebel groups in Syria. Why use quotes? Because moderate, of necessity, must be used loosely. Virtually all opposition groups to Assad are sectarian and fundamentalist, though certainly some are more extreme than others.

Of these groups, perhaps the most powerful in early opposition days of 2011 and 2012 was al-Nusra (alternatively known as the al-Nusra Front), which was essentially the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda.

The problem is, many of these “moderate” groups supported by the U.S. ultimately became arms procurement groups for al-Nusra, meaning that many ultimately got their funding by selling weapons to al-Nusra, some of these weapons even supplied to them by the U.S.

So why did the U.S. even care about destabilizing and ultimately seeing the replacement of Assad in Syria? I alluded to this before. Two key U.S. allies, Israel and Saudi-Arabia, were both clearly upset by U.S. support of Shi’ites in Iraq. Assad, himself a nominal Shi’ite, is a primary ally of Iran. As both the Bush and Obama administrations have been clear about, though somewhat hidden under humanitarian rhetoric, taking out Assad would be a clear strike against Iran and a clear benefit for both Israel, which has a vested interest in ensuring that their own bordering enemies don’t grow too strong, and Saudi-Arabia, an avowed enemy of Assad.

Back to ISIS.

Virtually non-existent in 2012, ISIS was another group pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda. In 2013, it had a falling out with al-Nusra, putting the two groups at odds. In 2014, as many will recall, the nearly unheard of ISIS suddenly captured major Syrian cities, and expanded rapidly across eastern Syria and into Iraq, reaching as far as the outskirts of Bagdad. And of course, as many readers know, ISIS has declared itself an Islamic Caliphate, brutally claiming the lives of countless Christians, non-Sunni Muslims, westerners, and anyone else who doesn’t pledge allegiance to their ideology and rule.

So now what? The complexities of who supports who against who with who is enormous, and I won’t go into all that detail in writing. My goal has been to explain how things have come to where they are now. In conclusion, I include two videos below. The first, in addition to the visual benefit, does an excellent job explaining the current mess. The second is a piece by investigative journalist Ben Swann with revealing statistics on the tragedies of what has transpired in the Middle East.

Googling “before” and “after” pictures of Syria reveals many terrible scenes like this one, taken in Aleppo, one of the largest cities in Syria.

All in all, it’s hard (yes, I do tend to write in deliberate understatements) to show anyone walking away from the mess with clean hands. Perhaps we should understand that there are no praise-worthy members of this conflict. Millions of Syrians are now refugees, displaced, many finding solace in the same ideology that drives ISIS. Towns once thriving metropolitan areas are haunted by rubble and silence. Numbers uncounted have had their lives destroyed or taken. This does not imply that the situation under the dictators was good, but its certainly hard to make the claim that things are better. Perhaps, going forward, we should consider the unintended, or often very much intended, consequences of policy. So far, nearly every policy decision has led to its own bitter fruit of greater problems and more lives destroyed. A dose of humility and reflection may be in order. Watch the two videos below:

Thanksgiving in Perspective

hith-pilgrims-eMany of us were raised with a romanticized rendition of the story of the Pilgrims, a story that still brings back my childhood memories of Indians and Pilgrims placing fish in the ground with corn seeds, smiling and gathering around a large table with the cornucopia and all the trimmings that adorn Thanksgiving tables today. (There are many misconceptions about the “first thanksgiving” that I am not going to be addressing. A fellow blogger has done an excellent job of that here: “The First Thanksgiving?“)

And while it wasn’t the first thanksgiving celebration ever to be celebrated, and romanticized exaggerations aside, most of us haven’t the faintest idea what it would have been like. Finding themselves increasingly at odds with the Anglican clergy and legal system in England, the small group of Separatists had moved from Scrooby, England to Holland, where they found themselves remarkably accepted. Nevertheless, opportunities for making a living were somewhat limited, the lure of Dutch culture for very conservative English was a presumed threat from parents, and the outbreak of the 30 Years’ War threatened Holland with another invasion from Catholic Spain.

So they left again.

This time, to settle just south of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River (modern-day New York). Still, the land they hoped to settle on was still within what was claimed as British Virginia.

When a plane takes us across the Atlantic in four to five hours, we can’t fathom weeks of sea travel amidst the tempestuous whims of the weather.

When our legal systems protect our expressions of faith, by and large, we can’t imagine what it was like to have to meet in secret for not sharing the common denominational association as the church prescribed by king and parliament.

When we drive five minutes to pick up as much food as we can eat—and then some—for any meal, let alone Thanksgiving, we have no hope of empathy with those who only ate what they themselves planted, nurtured and harvested.

When we can “bump up the heat” because we’re uncomfortably cold at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, there is not a chance that we can put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived exposed to the cold and knew that it may well take their lives.

When we can run to the clinic for a quick diagnosis and cure, lost to our memory is a time when a simple flu could just as likely kill as not.

In 1620, 102 Pilgrims landed in what would later become Massachusetts, five-hundred miles off-course, in land not particularly claimed by anyone. Given poor conditions, they couldn’t sail right up the coast a little ways to New Amsterdam for supplies.

That first winter, 45 people died.

At your family gathering this Thanksgiving, imagine half dead in 6 months. I apologize for the morbidity, but I am guessing you can’t. I can’t. Or, at least, I won’t.

So maybe instead of that disheartening image, understand that we are far more blessed than we can ever imagine. We have a standard of living that far exceeds any other known to any other group—poor, middle class or rich—in the history of the world.

The Pilgrims understood thankfulness. Do we?the_first_thanksgiving_cph-3g04961

A series of studies published in what has been known as the Happiness Literature conducted in recent years shows something that might otherwise be considered common sense: that people become accustomed to their standard of living, and that becomes a baseline for expectation. In essence: we become accustomed to what we have, and take it profoundly for granted.

So how can we be thankful? It has to do with expectations.

Thankfulness can only be truly derived from accurate expectations and accurate perspective. If I expect to be fed well on Thanksgiving Day, my thankfulness for that meal will be nominal. All the more if I expect it will be provided to me because I deserve it.

True thankfulness understands our blessings in perspective.

Much-needed perspective.

In December of 1621, Edward Winslow was able to write, “by the goodness of God, we are so far from want….” Ninety natives joined the Pilgrims for three days of feasting. Almost every single person there had lost someone–more probably several–they loved in the previous year. And yet, they were thankful. Let me rephrase: therefore, they were thankful. They understood the true blessing of what they had.

cornucopiaDo we?

Addendum: Let me make one more observation, if I may. Thankfulness reveals more about a person’s character than many other expressions or attitudes. Gratefulness is an attitude of maturity.

May you and yours have a blessed and thoughtful Thanksgiving.

(Don’t have time to read it? Enjoy the audio below. And please forgive small hiccups; this is my first time to record a post.)

Middle East Conflict–Part 3: Roots of Modern Radical Islamic Movements

The last two posts of the Middle East have offered a bird’s eye view of the political development of the Middle East since the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In this post, I’ll continue to build the modern narrative toward current Western intervention by highlighting key events that led to the rise of radical Islamic groups such as Al-Qaeda (and its offshoot, ISIS).

First, a quick recap: After the division of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations divided the Middle East (and North Africa) into protectorate states under the jurisdiction of France and England under the condition that these protectorate states (or mandates) would earn independence as they learned to rule themselves. After World War II, Britain and France largely withdrew from the region, leaving unstable civilian governments in place, governments that were replaced in rapid succession after the Israeli War of Independence (1947-8) by secular military dictatorships. This is the time period during which Hafez al-Assad, Muammar Gadhafi, and others came into power.

And while local and national politics are, of course, more detailed and complex, this bird’s eye view is sufficient for our purposes.

The decades following these new regimes (roughly from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1990s and 2000s) were characterized by continued authoritarian rule, the silencing of political opposition, economic stagnation, political corruption related to the oil industry, and suppression of minority groups or ethnicities.

These conditions, quite understandably, fueled opposition movements against the regimes in place. These opposition movements, very broadly speaking, fell into two main veins: secular opposition and radical opposition. Secular opposition was, for the dictators, much easier to control and silence; they did not gain much support from a largely Islamic population, and accusations of atheism were far more effective in keeping larger numbers from joining.

The other opposition vein, Islamic radicalism, however, began to see considerable growth, especially in the late 1990s. In countries across the Middle East, revolts spiked against the dictatorial regimes, largely without success for the time being. What drove and fueled these revolts?

In addition to the conditions described above and the very fact that the dictatorships were largely secular, American culture had begun to show up in cities. American rock music and secular culture, mostly permitted under the regimes of the time, was an easy rhetorical target for Islamic fundamentalists who saw this as a gross violation of their beliefs, and those who felt the same were often drawn into their rhetoric. The fundamentalists and their more extreme counterpart, the radicals, advocated a return to their own form of Shari’a Law.

But such movements had much more dangerous roots; these were not the only reasons for the increase in the Islamic fervor. Let me walk you through a number of events crucial to understanding the current chaos the Middle East.

Many radical groups could point to direct U.S. intervention that had already operated in nearby Iran (Persia). And that takes us back to a very important story in our understanding of the Middle East…

We’ve so far neglected Iran, as it wasn’t a part of the Ottoman Empire (it had been at one point, but not by 1914) and, therefore, not a mandate created from its demise. After World War I, the British began to invest heavily in Iran for a couple of reasons. First, it served as an important buffer zone between the increasingly powerful Soviet Empire just to the north and the very valuable British colony of India (which at that time included what is modern-day Pakistan). Second, the British established a very lucrative oil industry on the Gulf of Persia.

There is a very important distinction that needs to be addressed in a later post: that Iran (and more than 50% of Iraq) is heavily Shi’ite (or Shi’a), while much of the rest of the Middle East adhere to the Sunni tradition. This makes Iran a natural enemy of Sunni regimes, such as Saudi Arabia. That particular distinction would fuel conflict between Iran and Sadam Hussein’s Sunni government. But that needs to be left for later development.

In any case, Iran was becoming increasingly democratic and secular throughout much of the 20th Century, especially after 1920 and a civil war at that same time. Although ruled by a Shah (king), a parliament and its chosen Prime Minister were gaining popularity and influence. A key reason for this was anger fueled against the Shah who, in the 1920s, sold all Iranian oil rights to Great Britain until 1993.

Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, 1953

Mohammad Mossadegh, Prime Minister of Iran, 1953

Enraged, an increasingly assertive Iranian Parliament chose as their Prime Minister in 1953, Mohammad Mossedegh, who followed up his election with the widely popular nationalization of the British oil industry operating in Iran. With British oil and imperial interests at stake, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, pushed the U.S. for help in operating a coup in Iran. An aggressive Allen Dulles, CIA director, and his brother, John Dulles, Secretary of State, convinced Eisenhower to “okay” the coup, which the CIA successfully operated from the U.S. Tehran embassy. They placed Mossadegh under house arrest and propped up the diminished power of the Shah.

The reasons for the U.S. operation of the coup are far more extensive than we can examine here…another item for my “to write about list.” Nevertheless, the operation marked a sharp turning point U.S.-Middle East politics. Many politicians in Iran and across the Middle East had looked to the United States as a mediator between the aggressive British and French and their own interests. Now, having the U.S. CIA as the actor in the reassertion of a very unpopular king and the arrest of a very popular Prime Minister, anti-westerners across the Middle East had a handy source of fodder for their increasingly radical rhetoric. (In Iran particularly, this growing rhetoric would result in the tumultuous backlash Revolution of 1979, resulting in the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the rise of the supreme Shi’ite leader, known as the Ayatollah, to the helm of Iranian religious and political life. All this will be covered more in depth to come.)

Okay, return with me now to the growing radical movements of the mid- to late-1990s. Differences between Shi’ites and Sunni’s aside, the U.S. intervention in Iran had already left a deeply sour taste in the mouths of many Middle Easterners for U.S. policy when U.S. secular culture began to pop up in their cities.

And yet, were the growing frustrations of Islamic fundamentalists enough to bring unity to their various groups? Not quite.

Soviet forces in Afghanistan

Soviet forces in Afghanistan

Stick with me here. There is another story that needs to be told: Afghanistan. I’m not going in depth in the history here; just relaying an important narrative. In the 1980s, for almost a decade, Soviet forces attempted a prolonged invasion of Afghanistan. Supported and armed in part by the United States (Cold War policy in the U.S. taking a front seat here), a young Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden was able to successfully lead a defense of Afghanistan against the Soviets, calling this defense a “holy war” (jihad) on behalf of fundamentalist Islam.

Encouraged and emboldened by his success against the U.S.S.R., bin Laden quickly re-oriented his powerful and radical Islamic military—Al-Qaeda—to, as Professor Khater states, “recreate an Islamic state that would unite the Islamic world and replace secular or quasi-Islamic governments.”

Sadam Hussein (1980s)

Sadam Hussein (1980s)

Yet, the story is even more complicated. Another key event played a role in turning Al-Qaeda and other groups against the U.S. and not just against secular Middle Eastern governments: the First Iraq War of 1990-1991. Again, not a narrative I can expound on here, the operation of U.S. troops against the Iraqi army under Sadam Hussein (the same army the U.S. had supported against the Ayatollah of Iran in the 1980s!) was more rhetorical fodder against the U.S. Not only that, but in an often forgotten piece of foreign policy, the U.S. military bombed targets in Iraq during the late 1990s.

And pieces of the puzzle start to come together. Al-Qaeda was either directly or indirectly involved in radical revolts across Middle Eastern countries in the 1990s, all of which were unsuccessful. So in 1998, feeding on an already strong anti-American sentiment growing throughout the Middle East, Osama bin Laden openly stated his intended plans and call to arms:

“…the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples… in compliance with God’s order, we issue the follow fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim…We—with God’s help—call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it…” (quoted in Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East by Akram Fouad Khater, pages 365-365).

al4Are you beginning to see the complexities of the Middle East situation? And this only leaves further questions: what about U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s? How did the U.S. alliance with the Saudi royal family come about? Why did the U.S. invade Iraq?

Yes, I know I cannot fully flesh out the material. A book, perhaps, would be a better project for that, than a blog. But perhaps I can continue to shed a bit of light on the current situation…?

So what does all this have to do with Syria? Indirectly, everything. The same radical movements that began in the 1990s continue to feed on similar fuel today. ISIS, a breakoff from Al-Qaeda, operates with the same goal of a unified Islamic Caliphate. U.S. operations in Iraq in 2001 and onward only complicated matters extensively, resulting in further backlash and entangled alliances. More on all of that to follow.

(Too busy to read this? Listen below! Please forgive the small issues; I am new to recording myself as I read.)


Middle East Conflict–Part 2: Protectorates to Military Rule

In the last post, I offered clarity on the nature of the Middle East prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this part, we’ll continue that narrative from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to the creation of individual, if somewhat complicated modern-like states.

After the Young Turks—a political movement that sought stronger ties to Europe and pushed for a modernized Turkey—was able to bring the Ottoman government under its control in 1908, they followed up with their program by eventually signing a military alliance with Germany. I don’t have time to get into all the reasons for that particular decision here, nor is that particularly relevant to our discussion, but they hoped a favorable outcome in the war would give them greater influence on the world stage, and longstanding conflict with the Russians was certainly a part of their decision.

Whatever the reasons, the results proved catastrophic for the empire, and the once large and powerful Ottoman Empire came to an end. In Paris in 1919, among the number of treaties forced on the losers of the war by the Allies* was the Treaty of Sévres, the treaty made with the Ottomans.

Under the treaty terms, Turkey would be left with most of Anatolia. The vast majority of the remainder of Ottoman territory would become League Mandates—essentially, protectorate states of the newly created League of Nations. In practice, this meant that Britain and France would govern these territories. So what were these territories?


Ethnic groups in the Middle East (I am aware you can’t read the key; a quick Google search will turn this or a similar map up)

Hold that thought for a moment. Remember how complicated the Middle East was? The region is awash in various ethnicities. To name a few: Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Azeri, Arabs, Jews, Persians, et cetera. This is only on the broad level, as within each of these and the other ethnicities are different groups that can be more and more localized. In additional to ethnic differences were vast arrays of cultural differences region by region and even village by village, differences hard to perceive to westerners observing through media reports. Also, there were key religious differences, differences beyond the standard three thought of by those who have not studied the region: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The most volatile of differences perhaps is between the Sunni and Shi’ite (alternatively, Shi’a) traditions of Islam, which have been in conflict since the death of Mohammad (forgive me for not expanding on this here, as I am sensitive to length).

So how do you organize such differences into protectorate states? Add onto these differences the basic understanding that the modern idea of a political state was all but a foreign concept.

mandateNevertheless, the League of Nations (again, mostly the British and French) set about drawing up borders and labeling the regions within them. And each new protectorate was promised independence as soon as it had learned how to self-govern. That was the mandate in the Treaty of Sévres.

In essence, modern political states—or nations (in our context)—had to be invented.

And so the protectorate states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan (later to be renamed Jordan), Iraq, et cetera, came into existence. In Syria, my ultimate direction with this background, the Syrian people group (versus the Kurds, Assyrians or Arabs), having gained the name of their nation, quickly assumed that the nation must be mostly Syrian—that Syrian must be the “national” ethnic group. The same in Lebanon, Transjordan, and so forth. In rich sarcasm, there is but little alternative conclusion: what can go wrong? The politics that followed the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire varied state to state, but a general trend can be observed: dominant groups within each nation thought the country was uniquely theirs, as I said before. A tribal mentality among the leaders would be more and more resented by other tribes and groups, before military dictatorships would ultimately come into power. But I get ahead of myself.

Some protectorate states, such as Palestine and Iraq, were put under British control, and others, such as Syria and Transjordan, came under French jurisdiction. Both nations maintained relatively strict control over their mandates (the French more so than the British), as the terms of independence had been based on the vague and open-ended condition that each nation learn to govern itself. And particularly in the case of France, the French regulators in their territories operated mostly to benefit France at the expense of the local population.

European dominance ended with World War II. Despite emerging as victors, the British economy and military apparatus could no longer support their vast colonial empire, and the French, under German control for the duration of the war, were clearly in no better a position. The Middle East mandate nations were neglected by their European overlords.

And naturally, Middle Eastern overlords filled the void. However, the process by which these overlords could come into power was rooted in the European governance system. In an effort to turn their invented states into functioning nations, the British and French had supported the creation of highly-integrated and diversified militaries. Why? Apart from the practical goal of using the military as their enforcement branch, the Europeans were attempting to build a sense of nationalism – a strong sense of nation (for example, “we are Jordanians” as more predominant than “we are Arabs”) – in a place where no such idea had previously existed. Where better than a nationalistic military made up of many different ethnicities?

And as Europeans withdrew to lick their wounds, many military dictators rose to the forefront of the political scene. Where civilian leaders were reputed to be seen as sectarian and corrupt**, military leaders boasted on their nationalistic and diversified bases.

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya

A young Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, one of the multiple military dictators to take control of former League Mandate countries

Still, most states were ruled by civilian governments ruled in the wake of the European withdrawal. One key event resulted in numerous military dictatorships coming to power: the Israeli War of Independence of 1947-1948. Despite massive financial and military support from Middle Eastern and North African countries all over the region, from Syria to Iraq to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the Palestinians still ultimately lost the war, throwing nearly every nation in the area into instability. Civilian governments further lost credibility with their people, and some wanted the stability and diversity offered by military rule.

And as they did so, military commanders took over. During the 1950s and 1960s, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Algeria and Yemen all saw their governments taken over by military dictators. In Syria, the military commander Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Bashar al-Assad, took over the government***.

Hafez al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad

What did these military dictatorships look like? Contrary to the naïve opinion that they were strictly Shari’a-based, most were, in fact, mostly secular in nature. Also, most, including the government under Hafez al-Assad, were highly authoritarian (see this post for more on the basic terms) and fascist.

As expected, honeymoons celebrating the new governments were short-lived, if lived at all, and opposition was shortcoming. But with the military apparatus in place, dictators like Hafez al-Assad did not tolerate dissent, putting it down quickly and brutally. For most, when their sons or heirs took their place, the same policy continued, and does so still under Bashar al-Assad in Syria (where he still has control).

And they earned themselves the reputation they are notorious to westerners for today: strict, harsh, intolerant and powerful authoritarians. And one by one, these military dictators and their dynasties have been or are replaced. Part of the reason: what has been labeled “the Arab Spring.” Part has been due to Islamic radicalism. Finally, Western intervention, as in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, has also played a key role. But this is where the modern narrative really begins to get messy. Why and how did the U.S. and other European powers get involved in the modern state of affairs? More than that to come.


*To note, Woodrow Wilson of the U.S. had lofty goals for the Paris Peace Conference, but few points were realized; the British, French and to a lesser extent, the Italians, essentially had control of the peace terms.

**And notably, for our purposes, in Syria, where the French had not allowed indigenous populations to be involved in the government.

***Assad did not officially become Prime Minister until 1970, but moved through the ranks and worked to operate a coup in 1963. He would rule until 2000.

Middle East Conflict–Part 1: Under the Ottomans

Our political candidates and commentators bring up Syria quite often. And with reason. The nation is embroiled in conflict–a very, very complicated conflict. What on earth is going on over there? Should we be over there? Well, like most things, it’s rooted in history–in this case, a history often overlooked and/or not understood by westerners. I get into the history first, and this will all help to make the current situation there make much more sense, and maybe offer some clarity to you all that our political “elites” really need to understand.

Yes, we know there is a large Islamic caliphate and terrorist organization known as ISIS. We know there is a massive emigration and refugee movement from war-torn regions. We understand that there is a leader in Syria who these same elites claim must be transitioned out of power. We know that the U.S. has been involved in Middle East affairs for at least a decade and a half (we’ve been involved much longer, but many of my own generation are not aware of this).ht_isis_parade_libya_06_jc_150219_4x3_992

I’m going to take this particular blog, and a few afterward, to bring clarity to the current situation in particularly Syria and more broadly the Middle East. Specifically, I hope to do so by shedding light on important history regarding the formation of the modern Middle East and then details on the intricate labyrinth and nebulous nature of the current and numerous interests all operating specifically in Syria.

Truly, it’s something of a madhouse. For a glimpse, consider that at this moment…

  • The U.S. supports Sunni rebel groups in Syria while supporting Shi’ite forces in Iraq
  • The U.S. supports Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq, as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Syria, who both fight each other and who both fight against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator
  • The U.S. is targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which Russia is also doing, and at the same time opposed to Russia’s support of Assad
  • The U.S. is opposed to the Badr Brigade in Syria, the same group that served as a primary ally in the Iraq War.
  • The Kurds, a current key U.S. ally, have a branch operating against Erdogan, the dictator of Turkey, another U.S. ally in the Middle East.

And I am only brainstorming a little bit of what could be the full enumeration…

I’ll get to all that! But first, how did the modern Middle East develop as it did? Many westerners are offered a vague, watered-down fly-over version of Middle Eastern history that amounts to something like, “There was a Roman Empire and then the Eastern Roman Empire, then there were Muslims, then a few Crusades and the evil Europeans tried to take over Palestine, and then mysteriously we have modern European nations that are ruled by evil dictators (in some countries) who need to be replaced by benevolent American and European foreign policy experts.”

The full picture gets as omitted from historical lessons as Kansas does by national Democratic candidates. And granted, that may in part be due to its complexity.

Now, while the importance of understanding the longer-range history of the Middle East merits its own study, I am only going back to the late Ottoman Empire (in this post) and afterward (in the upcoming posts), as the politics following the end of the Ottoman Empire are the most pertinent in understanding the present in places like Syria and Iraq. Ask many an American what the Ottoman Empire is, and you’ll get the same look you might by asking them to interpret the Star-Spangled Banner in Chinese.


The empire saw steady decline from its height in the 16th and 17th Centuries until the beginning of the 20th Century, by which point, on the eve of World War I, it was known as the “sick man of Europe.” A “last minute” attempt in 1908-1914 to secularize and industrialize Turkey (the heart of the empire) was too little, too late; in the end, a decision to enter the war on the side of the Germans and Austria-Hungarians secured their ultimate end. This landed the empire in the hands of the British and French victors, who, as we’ll see shortly, got to do what I consider to be a favorite activity of theirs: drawing lines on maps and calling them borders. (Forgive my oversimplification here; I will hope to offer some clarity to this point in the next post.)

The whole purpose of my commentary on this background is important to understanding the current Middle Eastern situation. Under the Ottoman Empire, for the greater part of its rule in the latter years, the Sultan and his government in Istanbul allowed for broad decentralized power. What this meant was that, outside of Turkey itself, the lands under Ottoman territory were somewhat lightly regulated by Istanbul, despite mandates that the peoples of the empire uphold Shari’a—Islamic—Law. Regions within the entirety of the empire were required to pay their taxes to Istanbul, but there was little to no extensive military or bureaucratic web able to secure any strict code of law across the entirety of the mostly-desert empire.

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

Istanbul c.1900 (still called Constantinople by many Europeans at that time)

And this is not to say that there was none of this; certainly that is not the case. Nor is this to say that the empire was one of consequential liberty; that is also a false conclusion. Certainly, many regions—especially the more populated—of the Ottoman Empire were ruled by their own local overlords in any variety of Islamic code, and the legal system would have been strictly based in Shari’a for many people (with exceptions, often at the expense of an additional tax; many Christians lived in modern-day Syria and some Jews lived in Palestine).

Nevertheless, much of the empire was set up in a very decentralized fashion based in local regions and ethnicities. Much was feudalistic, with a local landlord overseeing various regions of peasant-workers, other parts were more loosely governed in a sort of farming or herding tenancy-based system (as was much of the case in Palestine). Professor Akram Fouad Khater, in his source document anthology, Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East, explains the situation succinctly: “Before World War I, the Middle East and North Africa were fluid geopolitical spaces in which peoples with various languages, cultures, and ethnicities intermingled in the cities and larger towns and many others lived in rural isolation” (page 109, 2003 edition).

The main point, here, is that the Middle East is no less ethnically complicated than the tribes of North America upon the arrival of Europeans (which a quick google image search can show was covered in a multiplicity of various tribes).

In essence, there were no nations as we think of them today. There were many, many tribes and ethnicities and some large and some nuanced religious differences among them all as a part of a broader, loosely administrated empire. (And for all you PC-obsessed folks out there, I am not saying the Middle East was some epitome of perfect unity in diversity…that’s hogwash. Certainly the Middle East was as laden in inter and intra-religious, ethnic, and political conflict as anywhere else. That’s not the point here. The point is to understand what the Middle East was like prior to the modern states that compose it now so that we can understand how the creation of those states contributes to the current U.S.-embroilment in places like Iraq and Syria.)

Again, Khater puts it very well: “None of their political experiences prepared them to conceive of a political entity that was smaller than an empire and larger than a city or village” (page 110).

Enter France and Great Britain to figure out a new way to administer the Middle East in the wake of the Ottoman defeat in World War I. That’s next.