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 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.

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Church & State

Worldview. A word that somehow seems to understate its own purpose. A word that often gets tossed around in clichéd nuance.

crown-of-thornsI believe in a world in which mankind is inherently bent toward sin, a bent that cannot be revoked from anything within him. Because I believe that God is ultimately sovereign and that His very nature is perfectly righteous, any departure from that perfect righteousness on our part renders us bound for judgment. The only means of reconcile is a perfect sacrifice. I believe that God as perfectly good and perfectly just must fulfill both qualities, and does so in Christ Jesus, who was fully God and fully man. He met the just standard for our departure from God’s perfection, allowing us therefore to be, in legal terms, acquitted, upon reception of His offer of this grace.

And I believe in a view of History that understands God’s hand to be at work throughout. I won’t dare to enter the debate many Bible scholars have had on the issue of free will and God’s sovereignty; this is not the place for that. But because many will argue that it necessarily precedes any discussion of nearly any topic, I will comment only that I believe God is both sovereign, and has somehow delegated free will to man, nevertheless. I cannot perfectly understand this paradox, but I must accept it. For what other reason would God give Adam and Eve the option to do wrong in the garden, if but to allow them to choose to do right?

And on this premise, I believe that God has a strategy in history, and “energizes all things according to His will” (in Ephesians 1:11; the Greek word Paul uses here is energio, literally rendered energizes). But I also believe that there is an active enemy of God: Satan, or the devil, who also strategizes in history. And I have no doubt about the ultimate victor. Victory lies in the One who is ultimately sovereign. The culmination of history to the believer is quite clear.

And therein lies a premise of my worldview: the lens through which I view the world and history.

At first glance, this particular worldview may not be glaringly apparent in much of what I have so far discussed. It is not void altogether, and neither will it remain void. I could not, in good conscience, depart from what I believe for merely what might be considered utilitarian ends: the goals that bring the most usefulness, or happiness. I don’t advocate for a society rooted in liberty because my ultimate goal is that people be happy. The implications of eternity are far more severe.

And certainly, some have made the point that it was not in free societies, but in those where Christianity was and is restricted, that it has grown the greatest. The Way, as Christianity was called then, spread like fire throughout an increasingly antagonistic Roman empire. Some evidence suggests that the growth of the church in current China is unmatched.

I concede, and do so readily.

Does that suggest I should argue for a less-free society or even for a society where liberty is quenched?

That is the easier of the questions I face, as it will be less asked than this objection: To advocate liberty to the full extent you have so far suggested will leave the nation without its vital moral underpinnings.

Let me return the apparent dilemma: Has the power of the state been able to truly anchor any morality in our nation? Can legislated morality transform a person’s heart?

I would suggest several key points that I will leave with you.

First, the power of the state cannot dictate the morality of the people it rules. There will beold-bible-with-swordthumbnail
several common objections raised to this. One will argue that I am flat-out wrong in some cases. Certainly, the state can limit certain activities on threat of punishment, but many such activities continue unhampered nevertheless.

A second and perhaps more difficult objection to answer will be that by advocating the repeal of laws that ban what Christians consider immoral is advocacy for those activities. That is simply not true, but before I argue my case on this one, allow me to present my other points.

Second, if the state manages to limit certain activities that it considers to be immoral, then it has also gathered to itself the power to alter its decisions. The common objection here will be that this is precisely why we need to get Christians to the polls: to vote in people who will legislate on behalf of our beliefs?

But let me ask you: what happens when the government begins to use the power given it by the electorate to make decisions that some among that electorate approve of, and then begin making decisions antagonistic to that end. For example, Christians have applauded the government’s decisions to define marriage as between a man and women. But if we have conceded to the state the power to make this definition, then we have also conceded the power for it to define marriage as whatever it likes. And despite the protest that more Christians just need to vote, this isn’t having any particular long-term impact. And this leads me to my third, perhaps more potent point.

kings-landing-churchthumbnailThird and finally, by assuming that the political process is an important means of maintaining a nation based on Christian moral ethic, it undermines the influence that the church should have. Where the church sees politics as a means of what should be done through love, truth and evangelism, it tends to surrender its passion for proclaiming what it believes to be true.

If the church believes that gay marriage is wrong, it should proclaim that boldly on the foundation of the Gospel. If the church believes that prostitution is wrong, it should be stepping up to provide for those who see the sale of their own bodies as their best (and often only) means of income. For those who enjoy the practice (which I believe is deplorable), no government regulation will stop them. The statistics bear that out.

You see, if liberty is preserved and the non-aggression principle upheld, the church would have no alternative but to influence change through its right to proclaim boldly what it believes to be true.

Let me turn this in to a plea for my Christian readers. If you don’t like the trends of society, then be bold in your witness of truth. Don’t surrender your assertiveness by relieving your conscience by voting for the candidate who claims to be a Christian. In a society built on the liberty I have suggested, it is your right to speak and say whatever you like, just as it is the right of every other to scorn you for it (without aggression).

Do not surrender to politics what the church is called to be.

And by church, I do not mean the organizations created by the leaders of local churches; I mean the members of the church: the people who otherwise go to work, get home, watch TV and go to bed. You see, the church has a profound calling in culture, but it cannot coerce anyone to its ends. It can only win through truth and love built on the Gospel of Christ.

Government does not change culture. Government cannot establish moral standards and transform the hearts of those who abide under their rule. At its extreme, an attempt to do so has resulted in nothing less than the Inquisitions of Rome and Spain and the Spanish colonies. Even if the apparatus were in place to ensure nothing of immoral activity was permitted through the most invasive violations of privacy, the most it could do is create a nation of hypocrites who hated both the church and the state.

And our government, because of its quasi-republican nature, is more prone to following the trends of culture than a dictatorship would be (you already know I don’t advocate for a dictatorship). And culture has, by and large, demanded that we walk a fine line of political correctness that readily bashes free speech that argues against things like gay marriage, while demanding we advocate for these things. And slowly but surely, law is following suit.

(There is a lot more than can be said about this and its many facets that could emerge in debate. I will touch on them from time to time, but let me for now direct you to the Libertarian Christian Institute, where you can continue to explore their content and their primary video explaining that position, which you can view by clicking here.)

I will say it once more: do not surrender to politics what the church is called to be. Do not be a church that seeks to coerce, but one that transforms through loving word and deed, not shrinking back from truth by stopping by the polling station. (I know I will have readers who immediately think I am suggesting you don’t vote, or that you don’t care which leaders are Christian or not. I’ll have a post refuting this in time, so for now, know that this is not the case.)

That is why I advocate for liberty, but I also advocate that Christians take advantage of that liberty, to be a transforming influence around them, as the early church was in Rome (while there was yet liberty, and even more so when the persecution truly began in earnest). It was after Constantine mandated Christianity as the religion of the state that the politics began to rot much of the church.