The Classical Liberal Era 19:39

Boaz outlines the development of libertarian thought from the Renaissance through the 19th century.

Transcript

David Boaz: After some centuries, the Middle Ages start to transition into what we know as early modern Europe. And what’s happening in that period is that across Europe, kings are getting the upper hand in their conflict with the Church. So you get the rise of absolutism, the Stewarts in England, the Bourbons in France, the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire. And that means a lessening of freedom in a lot of ways because now the monarch is totally in charge. But because this is a civilization that has known some degree of freedom, there’s resistance to absolutism. In England, which I certainly know best, you get resistance to the Stewart kings who, it is perceived, are aggrandizing power to the monarch, taking it away from the Church, from the parliament, from the society. And therefore, people resist that, and we get what comes to be known as the English Civil War, a great battle over whether the Stewarts should remain in power. It includes the beheading of the king. That’s a striking thing. Think about it. The king is divinely ordained, and he is the monarch. He is your liege Lord. And yet, a group of mostly barons, nobles, but also commoners, get together and decide not only that the king should be deposed but that he should be beheaded for his crimes against liberty and the ancient constitution. 

Nothing that much happens in most of Continental Europe. But in England, there are heated debates around the 1650s over the nature of politics, the nature of law, the relationship of the man and the State and the king. And one group of people emerge in this debate who came to be known as the Levellers. Now like most political labels, Levellers was a smear by their opponents. They were accused of wanting to level society, to force equality on everybody. They didn’t want to level society; they did want equal freedom under law. They wanted a level legal code. But they didn’t want to take people’s property away or anything like that. There were people who did, people who were actually genuinely sort of socialist. They called themselves Levellers, but they were called the Diggers. So if you look at English history, you will hear about the Diggers. And they were called that because they went out and they dug up the estates of the lords and planted their own crops because they said, “Land belongs to the people.” The Levellers didn’t say that. The Levellers are really the first kind of modern liberal, classical liberal group. Full set of ideas that came to be known as liberalism, you can see in the Levellers – individual rights, habeas corpus, trial by jury, free speech, property rights. John Lilburne, one of the great agitators in the Leveller movement, believed that the right to trade with whoever you wanted to was one of mankind’s natural rights. They talked about I am as good as every other man in England. I have the same dignity, and I have the same rights. And those are the fundamental ideas that become liberalism and libertarianism.

The Levellers didn’t win, of course. You ended up getting a parliamentary ruler, Cromwell, who turned out to be as bad as the kings were. Then you get the restoration. But along with the restoration, you get the glorious revolution. You get the bill of rights in 1689. From then on, the king is really ruling in conjunction with parliament.

On the European continent and in England, a movement also is happening called the enlightenment, people who wanted to study the way the world works. Not just accept what’s in the Bible as telling us everything we need to know about the world, but to examine the world through the use of reason and through the scientific method. And so all sorts of interesting things going on at this time: Isaac Newton studying gravity, modern medicine beginning to develop, John Locke writing the Second Treatise of Government, which is a stirring, liberal, libertarian argument for republican form of government, government as protection of property rights.

The Netherlands developed a world in which they became a beacon of religious toleration, commercial freedom, and limited central government. Some people think that’s sort of the origin of the enlightenment, i.e. people go to the Netherlands and they look at the society which doesn’t seem to have a ruler. It doesn’t have an all-powerful Church. It doesn’t have an all-powerful king. It is a place where people trade and do business, where people of different religions are respected, where the government is limited, and by Jove, it appears to be the most prosperous place in Europe. Something seems to be working. Englishmen go there.

And so England starts to develop this system too, of some degree of religious toleration, of commercial freedom, and now limited and parliamentary government. And Voltaire, fleeing the monarchy in France, comes to England for a while. And Voltaire writes letters back to France, public letters, about what it’s like in England. And in this way, the ideas of enlightenment and liberalism come to spread from the Netherlands to England to France to the rest of Europe, and much later, to the rest of the world. What we see there is the development of modern science, modern economics, modern philosophy, and all of it based on the idea that you don’t just believe what you read in a book or what the priest tells you, but you study for yourself. You use your power of reason and your power of observation to try to understand the way the world works. 

And, of course, while this is happening, a lot of Englishmen are coming to America, founding colonies over here, colonies that were founded on different principles. Some were [grants – 06:56] to Lord. Some were very Catholic. One was a [detor’s prison], one was a Puritan Pilgrim colony. But because there were all these different guiding forces in America, people came to have a very libertarian attitude in America about the way the government out to work. 

What had developed in England, this is really before anybody is using terms like liberalism. We don’t have any modern term for what was going on there. But sometimes we refer to the court ideology and the country ideology. The court ideology is supporting the king. The monarch is the boss. We’re on the king’s side. And the country ideology is the dissenting ideas that are developing out in the country, away from the king and his court. And in history, at least, we know it is English country ideology. And what we see is that English country ideology becomes the dominant ideas in America. And Bernard Bailyn, the great historian of early America, wrote in one of his articles, “The major themes of 18th-century English radical libertarianism were brought to realization here in America.” The idea that power is evil and must be limited and it must be limited by written constitutions in bills of rights and limits on the executive and limits on the legislatures and constraints on the power to go to war, all of these things that the Levellers and their heirs, Hampden and Sydney, people like that, wanted in England, and got some of, brought to realization here. The Americans were arguing for their rights as Englishmen. The British king and parliament are not treating us like English citizens. We don’t have representation in parliament, and they impose taxes on us without our consent, and so on.

And somewhere in the 1770s, they stop arguing for the rights of Englishmen, and they start arguing for the universal rights of men. And in the declaration of independence, they say all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. All men endowed by their Creator, not by British history. Fundamental change there to the notion of universal rights. Thomas Paine, writing in Common Sense, also helping to make that break, because the Americans have been blaming parliament for everything that went wrong. And they’ve been saying, “If only the king knew what parliament, what his ministers were doing, the king would never put up with this.”

January 1776, Thomas Paine writes Common Sense, and he says, “It’s all the king.” And whoever thought that a king was the way to rule a free people. Referring to William the Conqueror back in 1066, he says, “A French bastard landing with an armed banditti is a very paltry original.” I mean you’re claiming that you have the right to rule us because a French bastard brought an armed force and conquered our nation? Tearing down the idea that we owe allegiance to the king was part of establishing independent America based on universal, unalienable rights. And there were obviously flaws in the American system, slavery being the most noticeable of those. The English writer Samuel Johnson said, “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves?” Well, he had a good point. There were a lot of Americans, including Thomas Paine, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and people like that who thought that was a very good point. Nevertheless, despite the compromise that kept slavery, the Americans created a constitution that put in place virtually all of what the English libertarians would have wanted, and indeed more, a very limited central government, a limited president, he has a limited term, he’s bound by the legislature, which will make the law, and by courts that will rule on whether the legislature’s laws are constitutional. All of these things designed to create a government and yet constrain it so that it cannot abuse individual rights. And the results are amazing. These ideas spread to Europe. Obviously, they’re already there in England, the Netherlands, and so on.

And you get the incredible 19th century, during which not only was slavery abolished on both sides of the Atlantic, but you went from a world that essentially hadn’t changed very much in hundreds, even thousands of years. There’s a story about what if Cicero visited Thomas Jefferson. Cicero comes from about the year 0. He goes to visit Thomas Jefferson in 1800. What does he see? Well, he arrives by horseback. He finds a brilliant man writing by candlelight with a quill pen while slaves take care of his physical needs, a whole lot like what Cicero would have known 1800 years earlier in Rome.

But now think about what if Cicero and Thomas Jefferson visited Henry James in 1900. Everything is different. Not only has slavery been eliminated, but they’ve traveled there by train. The houses are lighted with electricity. They have telephones. The cotton gin was created a long time ago, changing the nature of the cotton business, including cotton farming – which involved slavery. People are wearing manufactured clothes now, a completely different world.

We talk a lot about the communications revolution of the last few years. To me, the real communications revolution was the telegraph around 1845. Before the telegraph, how fast could news travel? It could travel as fast as a man on horse could travel. It could travel as fast as a ship could travel across the Atlantic. And then you get the telegraph, and suddenly, news can travel at the speed of light. The revolutionary 19th century is brought about by implementing the principles of liberalism: limited government, individual freedom, people get to make their own decisions, commercial freedom, economic freedom, they get to trade and create and innovate and enjoy the profits from what they have created. The 19th century is the revolutionary century in terms of people’s lives, at least in the United States and Europe, and it all is because of liberalism.

Question: When you speak of the 19th-century revolution and of technology, how much do you think that would’ve just happened on its own? Or do you think there’s any sort of necessary relationship between the liberty movement or these ideals of libertarianism developing and whatever industrial revolution occurred thereafter?

David Boaz: Well, that’s good question. Historians of technology differ on all these kinds of questions. Deirdre McCloskey recently has been writing some big books – Bourgeois Dignity, Bourgeois Virtues – in which she says, “The fundamental change around 1800, maybe a little earlier, is growing respect for the business of trade.” You can watch British dramas Downton Abbey, earlier ones, even later ones like To the Man are Born, I mean [set – 14:47] later. And you get this notion that trade is sort of beneath dignified people. Lords and ladies would never be involved in trade. Even in America, there was this attitude that it’s better to have money than to make money. The people who have money look down on the nouveau riche who are making money. But Deirdre McCloskey says that this changed in around the time liberalism was coming in. People started to respect commerce and enterprise and the bourgeoisie. And more people became bourgeoisie and were happy to engage in commerce and innovation and trade. That’s an important aspect, I’m sure. The question is a lot of the technology that happened, I think, could’ve happened centuries earlier. It’s not that we didn’t know the fundamental principles. So why didn’t it happen? Now is it the accumulation of capital? Is it colonialism? Different arguments have been made. I think one obvious reason is because liberalism swept away a lot of the barriers to people innovating, creating, being able to profit from inventions that they might come up with. And in an environment like that, not just the lords and ladies but all the people of England and all the people of the Netherlands are suddenly welcome to think of new ideas – even little ideas, not necessarily big ideas like the cotton gin or the printing press but just little improvements in things. More people being involved in that process makes a difference. And the fact that the government was granting fewer monopolies meant that more people could compete in different businesses, I think that is what primarily brings the revolution in technology. But absolutely, there are historians of technology who have written books arguing these questions.

Question: I noticed that you left out the transition from the Articles of Confederation into the constitution. Considering the contemporaneous debate about the fact that the constitution centralized and strengthened federal power, I was wondering how that fed into the ebb and flow of individual liberty.

David Boaz: The Articles of Confederation was much more a document where the 13 colonies, later the 13 states, confederated. We will have a confederal government, but we’re still basically sovereign. And a lot of people saw that era as not being successful. Now it’s an era that comes after a seven-year war. That typically is bad for a society. But we did get the constitution. At the time, of course, the country was sharply split over whether to replace the Articles of Confederation with the constitution. One of the best historians of the period, Jackson Turner Main, estimated that probably 55 percent of the country was against the new constitution. They didn’t do public opinion polls. They didn’t really take popular votes or anything. So it’s a very rough estimate. But maybe a lot of libertarians are very critical of the constitution. We typically say we would’ve been Anti-Federalists at the time. There’s an argument – and you can find this in the essay on Anti-Federalist in the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism – saying the anti-federalist lost the war, but they won the battle over how to interpret the constitution, that for many years following the constitution, it was typically interpreted in a very narrow sense. And James Madison, the author of the constitution, and therefore a leading federalist, became a leading Jeffersonian, Madisonian, arguing that the constitution created a strictly limited federal government. The powers granted to the federal government in this constitution are few and defined. The narrow Madisonian understanding of the constitution is not dead; it just gets walloped a lot.