A History of Classical Liberalism: A Study Guide in Three Parts
by David M. Hart

[Created: November 15, 2006]
[Updated: July 21, 2022]


Eugène Delacroix, "Liberty leading the People" (1830)


Content of the Study Guide:


A History of Classical Liberalism I:
Twelve Key Concepts of Liberty
by Dr. David M. Hart
[Created: 15 November, 2006]
[Revised: July 21, 2022 ]


Richard Cobden's Liberal Dream - "Free Trade in Everything"

But I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate. I believe these things: but, whatever may have been my dreams and speculations, I have never obtruded them upon others. I have never acted upon personal or interested motives in this question; I seek no alliance with parties or favour from parties, and I will take none—but, having the feeling I have of the sacredness of the principle, I say that I can never agree to tamper with it. I, at least, will never be suspected of doing otherwise than pursuing it disinterestedly, honestly, and resolutely.

Richard Cobden, Speech at Manchester, January 15, 1846
Source: Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908), vol. 1.
Details about the quote: <http://oll.libertyfund.org/quote/326>



Thinking about the nature of "liberty" was often haphazard until quite late in the development of the classical liberal tradition (CLT). People spoke out against actions (usually by the state) which they thought "violated their rights" or overturned traditional and customary practices, such as new taxes, restrictions on religious practice, pressganging sailors to serve in the navy, or sumptuary laws on alcohol. They used arguments and vocabulary which was at hand to oppose these measures and only later tried to turn these ideas into a coherent and consistent theory of what is right, proper, and just for human beings to do. The 1850s seems to be a seminal period in this process of establishing the foundational principles of individual liberty and working through the consequences and implications of these ideas in a systematic way. Perhaps the first to do this was the English radical individualist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in his book Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed (1851). We also have the great English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) writing one of the classic works of CL theory, On Liberty (1859) in this decade. We should note the later effort by Herbert Spencer to return to a systematic exposition of the theory of liberty in his 2 volume work The Principles of Ethics which appeared in 1879-93.

But inevitably there were things they ignored or did not consider or did not know about, such as the rights of women, the supposed superiority of white Christian Europeans over Africans or Asians, or the rights of children. It was another 70 years before we see other major attempts to work out the nature of individual liberty in a similar systematic way. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) wrote a small one volume work of synthesis called simply Liberalismus (Liberalism) in 1927 which was not translated into English until 1962 by Ralph Raico. I should also mention here another work of synthesis by yet another Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) who wrote a most influential one volume work as part of the post-WW2 renaissance of CL thought, The Constitution of Liberty (1960).

The modern libertarian movement got the codification of its theory of liberty from Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) in 1973 when his book For a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan, 1973) appeared. This was the most consistent application of the natural rights traditionof CL to modern political and economic problems which had appeared to date. In many respects it marked the beginning of the modern libertarian movement in America.

I have divided the discussion into two sections: what the Classical Liberals were FOR, and what they were AGAINST. I have deliberately listed them in the conveninet biblical number of 12 items.

What Classical Liberals were FOR

One way to consider the problem of what CLs believed is to arrange key CL ideas into "clusters" of beliefs, such as "basic principles", "the grounds for liberty", "processes for living freely", "political liberty", "economic liberty", "social liberty", and "coexistence with other states". They are listed in detail below [also see the "Concept Map of Classical Liberal Thought" below or download PDF]:


  • LIFE
    • the dignity of the individual, individual autonomy (Kant), sanctity of life
    • individual liberty, a private sphere protected from outside interference (Humboldt and Mill), right to associate & trade with others
    • private property (Locke), self-propriety or self-ownership (the Levellers), exchange of property titles or contracts


    • natural law and natural rights, Tom Paine's "imprescriptible rights" - Rights of Man (1791), rights anterior to govt, often exercised against state power
    • utilitarianism, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" (Bentham)


    • prohibition of the initition of violence/coercion against others
    • voluntary association between individuals in all things
    • "domestic" and "international" free trade in all things
    • decentralized legal resolution of disputes
    • idea of spontaneous order, evolved voluntary orders (Hayek) in economics (money), law (arbitration, dispute settlement)


  • freedom of the press, freedom of speech, free expression (JS Mill)
  • limited representative government, power limited by means of a constitution and/or bill of rights (Jefferson, Madison)
  • rule of law, law applies equally to all (including agents of the state)
  • religious toleration, extended to toleration of all unorthodox thought and (non injurious) behaviour
  • the right of "exit", right of rebellion against unjust state, resistance to tyranny


  • domestic free markets and international free trade (A. Smith, F. Bastiat)
  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • private ownership of economic assets
  • minimal taxes, balanced government budgets
  • private provision of "public goods"


  • equal treatment under the law to all groups regardless of status/rank, gender, sexual preference, race
  • toleration of "different experiments in living" (JS Mill), "the pursuit of happiness" (Jefferson, Dec. Ind)
  • no "victimless crimes" (alcohol, drugs, suicide)


  • non-interference in the affairs of other nations (Washington, Cobden)
  • international arbitration to solve disputes
  • international free trade
  • free and open immigartion/emmigration
Concept Map of Classical Liberal Thought


I have selected 12 of these ideas about liberty to examine in more detail and I have called them the "key concepts of liberty" because of their importance in the CLT. They have been developed over several hundred years by many authors in the classical liberal, free market and conservative traditions. There is probably no single thinker who would agree with every aspect of these key concepts. Rather, they are an amalgam or "ideal type" taken from the various streams of thinking about individual liberty which have emerged in Western Europe and North America since the early modern period. It is designed to summarize in a more manageable way a complex way of thinking about the nature of individual liberty.

  1. Natural Law and Natural Rights
  2. Private Property
  3. Individual Liberty
  4. Idea of Spontaneous Order
  5. Free Markets
  6. Limited Government
  7. Rule of Law
  8. Freedom of Speech & Religion
  9. Free Trade
  10. Peace
  11. Progress
  12. Right of Exit

In prose you might say the following about how these values relate to each other both in theory and in the historical evolution of the CLT:

By observing and studying human beings both as individuals and as social beings some theorists argued that humans had a "nature" which required for their survival and flourishing that their lives and property be respected by others.

From this developed the idea of "natural rights" to such things as one's person, property, and liberty to interact non-coercively with others. The initiation of violence (or threat thereof) against another's "rights" was seen as a violation of the moral code which made possible productive and peaceful interactions between individuals.

From the myriad of non-violent interactions between individuals gradually emerged "spontaneous orders" such as language, money, markets, and other social arrangements which no one individual designed or controlled, the free market and non-state mechanisms for dispute resolution being the most important examples.

Spontaneous orders like these existed well before organised states emerged which attempted to monopolize power in the hands of a few warrior individuals and aristocratic families and to force others to pay taxes and submit to centralized legal authority.

It has been an integral part of the CLT, once these centralized states existed, to place limits on their power to tax, conscript, regulate, and imprison. These limits were things like constitutions, bills of rights, the rule of law, and respect for private property. The ruling elites who controlled the state were reluctant to have their power limited in this way and so they resisted these efforts, resulting in a series of revolts and revolutions from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century by excluded groups to create limited, constitutional government and free markets.

Some of the issues which most concerned CLs during this period were constitutional government, the rule of law, the equality of rights for all individuals regardless of status, freedom of speech and religion, deregulation of the economy, free trade, and opposition to war and empire. The end result of these struggles was a period during the 19th century of unprecedented peace and prosperity, in other words "progress".

CLs have also thought that if an oppressive government could not or would not reform itself then individuals had the right to either force it to change by means of revolts, uprisings, and even revolutions, or they had the right to leave by emmigration to other places where better opportunities for a flourishing life existed. This is the "right of exit" which might be viewed as a last ditch effort to achieve a better life when all else fails.

I would like to explore these key concepts in greater depth by examining the numerous articles on these and related concepts in the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism which are listed below, supplemented by extracts from relevant primary sources which are available on the Online Library of Liberty <http://oll.libertyfund.org>.

What Classical Liberals were AGAINST

The list of things Classical Liberals were against varied according to time and place. This list is largely influenced by the CL movements of the 17th century onwards and includes the following:

  1. arbitrary political power
  2. arbitrary religious power
  3. slavery and serfdom
  4. war and conscription
  5. taxation
  6. national debt
  7. tariffs and other trade protection to favoured industries
  8. subsidies and monoplies to favoured industries
  9. the central bank and fiat money
  10. empire and colonies
  11. censorship
  12. torture, arbitary arrest and imprisonment, execution

At a future date I plan to create a table like the one on the "12 Key Concepts of Classical Liberalism" for the "12 Key Violations of Individual Liberty" listed above.


Recommended Readings
Key Text: The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, ed. Ronald Hamowy (Los Angeles: Sage, 2008. A Project of the Cato Institute).


Other recommended books:

  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, ed. David R. Henderson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Also available online at Econlib <http://www.econlib.org/library/CEE.html>.
  • The Libertarian Reader: Classic and Contemporary Readings from Lao-Tzu to Milton Friedman, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997).
  • A Libertrian Primer, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997), Chap. 2 "The Roots of Libertarianism," pp. 27-58.
  • Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce, ed. E.K. Bramstead and K.J. Melhuish (London: Longman, 1978).
  • Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty: A 2,000-Year History, told through the Lives of Freedom's greatest Champions (New York: The Free Press, 2000).
  • Brian Doherty, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. I Economic Thought before Adam Smith (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).
  • Murray N. Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought: Vol. II Classical Economics (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006).

Works of Historical Importance

Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851). Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/273

Herbert Spencer, The Principles of Ethics, introduction by Tibor R. Machan (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1978). 2 vols. Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1882 

John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). Chapter: ON LIBERTY 1859. Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/233/16550  

Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: A Socio-Economic Exposition, trans. Ralph Raico, ed. Arthur Goddard (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978). Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1151

 Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, trans. Ralph Raico, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/1463

Ludwig von Mises, Liberalismus (Jena: Fischer Verlag, 1927).

Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960).

Murray N. Rothbard, For a New Liberty (New York: Macmillan, 1973). Revised edition 1978.


Table of the 12 Key Concepts of Liberty


1. Natural Law and Natural Rights

  • the world is governed by natural laws which are discoverable by human reason
  • Tom Paine's "imprescriptible rights": the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness
  • rights are not created by government but exist anterior to it
  • [alternative view of utilitarianism - maximization of happiness or utilty]

2. Private Property

  • the right of self-propriety or self-ownership
  • the right to exchange property titles with others
  • private contracts
  • the right to enjoy one's property so long as no aggression is initiated against others

3. Individual Liberty

  • an individual, private sphere which is protected from outside interference
  • the dignity of the individual, individual autonomy, sanctity of life
  • right of voluntary association among individuals
  • civil society

4. Idea of Spontaneous Order

  • institutions emerge spontaneously and evolve over time
  • by pursuing their own selfish interests in a voluntary manner they are led as if by an "invisible hand" (Adam Smith) to promote the welfare of others

5. Free Markets

  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • domestic free markets, competition
  • division of labour
  • low taxes
  • little or no regulation

6. Limited Government

  • governmental power limited by means of a constitution and/or bill of rights
  • elections to periodically remove bad governments
  • checks and balances between the branches of government
  • federalism and decentralization of power
  • how limited should government be? - classical Smithian view, nighwatchman state, anarcho-capitalism

7. Rule of Law

  • rule of laws not of men
  • law applies equally to all (including agents of the state)
  • common law
  • independent courts
  • trial by jury
  • right to habeas corpus

8. Freedom of Speech & Religion

  • freedom of the press
  • the right of assembly and right to engage in peaceful protest
  • no state-enforced religion
  • right to practice the religion of one's choice
  • toleration of all unorthodox thought and (non injurious) behaviour

9. Free Trade

  • complete freedom of movement of people and goods (laissez-faire, laissez-passer)
  • international free trade
  • natural harmony of interests leads to peace

10. Peace

  • non-interference in the affairs of other nations
  • international arbitration to solve disputes
  • free trade beween all nations
  • respect for the laws of war

11. Progress

  • through hard work and initiative both individuals and society can be improved indefinitely
  • wealth creation is a product of the free market and trade

12. Right of "Exit"

  • the right to rebel against unjust government, tyranny
  • the right to secede
  • freedom of movement across political borders - immigration, emmigration

Recommended Reading from the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and the Online Library of Liberty

Articles from The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (EoL) which are most pertinent to my list of key concepts include the following. The items in bold are particularly important in my view.

One should begin with Steve Davies' "General Introduction," EoL, pp. xxv-xxxvii, which is an excellent survey of the ideas, movements, and key events in the development of liberty, then read as many of the following articles as you can.

Another excellent, short introduction comes from A Libertrian Primer, ed. David Boaz (New York: The Free Press, 1997).

In the right hand colum are listed relevant extracts from texts in the Classical Liberal tradition which are available at the Online Library of Liberty. The link will take you to an extract of the text which is part of the OLL's collection of Quotations about Liberty and Power.


  1. "Natural Law" & "Natural Rights"
  2. "Theories of Rights"
  3. "Utilitarianism"

  1. "Private Property"
  2. "Nonaggression Axiom"

  1. "Civil Society"
  2. "Individual Rights" & "Equality" (of rights)
  3. "Freedom" & "Political and Ethical Individualism"
  4. "Presumption of Liberty"

  1. "Spontaneous Order"

  1. "Capitalism"
  2. "Laissez-Faire Policy" & "Competition"
  3. "Division of Labor"
  4. "Entrepreneurship" & "Free-Market Economy"

  1. "Constitutionalism" & "Limited Government"
  2. "Bill of Righs, U.S." & "Federalism"
  3. "Minimal State" & "State"
  4. "Anarchism" & "Anarcho-Capitalism"

  1. "Coercion" & "Constitutionalism"
  2. "Common Law" & "Law Merchant"

  1. "Conscience" (liberty of)
  2. "Cosmopolitanism"
  3. "Freedom of Speech" & "Freedom of Thought"
  4. "Religion and Liberty" & "Separation of Church and State"

  1. "Free Trade"
  2. "Natural Harmony of Interests"

  1. "Peace and Pacifism"

  1. "Economic Development"
  2. "Material Progress"
  3. "Progress"

  1. "Right of Revolution" & "Secessionism"
  2. Freedom of Movement - Emmigration & "Immigration"