Anglo-American Classical Liberal Thought

[Updated: 13 July, 2021]


English Classical Liberalism


Note: I include the "proto-liberal" Levellers of the 1640s in a separate section.

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Recent Additions

  • a collection of essays by "Cato", the pseudonym of two English Commonwealthmen, John Trenchard (1662-1723) and Thomas Gordon (c. 1691–1750), who used the ideas of John Locke to expose the corruption and injustices of the British state in the 1720s and which in turn was avidly read in the North American colonies in the decades prior to the Revolution. Cato's Letters as they were known went through 6 editions. The 144 Letters make up a veritable treatise of political theory and analysis of British institutions. We have online the 6th edition of 1755 in HTML and Facs. PDF [vol. 1 | vol. 2 | vol. 3 | vol. 4 as well as the first edtion of 1723-24.
  • after Trenchard died Thomas Gordon turned to using his translations of the Roman historians Sallust (86 – c. 35 BC) and Tacitus (c. AD 56 – c.120) to indirectly criticise the corruption and tyranny of the British government and the Empire. He wrote lengthy "political discourses" as prefaces to his translations which we have comibined into one collection Tyranny, Empire, War, and Corruption: The Political Discourses on Tacitus and Sallust (1728-1744) [HTML]. For the originals see The Works of Sallust (1744) [facs. PDF and HTML] and The Worls of Tacitus (1728, 1737) [facs. PDF and HTML].
  • The battle of the "hyphenated liberalisms": in the late 19th century the "radical", individualist, free market liberalism of thinkers like Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was increasingly replaced by a "new," "social," interventionist form of liberalism espoused by people like Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) at Oxford University. One could argue that this "new" liberalism was not a form of liberalism at all, but to borrow Hayek's distinction made in another context, "false liberalism." See the following by Green:
    • The Principles of Political Obligation (1879-80) [HTML and facs. PDF]
    • “On the Different Senses of ‘Freedom’ as Applied to Will and the Moral Progress of Man” (1879) [HTML and facs. PDF]
    • "Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881) [HTML and facs. PDF]
  • the English radical individualist and advocate of "voluntaryism" Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) presented some of the most eloquent visions of what a free society might look like and the moral reasons for rejecting state compulsion in all its forms, in:
    • The Right and Wrong of Compulsion by the State: A Statement of the Moral Principles of the Party of Individual Liberty (1885) [HTML and facs. PDF]
    • “The Ethics of Dynamite,” Contemporary Review (May 1894) [HTML and facs, PDF]
    • The Principles of Voluntaryism and Free Life (1897) [HTML and facs. PDF]
    • The Voluntaryist Creed and A Plea For Voluntaryism (1908) [HTML and facs. PDF]
  • Burke's attack on the principles of the French Revolution was quickly responded to by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) who wrote not one but two "Vindications" - one vindicating the rights of men (1790) [HTML] and the other extending her response to include the rights of women (1792) [HTML].
  • A youthful radical indiscretion or an attempt at satire of an opposing view? The 26 year old Edmund Burke (1729-1797) may have made the same mistake as the 20-something Étienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) in his Vindication of Natural Society (1756) in which he, perhaps too cleverly, criticises government or "artificial society" and pushes "logic" to an "unacceptable" extreme (i.e. unacceptable to the ruling elites who might employ him later). We have three editions of this work to help you make up your own mind: 1756, 1757, and 1858 [HTML]. Is this an example of the "battle of the Prefaces"?
  • the French Revolution exposed a large rift within the liberal tradition, with conservative "aristocratic" liberals like Edmund Burke (1729-1797) supporting free trade and the American Revolution but not the French Revolution, and radical democratic liberals supporting the violent overthrow of despotic regimes like the French monarchy but not the violent and anti-liberal Jacobin regime. Burke's major writings opposing the French Revolution are Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) [HTML} and the Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795) [HTML]. Thomas Paine's immediate response to defend the revolution and the ideas of natural rights which justified it was two pamphlets Rights of Man Parts I and II (1791, 1792) [HTML]
  • a speech given at Oxford in 1906 and a statement of the "voluntaryist creed" by the English political theorist Auberon Herbert (1838-1906). The latter is one of the most eloquent defences of liberty and the non-aggression principle (“voluntarism”) ever penned. His "creed" can be summarised as the use State force only to protect ourselves against those who would employ force or fraud; and to end every form of compulsory taxation and replace it with “a system of voluntary giving”. The Voluntaryist Creed (1908) in HTML and facs. PDF
  • there was a group of four radical English individualists writing in the late 19th century who opposed the increasing power of the state and the rise of socialism, and were members of the Liberty and Property Defence League - Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Auberon Herbert (1838-1906), Wordsworth Donisthorpe (1847-1914), and Thomas Mackay (1849–1912). They were the British counterpart of the French group of anti-socialist writers whose work we have added recently, namely Paul Leroy-Beaulieu (1843-1916), Yves Guyot (1843-1928), and Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912). The latest addition of the British school is:
    • Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Individualism: A System of Politics (1889) in HTML and facs. PDF
    • Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Law in a Free State (1895) in HTML and facs. PDF
  • two collections of essays edited by Thomas Mackay on behalf of the British "Liberty and Property Defense League" (founded 1882) to combat the rise of socialism, especially the Fabian Socialists:
    • A Plea for Liberty: An Argument Against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation (1891) [HTML] and
    • A Policy Of Free Exchange: the Economical and Social Aspects (1894) [HTML]
    • Australians should note the essays by Charles Fairfield on “State Socialism in the Antipodes” and J.W. Fortescue “State Socialism and the Collapse in Australia” since this new form of socialism was much admired by the British socialists of the day and seen as the path for the future. The pioneers of "state socialism" were Bismarck in the new German Reich after 1871 and the Australian colonies in the last decades of the 19th century
    • also in New Zealand: Rossignal and Steward, State socialism in New Zealand (1910) facs. PDF.
  • Lord Acton, "Introduction" to Machiavelli's The Prince (1891 ed.) in which he says that Machiavelli accurately describes the amoral and criminal behaviour of traditional leaders as well as the new leaders who were emerging in the nationalist movements in places like Italy and Germany in his own day. Acton describes this as "the emancipation of the State from the moral yoke."
  • the important book by L.T. Hobhouse which cemented the transition of "classical" (or radical) liberalism to what was called "new" or "social" liberalism, or what the Americans now call just "liberalism": Liberalism (1911) in HTML and facs. PDF.
  • an essay on "Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821): the Friend of Peace and the Foe of Despotism" along with several versions of his long pamphlet "The Spirit of Despotism" (1795), his sermon on "The Prospect of Perpetual and Universal Peace" (August 18 1793), and his introduction to a translation of Erasmus on peace, "Antipolemus; or, the Plea of Reason, Religion, and Humanity, Against War" (1795)
  • some of the political writings of the under-appreciated James Mill, father of J.S.:
  • Jeremy Bentham on rule by "disinterested experts" or "the fallacy of authority" (1824)
  • Herbert Spencer on the State and "Sanitary Supervision" (1851)


Australian Classical Liberals

Robert Menzies (1894-1978)

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Recent Additions:

  • Some more on "liberalism" in Australia:
    • In 1991 the Australian Liberal Party under the leadership of the "dry" economist (i.e. slightly more "free marketish" than previous neo-liberals) John Hewson introduced a policy document ahead of the 1993 election to reform the Australian economy called stirringly "Fightback!". A central plank of the policy was the introduction of a new 15 percent GST (goods and services tax), along with the abolition of tariffs, and other reforms. Needless to say the voters fought back, quite rightly refusing to support the new tax, but not appreciating the need for the many other reforms in the "Fightback!" package. The Liberal Party lost the election and the Fightback! program disappeared from sight. Nevertheless a 10% GST was introduced by the LP in 2000. See the facs. PDF and the rough, uncorrected HTML version.
    • The "neo-liberalism" which emerged out of a meeting of French and German-speaking liberal economists in Paris in 1938 (the "Colloque Walter Lippman", in 1947 at Mont Pèlerin, and the ideas of "ordoliberalism" (state ordered liberalism) by Walter Eucken at the University of Freiburg (1937-54) was an attempt to create a more electorally attractive political force which would merge some aspects of individual private property and free markets ("liberalism") with considerable paternalistic government intervention ("neo-statism") and the welfare state ("neo-socialism"), as an opposing force to the rise of fascism, socialism (labourism), and communism. In Australia it took the form of the neo-liberalism, or rather "antipodean liberalism" (my deliberate play on words - meaning both "in the southern hemisphere" as well as "the direct opposite") of Robert Menzies (1894-1978). He would play a major role in the newly formed Liberal Party of Australia (1944) and would rule as PM from 1949-1966. He outlined his political views in a seres of 37 "fire-side chats" in the second half of 1942 known as "The Forgotten People" broadcasts. These important documents are hard to find so I have assembled the complete collection here [HTML]. They should be compared to the similar ideas about "The Forgotten Man" developed by the American radical liberal William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) in 1883.
  • more on state socialism in the Antipodes, this time in New Zealand but in favour of it: Rossignal and Steward, State Socialism in New Zealand (1910) facs. PDF.
  • Some more books by William Hearn:
    • The Government of England (1868) - facs. PDF
    • The Aryan Household (1878) - facs. PDF
    • The Theory of Legal Duty and Rights (1883) - facs. PDF
  • now a third -William Hearn (1826-1888) on Plutology or the Theory of the Efforts to Satisfy Human Wants (1864)
  • two examples of the very meagre offerings from Australian radical liberals / libertarians: the 19th century radical free trader Arthur Bruce Smith (1851–1937)
  • and the Workers Party platform from 1975.

[See the archive.]




American"Classical Liberalism"

[Randolph Bourne (1886-1918)]

The U.S. has never really had a "classical liberal" tradition. When the term "liberal" began to be used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the tradition had dramatically changed into what was called "new" or "social" liberalism in England. Before then, CLs in America were known as "republicans", "Jeffersonian republicans," or "individualualists".

Blog Posts:

  • abc

Recent Additions

  • The American radical journalist and essayist Randolph S. Bourne (1886-1918) was a vociferous critic of America's entry into WW1 and the submissive, herd-like acceptance of this fact by the American public. This anthology, Untimely Papers (1919), put together after his death in 1918, contains the brilliant essay "The War and the Intelletuals" (1917) in which he lambasts the intellectual class for rallying around the State to support the war effort, and his unfinished essay on "The State" in which he argues that "war is the health of the state". HTML and facs. PDF. Given his use of "health" metaphors, references to "herd-mentaility" and behaviour, and the hounding of dissenters, it has considerable contemporary relevance in the current "war" against covid and the role of the state and the intellectual class in making this possible.
    • even before the war broke out in Europe Bourne wrote a pamphlet attacking The Tradition of War (June 1914) for the American Association for International Conciliation [HTML and facs. PDF]
    • shortly after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917 Bourne wrote the pamphlet The War and the Intellectuals (June 1917) was published by the American Union against Militarism. [facs. PDF and Union statement of principles]
  • I have another very interesting piece by the American jurist James C. Carter entitled The Ideal and the Actual in the Law (1890) [HTML] to add to his The Provinces of the Written and the Unwritten Law (1889) [HTML]. Carter argues for the idea that judges do not "make the law" but rather "discover" it by observing common practice and custom around them. Legal change occurs at the margin when judges adapt or slightly modify current jural practice. The role of the legislature in reforming the law is thus minimal at best.
  • Condy Raguet was also a staunch critic of government fiat paper money in his Treatise on Currency and Banking (1839).
  • We now have a third representative of the 19th century American free trade movement online to add to Henry George (1839-1897) and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), namely Condy Raguet (1784-1842). Their arch intellectual foe was Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) who defended government funded infra-structure projects and high tariffs (the so-called "American System") in his Report on Manufactures (1791) and whose ideas dominated American economic policy for over a century. Why hasn't anybody made a musical about Condy Raguet? I wrote a screenplay about the life and times of Fréréric Bastiat. (with images)
    1. Condy Raguet, The Principles of Free Trade (1835)
    2. William Graham Sumner, Protectionism. The -Ism which Teaches that Waste makes Wealth (1885)
    3. Henry George, Protection or Free Trade (1886)
  • William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) spent much of his life attacking the fallacies and sophisms of tariffs and the system of protectionism in the United States. He was active in the rather small American free trade movement for whom he gave lectures and wrote pamphlets. In his approach and his rhetoric he was very much in the tradition of Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) referring to the “sophisms” of protectionism and the “plunder” which benefited some vested interests at the expense of ordinary consumers and tax-payers (his “forgotten” men and women). See his Lectures on the History of Protection in the United States (1877), Protectionism. The -Ism which Teaches that Waste makes Wealth (1885), and his overview of free trade “Liberté des Échanges” (1891) which was never translated into English.
  • England had Herbert Spencer (1820-1903); France had Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912); and America had William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). All three did pioneering work in the emerging discipline of “sociology”, were radical classical liberals (libertarians), and were active in popularizing their ideas via journalism. Sumner was a professor of sociology at Yale University who wrote on free trade and protection, sound money and banking, and was an outspoken member of the American Anti-Imperialist League. His work on classical liberal class analysis should also be mentioned, where he championed the interests of “The Forgotten Man and Woman” who paid the taxes which made it possible for the various vested interest groups, both large (plutocrats and party bosses) and small (those who sought government jobs), to enjoy their privileged position. Sumner also wrote several works against the theory and practice of socialism. In his view the great clash of the future would be between socialists from below and plutocrats from above, with the “forgotten” man and woman caught in the middle.We have online four volumes of his collected essays, his major treatise on sociology, and several other works:
  • two speeches by the late 19th century New York legal theorist James Coolidge Carter, (1827-1905) who was a strong defender of private, judge-made law (often "unwritten") vs. state-made legislation and codes of law:
    • The Provinces of the Written and the Unwritten Law (1889) in HTML and facs. PDF
    • The Ideal and the Actual in the Law (1890) in HTML and facs. PDF
  • The Selected Works of Lysander Spooner (1850-1886) consists of 14 pamphlets and essays Spooner wrote on the burning issues of slavery and its abolition and to what extent an individual owed allegiance to the constitution which was a document which no living person had agreed to and signed. It also includes his chapter on "Vices are not Crimes" (1875) which is a radical critique of so-called "victimless crime" laws
  • a work by the great 19thC American defender of free trade, Henry George (1839-1897), Protection or Free Trade (1886) in HTML and facs. PDF
  • Rothbard's complete Libertarian Forum (1969-1984) in HTML (and thus properly searchable! - I was interested in finding the first use of the term "anarcho-capitalism" and "free market anarchism")
  • Rothbard, "Economic Determinism, Ideology, And The American Revolution" (1974). A paper delivered at the Libertarian Scholars Conference, Oct. 28, 1974 in New York City. On class and ideas.