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Was Liberalism the received wisdom of the nineteenth century?
"What can better signify that God has placed man first and most beloved among his creatures, what could signify better that his origins are divine?" So spoke Sagredo, a nineteenth century Italian liberal politician, encapsulating his movement's early overbearing optimism, self-belief and devotion to reason. Liberalism suffers from ambiguity because over several centuries and throughout many nations, different philosophers, politicians and newspapers have used the phrase to capture many differing ideas and ideals. At its core, liberalism is the pursuit of freedoms and rights for all. Rights of assembly, freedom of thought and speech and the protection of property were all questionable or nonexistent before liberalism had its age. Smithian economic liberalism adds also an emphasis on laissez-faire capitalism, a free market economy and an unobtrusive government. One largely maintained tenet of liberalism was that secular government should be wholly removed from religious or superstitious influence, instead a province only of rationalism. Philosophical liberalism espouses rule by the educated and intellectual, believing that it will lead to a bourgeois utopia1. Other more democratic liberals support egalitarianism and hence universal suffrage. However in practise, since most liberals were middle class, Burgetum, bourgeoisie or borghesia, giving the working classes the vote was a frightening and they opposed idea, instead supporting constitutional monarchies. Liberalism was a wisdom, and was received in the nineteenth century, but it was not the received wisdom of the nineteenth century. Instead it was taken up, acted on and then largely abandoned, its purpose served and aims largely met. Liberalism ceased to have any political weight behind it and so gave way to the challenges surrounding it. By gradually allowing expanded suffrage, liberalism created the machine of its own destruction, for mass politics opened the floodgate to nationalist demagogues and socialist parties appealing directly to the newest, largest voting bloc, the proletariat. Before the workers had their say, however, liberalism certainly had its peak in Europe, its moment in the spotlight, its success. When viewed with a general eye, these successes appear both notable but also in some cases sporadic. Nonetheless, the liberal targets of enshrining rights, allowing free trade, expanding suffrage and breaking from the church all saw success in the nineteenth century. David Harris triumphantly writes "on June 28th 1914 the average European moved more freely, read more freely and talked more freely than ever before in the Continent's experience"2. This certainly seems to suggest that liberalism made its mark. Following the American tripartite government model, European states followed a "strictly regular processes at an independent judiciary, with property safe from the hands of royal caprice, and no restraint on conscience or religion, freedom of the press"3. Specific instances of this are manifold. Belgium's July Revolution by an alliance of liberals and Catholics drew up a liberal constitution in 1831 that was seen as a "masterpiece of political wisdom"4, used as a model for many subsequent constitutions. At the same time in England the 1832 Reform Bill modernised government by effecting a more acceptable division of political power.5 Thus it seems fair to agree with David Harris' assertion that "generally in Europe one individual freedom after another gained 1
Liberalism and Modern Society, Richard Bellamy, p.3 Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century, David Harris, p.522 3 Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century, David Harris, p.502 4 Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century, David Harris, p.504 5 Liberalism in the Nineteenth Century, David Harris, p.505 2
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