Liberalism in History Research Paper

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Liberalism is a sociopolitical idea about political order that has contributed substantially, since the late eighteenth century, to the modern age. It aims at creating a civil society, but adjusts its concrete demands to the existing situation of society and the state. This readiness to adjust has made liberalism willing to compromise as well as open to development. The core principles of liberalism endure, but the details of what it understands as civil society have changed in the course of history and have always been debated among liberals. For this reason, the history of liberalism as an idea and as political practice can be adequately understood only as a continuing struggle about interpretation, but as controversial as the definition of liberalism has always been, liberalism has always aimed to make responsible citizenship possible. This is true for all societies, even if the paths liberalism has taken have differed in Europe, the USA, and other parts of the world. Europe is where liberalism originated and formed its liberal ideas of political order. For this reason, we will concentrate on European liberalism.

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Since its beginnings, liberalism has demanded three kinds of citizenship rights: (a) equality before the law, guaranteed by the rule of law; (b) equal opportunities for political participation, made possible by the right to vote and to participate in public life, and (c) the provision of the basic prerequisites for opportunities in life. The demand for equality before the law was made and fulfilled earliest. Then came political equality, though in practice liberals, in contrast to democrats, long favored giving different weights to the votes of members of different classes. Whether and to what extent the state should guarantee social rights has remained controversial among liberals to this day.

1. Liberalism As An Idea Of Political Order

Liberal thinking centers on the individual, whose freedom of decision is to be defended against state and social constraints. All demands for individual freedom can thus be considered part of the liberal tradition. This would make liberalism as old as human memory, but a liberal doctrine of the state and society first arose in seventeenth century England. Its most influential thinker was John Locke (Two Treatises of Government, 1690). The European Enlightenment’s attempts to limit Absolutism and to enable ‘man’s exit from self-caused lack of self-responsibility’ (Immanuel Kant) and finally the impetus of the American and French Revolutions (human rights, popular sovereignty, constitutionality) are further important stages of liberal thinking.

As political terms, ‘liberalism’ and ‘liberal’ were coined in Spain and did not establish themselves until after 1800. The nineteenth century was then the century of liberalism. No other sociopolitical idea of political order changed the state and society as radically. With the idea of the citizen, liberalism sketched a program for the future that was egalitarian in principle and that was directed against everything that limited individual freedom. At that time, this revolutionary program, which liberals nevertheless wanted to realize evolutionarily in step-by-step reforms, was directed primarily against absolutism and the rule of the nobility, and thus also against class and denominational privileges.

The liberals’ central political demand was for a constitutional state. It was to guarantee the continuity of law, secure individual property, and enable the citizen to participate in the state. The liberals saw the absolutist state as their antagonist and wanted to tame it with constitutional law. The individual was to have free access to the public political arena and, as voters, exert influence on the state’s decision making process, but the state was not to be stripped of its executive powers, only its functionings to be liberalized. The liberals did not call for a weak ‘night watchman’ state, but for freedom in and through the state. Liberalism’s specific political program varied substantially from country to country and over time. What critics condemned as programmatic weakness or even as a betrayal of principles was precisely the strength of the liberal movement. Thanks to its flexibility, it was able to adjust its idea of political order to very disparate conditions of action. Liberals argued everywhere for the parliamentary form of government, but they also accepted compromises to avoid endangering the stability of state and social order.

Among the large European countries, the liberals’ will to establish the parliamentarian system of government was weakest in autocratic Russia and in pre-World War I, Germany. Liberals did not insist upon a particular form of state, but their ideal was parliamentary monarchy; they wanted to preserve the monarchy as a reserve constitution for states of emergency. This sharply distinguished them from the democrats, whose ideal was the republic. The European liberals of the nineteenth century were willing to accept the republican form of state (first in France and Italy), but, since the French Revolution of 1789, most liberals saw the republic as burdened with the odium of social revolution and the annihilation of civil society. The liberals’ fear of social revolution put them at a distance from the idea of the republic, which could prevail only through revolution wherever monarchical states existed. In republican North America, this was not an issue. Limiting the power of the state and securing private property were the foci of American property-oriented, individualistic liberalism, which emphasized self-help and self-organization. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism created the USA’s first instruments for state intervention in society and economic policy.

In practice, the liberal idea of political order focusing on a society with egalitarian citizenship was compatible with inequality. The liberals of the nineteenth century wanted immediate implementation only of equality before the law; political equality could wait. They saw freedom of opinion and the right to vote as the most important means of apportioning participatory rights in the state and the community. By the early twentieth century, liberals had accepted democratic equal voting rights, but they never advocated or demanded the establishment of such rights. Rather, the majority of liberals accepted them only when they could no longer be avoided. The core of their idea of civil society was the economically self-sufficient, educated individual.

Liberalism offered an educational program for those who had not yet achieved this social status; the individual himself was to be responsible for its future fulfillment. This program was directed against a society that apportioned different political rights in accordance with membership in specific groups; but in the century of liberalism, the struggle against the historical and traditional society of privileges did not yet aim at the ‘mass democracy’ of the twentieth century. When the latter appeared on the horizon in the second half of the nineteenth century, liberalism had to change fundamentally if it was to survive partypolitical competition for votes. European liberalism was by and large able to cope with this adaptation until the beginning of World War I.

Emancipation to become a citizen with full rights not only developed at different paces for different classes, but also for the two sexes. Only a few nineteenth-century liberals could imagine woman as a citizen; one of these was John Stuart Mill (1859) On Liberty and Other Essays, an exceptional liberal figure precisely in the radicality of his emancipatory demand for gender parity. Not until the twentieth century did the majority of average liberals come to accept and recognize woman as having equal political rights. Until then, they used the idea of a naturally given eternal inequality of the sexes to avoid the consequences of their egalitarian model of law. Their constitutional idea of civil society was egalitarian, because it was based on the principle of contractual freedom for all. But they did not want to see this principle applied to the family.

Their refusal to politically equate man and woman turned out to have great consequences for their model of society, because they saw the family as the foundation of the state and civil society. In the long run, the liberals could not suppress the contradiction between their political model of an egalitarian civil society and their attempt to construe the family as fundamentally gender-hierarchical. The egalitarian philosophy of liberalism forged an intellectual weapon against the practice of liberal politics, which tolerated or even affirmed certain forms of political inequality. The golden age of liberalism ended with World War I, although its chances for development seemed more favorable than ever before. After all, the war ended in a victory for the Western democracies (USA, Great Britain, and France), which were regarded as the primary representatives of liberalism, while the monarchies of Central Europe and Russia did not survive the war.

Political liberalism did not sweep the field after the fall of these anti-liberal bulwarks. Instead, the signature of the new epoch was rivalry and finally struggle among the liberal-democratic and the new Bolshevist and fascist ideologies, movements, and states. The National Socialist dictatorship, in whose parlance ‘liberalistic’ was perverted into a life-endangering, denunciatory pejorative, finally threatened to extinguish forever the central idea of liberalism, the dignity of the individual, first in Germany and then in Europe’s conquered states. The disintegration of liberal parties, including in Great Britain, the mother country of liberalism, continued after World War I and even after World War II, but at the same time, the constitutional orders and individual behavioral norms in the Western world have been characterized by fundamental liberal values more than ever before. Their validity is no longer tied to the strength of liberal parties. Liberalism’s power to form parties appears to decline when its political ideas prevail and are recognized even by opposing political parties.

The collapse of the Soviet empire seems to confirm this observation. The successor states adopted liberal principles, or what they took to be liberal principles, in their new political and economic orders, but this triumph of liberalism over its communist antagonist has at the same time triggered a new international debate over the central principles of a liberal system of state and society (Ackermann 1992). This debate focuses on the old problem of whether a liberal society can trust solely in the regulative miracle of the market or if it should strive to create a state that, through a ‘combination of citizenship rights and chances for welfare’ (p. 196), empowers all people ‘to take part as citizens in the life of the society’ and ‘to enjoy the achievements of their time’ (Dahrendorf 1987, pp. 196, 219).

2. Ideas Of Social And Economic Order

Historical liberalism arose in the pre-industrial age. It strove for a civil, rather than bourgeois society, in both its ideas of social and economic order as well as in its model of the state. With the idea of the citizen, European liberalism sketched a vision of the future of a society of citizens without great property-ownership differences that would have contradicted the liberal ideal of a middle-class society with a broad distribution of assets (Schapiro 1958). This socially harmonious guiding idea was directed against the class feudal order, but did not initially field an industrial view of the world against it. Liberalism comprised a plurality of social ideas that, depending on a country’s state of social development, ranged from agrarian models of the future (as in Hungary, Spain, and Italy) to industrial capitalistic models (as in the USA, Great Britain, Belgium, and, in part, France and Germany). The liberals demanded social and economic ‘progress,’ but not an industrial–capitalistic class society. Only after the mid-nineteenth century did pre-industrial liberal ideas of order pale in favor of industrial capitalistic ones.

This shift, pushed forward by the wave of revolutions of 1848, marked the transition from early liberalism to liberalism in the age of industrialization. Only now, when dynamic industrialization ended the pauperism of the first half of the century and sociopolitical control mechanisms seemed renouncable, did political liberalism fuse with laissez-faire economics. The main current of liberalism now became more bourgeois than ever before, without narrowing to a bourgeois economic liberalism, even in this phase of Manchester Liberalism. Even now, the liberals were not characterized by convinced affirmation of a free, unregulated market. The liberal demand for free trade among states did not rule out a willingness to accept and call for regulation of the market within the state.

Since the last third of the nineteenth century, the trend to eliminate social-welfare aspects of ideas of societal order in favor of laissez-faire liberalism was tempered by a renaissance of social-liberal guiding ideas. Like early liberalism, the New Liberalism, an international phenomenon, displayed a marked social responsibility, but it assumed the conditions of an industrial society in which the freedom of the individual would be ensured by a policy of social welfare. Liberals had originally contributed to the political climate that, since the 1880s, gave birth to social security laws, first in Germany and then in rapid succession in other countries. This launched a development that led to the modern type of social welfare state. In the United States, it was not until Roosevelt’s New Deal that political theory allowed for the state’s substantial involvement, in contrast to the traditional liberalism of interest groups (Lowi 1979).

No less important was community liberalism, which played a key role in the building of infrastructure in the enormously expanding cities, a precondition of urban life. This community welfare policy ranged from improved hygiene through municipal provision of gas and electricity to the new parks, museums, theaters, and mass education facilities. The achievements of community liberalism show how intensely liberals participated in the communal protection of individual life chances when, in the face of social and economic developments, individual provisions were no longer adequate or possible for increasing segments of the population.

But the individual, not the collective, was still the focus of liberal norms and politics. The conviction that the individual must take priority over the collective distinguishes even the decidedly social liberalism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the other progressive movements, such as socialism. But the dwindling numbers of liberal voters since the early twentieth century, teaches us that the variant offered by the liberal parties as a mediation between collective welfare security and individual freedom to decide no longer had the persuasive power that had characterized the liberal guiding ideas of the nineteenth century.

3. Liberalism And The Nation

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the demands for popular sovereignty and national self-determination became two sides of the same coin. Only states that were recognized as national states could prevail. Liberals took a leading role in making the nation the new supreme principle of legitimacy. Like liberalism, nationalism developed a model opposed to the existing order. Both demands aimed at a society ordered in accordance with egalitarian values, constituted as a state and employing a collective, and thus equally egalitarian concept of sovereignty. This was why nationalism historically arose as, and can still present itself as an ideology of liberation and a movement of emancipation, despite all nationalistic atrocities. Anyone who wanted to ally with nationalism had to accept this basic egalitarian stance. Liberals did so. In the nineteenth century, they became the spokesmen of national movements, formulated their goals, and provided their elites.

This symbiosis of liberalism and nationalism strengthened and shaped both. Liberalism’s influence expanded far beyond its narrower primary bourgeois clientele, and nationalism developed a reform program promising more social as well as political democracy. The vision of a national civil society that expands citizenship rights into the social realm and promises to allow all to share in the resources produced by a society were visions of the future common to liberalism and nationalism. These promises of participation for all, regardless of social status, are what made these movements so unrivaled in attractiveness. Liberalism was one of the creators of this vision that, here too, uncoupled itself from liberalism. Socialists and conservatives both adopted it.

The task of mediating between the central liberal principle of the responsible individual and the collective claims of the nation was nowhere more urgent and difficult than in the multinational Habsburg monarchy (Judson 1996). The attempt to de-escalate national conflicts through constitutional guarantees of the right to national cultural individuality failed, but it indicated a path that would be taken with the help of the League of Nations after World War I in Europe’s new multinational nation-states. This second attempt failed as well, but fundamental principles based in the guiding liberal idea were formulated: the will of the individual must be central, and no collective has the right to disregard this individual will. Making cultural assimilation the precondition for national minorities to enjoy equal citizenship rights in a society with a different national majority contradicts the central convictions of historical liberalism as it had developed since the late eighteenth century, but liberals have often violated this principle in political practice.

4. Organization And Milieus

Even before the emergence of lastingly organized modern parties, liberals tried to penetrate the public sphere with their ideas and to influence state politics. Liberalism had the most favorable conditions for influence where parliamentary institutions already existed.

Secret organizations with revolutionary intentions, on the other hand, were not part of the liberal arsenal for action, because liberal politics did not aim for revolution, but rather for institutionalized, constitutionally regulated cooperation in state politics. Liberals sought to avoid revolutions or to transform them as rapidly as possible into parliamentarily legitimated reforms and thus to put them in a legal framework.

After parliaments became more significant and male voting rights expanded, political movements that sought a voice in state politics could no longer renounce party organizations. Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, the liberals, too, formed parties, though this was more difficult for them than for their competitors on the right and left. The guiding liberal idea of the responsible individual, who would determine the ‘common good’ in free discussion, continuously acted as a certain obstacle to hierarchically organized decision-making procedures. Among the liberals, the party apparatus generally had less importance than the parliamentary groups and local dignitaries.

The guiding image of civil society that has been associated with liberalism since its beginnings is also reflected in its social profile: its focus is on citizens, not the bourgeoisie. The social origins of liberal spokesmen displayed a broad spectrum, especially in the early phase. Nowhere was it limited to the bourgeoisie. Even in Great Britain, the pioneer of industrialization, from 1859 to 1874, only about 21 percent of the liberal delegates to the House of Commons were entrepreneurs. In Italy and Spain, liberalism found a bulwark among the nobility, and in Hungary the nobility dominated completely. In France, Germany, and Belgium, the bourgeoisie took a more prominent place in leading liberal circles. Everywhere here, liberal opinion-makers were highly respected men from respected families. They stood at a distance from tradition, but did not break with it. This membership in ‘good society’ was an important precondition for the power of liberal ideas to prevail even in those states that denied liberals access to state offices. A strictly bourgeois liberalism could not have achieved this.

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the social ‘catchment field’ of liberal parties narrowed. They became more bourgeois. Two lines of conflict increasingly limited the liberal milieu:

(a) One of the liberal parties’ heaviest losses was that the workers, whose number greatly increased during the process of industrialization, turned away from them. This happened earliest in Germany (beginning in the 1860s), while in Great Britain the first workers’ party still worked together with the liberals in elections (Lib–Lab coalition), but the British liberals, too, lost their worker votes when the Labor Party rapidly grew after World War I.

(b) The secularity of the state was always a central liberal credo. In political practice, this goal could be tied to religious tolerance, but also to a struggle against Church competencies and claims. Intense conflicts between the state and the Church broke out in many countries on the European continent in the second half of the nineteenth century. This greatly limited the extent of liberal milieus. Catholics loyal to the Church generally turned away from liberal parties, which they saw as representatives of laicism, but the situation was different in Great Britain. Until World War I, the Irish question tied Catholic voters to the liberals, whose strongest support came from non-conformist congregations.


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