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Liberalism Essay, Research Paper

The process of industrialization in England and on the Continent created an enlargement of the middle classes, e.g. the merchants, bankers, etc. Therefore, it became increasingly difficult for the conservative landowning aristocrats and monarchs to retain their power over society.

The term liberalism was first used in England in around 1819. Liberal ideas of freedom of trade, freedom of speech etc. were largely shaped by the French Revolution, as were most other political doctrines.

Both the advancement of the political doctrine of liberalism and the political ideas themselves were different in every country of Europe. The liberals of Britain and France were the most influential, therefore, I shall focus this essay predominantly on their influence, until the year 1832, on their respective countries in order to answer the question to what extent their influence was different.

In the first chapter, I will deal with the political and economical ideologies ‘all’ liberals have in common. The next chapter will elaborate to what extent those liberalist ideas influenced society in France, until 1830. In the third, I will discuss the influence of liberalism in Britain up to the year 1832.

Classical Liberalism:

The ideologies of liberalism varied extensively in Europe from country to country, but there were also many similarities in their views of society.

Liberals viewed men to be desirous for increasingly more property and respect of others, because liberals believed that the only way to get ahead in life was to gain property and respect, for the more property the better position in society. Liberals recognized that there was a need for some minimum form of government, otherwise there would be the inconvenience of every man having to be his own judge and policeman, but it would not need to be a very strong government. Government was only to restrain occasional transgressors; it was to protect the propertied against the non-propertied. Since the people also needed to be protected from an arbitrary or absolutist government, the government should be under the ultimate control of the propertied. Therefore, there should remain the power to remove or alter the legislative power, when it acts contrary to the trust that was placed in it. In other words, liberals believed in the ability of self-government and self-control, because they considered man to be rational in that man was capable of making independent decisions about his life. However, they did acknowledge the need for a weak government. This government was to be a constitutional monarchy, in which freedom of the press, freedom of speech, free rights of assembly, religion, and freedom to dispose over private property would be preserved in the best possible way. They were convinced that the legislative and the executive branch of government should be separate and that their actions should be mutually restrictive (based on the idea of “checks and balances” by John Locke).

As stated previously, they were also convinced of the idea that only male property owners should be allowed to vote, because they had a stake in society. How much property was needed to be eligible to vote was a hot topic of debate amongst liberals all over Europe. Liberals were not democrats in that they supported the idea of universal male suffrage, for they feared the excesses of mob rule. However, they did believe that every adult male should have the opportunity to accumulate property to become eligible to vote and that all men were equal before the law. A liberal slogan was that careers should be open to the talents. None of the liberals in Europe was in favor of the unification of laborers into labor unions for it would be an artificial interference with the natural lawssupply and demand, diminishing returns – of the market. Moreover, liberals advocated an economy of “laissez faire”, i.e. free trade; to be achieved by getting rid of or at least lowering the tariffs. They were of the opinion that free trade would be beneficial to all the countries involved, for with free trade, it would be easier to exchange goods. Consequently, each country would produce what it was most suited for, thereby increasing the country’s standard of living and general wealth.

The doctrine of liberalism was generally supported by men of business, bankers, merchants, the new capitalists (”the cotton lords”), who owed their position to their own hard work and intelligence; they were “self-made” men, who would do anything to increase their property within the means proved by the law, but not beyond. Some progressive landowners that wanted to improve their property joined these mostly ‘new’ classes in their support of liberalism.

Contrary to what one might think, most liberals were, to a certain extent, concerned with the situation of the workers. They created several possibilities for the workers to obtain their own property: “savings banks, mutual benefit societies, and institutions of technical and vocational education” (Sperber; p66). There was one field, however, in which the liberals did favor strong governmental activity: the field of public education. They believed that well organized effective public education would create a strong society of male property owners who had a voice in public affairs.

The influence of liberalism in France:

In France, problems arose when Charles X became king in 1824. The reforms that were instituted after the constitution of 1814 were reversed. The Catholic clergy started to reclaim their rights to the control of public education. Sacrilegious behavior became increasingly more prohibited by law; e.g. sacrilege in church buildings became punishable by death. A strong opposition began to rise against these extreme actions by the reactionary government.

In March 1830, the Chamber of Deputies – led by Lafitte and Casimir-P?rier – passed a vote of no confidence in the government. The king retorted by proclaiming that new elections were to be held after he had dissolved the Chamber. According to the result of the new elections, previous actions made by the king were to be rejected. On his own authority king Charles, infuriated by this outcome, now issued four decrees, on July 26 1830. The first ordinance contained the order to dissolve the newly elected Chamber immediately, before its first meeting. The second proclaimed the institution of governmental censorship on all forms of press. Another reduced the right to vote in such a way that none of the bourgeois classes retained their suffrage. It concentrated all the political power back into the hands of the conservative aristocrats. The last decree called for new elections on the basis of the previous three decrees.

On July 27, 1830, the July Revolution broke out in Paris. It were the republicans, mostly consisting of students, other intelligentsia, and working-class leaders, that undertook action, because they saw their chance to achieve their ideal of universal male suffrage. Strangely, it was not the upper-middle class that acted although they were the ones brutally deprived of their right to vote the day before. For three days, Paris was the stage of popular revolt. Charles X stepped down and fled to England, because he did not want to be taken captive by the angry revolutionists, the army refused to defend him against.

After the abdication of Charles X, the liberals still wanted to continue with the existing system of constitutional monarchism, but with a king

they could trust, which is completely in line with their view of government of constitutional monarchism, shown in the first chapter. However, they did liberalize it in that there was to be no more absolutism, the Chamber of Peers would be no longer be hereditary, and the Chamber of Deputies would be elected by a doubled electoral body (from 100,000 to 200,000). The Chambers agreed that the new king would be the Duke of Orl?ans, proposed by Marquis de Lafayette, who was crowned on August 7, 1830. The upper-bourgeoisie – merchants, bankers, and industrialists – benefited most from the new system. To them, this new system was to be the end of political progress. After the revolution of 1830, liberalism became the governmental doctrine that was only interested to preserve the status quo.

Liberalism in Britain:

In England the Tory government had already begun to liberalize in the decade preceding the July Revolution in Paris. The Tory party had reduced tariffs and allowed British colonies to trade with countries other than Britain. Skilled workers were now permitted to emigrate and industrial manufacturers could export machinery, thus revealing British industrial secrets. These measures came very close to the liberal ideal of free trade.

The Tories did not only liberalize the economy, but they had also started to reform some social aspects of society as well, notably in the direction of freedom of religion. Permitting Protestants to hold and run for public office had extensively reduced the power of the Church of England. From now on Catholics received the same rights as others. The introduction of an official police force, that was to keep protests, angry crowds, and occasional riots under control, was unprecedented in any European country.

The main injustice in Britain, at that time, was the unequal distribution of representation of the people in the House of Commons. “It was estimated that in about 1820 less than 500 men, most of them members of the House of Lords, really selected the majority of the House of Commons”. As a consequence, of the Industrial Revolution the population was shifting considerably to the north, while the population used to be concentrated predominantly in the south. However, no new boroughs (urban centers having the right to elect members of Parliament) had been created, since 1688, to the displeasure of the northern industrial urban centers. In 1830, probably influenced by the July Revolution in Paris, the issue of reforming the House of Commons was raised again by the minority party, the Whigs. As an answer to the enormous outburst by the Duke of Wellington, in defense of the existing system, a Whig ministry took over the government. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass the Commons and the ministry resigned. Fearing popular revolt, the Tories refused to form a new government. The Whigs returned and now the bill did pass the House of Commons, but it stranded in the House of Lords. The country was on the eve of a revolution if the bill would not become law. The Whigs went to the king with this argument trying to persuade him to create enough new Lords to change the majority of the House of Lords in favor of the Whigs. The Lords surrendered and they approved the bill. In April 1832, the bill finally became law.

The new law was a typical British creation. In stead of adopting the new ideas of the French – that each representative should represent approximately the same number of voters – they preferred to make some alteration in the existing system. The property owners and their principal employees – doctors, lawyers, etc.- would under the new law, elect the members of the House of Commons. The new law came down to the redistribution of votes, not to a substantial enlargement of the electoral body (from 500,000 to about 813,000).


In my opinion, the influence of the liberals in France should have been far greater than that of the liberals in England, because the liberals in France had obtained the control over the government. Therefore, it would seem to be easier for them to institute legal measures to benefit their political and economical ideologies. However, they refused to adopt and implement the successful English policies. Consequently, the main difference between the two countries remained that England continued to flourish and easily be the leader of the world economy.

In England, the control of government by the Tory party, after 1832, reduced the influence of capitalism on society. Consequently, legislation was passed to somewhat protect the workers against the continuing lust for profit of their employers. This contrary to France where only the most well to do were in control of politics not much was done to relieve the condition of labor.

Concluding I believe that, in England, even though the liberals did not have direct influence on the course of politics, English society did come very close to some of the liberal ideals, e.g. constitutional monarchy, emigration of skilled workers, colonies trading with other countries, etc. It is, therefore, fair to say that, although the liberals did not have the direct influence on public policies, the influence exerted by the liberalist ideologies was far greater than in France.

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