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The History of Liberalism

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Written by Arda Kizilkaya

Liberalism is an ideology that supports the privatization of the market without the segregation of religion, gender, ethnicity, or language, and it is the most popular economic ideology followed by countries all around the world.

The Creation of Liberalism:

Liberalism was founded in 1815 by the Philosopher John Locke. Locke argued that life, liberty, and property are inalienable rights for every man. Locke was influenced by Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Hobbes.

The Rise of Liberalism:

Locke’s theory gained popularity in the Age of Enlightenment among Western philosophers and economists because it sought to replace the norms of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the divine right of kings with representative democracy, the rule of law, and equality under the law. Liberalism also ended mercantilist policies, royal monopolies, and other trade barriers, and instead promoted free trade and marketization. The British Glorious Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789 used liberal philosophy to justify their armed rising to overthrow royal sovereignty. The 19th century witnessed the rise of liberal governments in regions like South America, which gained their independence from Spain and Portugal. Also in France, two key events marked the triumph of liberalism. One of them was the abolition of feudalism on the night of 4 August 1789, which marked the collapse of traditional feudal rights. The second one was the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in August based on the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French brought liberal policies to Western Europe such as the liquidation of the feudal system, the liberalization of property laws, the end of seigneurial dues, the abolition of guilds, the legalization of divorce, the disintegration of Jewish ghettos, the collapse of the Inquisition, the end of the Holy Roman Empire, the elimination of church courts and religious authority, the establishment of the metric system, and equality under the law for all men.

The development of classical liberalism took place before and after the French Revolution. One of the most known ones is The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith published in 1776, which provided most of the ideas of economics.  Smith addressed the motivation for economic activity, the causes of prices and wealth distribution, and the policies that must be followed to maximize wealth. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire made reforms under the influence of liberalism with the Tanzimat Reforms and Al-Nahda Reforms due to the rise of secularism, constitutionalism, nationalism, and different intellectual movements, like the Young Ottomans. Prominent of the era were Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Namik Kemal, and Ibrahim Sinasi. However, the reformist ideas and trends did not reach the common population successfully, as the books, periodicals, and newspapers were accessible primarily to intellectuals and segments of the emerging middle class. Many Muslims regarded them as foreign influences on the world of Islam, and this perception complicated reformist efforts made by Middle Eastern states. These changes, along with other factors, helped create a sense of crisis within Islam, which continues to this day. This led to Islamic revivalism. Abolitionist and suffrage movements began to spread around the world, along with representative and democratic ideals. However, nationalism also spread rapidly after 1815. A mixture of liberal and nationalist sentiments in Italy and Germany brought about the unification of the two countries in the late 19th century. A liberal regime came to power in Italy and ended the secular power of the Popes. However, the Vatican launched a counter-crusade against liberalism. Pope Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors in 1864, condemning liberalism in all its forms. In many countries, liberal forces responded by expelling the Jesuit order. Liberalism gained momentum at the beginning of the 20th century. The bastion of autocracy, the Russian Tsar, was overthrown in the first phase of the Russian Revolution. The Allied victory in World War I and the collapse of four defeated empires seemed to mark the triumph of liberalism across the European continent, not just among the victorious allies but also in Germany and the newly created states of Eastern Europe.In the United States, modern liberalism traces its history to the popular presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who initiated the New Deal in response to the Great Depression and won an unprecedented four elections. Meanwhile, the definitive liberal response to the Great Depression was given by the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who had begun a theoretical work examining the relationship between unemployment, money, and prices back in the 1920s.

The worldwide Great Depression, starting in 1929, hastened the discrediting of liberal economics and strengthened calls for state control over economic affairs. Economic woes prompted widespread unrest in the European political world, leading to the rise of fascism as an ideology and a movement against liberalism and communism, especially in Nazi Germany and Italy. The rise of fascism in the 1930s eventually culminated in the Second World War, the deadliest conflict in human history. The Allies prevailed in the war by 1945, and their victory set the stage for the Cold War between the Communist Eastern Bloc and the liberal Western Bloc. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the biggest threat against liberalism was eliminated. And that was the history of liberalism.


  1. The “l-word”: A short history of Liberalism - University of Richmond. (n.d.).


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