On the Origins of Liberalism

The following is my side of a discussion from the comments section of a post by Corey Robin, The Definitive Take on Donald Trump. Considering the topic of the post, it’s odd that it became a historical and philosophical analysis of liberalism.

My comments are in response to Jason Bowden. He sees John Locke as more central to American liberalism. I don’t deny his importance, but I see it as having more diverse origins.

* * *

“The menu above is liberalism — limited government, individual rights, states rights, balance of powers, paper-worshipping Constitutionalism, privatization, deregulation, market-knows-best, blah blah blah. That’s the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, Godwin, Mill, Spencer, etc. It isn’t the counter-revolutionary tradition of Hobbes, Hume, Maistre, Burke, etc.”

I consider those type of people to be more in the reactionary category. That is particularly true of Locke, but even Jefferson and Godwin were never consistent and moderated their views over time. Also, as far as I know, none of these thinkers came from poverty or even the working class. The same applies to Burke with a father who was a government official and, I might add, began as a strong progressive before his reactionary side was elicited by the French Revolution.

Consider the details of Locke’s political views, as compared to an earlier thinker like Roger Williams:


“Basically, Williams was articulating Lockean political philosophy when John Locke was still in diapers. Even Locke never defended Lockean rights as strongly as did Williams. Locke didn’t think Catholics and atheists deserved equal freedom. Locke was involved in writing the constitution of the Carolina Colony which included slavery, something Williams wouldn’t have ever done under any circumstances and no matter the personal benefits. In writing about land rights, Locke defended the rights of colonists to take Native American Land whereas Williams defended against the theft of land from Native Americans.”

That demonstrates this difference between ‘liberal’ and reactionary. There was no liberalism as such when Williams lived, but by his example he helped set the stage for what would become liberalism. Locke came from an entirely different tradition, that which influenced the Deep South.


The difference between liberal and reactionary to some degree aligned with the difference between democrat and republican during the revolutionary era, and to some degree it matched up with Anti-Federalist and Federalist. Josiah Tucker, a critic of Locke, wrote:

“Republicans in general . . . for leveling all Distinctions above them, and at the same time for tyrannizing over those, whom Chance or Misfortune have placed below them.”

The more reactionary Enlightenment thinkers and American founders were wary of democracy. Liberals like Thomas Paine, on the other hand, advocated for democracy openly. Paine saw the failure of the French Revolution as their not having created a democratic constitution when they had the chance. Also in the category of liberals, as opposed to reactionaries, I’d place people like Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc.



Paine, in particular, is the archetype of modern American liberalism and progressivism. Besides supporting democracy in general, he was for rights for (poor men, women, blacks, Native Americans, non-Protestants, etc), along with being for progressive taxation and strong welfare state. Paine represents what we mean by liberalism today. But even a classical liberal like Adam Smith pointed to how inequality endangered a free society and so he argued for progressive taxation and public education.

Someone like Jefferson was more of a fence-sitter. It is hard to categorize him. But he obviously never fully committed himself to the progressive liberalism of his friend, Paine. And as he aged he became considerably more conservative. The same happened with Godwin. It must be understood that both Jefferson and Godwin came from the elite and they never betrayed their class. It was class position that distinguished strong progressive liberals and everyone else. Paine, Allen, Young, and Clark were never fully accepted into the more respectable social circles.

“Sometimes I wonder if many Sanders supporters are closet reactionaries and don’t know it yet.”

I support Sanders’ campaign. I do so because I see it as a way of promoting needed debate. It is also good to challenge Clinton’s sense of entitlement to the presidency. But in the end I might vote Green. I’m undecided. I just like how Sanders has been able to shake things up so far.

“The left is defined as groups on the ascent. People benefitting from the established order — CEOs, immigrants, government employees, and the managerial class.”

I can’t say, though, that I feel like I’m part of a group on the ascent. I am a government employee, but my position is about as low as you can get. I have no college degree and I don’t make much money, as I’m only part time. I don’t particularly feel like I’m receiving any immense benefit from the established order, at least no more than the average American.

“A lot of suburban and rural whites have a lot to lose by the way things are going. In one possible political realignment in the future, they could be on the same side — the right.”

I see that as a separate issue. Many other realignments may form in the future, such as between various non-black minorities and whites, especially in terms of the growing Hispanic population. How that all settles out would be speculation.

* * *

What interests me about Williams is that he held to a view similar to Lockean land rights. This was before Locke was even born. I don’t if the idea was just in the air or where it might have originated. I’m not sure why Locke gets credit for it. It is sad that this philosophical and legal justification came to be used to take Native American land away, when for Williams it was meant to protect Native American rights.

He was an interesting guy, way before his times. I liked how he went to convert the Native Americans and came away converted to their having a superior society than their neighboring white settlers. He seemingly gave up on organized religion. He also took religious freedom much further than Locke ever did.

“I’m glad you brought up Roger Williams, because I definitely view progressivism, with its moral self-certainly, as a kind of secular Puritanism.”

That is at least partly true. I might broaden it a bit.

I see progressivism as largely a product of dissenter religions—not just Puritans, but also Quakers, Anabaptists, Pietists, Huguenots, etc. These were people who were tired of religious persecution and religious wars. I’d include Samuel de Champlain in this category, similar to someone like Roger Williams.

I’m most familiar with the Quakers. Having read about John Dickinson, I was fascinated by their separate tradition of living and evolving constitutionalism as a pact of a people with God, not a piece of paper. That is not unlike how many liberals and progressives still like to interpret the US Constitution, minus the God part.

“But Locke, while not a progressive, nor a democrat, brings the conceptual heft.”

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m not sure how to categorize Locke. He did formalize many ideas and made them useful for the purposes of new laws and constitutions.

I have come to the view that Spinoza was important as well. Someone like Jefferson probably was familiar with Spinoza, but I don’t know how influential his ideas were in the English-speaking world. There were large non-English populations in the American colonies (some colonies were even a majority non-English, such as Pennsylvania). Besides dissenter religions, I couldn’t say what else non-English Europeans brought with them.

“It is a complete “Captain Picard” theory of man, strutting about the galaxy, pleading with everyone to put their irrational biases aside and just be reasonable.”

That might be what differentiated Locke from the likes of Williams and Penn. Religious dissenters weren’t so obsessed reason in this manner. I suspect that Paine inherited some of this earlier tradition. Paine’s deism wasn’t just about being rational but about knowing God directly, a very Quaker attitude. Paine, besides having a Quaker father, spent two influential periods of his life in a dissenter Puritan town and in Quaker Pennsylvania. Paine’s common sense could relate to his Quaker style of plain speech, it’s about a directness of knowing and communicating. It’s seems different than how you describe Locke.

“Out of Locke, one gets the instrumental nature of the state, disinterested power, the presumption of liberty when making trade-offs, popular sovereignty, and even government intervention for the public good, providing it meets a threshold of justification.”

In the non-Lockean traditions of dissenter religions and Spinozism, I sense another kind of attitude. It’s not clear to me all that distinguishes them.

Williams definitely had a live-and-let-live attitude, a proto-liberal can’t we all just get along. He didn’t want war, an oppressive government, or anyone telling anyone else how to live. Instead of banning, imprisoning, or torturing Quakers like the Puritans, he invited them to public debate—for the time, a radical advocacy of free speech. He expressed so many modern liberal and progressive values before almost anyone else in the colonies.

Along these lines, Penn later created the first tolerant multicultural colony in America. Franklin, who was a child when Penn died, complained about the German majority that refused to assimilate. This multiculturalism led to strong democratic culture.

“Liberals today write books like “Moral Politics” and writers like Dworkin think the Constitution should be interpreted in a moral spirit.”

That moralistic attitude would definitely be a result of dissenter religions. It also would relate to the Constitution being a living document.

“This is why a liberal like Spencer claimed that in reactionary thought, government resides in the “very soul of its system.” Spencer dreamed of a non-coercive world — morality is supposedly prior to government — while conservatism is about borders, culture, hierarchies, identity, etc.”

That is interesting. I’m not familiar with Spencer.

“Even in the United States, the biggest fans of free trade, limited government, and deregulation were southern slavers. The cultural inertia remains. It isn’t an accident that Clinton and Gore, both pimping for NAFTA, are from the south.”

That fits into Locke’s influence. He wrote or co-wrote the constitution for the Carolinas colony. This Southern classical liberalism is, of course, what today we call conservatism—an ideologically mixed bag. But it also shaped Clinton’s New Democrats, which partly returned the Democratic Party to its Southern roots. The early Democratic Party was weakest in New England.

“Liberalism has always been a top-down movement, usually spearheaded by university professors.”

There has also always been a working class liberalism, often a mix of progressivism, populism, and moral reformism. It’s harder to identify this tradition because the people who have held it weren’t and aren’t those with much power and voice.

The revolutionary era began as a bottom-up movement, a class-based restleness about not only distant British rule but also local ruling elite. It was the process of Renaissance and Enlightenment ideas spreading across the dirty masses. Paine was so influential for the very reason he could be understood by the most uneducated person. The upper class so-called founders only joined the revolution once it became clear it wasn’t going away.

“If anything, liberalism is aristocratic and Puritan in temperament, an attempt to improve the perceived immorality of rowdy, sinful, shameless, vulgar people.”

There were those like the Quakers and Baptists as well. People of this other strain of liberalism hated haughty Puritanism and aristocracy. I wouldn’t discount this aspect, as this bottom-up liberal tradition has been a powerful force in American society and politics.

* * *

I’ve recently been reading about Abraham Lincoln. I was specifically curious to learn more about his having been influenced by Thomas Paine.

Lincoln was born at the end of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. It was only months away from Paine’s death. Much later, Jefferson and Adams died when Lincoln was 17 years old. Lincoln read many of the writings of the founders and others from the revolutionary era, including a number of radical thinkers. He was very much a child of the Enlightenment, even embracing a rational irreligiosity with a deistic bent. His mind was preoccupied with the founding generation.

I find interesting the contrast between Lincoln and Paine. Lincoln became a mainstream professional politician, something that Paine never would have done. Paine, even with his desire to moderate extremes, was a radical through and through. Lincoln ultimately mistrusted radicalism and had no desire for a second revolution. The government, in his mind, represented the public good. Paine, on the other hand, had a more palpable sense of he people as something distinct from particular governments.

Another difference seems to be related to their respective religious upbringings. They both held progressive views, but their motivations came from different sources.

Lincoln admitted to being a fatalist and that this came from his Baptist childhood with its Calvinist predetermination. This fed into his melancholy and sense of doom, oddly combined with a whiggish view of history (i.e., moral arc). The divine, portrayed in the light of Enlightenment deism, was an almost brutal force of nature that forced moral progress, decimating humans in its wake. Lincoln believed that individuals were helpless pawns, facing a dual fate of inborn character and cosmic forces. The Civil War was the perfect stage for Lincoln’s fatalistic drama of transformation through death and suffering.

Paine had so much more to be melancholy about. He saw one of his childhood friends, convicted of a petty crime, hanged from the scaffolding that could be seen from his home. His first wife and child died. His second marriage led to divorce. He spent many years struggling financially, sometimes unemployed and homeless. He almost died from sickness on his way to the American colonies. Yet, unlike Lincoln, Paine seemed to have an optimistic bent to his nature. He was a dreamer, opposite of Lincoln’s cold pragmatism. I suspect this at least partly has to do with how much Paine was influenced by dissenter religions, most especially the positive vision of Quakerism where God is seen as a friend to humanity.

The two represent different strains of Anglo-American progressivism, neither of which is particularly Lockean in mindset. In today’s politics, I’m not sure there is much room for either Lincoln or Paine. Their worldviews are almost alien to the contemporary mind. Politics has become so mechanistic and government so bureaucratic. There isn’t any room left for the vast visions of old school varieties of progressivism. Maybe that is why Trump is so appealing. He brings drama back into politics, no matter how superficial and petty that drama is.

* * *

I follow much of what you say. You describe the gist of the dominant strains of American liberalism and progressivism. But I keep thinking about origins. You wrote that,

“Locke invented liberalism: reasonable citizens updating public policy through reasonableness without resorting to terrorism.”

Did Locke really invent liberalism? To be specific, did he invent what you describe above as liberalism? To Locke, who was a citizen, specifically a reasonable citizen?

He had no problem writing or helping to write the constitution for a colony whose economy was dependent on slavery—in fact, a colony where the majority of the population was enslaved. He also didn’t support religious freedom for all, but only for certain religious groups and definitely not for heretics and atheists.

By reasonable citizens, would he have simply meant white male adults who were propertied and adherents of particular acceptable religions? Or did he think peasants, indentured servants, slaves, and indigenous people should be considered part of the reasonable citizenry? The reasonable citizens among the ruling elite and upper classes in the British Empire, including in the colonies, didn’t mind resorting to terrorism. Lockean land rights were even used as justification for taking away the land of various indigenous people. All of colonialism was built on violence, terrorism even, and Locke didn’t seem too bothered by that.

Was Locke genuinely praising reasonableness any more than previous thinkers? Didn’t those with wealth and power always think of themselves as reasonable? I’m sure the highly educated elite in the Roman Empire also thought of themselves as reasonable citizens maintaining order reasonably in their reasonable republic. The rhetoric of a reasonable citizenry goes back to the ancient world, e.g., classical Greece.

What was entirely new that Locke was bringing to the table? As I pointed out, even Lockean land rights as a theory preceded Locke, such as with Roger Williams. Others had also previously argued for social contract theory and against divine sanction, such as Thomas Hobbes. Many of these kinds of ideas had been discussed for generations, centuries, or even millennia—consider Giordano Bruno’s views on science and religion or consider how some trace liberalism back to Epicurus. What made Lockean thought unique? Was it how these ideas were systematized?

Also, what do you think about Benedict Spinoza? Some think Locke was influenced by him. Spinoza began writing long before Locke did. And Locke spent time in Spinoza’s Netherlands, during a time when Spinoza’s work was well known among the type of people Locke associated with. Locke did most of his writing in Netherlands and following that period. Some of Spinoza’s ideas would have likely resonated with and influenced Locke, specifically Spinoza’s advocacy of free speech, religious tolerance, separation of church and state, republicanism, etc.

There is always the argument as well that Spinoza and Locke represent separate strains of the Enlightenment, one radical and the other reactionary or moderate. Do you agree with this argument? Or do you prefer the view of there being a single Enlightenment and hence a single Enlightenment basis of mainstream liberalism? Do you think Spinoza had much of any influence in early America, either directly or indirectly? If so, can a Spinozistic element be detected in American political thought?

A number of people argue for an influence, e.g., “Nature’s God.” For example, Spinoza’s collected works were in
Thomas Jefferson’s library. Thomas Paine likely was familiar with Spinoza’s ideas, either by reading him or through those around him who had read Spinoza. One can sense Spinozism in deism and maybe in Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Theosophy, New Age spirituality, and New Thought Christianity. Spinoza’s panentheism has aspects of unitarianism and universalism, both of which have been influential over American history—and so maybe it was incorporated into the Unitarian-Universalist tradition. I could see even Quakerism, or more mainstream Christianity being influenced.

Plus, there is someone like Algernon Sidney. I don’t know much about him. He doesn’t get as much attention from popular works, at least here in the US. From what I can gather, his views were partly in line with Spinoza. Some other related early Enlightenment thinkers are Conyers Middleton and Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke.

Your comment got me thinking about all of this. I decided to do a web search. Here are a few things that came up (some that I’m familiar with and others new to me):

Radical Enlightenment
by Jonathan Israel

Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism
by Lewis Samuel Feuer

Nature’s God
by Matthew Stewart

New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty
Evan Haefeli

The Island at the Center of the World
by Russell Shorto












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