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Should schools be able to keep tabs on students’ social media to prevent internet bullying? Should there be regulations that prohibit a president from tweeting? With our “We the Students” essay contest, you could win prizes just for sharing your thoughts on these issues!
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This year’s prompt: To what extent in the U.S. does the government–federal, state, and local–have the duty to monitor internet content?
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Liberalism, the belief in freedom and human rights, is historically associated with such thinkers as John Locke and Montesquieu. It is a political movement which spans the better part of the last four centuries, though the use of the word "liberalism" to refer to a specific political doctrine did not occur until the 19th century. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England laid the foundations for the development of the modern liberal state by constitutionally limiting the power of the monarch, affirming parliamentary supremacy, passing the Bill of Rights and establishing the principle of "consent of the governed". The 1776 Declaration of Independence of the United States of America founded the nascent republic on liberal principles without the encumbrance of hereditary aristocracy—the declaration stated that "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", echoing John Locke's phrase "life, liberty, and property". A few years later, the French Revolution overthrew the hereditary aristocracy, with the slogan "liberty, equality, fraternity" and was the first state in history to grant universal male suffrage. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, first codified in 1789 in France, is a foundational document of both liberalism and human rights. The intellectual progress of the Enlightenment, which questioned old traditions about societies and governments, eventually coalesced into powerful revolutionary movements that toppled what the French called the Ancien Régime, the belief in absolute monarchy and established religion, especially in Europe, Latin America and North America.
William Henry of Orange in the Glorious Revolution, Thomas Jefferson in the American Revolution and Lafayette in the French Revolution used liberal philosophy to justify the armed overthrow of what they saw as tyrannical rule. Liberalism started to spread rapidly especially after the French Revolution. The 19th century saw liberal governments established in nations across Europe, South America and North America. In this period, the dominant ideological opponent of classical liberalism was conservatism, but liberalism later survived major ideological challenges from new opponents, such as fascism and communism. Liberal government often adopted the economic beliefs espoused by Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others, which broadly emphasized the importance of free markets and laissez-faire governance, with a minimum of interference in trade.
During 19th and early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire and Middle East, liberalism influenced periods of reform such as the Tanzimat and Nahda and the rise of secularism, constitutionalism and nationalism. These changes, along with other factors, helped to create a sense of crisis within Islam which continues to this day—this led to Islamic revivalism. During the 20th century, liberal ideas spread even further as liberal democracies found themselves on the winning side in both world wars. In Europe and North America, the establishment of social liberalism (often called simply "liberalism" in the United States) became a key component in the expansion of the welfare state. Today, liberal parties continue to wield power and influence throughout the world, but it still has challenges to overcome in Africa and Asia. Later waves of modern liberal thought and struggle were strongly influenced by the need to expand civil rights. Liberals have advocated for gender equality and racial equality and a global social movement for civil rights in the 20th century achieved several objectives towards both goals.
Isolated strands of liberal thought had existed in Western philosophy since the Ancient Greeks and in Eastern philosophy since the Song and Ming period, but the first major signs of liberal politics emerged in modern times. Many of the liberal concepts of Locke were foreshadowed in the radical ideas that were freely aired at the time. The pamphleteerRichard Overton wrote: "To every Individuall in nature, is given an individuall property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any...; no man hath power over my rights and liberties, and I over no mans". These ideas were first unified as a distinct ideology by the English philosopher John Locke, generally regarded as the father of modern liberalism. Locke developed the radical notion that government acquires consent from the governed, which has to be constantly present for a government to remain legitimate. His influential Two Treatises (1690), the foundational text of liberal ideology, outlined his major ideas. His insistence that lawful government did not have a supernatural basis was a sharp break from previous theories of governance. Locke also defined the concept of the separation of church and state. Based on the social contract principle, Locke argued that there was a natural right to the liberty of conscience, which he argued must therefore remain protected from any government authority. He also formulated a general defence for religious toleration in his Letters Concerning Toleration. Locke was influenced by the liberal ideas of John Milton, who was a staunch advocate of freedom in all its forms.
Milton argued for disestablishment as the only effective way of achieving broad toleration. In his Areopagitica, Milton provided one of the first arguments for the importance of freedom of speech – "the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties". Algernon Sidney was second only to John Locke in his influence on liberal political thought in eighteenth-century Britain and Colonial America, and was widely read and quoted by the Whig opposition during the Glorious Revolution. Sidney's argument that "free men always have the right to resist tyrannical government" was widely quoted by the Patriots at the time of American Revolutionary War and Thomas Jefferson considered Sidney to have been one of the two primary sources for the Founding Fathers' view of liberty. Sidney believed that absolute monarchy was a great political evil and his major work, Discourses Concerning Government, was written during the Exclusion Crisis, as a response to Robert Filmer's Patriarcha, a defence of divine right monarchy. Sidney firmly rejected the Filmer's reactionary principles and argued that the subjects of the monarch were entitled by right to share in the government through advice and counsel.
Main article: Glorious Revolution
See also: Civil liberties in the United Kingdom
Isolated strands of liberal thought that had existed in Western philosophy since the Ancient Greeks began to coalesce at the time of the English Civil War. Disputes between the Parliament and King Charles I over political supremacy sparked a massive civil war in the 1640s, which culminated in Charles' execution and the establishment of a Republic. In particular, the Levellers, a radical political movement of the period, published their manifesto Agreement of the People which advocated popular sovereignty, an extended voting suffrage, religious tolerance and equality before the law. The impact of these ideas steadily increased during the 17th century in England, culminating in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which enshrined parliamentary sovereignty and the right of revolution, and led to the establishment of what many consider the first modern, liberal state. Significant legislative milestones in this period included the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, which strengthened the convention that forbade detention lacking sufficient cause or evidence. The Bill of Rights formally established the supremacy of the law and of parliament over the monarch and laid down basic rights for all Englishmen. The Bill made royal interference with the law and with elections to parliament illegal, made the agreement of parliament necessary for the implementation of any new taxes and outlawed the maintenance of a standing army during peacetime without parliament's consent. The right to petition the monarch was granted to everyone and "cruel and unusual punishments" were made illegal under all circumstances. This was followed a year later with the Act of Toleration, which drew its ideological content from John Locke's four letters advocating religious toleration. The Act allowed freedom of worship to Nonconformists who pledged oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the Anglican Church. In 1695, the Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act 1662, leading to a continuous period of unprecedented freedom of the press. The Licensing of the Press Act 1662, which sanctioned government censorship of the printing press, expired in 1692 at the end of the existing session of parliament. In 1695, the Commons refused to renew the legislation, leading to a continuous period of unprecedented freedom of the press (apart from seditious libel).
Age of Enlightenment
Main article: Age of Enlightenment
The development of liberalism continued throughout the 18th century with the burgeoning Enlightenment ideals of the era. This was a period of profound intellectual vitality that questioned old traditions and influenced several European monarchies throughout the 18th century. In contrast to England, the French experience in the 18th century was characterised by the perpetuation of feudal payments and rights and absolutism. Ideas that challenged the status quo were often harshly repressed. Most of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment were progressive in the liberal sense and advocated the reform of the French system of government along more constitutional and liberal lines. The American Enlightenment is a period of intellectual ferment in the thirteen American colonies in the period 1714–1818, which led to the American Revolution and the creation of the American Republic. Influenced by the 18th-century European Enlightenment and its own native American Philosophy, the American Enlightenment applied scientific reasoning to politics, science and religion, promoted religious tolerance, and restored literature, the arts, and music as important disciplines and professions worthy of study in colleges.
A prominent example of a monarch who took the Enlightenment project seriously was Joseph II of Austria, who ruled from 1780 to 1790 and implemented a wide array of radical reforms, such as the complete abolition of serfdom, the imposition of equal taxation policies between the aristocracy and the peasantry, the institution of religious toleration, including equal civil rights for Jews and the suppression of Catholic religious authority throughout his empire, creating a more secular nation. Besides the Enlightenment, a rising tide of industrialization and urbanization in Western Europe during the 18th century also contributed to the growth of liberal society by spurring commercial and entrepreneurial activity.
In the early 18th century, the Commonwealth men and the Country Party in England, promoted republicanism and condemned the perceived widespread corruption and lack of morality during the Walpole era, theorizing that only civic virtue could protect a country from despotism and ruin. A series of essays, known as Cato's Letters, published in the London Journal during the 1720s and written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, condemned tyranny and advanced principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. They were an important influence on the development of Republicanism in the United States.
In the 1760s, the "Middlesex radicals", led by the politician John Wilkes who was expelled from the House of Commons for seditious libel, founded the Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights and developed the belief that every man had the right to vote and "natural reason" enabled him to properly judge political issues. Liberty consisted in frequent elections. This was to begin a long tradition of British radicalism.
In contrast to England, the French experience in the 18th century was characterized by the perpetuation of feudalism and absolutism. Ideas that challenged the status quo were often harshly repressed. Most of the philosophes of the French Enlightenment were progressive in the liberal sense and advocated the reform of the French system of government along more constitutional and liberal lines.
Baron de Montesquieu wrote a series of highly influential works in the early 18th century, including Persian letters (1717) and The Spirit of the Laws (1748). The latter exerted tremendous influence, both inside and outside France. Montesquieu pleaded in favor of a constitutional system of government, the preservation of civil liberties and the law and the idea that political institutions ought to reflect the social and geographical aspects of each community. In particular, he argued that political liberty required the separation of the powers of government. Building on John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, he advocated that the executive, legislative and judicial functions of government should be assigned to different bodies, so that attempts by one branch of government to infringe on political liberty might be restrained by the other branches. In a lengthy discussion of the English political system, which he greatly admired, he tried to show how this might be achieved and liberty secured, even in a monarchy. He also notes that liberty cannot be secure where there is no separation of powers, even in a republic. He also emphasized the importance of a robust due process in law, including the right to a fair trial, the presumption of innocence and proportionality in the severity of punishment.
Another important figure of the French Enlightenment was Voltaire. Initially believing in the constructive role an enlightened monarch could play in improving the welfare of the people, he eventually came to a new conclusion: "It is up to us to cultivate our garden". His most polemical and ferocious attacks on intolerance and religious persecutions indeed began to appear a few years later. Despite much persecution, Voltaire remained a courageous polemicist who indefatigably fought for civil rights—the right to a fair trial and freedom of religion—and who denounced the hypocrisies and injustices of the Ancien Régime.
Era of revolution
Main article: American Revolution
Political tension between England and its American colonies grew after 1765 and the Seven Years' War over the issue of taxation without representation, culminating in the Declaration of Independence of a new republic, and the resulting American Revolutionary War to defend it.
The intellectual underpinnings for independence were provided by the English pamphleteer Thomas Paine. His Common Sense pro-independence pamphlet was anonymously published on January 10, 1776 and became an immediate success. It was read aloud everywhere, including the Army. He pioneered a style of political writing that rendered complex ideas easily intelligible.
The Declaration of Independence, written in committee largely by Thomas Jefferson, echoed Locke. After the war, the leaders debated about how to move forward. The Articles of Confederation, written in 1776, now appeared inadequate to provide security, or even a functional government. The Confederation Congress called a Constitutional Convention in 1787, which resulted in the writing of a new Constitution of the United States establishing a federal government. In the context of the times, the Constitution was a republican and liberal document. It remains the oldest liberal governing document in effect worldwide.
The American theorists and politicians strongly believe in the sovereignty of the people rather than in the sovereignty of the King. As one historian writes: "The American adoption of a democratic theory that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, as it had been put as early as the Declaration of Independence, was epoch-marking".
The American Revolution had its impact on the French Revolution and later movements in Europe.Leopold von Ranke, a leading German historian, in 1848 argued that American republicanism played a crucial role in the development of European liberalism:
- By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force in the world. Ideas spread most rapidly when they have found adequate concrete expression. Thus republicanism entered our Romanic/Germanic world.... Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. But only after a state had actually been formed on the basis of the theory of representation did the full significance of this idea become clear. All later revolutionary movements have this same goal.... This was the complete reversal of a principle. Until then, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below.... These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did.
Main article: Influence of the French Revolution
Historians widely regard the French Revolution as one of the most important events in history. The Revolution is often seen as marking the "dawn of the modern era", and its convulsions are widely associated with "the triumph of liberalism".
Three years into the French Revolution, German writer Johann von Goethe reportedly told the defeated Prussian soldiers after the Battle of Valmy that "from this place and from this time forth commences a new era in world history, and you can all say that you were present at its birth". Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history. The Revolution is often seen as marking the "dawn of the modern era," and its convulsions are widely associated with "the triumph of liberalism". Describing the participatory politics of the French Revolution, one historian commented that "thousands of men and even many women gained firsthand experience in the political arena: they talked, read, and listened in new ways; they voted; they joined new organizations; and they marched for their political goals. Revolution became a tradition, and republicanism an enduring option". For liberals, the Revolution was their defining moment, and later liberals approved of the French Revolution almost entirely—"not only its results but the act itself," as two historians noted.
The French Revolution began in 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General in May. The first year of the Revolution witnessed members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the Storming of the Bastille in July. The two key events that marked the triumph of liberalism were the Abolition of feudalism in France on the night of 4 August 1789, which marked the collapse of feudal and old traditional rights and privileges and restrictions, and the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August. Jefferson, the American ambassador to France, was consulted in its drafting and there are striking similarities with the American Declaration of Independence.
The next few years were dominated by tensions between various liberal assemblies and a conservative monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the following year. However, conflict between rival political factions, the Girondins and the Jacobins, culminated in the Reign of Terror, that was marked by mass executions of "enemies of the revolution", with the death toll reaching into the tens of thousands. Finally Napoleon came to power in 1799, ended any form of democracy with his dictatorship, ended internal civil wars, made peace with the Catholic Church, and conquered much of Europe until he went too far and was finally defeated in 1815. The rise of Napoleon as dictator in 1799, heralded a reverse of many of the republican and democratic gains. However Napoleon did not restore the ancien regime. He kept much of the liberalism and imposed a liberal code of law, the Code Napoleon.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the French brought to Western Europe 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 final 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. Napoleon wrote that "the peoples of Germany, as of France, Italy and Spain, want equality and liberal ideas," with some historians suggesting that he may have been the first person ever to use the word "liberal" in a political sense. He also governed through a method that one historian described as "civilian dictatorship", which "drew its legitimacy from direct consultation with the people, in the form of a plebiscite". Napoleon, however, did not always live up to the liberal ideals he espoused.
Outside France the Revolution had a major impact and its ideas became widespread. Furthermore, the French armies in the 1790s and 1800s directly overthrew feudal remains in much of western Europe. They liberalised property laws, ended seigneurial dues, abolished the guild of merchants and craftsmen to facilitate entrepreneurship, legalised divorce, and closed the Jewish ghettos. The Inquisition ended as did the Holy Roman Empire. The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced, and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men.
Artz emphasises the benefits the Italians gained from the French Revolution:
- For nearly two decades the Italians had the excellent codes of law, a fair system of taxation, a better economic situation, and more religious and intellectual toleration than they had known for centuries ... Everywhere old physical, economic, and intellectual barriers had been thrown down and the Italians had begun to be aware of a common nationality.
Likewise in Switzerland the long-term impact of the French Revolution has been assessed by Martin:
- It proclaimed the equality of citizens before the law, equality of languages, freedom of thought and faith; it created a Swiss citizenship, basis of our modern nationality, and the separation of powers, of which the old regime had no conception; it suppressed internal tariffs and other economic restraints; it unified weights and measures, reformed civil and penal law, authorised mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants), suppressed torture and improved justice; it developed education and public works.
His most lasting achievement, the Civil Code, served as "an object of emulation all over the globe," but it also perpetuated further discrimination against women under the banner of the "natural order". This unprecedented period of chaos and revolution had irreversibly introduced the world to a new movement and ideology that would soon criss-cross the globe. For France, however, the defeat of Napoleon brought about the restoration of the monarchy and an ultra-conservative order was reimposed on the country.
Main article: Classical liberalism
The development into maturity of classical liberalism took place before and after the French Revolution in Britain, and was based on the following core concepts: classical economics, free trade, laissez-faire government with minimal intervention and taxation and a balanced budget. Classical liberals were committed to individualism, liberty and equal rights. Writers such as John Bright and Richard Cobden opposed both aristocratic privilege and property, which they saw as an impediment to the development of a class of yeoman farmers.
Main article: Radicalism
The radical liberal movement began in the 1790s in England and concentrated on parliamentary and electoral reform, emphasizing natural rights and popular sovereignty. Radicals like Richard Price and Joseph Priestley saw parliamentary reform as a first step toward dealing with their many grievances, including the treatment of Protestant Dissenters, the slave trade, high prices and high taxes.
Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man (1791) provoked a response from Burke, with his conservative essay Reflections on the Revolution in France. The ensuing Revolution Controversy featured, among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, who followed with an early feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Radicals encouraged mass support for democratic reform along with rejection of the monarchy, aristocracy, and all forms of privilege. Different strands of the movement developed, with middle class "reformers" aiming to widen the franchise to represent commercial and industrial interests and towns without parliamentary representation, while "Popular radicals" drawn from the middle class and from artisans agitated to assert wider rights including relieving distress. The theoretical basis for electoral reform was provided by "Philosophical radicals" who followed the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and strongly supported parliamentary reform, but were generally hostile to the arguments and tactics of the "popular radicals".
Improved economic conditions after 1821, improvements in economic and criminal law and the abandoning of policies of repression led to decreasing polarisation and a more consensual form of reform politics that was to dominate in Britain for the next two centuries. In 1823 Jeremy Bentham co-founded the Westminster Review with James Mill as a journal for "philosophical radicals", setting out the utilitarian philosophy.
The Reform Act 1832 was put through with the support of public outcry, mass meetings of "political unions" and riots in some cities. This now enfranchised the middle classes, but failed to meet radical demands. Following the Reform Act the mainly aristocratic Whigs in the House of Commons were joined by a small number of parliamentary Radicals, as well as an increased number of middle class Whigs. By 1839 they were informally being called "the Liberal party. The Liberals produced one of the greatest British prime ministers—William Gladstone, who was also known as the Grand Old Man and was the towering political figure of liberalism in the 19th century. Under Gladstone, the Liberals reformed education, disestablished the Church of Ireland, and introduced the secret ballot for local and parliamentary elections.