Classical Liberalism, (the set of ideas promoting liberty, equality and free markets), was developed in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This political philosophy was a response to feudal European monarchy and aristocracy. Its goal was to support the aims of a rising middle class by extending voting rights, political representation, economic latitude and freedom of speech to that class. Political agitation favoring Classical Liberalism produced the intended result of eventually creating representative governments in Europe, and the unintended result of inspiring working class peoples to advocate for their inclusion in the political process.
When this political philosophy crossed the Atlantic to the British Colonies, the results were different in form. Classical Liberalism inspired the American Revolution’s opposition to monarchy. Its outcome was the United States. This is where European and US paths diverge. Europe continued to have an adversary to Classical Liberalism, in the form of its dwindling aristocracy and entrenched monarchy, both of whom surrendered their grip on government only by having their tenacious, resistant fingers slowly pried from the wheel. Conversely, the United States after the Revolution had no such opposition. In the words of Murray Levin, “the absence of a genuine aristocracy and a reactionary medieval Catholic church advocating traditional European conservative ideology of the brand of Burke or of De Maistre is a fundamental fact of American history. The absence of a conservative tradition hastened the triumph of liberalism and contributed to the totality of its victory. The absence of Conservatism denied to Americans an alternative model to liberalism…The speed and the sweep of that triumph fixed the liberal mold so that the unfolding of American history is the unfolding of liberalism” (Levin, p. 242).
During the examination of history, one must be careful in defining the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” to a contemporary audience: it should be stressed that in western history, “Conservative” only meant upholding the hegemony of monarchy and aristocracy; “Liberal” meant the political ideals that oppose such a Conservatism as elucidated in the opening paragraph. That said, however, there was an evolution that took place. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Liberalism did evolve into today’s Social Liberalism, based upon the principles of liberty and equality. One could hardly, using the Enlightenment tool of reason, support liberty and equality only for the middle class. A system which claims to support freedom and equality, but does so only for the group that developed the notion, is inconsistent and hypocritical. In a country where women and so many minorities, all recognize that the principle of equality applies to them as well, it is inevitable that notions of Liberalism would evolve to include their demands. Freedom of speech and representation became stepping stones for a variety of social and political perspectives to be heard. Our homegrown Conservatism which arose in reaction to these wholly American developments, was never (at least in word) opposed to the constitutional principles created as a safeguard against monarchy or totalitarianism. When US Conservatives acted to suppress and censor groups seeking freedoms, they never stated an opposition to the Bill of Rights; they just acted in ignorance of its principles based on emotion-based prejudices against the listed groups. The most ironic political occurrence is that American Conservatives have been the most vociferous and repressive forces in favor of the established Liberal doctrines during our two Red Scares in the 1920s and the 1950s. American Conservatives have supported free markets and the Constitution, during Red Scare periods, using the same enthusiasm with which they opposed the aforementioned groups agitating for their rights through constitutional means. Classical Liberalism is such an ingrained part of American Democracy that even those who claim to oppose today’s Social Liberals, support the roots from which Social Liberalism developed. In today’s United States, both Liberals and Conservatives are Classical Liberals.
Levin, Murray B. Political Hysteria in America. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1971.