Previously I focused on the censored history of liberalism and how the early Liberals got overlooked. It’s important now to delve into what defined them and their place within the political spectrum.
The irony of the first Liberals being the Spanish supporters of the 1812 constitution cannot be overstated. Not only were they Conservative Liberals, supporters of a still rather powerful monarchy and Catholicism as the state religion as well as opponents of the French Revolution, but they didn’t abolish aristocratic privileges either. They weren’t egalitarians, they weren’t radicals, they weren’t dogmatic progressives, they weren’t secularists, many weren’t materialists, nor were they ideological individualists, secularists or libertines.
They were not interested in legalising divorce or a loosening of morals. Neither were the Old Whigs in the UK. So, what were they striving for? Liberty of course. Something Montesquieu already knew meant many things to many different people but fighting for it was not a revolutionary concept. Liberty can be defined in a positive or negative sense. For or against something. Liberalism came to be associated with left-wing individualism when it defined liberty against tradition, religion and the family. Where the state had to forcefully remove someone from his roots. A view of liberty and forced emancipation not much different from Marxism. Some progressive liberals of this kind have justified intolerance towards conservatives and traditionalists by saying you cannot be tolerant towards intolerance but with intolerance they don’t actually mean intolerance but merely what they regard as narrowmindedness, backwardness, fundamentalism and so on. The most totalitarian communist states will say they’re tolerant those who aren’t counterrevolutionary. South Park’s episode about the Death camp of tolerance explained what tolerance is a lot better. A truly libertarian episode. Tolerance means live and let live, also towards those who holds views or beliefs that one considers offensive, stupid, outdated, reactionary, Marxist, fascist and so on, as long as they don’t aggress against you.
But the early liberals were supporters of preservation and strengthening of traditional liberties such as private property, freedom of speech and of the press (within traditional limits that prohibited blasphemy, sedition and pornography) and freedom of assembly. They desired to protect this liberty against absolute monarchs and above all despots, but also corrupt parliament, bureaucrats and the tyranny of the majority. They attempted to do this through constitutionalism, separation of powers, mixed government and generally the rule of law.
Kuehnelt-Leddhn pointed out that the early liberals supported liberty out of principle, not based on utilitarian considerations. This is something they have in common with paleolibertarians. What separates them from libertarians is that they don’t view the non aggression principle as the only basis on of state limitations on freedom. Traditional liberty did not include the right to destroy one’s own life through suicide just as you couldn’t give up your liberty by selling yourself into slavery. One couldn’t choose to never choose in the future. Nor were vile acts that were viewed as perverted, sins against nature and the family such as sodomy or even adultery considered a right. A (selective) right to (sexual) privacy didn’t exist. Many states nowadays show traces of this by prohibiting incest between consenting adults, consensual prostitution and even polygamy. Banning polygamy but not adultery seems so odd. You can get acquitted by proving you didn’t stay for breakfast, you were just sleeping with the other woman while married? “Victimless crimes” that involved acts viewed as abominable were still crimes. Liberty was something for gentlemen, for Christians or at least religions or traditions that followed natural law. That was the conservative nature of liberalism.
Interestingly enough, many of the early liberals and their inspirations weren’t supporters of the (full) separation of Church and state and some not even unlimited freedom of religion, just the toleration of (certain) minority religions.
Early liberalism followed a mixed of conservative and moderate enlightenment influences (Locke, Kant, Voltaire to an extent) and earlier Christian traditions as well as Greek and Roman inspirations. It was more reformist than revolutionary. Montesquieu is generally viewed as having believed in original sin. Not all liberals held the view that humans were naturally good or neutral.
Difference from reactionaries
Reactionaries, Integralist, Integrists and Traditionalists shared with the early Liberals a rejection of egalitarianism, majoritarian democracy, the French Revolution, libertinism and radicalism along with support for private property, traditional norms and respect for tradition and Christianity. But while both rejected dogmatic progressivism, reactionaries and traditionalists actively fought to preserve and/or restore the entire social, moral and religious order from before the French Revolution, either hoping for an absolutist restoration or a return to feudalism. They were strongly in favour of powerful monarchy and sceptical of Montesquieu’s separation of powers and modern parliamentary politics in general, more critical of (free market) Capitalism (specifically an issue between the Tories and Whigs who gradually became the conservatives and the liberals and conservatism and liberalism split apart in the UK close to middle of the nineteenth century) and opposed to freedom of the press and religious tolerance. They were far more fundamentalist in their devotion to the state Church, unchanging tradition and traditional social order. This split would only become worse when Liberalism became associated with progressivism and secularism and increasingly with (step by step less limited) democracy as well.
Early Liberals overlapped far more with conservatives than with Reactionaries, although maybe it would be better to say that early conservatives were far closer to the early liberals than the first reactionaries. In Spain conservatism was and to an extent still is largely interchangeable with liberalism while traditionalism is truly reactionary and progressivism has often become linked to radicalism, socialism and communism.
Early Liberals generally accepted the binding dogmas of their Church without desiring to be spoon-fed the answers to every open question They favoured tolerance over the security of strictness, their views of society and monarchy was less doctrinal, less resistant to organic change, limiting what were viewed as unchanging principles. Finally, their view of the state of the monarchic office was more natural/horizontal. They seem to have doubted that monarchs were (with exception) divinely led or granted special wisdom. Instead constitutionalism and the separation of powers show a distrust for what reactionaries viewed as God’s anointed kings. Though unlike later liberals they were fearful of the majority as well.
Progressivism slips in
Radicalism inspired by Jacobinism, became prominent in Spain from 1820 onwards. The French Revolution made inroads. While the moderates remained closer to classical liberalism. The more radical tendencies formed the Partido Progresista. As such radicalism/radical-liberalism became associated with Progressivism and spreading the principles of the French Revolution, promoting secularism, anti-clericalism, juri trials and expanded suffrage.
The Radicals in the UK transformed the Whigs into the Liberal Party, introfucing of course, Jacobinism and Radicalism as well as utilitarianism (ice on the poisoned cake that true liberalism was being fed).
At the same time a more moderate liberal alternative, one that rejected radical liberalism but accepted moderate progressivism, one that rejected republicanism but slowly decreased actual monarchical power, one that embraced democracy but tried to mix it with constitutionalism and the saparatio of powers, one which was anti-clerical but in a respectful way and one which desired ever more extreme free market capitalism became simply known as liberalism, as old/paleo-liberalism became the alternative to radicalism as conservatism either merged with reactionairism or became its own force.
Liberalism came to be associated with utilitarianism and with materialism but mixed with bourgois morality, with Kantian and urban moralism.
As previously mentioned, these paleo-liberals succesfully claimed the term liberalism, their mix of constitutionalism and separation of powers with majoritarian democracy commonly became known as liberal democracy or even just democracy, and this trend (to the left of the conservatives but to the right of the radicals) dominated in 1848, in the July Monarchy in France, with Thorbecke in the Netherlands.
In this classical liberalism became a sonewhat centrist force in mainland Europe (but one that leaned left), pushed only to the right by a redefinition of the political spectrum based on economics, the lack of traditionalist conservative groups and the centrist trend with christian democracy.
But even then, conservative liberal and liberal conservative groups appeared in Germany and especially Italy, where Liberalism remained unusually pro-monarchical and willing to reconcile with the Church. Liberalism’s focus on individual responsibility and self-reliance ads well as competition had their benefits.
Johan van Schaik