An Introduction to the Classical Liberal Tradition: Theory and History

[Created: 17 Dec. 2011]
[Updated: January 31, 2023 ]
Concept Map of Classical Liberalism



I have the following guides to the history of the classical liberal tradition:


Courses I have taught with a strong CL Component

I. "Liberal Europe and Social Change, 1815-1914" (1987)

The first course I ever taught was a full year course at the University of Adelaide in the Department of History called "Liberal Europe and Social Change, 1815-1914". It was an upper level course which covered the intellectual history of European classical liberal thought in the context of the historical change during the century from the fall of Napoleon to the outbreak of the First World War. An alternate title might have been "The Rise and Decline of the European Classical Liberal Tradition." I taught the course for 10 years and put it online because it still might be useful to people who are interested in this intellectual tradition.

The course textbooks were:

  • the anthology of documents: Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce, ed. E.K. Bramstead and K.J. Melhuish (London: Longman, 1978).
  • and the overview by Theodore S. Hamerow,The Birth of a New Europe: State and Society in the Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill: Univeristy of North Carolina Press, 1983).

See also

  • the course guide for 1987 [PDF 10.2 MB]
  • the course guide for 1988 [HTML]
  • my extensive lecture notes for 1990 [HTML]

The 26 week long course covered the following topics:

  • 1. Introduction - What is Liberalism?
  • 2. What is Liberalism? - Continued
  • 3. The Intellectual Origins of 19th Century Liberalism
  • 4. Individualism and Liberty
  • 5. Utilitarianism Vs. Natural Rights
  • 6. Property and Contract
  • 7. The Free Market and Social Harmony
  • 8. Limited Vs. No Government
  • 9. Constitutionalism and the Rule of Law
  • 10. Democracy and Electoral Reform
  • 11. Centralisation
  • 12. Freedom of Speech
  • 13. The National Question
  • 14. Liberal Politics
  • 15. War and Peace
  • 16. Colonialism and Imperialism
  • 17. Classical Political Economy and Laissez-faire
  • 18. Free Trade and Protection
  • 19. Manufacturing and the Machinery Question
  • 20. The Condition of Women
  • 21. The Abolition of Slavery and Serfdom
  • 22. Population Growth and Malthusianism
  • 23. The Social Question. Poverty and Progress
  • 24. Critics of Socialism
  • 25. Politics in the Novel
  • 26. The New Class Society


II. An Honours Level Subject on "The Enlightenment: Ideas of Criticism and Reform in an International Context" (1990)

The course dealt with some of the classic works of the Enlightenment by Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Beccaria, Raynal, Smith, Beaumarchais, Mozart, Condorcet, and Goya. Although the main focus is France a selection of works from Italy, Scotland, and Spain will also be read. The purpose of the course is to show that, while France was the focal point and French the language through which enlightened ideas were disseminated, the movement of criticism and reform was not restricted to the French nation but was a European-wide and even transatlantic phenomenon. The objects of criticism and reform ranged from institutions such as the church, the legal system, slavery and the economy to culture, social theory, art, and visions of the future. The work of the historian Peter Gay will provide a focus for our reading and discussion, especislly volume two of his major study The Englightenemnt, volume two of which was entitled "The Science of Freedom."

See the Seminar Reading Guide for this course.

The key texts we read were:

  1. The Codification and Transmission of the Enlightenment: Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie (1751).
  2. Rousseau on Freedom and Inequality: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality (1754).
  3. The Attack on Religion: Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary (1764).
  4. Reform of the Law and Punishment: Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishment (1764).
  5. Opposition to Slavery and Colonialism: Abbé Raynal, Philosophical History of the Two Indies (1772).
  6. Commerce and Liberty: Adam Smith, The Weath of Nations (1776).
  7. The Enlightenment in Drama and Opera: Beaumarchais’ and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1778, 1786).
  8. Progress and the Vision of an Enlightened Future: Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1793).
  9. Criticism of the Ancien Régime in Art: Francisco Goya, Los Caprichos (1799).


III. A Module in a First Year Course on Modern European history (2000): “The Old Regime, Enlightenment, and Revolution in the 18th Century”

The theme I chose for this “module” of the subject is the changing nature of “power and privilege” brought about by the “enlightened” critique of the Old Regime and the various attempts made to reform or overthrow it. This theme was very much part of the political vocabulary of those in the 18thC who were involved in trying to reform the society in which they lived. It is also a crucial part of the political vocabulary of modern society which evolved after the American and French Revolutions in the 19th and 20th centuries.

See my Lecture Notes and the Seminar Reading Guide for this course.

My lectures (6 over three weeks) dealt with:

  • Introduction: The Nature of Power and Privilege
  • I. Power and Privilege in the Old Regime
    • The Nature of the Old Regime
    • The “Rulers”
    • The “Ruled”
    • The State in the Ancien Régime: Government, Armies, Bureaucracy
  • II. The Enlightened Critique of the Old Regime
    • Diderot and the Encyclopédie
    • Art as a Weapon: Francisco de Goya (1746-1828)
    • The Critique of Religious Authority - Francois-Marie Arouet "Voltaire" (1694-1778)
    • Opposition to Slavery: Condorcet and Raynal
    • The Rights of Women - Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97)
    • Opera and Liberty - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
  • III. Reform and Revolution: Putting the Ideas of the Enlightenment into Practice
    • The Need to Change - The "Crisis" of the Old Regime
    • Attempts At Reform From Within - "Enlightened Despotism"
    • The Revolutionary Overthrow Of The Old Regime - "The Age Of Democratic Revolutions"
      • The American Revolution
      • The French Revolution(S)
      • The Revolution In Haiti


III. A semester length First Year Course on Modern European history (1998-1999): "The Long Nineteenth Century, 1789-1914"

The title for the full year introductory course on Modern European history, “Europe, Empire and War”, was not of my choosing. My preferred title for my section of the course was “Revolution(s) and the Struggle for Emancipation in Europe: The Long 19th Century, 1789-1914”.

See my Lecture Notes and Seminar Reading Guide for this course.

  • Introductory Lectures
    • The Physical and Historical Geography of Europe
    • The Legacy of the Past
    • The "Long 19thC"
  • Political Authority and Class Rule
    • Political Authority & Class Rule I - Power & Privilege in Traditional States
    • Political Authority & Class Rule II - Rituals and Images of Monarchs, Emperors, & Republic
  • The Struggle for Liberty
    • Struggle for Liberty in 19thC
    • Slavery and its Abolition
    • Emancipation of the Serfs
    • Emancipation of Women
  • The Ideologies of Emancipation
    • Liberalism (Mill)
    • Socialism (Marx)
    • 19thC Liberalism & Socialism compared
  • The State, Empire , and War
    • Empires & Colonies in the 19th Century
    • War & State-Making
  • Economic Revolution
    • The Industrial Revolution & its Impact on Ordinary People
    • Impact of the Industrial Revolution on War & Imperialism
  • Ideas and Culture
    • "High" Culture
    • Popular Culture
    • Science & Technology
  • Concluding Lectures
    • Fin de siècle- the End of an Era? - 1900, 1901, 1914, 1917/18?
    • The Importance of (19thC) History