What is liberalism? What did a ‘Liberal’ believe in the 1800s?

Why do I need this information?

Well, it’s interesting in its own right I hope, but if you study Italian unification for more than 10 minutes you’ll meet the term ‘Liberalism’, and you need to understand what it means, or more precisely what it meant in the 1800s. Unfortunately we don’t often find detailed explanations of the idea in many textbooks, and this can lead to confusion. This confusion is made worse by the modern use of the word in America, where ‘liberal’ means left-wing. The term is often used as a term of abuse against political opponents.

In the 1800s and early 1900s however, ‘Liberalism’ had a very different meaning. Liberalism was a political agenda, and the ‘Liberal Party’ was political party in Britain which was dedicated to achieving ‘liberty’. But what did they mean by this? What kind of ‘liberty’ did they want?

We can find out by reading “Liberalism” by L T Hobhouse.  Hobhouse was a political theorist – a journalist and academic who studied political ideas. In 1911 he wrote a description of ‘liberalism’, which set out several of the ‘liberties’ which were important parts of this political idea. I won’t cover all of these ideas, but have summarised some of them below. When you read in a textbook that Cavour, or another Italian leader was a ‘liberal’, or had ‘liberal ideals’ then the writer is probably referring to some ideas such as these. However, when you read this ideas, you should be thinking about how Italy actually measured up to these ideals, before 1860 and afterwards.

Civil Liberty – Constitutional Rule

“the first condition of free government is government not by the arbitrary determination of the ruler, but by fixed rules of law, to which the ruler himself is subject”

This first liberty is in many ways the basis of all the others. Having clearly set out laws, which apply to everyone as well as to the government, was a very important element of liberalism. In our studies of Italy, this idea most is most obviously represented in the calls for constitutions that the rulers of the various states faced during the 1800s. These calls reached a peak during revolts. In the 1848-9 revolutionary period the rulers of Piedmont, Rome and the Kingdome of Naples all made reforms in the direction of constitutional rule. Only the 1848 statuto in Piedmont survived this period. If you take a detailed look at the statuto you might consider how much the King of Piedmont was really bound by the laws that it sets out.

Fiscal Liberty

“No taxation without oversight by the legislature”

‘Fiscal’ is a word which refers to anything to do with taxes. This liberty means that taxes should be within the control of a parliament or other representatives of the people. ‘No taxation without representation’ was an important slogan of the American revolt against British rule in 1775. The idea was that it was unfair to tax people who did not have representatives who could oversee how taxes were raised or spent. In our studies of Italy after 1870 we have a chance to see how liberal the state was in this regard – a heavy burden of taxation fell on the peasants, who were the least likely to be able to vote.

Personal Liberty

“with liberty of thought goes liberty of speech and liberty of writing, printing, and peaceable discussion”

This liberty was also a very important one for those pressing for change in Italy in our period. A system of censorship controlled the publication of books and journals (these were serious magazines about the arts, science or politics) in across the Italian states during our period.

Economic Liberty

Interestingly Hobhouse has a lot more to say about economic liberty than many of the other liberties that he writes about. Under this heading he covers such matters as freedom of men to contract with each other on terms that they see fit and freedom to form trade unions so that workers can gain ‘something approaching terms of equality with the employer’. However, most of his focus, when discussing economic liberty, is on freedom of trade, which means the removal of tariffs and trade barriers within and between countries,

This means that one of the most important aspects of liberalism was the call for the removal of import taxes and protectionism. If you studied the role of protectionism in the American boom of the 1920s for GCSE you’ll know that Protectionism means raising taxes on goods imported into an area. This has the effect of ‘protecting’ the makers of goods inside that area, as it makes their goods cheaper to buy than those coming in from outside. One of the things that Italian some liberals hoped would help improve the condition of industry across the peninsula was the removal of trade barriers.

Domestic Liberty

Under this heading Hobhouse discusses freedom to marry and to divorce – “marriage as far as the law is concerned on a purely contractual basis”, and equality for men and women. Even in 1911 when Hobhouse’s work was published women did not have the vote in England or Italy, Hobhouse himself campaigned for women’s suffrage (the right of women to vote in elections).

Hobhouse set out the need for the state to set up public education for children, which in Italy was controversial, as the Catholic Church was in control of education in most of the Italian states. Simiarly, attempts to modernize marriage in Italy were also contested, as the influence of the Catholic Church was so strong.

So, now you know what ‘liberalism’ meant, and the kinds of ‘liberty’ that ‘liberals’ were interested in. Unfortunately you can’t assume that all liberals believed exactly the same thing. Some might for instance be very keen on increasing the level of ‘economic liberty’ in their state, but at the same time be very concerned about the risks of changing the way that marriage worked, or how the church was involved in schools. Similarly many middle class ‘liberals’ would have feared giving the right to vote to many more peasants.

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