19th Century Political Liberalism

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Adam Smith taught about free trade

The political philosophy of liberalism is one that valued representative government and wanted all government action to be publicized. Liberals encouraged freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. They opposed universal male suffrage and believed the rights of man were tied to property ownership.

Followed Adam Smith and Laissez-Faire

Classical liberals of the 19th Century believed in the policy of laissez-faire. This term was French for “leave it alone” and encouraged industry to be free of state interventions, especially tariffs. Liberals believed in the policy of free trade, which was trade based upon supply and demand for the least amount of cost to manufacture. They closely followed Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), an economist who believed that looking out for self creates economic success. Smith taught the theory that earning money by personal labor benefits self and benefits society. He believed one should never make at home what could be bought for cheaper.

Major Figures Included Say, Malthus and Ricardo

Classical liberals were businessmen, professionals, and landowners. Jean-Baptiste Say (1767 – 1832) was a French economist who popularized Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations for the European common market. Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834) was a British scholar who made popular the idea of rent. David Ricardo (1772 – 1823) was a British economist who in 1815 published Essay on Profits where he explained his theory as to the “law of diminishing returns”.

Great Reform Bill of 1832

Liberalism triumphed in Great Britain when England decided it would emphasize industry over agriculture. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 passed in April 1832 and appointed new members to the House of Lords so the majority vote could shift. The electorate somewhat expanded and was redistributed based on region and class.

Laws Quickly Changed England

In 1833, Great Britain abolished slavery. This signified the beginning of the end of slavery in the New World. It had severe economic implications on the success of English colonies in the West Indies. In 1834, progressive poor laws were adopted as a form of British welfare. The Municipal Corporations Act was passed in 1835. This modernized and reformed municipal government. In 1836, the House of Commons allowed publication of voting records of Members of Parliament.

Repeal of Corn Laws Had Major Impact

British liberalism truly succeeded when the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. These laws prohibited importation of grain which raised the price of bread to beyond what normal citizens could afford. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 took place when 80,000 people peacefully assembled in Manchester to protest the Corn Laws. Although peaceful, these citizens were attacked by soldiers. Eleven people were killed and 400 wounded. The journalists who published accounts were jailed, leading to the formation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.

The British government had tried to repeal the Corn Laws 24 times between 1780 – 1830. Passage of the Great Reform Bill allowed these restrictive laws to be voted away, and revolution was prevented among the British.

Liberal thought and philosophy is much different today than it was in the 19th century. Much can be learned from the actions of the past governments so that the mistakes of yesterday will not be made again.