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Liberalism: The Life of an Idea

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea

by Edmund Fawcett

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"Elegant, fluently written, and wryly amusing, this enlightening history of liberalism tells a persuasive story of ideas and politics through the lives of a huge variety of characters. The result is tremendously enjoyable."—Duncan Kelly, author of The Propriety of Liberty

"This is, quite simply, one of the most lively and engaging books that


"Elegant, fluently written, and wryly amusing, this enlightening history of liberalism tells a persuasive story of ideas and politics through the lives of a huge variety of characters. The result is tremendously enjoyable."—Duncan Kelly, author of The Propriety of Liberty

"This is, quite simply, one of the most lively and engaging books that I've read in some time. With a brisk narrative that holds the reader's attention from start to finish, Liberalism provides a comprehensive survey of the subject, introducing a remarkable diversity of people and ideas, and offering a creative reconsideration of familiar tensions. It is impossible to imagine a reader who wouldn't learn much from it. I certainly did."—Ryan Patrick Hanley, author of Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Alan Wolfe
…[a] richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts…Widely read, apparently conversant in at least three languages and a vivacious writer…Fawcett aims to make liberalism comprehensible to contemporary readers. To do so, he takes a commendably liberal approach, bringing as many within the tent as possible.
Kirkus Reviews
Former longtime Economist correspondent Fawcett (co-author: The American Condition, 1982) charts the versions and vagaries of liberalism from the 1830s to the present. The author focuses on the United States and Western Europe in this comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. Although he writes that this is a "historical essay for the common reader," his notion of that character seems a bit hopeful. Fawcett's text is thick with quotations and with names that do include many notables (such as James Madison, Tocqueville, Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson) but also numerous others familiar principally to political philosophers. Oddly, the author includes no endnotes and only a "works consulted" list, a disservice to those who are not "common" readers and would like to know more about the figures he discusses. Cavils aside, this is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis, generally positive, even admiring in tone. The author gives his working definition of "liberalism" in the preface (identifying four key ideas), then focuses on four historical periods when the idea of liberalism underwent stress, redefinition or modification: 1830–1880, 1880–1945, 1945–1989, 1989–the present. In each section, Fawcett surveys what the principal philosophical thinkers and writers were saying and shows us some of the activities and attitudes of various prominent politicians of the time. Readers may be surprised to see some kind words for Richard Nixon ("the Hidden Liberal") and to read that the author believes LBJ was brighter than JFK ("The Johnson years…were a historic achievement in the search for an acceptable liberal order. Decades later its essentials were still in place"). Fawcett devotes lots of attention to (among others) Friedrich Hayek, John Maynard Keynes, Michael Oakeshott and John Rawls. Liberalism, he writes, is now in a period of transition. A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end.
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention for the 2015 PROSE Award in Government & Politics, Association of American Publishers

"[A] richly informative historical tour of liberal leaders and concepts. . . . [Fawcett] takes a commendably liberal approach."—Alan Wolfe, New York Times Book Review

"[E]xcellent. . . . What Fawcett clearly and compellingly shows is that the relationship of capitalism to the state, of economics to politics, should be at the heart of any history of liberal ideas. Whether you take his version as a story about liberalism's realist adaptability or its counterrevolutionary intent, it's a fitting one for a moment in which capitalism and political economy are back on the agenda."—Katrina Forrester, The Nation

"Fawcett's workmanlike history of the bundle of ideas and practices that liberals have espoused since the Spanish liberales coined the term after the Napoleonic wars is an excellent guide to liberalism's rise and fall."—David Marquand, New Republic

"[A] comprehensive, quirky, scholarly and personal exploration of one of the dominant ideas in political discourse. . . . [T]his is a phenomenal work of research and synthesis. . . . A pool of profound, rigorous research and thought that has no shallow end."Kirkus Reviews

"[Liberalism: The Life of an Idea] confirms the virtues of the disciplined generalist's approach to the exploration of politics. Deftly combining history, economic thought, and political theory, Fawcett has produced the sort of synoptic work that in our era is increasingly unlikely to come from universities. . . . [It] not only draws on the practicing journalist's close observation of political affairs but also the educated person of letters' facility across many disciplines. The result is an engrossing narrative of liberalism's dramatic career—often lustrous but also marked by its share of delusion, hypocrisy, hubris, and tragedy."—Peter Berkowitz, Real Clear Politics

"Liberalism by Edmund Fawcett is not only a gripping piece of intellectual history, it also equips the reader to understand today's threats—and how they might be withstood. . . . Liberalism is indeed under siege. Those who would fortify the walls would do well to study the foundations. Mr Fawcett's book offers an admirable archaeology."Economist

"A book so good I want to read it again. . . . [A]n intellectual page-turner made even more readable by its personal, sometimes quirky, style and its seamless mix of philosophy, history, biography and history of ideas."—David Goodhart, Standpoint

"In Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Fawcett draws on the experiences and ideas of dozen of thinkers and politicians in an informative, lively, and provocative history of a political tradition he deems 'worth standing up for.'. . . Fawcett's book is an immensely interesting, informative, and important assessment of liberalism. . . . Liberalism is as relevant as ever, Fawcett concludes, passionately and persuasively."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

"[An] impressive account of the 'life of an idea.'. . . [O]ne of the many virtues of Fawcett's unfailingly stimulating book is that he makes you look past the misleading labels with which we characterise political argument. For anyone interested in the history of the ideas that have shaped our society, his book is essential reading."—Simon Shaw, Mail on Sunday

"[A] fine work of intellectual history that shows, among much else, that experience can shape ideas, too."—William Anthony Hay

"[M]agnificent."—Bruce Edward Walker, Morning Sun

"Fawcett has written a marvelous book. . . . [H]is erudition would be daunting if he didn't write with such verve. . . . [I]t's a pleasure."—Clive Crook, Bloomberg View

"As Fawcett's compelling history reveals, the twentieth century turned out to be much more unstable and dangerous than the early liberals anticipated and has forced liberals ever since to temper their expectations for human betterment with a world-weary search for small steps that can keep the liberal international system on an upward trajectory."Foreign Affairs

"Liberalism is an important and worthwhile book."—Walter Moss, History News Network

"This is a good and well-written book. . . . [I]t is wide-ranging, informative, and independent in its judgments."—James Kalb, Chronicles

"Fawcett expertly reveals [liberalism's] evolution, dead-ends, and permutations. A sprawling yarn that somehow remains utterly coherent and on-point, this is history at its very best."—Jeff Bloodworth, Gannon University, Cercles

"[A] felicitous combination of wit and erudition."Choice

"In this remarkable book, Edmund Fawcett sets out a helpful characterization of liberalism as it has flourished in Europe and America since the 1830s."—Jeremy Waldron, The Guardian

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The Life of an Idea

By Edmund Fawcett


Copyright © 2014 Edmund Fawcett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7365-4


Historical Setting in the 1830s

Thrown into a World of Ceaseless Change

On April 12, 1835, Wilhelm von Humboldt — diplomat, linguist, advocate of universal education, and liberal pioneer — was buried beside his wife Caroline in a small plot looked over by a statue of Hope in the park of their estate on the northwestern edge of Berlin. Through the oak trees lies Tegelsee, one of many lakes that give the city its sparkling light. A short walk away stands the family's elegant villa, rebuilt to a neoclassical design by Prussia's leading architect of the day, Karl-Friedrich Schinkel. The calm and seclusion give little clue that Humboldt lived in a world turned upside down. He was born into a Prussian noble family in 1767 before liberalism was dreamed of. By the time he died, revolutions in the Americas, the Dutch Republic, and France had shaken the Atlantic world and liberalism was on its way to becoming what it is today, a common practice of politics for market societies in perpetual motion.

At the time of Humboldt's birth in the court and barracks town of Potsdam to the southwest of the city, an enlightened warrior king, Frederick the Great, ruled Prussia, the American colonies were British, and the Bourbon monarchy ruled, or attempted to rule, France. Most Europeans lived and worked on the land close to where they were born, dying as a rule before they were forty. Most could not read or write. In Britain four in ten men and seven in ten women could not sign their names at marriage. Urbanization, like industry, lay in the future. In the German Ruhr Valley, Düsseldorf was a tiny town and Essen little more than a village. London, Bristol, and a few small cities aside, England was a place of countryside and market towns. In a flash of scientific imagination, James Watt had grasped how an efficient piston might work, but a reliable steam engine had yet to be perfected and harnessed in industry. To satisfy a flourishing new social type, the middle-class shopper, Europe relied on trade and on slaves sold by Africans for work in New World colonies. Enlightenment thought thrived on hopes for human betterment but also on sugar, coffee, and tobacco.

Law and custom commonly limited where you could work or live, what associations you could form with like-minded friends or fellow workers, and what moneymaking enterprises you could start. Serfdom of a kind, tying laborers to their villages, survived in rural Prussia. Close to a quarter of Britain's two million American subjects were slaves or indentured servants working payless for a fixed term in return for their Atlantic passage and keep. Non-Anglicans could not teach in British schools or universities, nor marry legally without a vicar's dispensation. Catholics could not vote or sit in parliament. Jews in Britain, France, and Prussia lived on sufferance, without political or civil rights. Protections of speech and press were precarious. Prior censorship, where it existed, was spotty and haphazard, but the threat of reprisal was enough to make people think twice before speaking their minds. Punishments were frequently cruel and spectacular, especially if you were poor, defied power, or flouted orthodox opinion.

Such was the old world of Humboldt's birth in 1767. It was not as stunted or backward as critics made out. The world of Humboldt's birth was above all not fixed or frozen, but a world in movement. After centuries of creeping up and falling back, Europe's populations were exploding with growth. Pressure was on to find new ways to feed and provide for more people. The term would not be heard for another eighty years or so, but the first shoots of industrial capitalism — investing in productive machinery for private profit — were already visible. Pressure was also on to find new ways to do what wise and effective rulers had always done: listen to the people.

For voices were being raised against ills and encumbrances of the old world: against absolute and arbitrary monarchs, against backwardness, neglect, and illiteracy, against slavery and intolerance, against not being able to say and print what you wanted or make money as you pleased, against not having a voice. Established ethical authorities and accepted models of conduct, once as pervasive and weightless seeming as air, felt suddenly burdensome and had to explain themselves. To practices and conditions previously taken for natural or irremovable there were, many now insisted, alternatives. There was, though, no one party of change, no one focus of opposition, no one vehicle of progress. There were in particular no liberals. In Humboldt's youth the word "liberal" meant generous, open-handed, or perhaps lenient to a fault. The phrase "a liberal" was a grammatical mistake and the term "liberalism" would have met blank stares. By the time of Humboldt's death, in a world transformed, a new approach to politics was emerging to welcome and, it was hoped, to channel breathtaking change.

Humboldt was too young and distant to witness the first great upheaval of his life, the American Revolution, when Britain's fractious New World colonies won a war of independence in 1783, imposed a disputed constitution on themselves and founded a divided, experimental new republic, the United States. For the lasting aftershocks of another upheaval, the French Revolution, Humboldt was present in person as a high official, diplomat, and liberal dissident in an enlightened but autocratic Prussian government.

In the summer of 1789 young Humboldt was on a European tour with his old tutor when news reached them of revolution in France. They rushed to Paris and three weeks after its fall visited the Bastille, which workmen were beginning to demolish. The "grave of despotism," as the tutor solemnly put it, impressed them both, but the idea of revolution did not sweep young Humboldt away. He asked himself what revolution would do for the sick and poor of the city, whose condition appalled him. Nobody knew what lay ahead. In Paris, as on the rest of the trip, Humboldt mostly saw sights and visited brothels, carefully noting what he spent there in his day book.

Humboldt welcomed what he took for revolution's higher aims — an end to arbitrary rule and a historic release of human capacities — but thought the means — rewriting society's ground rules, were sure to fail. Foreign invasion, civil war, counterinvasion, and state-led terror — against foes of revolution rich or poor and soon against any who murmured a word against terror — seemed to confirm Humboldt's worst fears. They left him also with a historic challenge. Revolution and war had shattered Europe's old political order. Humboldt's generation and those that followed faced a long search for a new one.

The French declared a republic, executed their Bourbon king for treason, won and lost again control of most of Europe under a corporal-turned-emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, lived through fifteen years of reaction after his defeat in 1815, and then shook Europe a second time by throwing out a restored Bourbon monarchy in 1830. The British and Germans caught the mood. In November, the liberal Whigs replaced the conservative Tories in power after close on half a century in opposition, and an era of economic, social, and political reform began at Westminster. In the German lands — the nation was unified only in 1871 — absolute princes, whether despotic or enlightened, faced demands for civil liberties, constitutional rule, and representative government. Everywhere the brutalities and excesses of the old order began to pass. In the United States a wave of campaigning improvement, both political and moral, swept the fractious new republic. It took in many causes — temperance, women's rights, and slavery, the most divisive of all — but animating each of those causes was a fervent, often religious, conviction that American life on earth should be less wild, more orderly, and more reformed.

In Europe half a century of conservative attempts to sit on change, to maintain or restore the old order, was ending. Restrictions on speech, press, travel, residency, association, trade, commerce, and the public practice of religion came under challenge and were in many places lifted. In the new American republic, restrictions of like kind rejected in the federal constitution but surviving in state law or custom were by now also disappearing. It was a motley of causes pressed by clashing voices with rival interests and conflicting priorities. The word meant different things in different mouths. But a flag of convenience that swept up many of those separate causes was the banner term "liberty." A vast and loose party of movement began to form. Its followers started to call themselves liberals.

In 1835, the year Humboldt died, Germany's first steam train, the Adler, puffed up a section of line from Nuremberg to Fürth. That same year French navvies began laying railway track from Paris to the Atlantic port of Le Havre. Samuel Morse devised a code to shorten messages on the newly invented electric telegraph and Samuel Colt took out a patent for his revolver. The German chemist Justus Liebig synthesized a precursor for the artificial material known as plastic, which before long would transform what people wore, sat on, and ate off. Plate-glass mirrors began to appear in ordinary homes and William Fox Talbot exposed the first photographic negatives, two devices that changed how people saw themselves and gave spurs to demanding new routines of self-improvement as well as to the fashion industry. Money was becoming an all-purpose solvent and a common standard of value. In France the Laffitte bank financed liberal ministries. The British state borrowed from the Rothschild Brothers to pay £20 million in compensation for "property" lost on the abolition of empire slavery the previous year. Bank of England notes became an unrefusable means of settlement in trade and were soon Britain's only legal tender. Factory production, with its rough standards but massive quantities, was replacing craft work. In 1835 there were fewer Prussian hatters per head of population than there had been in 1767, the year of Humboldt's birth, but many more new hats.

As the summer of 1835 ended, a Rhineland merchant's son entered the University of Bonn, where he threw himself into the drinking and gaming clubs. His father soon harried him to pursue serious studies at the new university that Humboldt had founded in Berlin. The boy was Karl Marx, and before long he would alter ideas about historical change. In September a British naval ship, HMS Beagle, carrying a naturalist on a four-year geological survey docked at the Galapagos Islands. He was Charles Darwin, and he would soon alter ideas about natural change. Marxism challenged inclusive liberal gradualism with a rival picture of historical progress as a sequence of dominant classes superseding one another. Darwinism, though not Darwin himself, tempted liberals to think of politics as a kind of biology.

In Boston in 1835, Ralph Waldo Emerson began a career as a lecturer preaching the higher values of self-cultivation in a grubbily commercial world. In Paris, Honoré de Balzac, a writer who professed to hate liberals but found their drive and sense of social freedom irresistible, published the first installment of Père Goriot, his novel of ambition, betrayal, hidden powers, and "egoism" in a suddenly fluid society. On a tour of America young Richard Cobden, the future British champion of free trade, decided that go-getting Americans had found the secret of a strong economy. On an equally enthusiastic German visit three years later Cobden would see nothing strange in rhapsodizing in a letter to his brother about Prussian government. A flourishing society, Cobden thought, needed both. Also in 1835, a young nobleman in France's pre-fectural service, Aléxis de Tocqueville, published the first part of Democracy in America, his puzzled reflections on a new country where he had seen firsthand a society turning its back on tradition, status, and privilege. Lucid about much else, on slavery Tocqueville's prose became opaque, though America's irrepressible conflict was stirring. In October a mob chased William Garrison, the abolitionist publisher of The Liberator, through the Boston streets.


Guiding Thoughts from Founding Thinkers

Conflict, Resistance, Progress, and Respect

i. Humboldt and Constant: Releasing People's Capacities and Respecting Their Privacy

It is tempting to wonder how Humboldt would have responded to this new world had he lived on like his younger brother, the explorer and naturalist, Alexander, into the 1850s. Though some have taken Humboldt for an open-minded but conservative friend of the old world, he voiced a conviction that runs like an arrow through nineteenth-century liberal thought. His leading idea — dashed off in a youthful essay, The Limits of the Effectiveness of the State(1792), but published in full only after his death — had a head and a tail, a positive and a negative part: developing human capacities to the full in their diversity and individuality was an urgent task, but a task for which laws, government, and regulation were generally inept.

For anyone who did not get past his essay's title, it was easy to miss what Humboldt was saying. He was not thinking so much of government intervention in markets as of how state and society, which were not distinct in his mind, could stifle the true end of human life: finding and making full use of your talents in your own way. Humboldt certainly took a narrow view of the state's capacities. It had a job, he wrote, to defend people ("negative welfare") but not to support them ("positive welfare"). The state's holding property was a poor idea, as it was virtually bound to end up owning too much, and there was no future in levying sales taxes, which cost almost as much as they brought in. To pay for tasks the state could and should carry out, defense and justice, it might on the other hand tax income. It should not try to improve morals and should leave private conscience alone, for Humboldt believed everyone should be able to follow whatever religion they chose, or none. Humboldt was open-minded about constitutions. Different ones suited different places. The key everywhere was to have a constitution with "the least possible positive or special influence on the character of the citizens." His friend and contemporary, Benjamin Constant (1767–1830), echoed and amplified the protective, negative aspect of Humboldt's leading idea. In Principles of Politics(1815) Constant wrote, "There is a part of human existence that remains of necessity individual and independent, and which lies by right utterly beyond the range of society."

Clustered here in celebration of people's independence are thoughts that lie at the liberal core. The first is that everybody — but especially those with power — must respect the deep-held aims and beliefs of others and not intrude on them by imposing purposes and ideals people have not chosen for themselves. The second thought is that people have within them an open-ended capacity for betterment and reform: to grow, to improve, to progress, with help or direction from others if need be. Constant, a more laid-back and permissive spirit, stressed more the first, nonintrusive thought. Humboldt, a born teacher, stressed the second, more educative thought. Though both men saw unique worth in people, Constant thought of that worth as something private that modern people now had ever more means to defend from intrusion, Humboldt as a germ of potential to be cultivated and encouraged to grow. In theory both convictions — respect for personal privacy and zeal for human progress — sped together in parallel. In practice, they often got in each other's way, as liberals soon had to confront. Hardly a topic in nineteenth-century liberal thinking about politics did not turn in some way on the intrusive business of improving people's capacity to choose the aims of life well for themselves — on education that is, thought of in the broadest terms.

Both men were outsiders among insiders, Humboldt by temperament, Constant by temperament but also birth. Constant the man together with his defense of liberal privacy will appear in turn. We need to see first how on turning from diplomacy to education, Humboldt put his ideals about nurturing human potential into practice.


Excerpted from Liberalism by Edmund Fawcett. Copyright © 2014 Edmund Fawcett. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edmund Fawcett worked at The Economist for more than three decades, serving as chief correspondent in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, as well as European and literary editor. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Guardian, among other publications.

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