Liberalism is a political philosophy held by people who strongly believe in the principles of liberty and equality for all. Classical liberalism focuses more on liberty, or personal freedoms, while social liberalism is more concerned with equality. Some examples of liberalism principles supported by advocates include freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, civil rights, and gender equality. To explore this concept, consider the following liberalism definition.

Definition of Liberalism


  1. The state of being liberal
  2. A social or political philosophy advocating individual civil rights and freedoms


1810-20    Americanism

What is Liberalism

People first began embracing the concept of liberalism during the Age of Enlightenment, and it grew in popularity because it rejected the social and political norms of time, which included state religion and absolute monarchy. Seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke is credited with being the “founding father” of liberalism, his writings having influenced the American revolutionaries. Locke’s argument was that every man is entitled to “a natural right to life, liberty, and property,” and that the government should not do anything to violate these rights.

Revolutionaries during the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution relied on liberal philosophies to justify their overthrowing of whom they believed to be tyrannical rulers. It was after the French Revolution in particular, that the concept of liberalism began to spread like wildfire across Europe, North America, and South America. During this time, liberalism’s only true counterpart was conservatism, but as time when on, new opposition in the form of fascism and communism rose up. Liberalism gained even more steam as it headed into the 20th century, which is when classical liberalism began to evolve into social liberalism.

History of Liberalism

The history of liberalism can be traced as far back as 17th century England, when the Agreement for the People, a manifesto calling for political change, was proposed by a radical group calling themselves the Levellers. In this manifesto, the Levellers advocated for freedom of religion, voting suffrage, and equality for all. Fellow radical John Locke embraced the ideas of early liberalism, and believed that, because the government gets consent from those that it governs in order to act, that consent must be continual in order to keep the government legitimate.

The Glorious Revolution

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 led to what many consider to be the first modern, liberal state in England. Three significant contributions that the Glorious Revolution made in the history of liberalism included:

  1. The right to petition the monarch was granted to all, and “cruel and unusual punishments” were deemed to be criminal acts, no matter the circumstances that may have “warranted” them.
  2. The Act of Toleration of 1689 was drafted, which allowed Nonconformist Protestants the freedom to worship how and where they wanted, so long as they pledged oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to the Anglican Church.
  3. The Commons refused to renew the Licensing of the Press Act in 1695, which led to an unprecedented level of freedom of the press.

The Age of Enlightenment

The Age of Enlightenment was a period in history during which people were continually questioning the traditions they had been taught. This spurred a significant expansion of the liberalism movement. The American Age of Enlightenment, which was heavily influenced by the European Age of Enlightenment, encouraged scientific reasoning to be used to evaluate differing ideals, such as religion, politics, and even scientific notions. The American Age of Enlightenment, as an example of liberalism, also saw the promotion of religious tolerance, and a restored importance and appreciation being placed on creative fields, such as literature, arts, and music, as professions worthy of being studied.

The American Revolution

The   was written by Thomas Jefferson, who had John Locke’s ideals in mind, as he declared:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

After the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation were found to be inadequate to maintain a functional government, so leaders the Founding Fathers debated on how exactly they should proceed from that point forward. It was then that the beginnings of the Constitution began to take shape, and the federal government that American’s now know today was established.

For the era in which it was written, the Constitution was a document that embraced both republican and liberal ideals. The drafters of this document sought to create a strong national government, while providing a distinct separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, so as to prevent any one branch from being more powerful than others.

The Bill of Rights, which serve as the first ten amendments to the Constitution, were put in place to restrict the government’s powers, and to protect the natural rights used by the liberal-minded revolutionaries to justify fighting the American Revolution. The Bill of Rights remains the oldest working liberal government document in the world.

Limited Government

A limited government is a political philosophy in which the primary leaders have very limited power to make laws and decisions on their own. Rather, these decisions require the approval of other leaders, or other branches of the government. This system of checks and balances, is built into the U.S. Constitution, which specifically grants certain powers to each branch of the federal government, reserving all others to the individual states.

The Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution define the very principle of limited government. The Ninth Amendment states that the rights of the people do not necessarily need to be written into the Constitution, that people have these rights just the same. The Tenth Amendment provides that the federal government can only exercise powers specifically assigned it by the U.S. Constitution (thereby creating a limited government).

Interestingly, though, the term “limited government” is not expressly written in the Constitution. This is because, since the Articles of Confederation were actually meant to limit government, but were a failure, the Constitution was drafted to replace the Articles as a more flexible and practical document. Even to this day people argue over how much power the government should be allowed to have and to exercise.

Liberalism Examples in Supreme Court Cases

Schenck v. United States (1919)

An example of liberalism being debated in a Supreme Court case can be found in the matter of Schenck v. United States. Here, the matter being debated was whether or not the government overstepped its bounds and infringed  upon Charles Schenck’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

During the course of World War I, Charles Schenck, a prominent socialist, mailed circulars to draftees that compared the draft to an act of “involuntary servitude,” referred to the war as nothing more than an event created by money-hungry big-wigs to line their pockets, and called upon draftees to petition for the draft to be repealed. Schenck was ultimately convicted of violating the Espionage Act by attempting to cause a revolt within the military, and by using his circulars to obstruct future recruitment.

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that Schenck’s actions were not protected by the First Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in the Court’s written decision, stated:

“The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic … The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

The decision in this case gave birth to the phrase “clear and present danger,” as the yardstick by which someone’s statements are to be evaluated in determining whether they can be suppressed. Justice Holmes further clarified that there are likely to be things that can be said during peacetime, that simply cannot be said during wartime – because they present a danger – and that Congress has every right to prevent the evils that can be inspired by certain types of speech.

Walmart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes (2011)

Liberalism was again debated in 2011, as accusations were made that the mega retailer Walmart was prohibiting gender equality by discriminating against women in their policies concerning pay and promotions.

Betty Dukes, a 54-year-old Walmart employee from California, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, along with five of her female coworkers, claiming Walmart discriminated against female employees based on their gender. Dukes claimed that, Walmart had a nationwide policy that resulted in women being paid less than men for doing the same job. Dukes also claimed that, despite receiving positive performance reviews over the course of the six years she had worked for the company, she was still denied the training that would have been necessary to move her into a higher and better-paying position.

The lawsuit ultimately involved 1.5 million female employees, all of whom had begun working for Walmart after December 26, 1998. Walmart argued that the Court should demand that individuals file their own lawsuits, rather than going in together on a class-action lawsuit, because having a lawsuit consisting of so many litigants made the case both impossible to manage, and more costly.

In June of 2004, the federal district court judge, Martin Jenkins, disagreed, and ruled that the case could continue as a class-action lawsuit. Walmart appealed this decision, and the matter of splitting up the cases was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the plaintiffs did not have enough in common between them for the Court to allow the case to proceed as a class-action suit.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Absolute Monarchy – a form of government in which the monarch has absolute power among his or her people.
  • Class-Action Lawsuit – A lawsuit filed by one person, on behalf of a larger group of people with a common interest in the matter.
  • Conservatism – any political philosophy that favors tradition in issues of religious beliefs, and cultural or nationally-defined beliefs and customs, over social change.
  • Suffrage – the right to vote in political elections.

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