Classical liberalism stressed not only human rationality but the importance of individual property rights, natural rights, the need for constitutional limitations on government, and, especially, freedom of the individual from any kind of external restraint. Classical liberalism drew upon the ideals of the Enlightenment and the doctrines of liberty supported in the American and French revolutions. The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was characterized by a belief in the perfection of the natural order and a belief that natural laws should govern society. Logically it was reasoned that if the natural order produces perfection, then society should operate freely without interference from government. The writings of such men as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill mark the height of such thinking.
In Great Britain and the United States the classic liberal program, including the principles of representative government, the protection of civil liberties, and laissez-faire economics, had been more or less effected by the mid-19th cent. The growth of industrial society, however, soon produced great inequalities in wealth and power, which led many persons, especially workers, to question the liberal creed. It was in reaction to the failure of liberalism to provide a good life for everyone that workers' movements and Marxism arose. Because liberalism is concerned with liberating the individual, however, its doctrines changed with the change in historical realities.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.