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Classical Liberal Historians

  • History of Liberty Seminar 2001
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03/01/2004Ralph Raico

People learn their political views through what they believe about history. Memorials function to push certain interpretations, e.g. about the War Between the States and the greatness of rulers like Lincoln and FDR.

During the early 19th century Benjamin Constant was a great Swiss-French political activist and historian, but he was never as well-known as Alexis de Tocqueville. Constant was one of the first thinkers to go by the name of Liberal. Madame de Stael was Constant’s partner. Ancient Liberty was not fitted to the Liberty of the Moderns which was based on individual civil liberties.

Constant influenced a group called the Industrialists whose framework of history was the history of class conflict. Some classes like farmers and merchants were productive. Exploitive classes like the state used force to steal from the producers. Marx got the class conflict theory from these French classical liberals.

Alexis de Tocqueville often created conflicting positions. His famous two-volume work, Democracy in America (1835), described America as a land of ploughshares and Russia as a land of swords. America a land of freedom; Russia a land of servitude. He admired Christianity, but was not a believer. 

Lord Acton was most famous for the remark, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Acton was an historian and a moralist. To him, natural rights came from God. Too many historians exonerate bad men. Acton said that this should not happen. The courageous historian will dig deeply and lay it all out.

From the 2001 History of Liberty seminar.

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