The Birth of Liberalism: The Making of Liberal Political Thought in Spain, France, and England, 1808-1823

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2009

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation is a transnational study of how “liberalism” emerged as a political category in Spanish, French, and English languages during the early nineteenth century. I argue that to reconstruct liberalism’s historical meaning historians must examine how past political thinkers used the word “liberal” in particular contexts, rather than use contemporary definitions of liberalism to categories past political ideas. As a political doctrine, liberalism was not born in the early modern period but during the aftermaths of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon when the word “liberal” became a part of political language first in Spain and soon after in France and England. Early nineteenth-century thinkers across Europe who continued to believe in the power of human reason to change politics for the better, but wished to distance their ideas from the disasters of the French Revolution, chose the word “liberal” to identify themselves in order to associate their political position with the admirable qualities long associated with the existing meaning of the word “liberal.” Together, a variety of liberal thinkers across national boundaries created a common, but internally diverse, political doctrine that defined representative constitutional government as the end of political change.

While early liberals drew from ideas from Enlightenment political ideas, their works were a direct response to the political dilemmas presented by the Revolutionary experience. Liberals attempted to apply what they understood as the lessons of the Revolution to realizing political change in their different national circumstances. They turned away from abstract theorizing and searched for the means to secure political liberty in society, history, and practical politics. Liberals argued that the representative system, properly understood and implemented to suit the needs of modern society, would reconcile the diverse opinions in society and achieve the national interest. In search for the social foundations of political liberty, liberals turned to the new science of political economy because they believed it promoted class harmony, general prosperity, and moral progress. Collectively, liberals presented the combination of representative government and political economy as the means to accomplish what the Revolution could not: liberty with stability.

This dissertation examines the national diversity and transnational unity of early liberal thought through the pamphlets, newspapers, and books published between 1808 and 1823 that gave meaning to liberalism both as a political symbol and theory. Within that fifteen year timeframe, this dissertation is divided into three nationally focused periods that cover six year periods each: Spain form 1808 to 1814, France from 1814 to 1820, and England from 1817 to 1823. Each period follows the emergence of “liberal” as a political term within its national and transnational context.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Gerald Izenberg

Committee Members

Steven Hause, Timothy Parsons, Corinna Trietel, Frank Lovett, Wolfram Schmidgen


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