The Origin of 'Liberalism'

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: etymology, Google Ngram



Daniel Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University, where he directs the Smithian Political Economy program, and a fellow at the Ratio Institute.

It's easy to feel lost in information today, but “big data” can also help us understand the formulations we use in interpreting information, including politics. Google has scanned millions of books published over centuries. Can billions upon billions of words in digital form help us understand our history and character?

Thanks to digitization, we can now establish when the word “liberal” first took on a political meaning. For centuries it had had what scholars have called pre-political meanings, such as generous, tolerant, or suitable to one of noble or superior status—as in “liberal arts” and “liberal education.”  But now using Google’s Ngram Viewer we can see what the word “liberal”—as an adjective—was used to modify. Up to 1769 the word was used only in pre-political ways, but in and around 1769 such terms as “liberal policy,” “liberal plan,” “liberal system,” “liberal views,” “liberal ideas,” and “liberal principles” begin sprouting like flowers.

My research with Will Fleming finds that the Scottish historian William Robertson appears to be the most significant innovator, repeatedly using “liberal” in a political way, notably in a book published in 1769. (I presented more details in a lecture at the Ratio Institute, viewable here.) Of the Hanseatic League, for example, Robertson spoke of “the spirit and zeal with which they contended for those liberties and rights,” and how a society of merchants, “attentive only to commercial objects, could not fail of diffusing over Europe new and more liberal ideas concerning justice and order.”...




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