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Did late eighteenth-century Americans ever consider themselves liberal? To many historians, this will seem a strange question. The concept of liberalism is widely held to be a nineteenth-century innovation, and therefore to inquire whether Americans in the previous century thought of themselves as liberal seems anachronistic.

Yet precisely because so many scholars take for granted the late evolution of liberal ideas, it may be all the more valuable to reexamine this assumption. Is there really no evidence that eighteenth-century Americans considered themselves liberal? Although they may not have embraced later concepts of liberalism, is it not at least possible that they had their own, earlier version of liberal thought?

Abundant evidence reveals that numerous late eighteenth-century Americans often conceived of themselves, their society and their institutions as liberal. Many congratulated themselves on what they called their "liberal sentiments" and believed that such sentiments underlay what they considered their "enlightened and liberal policy." Some Americans claimed their new nation was unusually liberal, declaring that American constitutions were "still more liberal" than England's and that "the citizens of America" were "distinguished for their ... liberality of sentiment."

More generally, on both sides of the Atlantic, liberality was recognized to transcend nations and to be characteristic of the era. Americans spoke of "the liberal sentiments of the present age" and, as one American observed in 1776, "the liberal way of thinking ... is daily more and more predominant in the present age." Today, in a very different period, the liberal thought of the eighteenth century can reveal much about the world in which it flourished.


Law | Law and Politics