Liberal as a Political Adjective: 1769–1824

Daniel Klein:

I show the origins, nature, and character of liberalism 1.0 in a new study, “‘Liberal’ as a Political Adjective (in English), 1769–1824,” embedded below. 

The paper discusses the stepping from non-political meanings of the adjective liberal to the first political meaning. Smith and his friends christened their political outlook “liberal.” The data show that ‘liberal’ acquired a sustained political signification for the first time around 1769: the liberal policy principles of Adam Smith and his associates. 

The study will appear in Journal of Contextual Economics – Schmollers Jahrbuch, in an issue containing proceedings of the Adam Smith 300 conference in Edinburgh in 2023, organized by the NOUS Network. The posting is done with permission of the editors of the special issue.

The bodies of evidence include: (1) the non-occurrence in English prior to 1769 (with a few exceptions); (2) the blossoming from 1769 of ‘liberal plan,’ ‘liberal system,’ ‘liberal principles,’ ‘liberal policy,’ etc.; (3) the occurrence beginning in the 1770s of political uses of ‘liberal’ in Parliament; (4) the occurrence of the same in the Edinburgh Review, 1802–1824. 

The political adjective liberal came alive around 1769 and was sustained straight up to when the political nouns liberalism and liberal start up in the 1820s. 

The data from French, German, Italian, and Spanish confirm that Britain was the first to get to a political sense of “liberal.”