Liberalism is a force that has produced change from the birth of this nation to the politics of today. Liberal tenets have been a basis of thought and action in American politics since well before the signing of the Constitution. Certainly, liberalism has had to transform in order to remain a legitimate force throughout the years. When considering this transformation, one may ask whether or not the ideas and goals of classical liberalism have been lost in the conversion into modern liberalism. In order to answer this, the areas of freedom, the role of government, human nature, and the function of law should be addressed. While this may not be a complete register of change in liberalism, research into these subjects can provide strong indications toward the nature of this transition. Objectively, the evidence suggests that many of the ideas of classical liberalism were either abandoned or changed fundamentally when America entered the modern era.
The idea of freedom has been a paramount concern of liberalism throughout history. Consider the classical ideas of religious freedom, the right to resist and the inherent right of every individual to be independent. These were some of the main focuses of classical liberalism in early America.
On religious freedom, seventeenth century minister Roger Williams wrote:
"All Civill States with their Officers of justice in their
respectiveconstitutions and administrations are proved essentially Civill, and therefore not judges, governours or defendours of the spirituall or christian state and worship." (Volkomer, 50)
This quote is notable because it illustrates the early liberal ideas of religious freedom by stating that government officials have no right to pass judgment on religious practices. In furtherance of his views, Williams founded a colony at Plymouth and contributed to the development of religious tolerance in the new world. Religious tolerance meant that a nation with multiple religions need no longer mean a country with internal strife and civil insurrection due to intolerance (Volkomer, 1969). The notion of religious open- mindedness helped pave the way for individual independence by suggesting that people were able to determine their own fundamental beliefs.
The right of individuals to be independent is the cornerstone of liberalism. This combined with the right to resist encroachments on this independence make up the legitimacy behind the revolution. The Declaration of Independence embodied these thoughts precisely and clearly. When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the "inalienable rights... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" he was speaking of the inherent rights of man and went further to declare that any government that chooses to dispel these rights is subject to overthrow by the governed. In short Jefferson was saying that the right of the government to rule is derived from the people's ability to utilize and approve of their level of independence.
Modern America embraces and reveres the ideals above. This leaves modern liberalism with the chore of expanding these rights. The focus has now shifted from the attainment of these rights to the perfection of them. In the above statement I mean to show that liberal ideas of freedom and liberty have changed considerably. This can be clarified by the following quote:
"A man who was poor, uneducated, ill-housed, and subject to the fluctuations economic cycle could not be considered free though he lived in a nation whose government abided by the tenets of laissez-faire. True liberty, liberals began to contend, required the ability of man to use his talents and energies in a constructive fashion-it meant the positive freedom to achieve and accomplish." (Volkomer, 4)
This quotation suggests that modern liberals now see it as the government's responsibility to level the playing field for individuals who would otherwise be at a...