I. Introduction

For the vast majority of human history, the majority has been controlled by the minority. With a few rare exceptions, such as Athens with its system of democratic assembly prior to the Peloponnesian War, human history has been one of the elite and powerful ruling all others, using monopolies on force to impose their will across their dominion. While this often still holds true today in much of the world, we find ourselves in the midst of a process of change which has been very much in effect since the year 1500. While it is impossible to trace the path of individual liberty without a much larger effort, one certainly can view certain points throughout history where such ideologies have originated or been put into effect. Over the past 500 years, the abolition of absolutism, limitations placed on government, the rise of natural rights theory, the abolition of slavery, and the rise of capitalism have all contributed to the theme of an increase in liberty for the individual.


II. Absolutism and Monarchy

Most of the world has at some point in its history existed under a system in which a very small minority, and sometimes even one person, controlled the fates of the majority in a nation or kingdom. Often these systems were justified under absolutist principles based on hereditary succession. In 1678, Jacques-Benigne Bossuet, a French churchman, used religion to justify – and in fact defend – such an absolutist system. In his treatise entitled Politics Derived From the Words of Scripture, he writes that royal authority emanates from God, is inherently good, absolute, invincible, and owed obedience and duties by its subjects. For example, on the obedience owed the royal authority, he writes,

  • “The subjects owe unlimited obedience to the prince. If the prince is not punctually obeyed, the public order is overthrown and there is no more unity, and consequently no more cooperation or peace in a State...”

Bossuet is essentially arguing that royal authority is necessary to maintain order. On the duties owed to royal authority, Bossuet wrote,

  • “The good constitution of the body of the State consists in two things: religion and justice. These are the internal and constitutive principles of States. By the one we render to god what is owed to Him, and by the other we render to men that which they deserve….”

Bossuet did not write this treatise merely to state these facts for the world to see. He wrote it because the principles of absolutism were beginning to come under attack.

III. English Bill of Rights

In 1689, just 11 years after the publication of Bossuet’s treatise, King William III and Queen Mary II became the monarchs of England, but only after signing the English Bill of Rights presented to them by parliament. This document spelled the beginning of the end for absolutism. Not only did it impose parliamentary limitations on constitutional authority, it became a permanent part of the English constitution. Just recently, James II, the previous king, had attempted to use absolutist policies to subvert the protestant religion in a protestant-catholic conflict which had been going on for some time in which neither side could truly be seen as blameless. However, the most important element here is the document’s specific citation of wrongs perpetrated by James II – wrongs committed by a king, negating his supposed benevolence or constancy of being in the right as the embodiment of law argued by Benigne. The document cites several examples of how King James tried to subvert the “laws and liberties” of England, such as...

  • “...by assuming and exercising a power of dispensing with and suspending laws and the executing of laws without consent of Parliament...By raising and keeping a standing army within this kingdom in time of peace without consent of Parliament, and quartering soldiers contrary to law...By levying money for and to the use of the Crown by pretense of prerogative for other time and in other manner than the same was granted by Parliament...By violating the freedom of election of members to serve in Parliament.”

The English Bill of Rights does not argue that the power of Parliament needs to be established or that the king has absolutist authority which needs to be stripped from him. The document argues that by taking these actions, the king is overstepping his bounds in the face of pre-established principles. Parliament existed before the English Bill of Rights, and in theory absolutism should have already been done away with in England. However, just because laws exist does not mean those with authority will obey them. The importance of the English Bill of Rights is not that it formally limited the power of the king, as this had already been done by law. The importance of the document was that it stated the king was subject to Rule of Law, an absolutely necessary concept in any society where freedom of the individual exists. The laws already existed; it was now shown that the king was not himself able to subvert them by divine right, as Bossuet claimed, but that he was in fact subject to the law, and this is the claim which would be made against King George by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of the American founding fathers in 1776 of how King George had violated their rights. In a society where the individual is to be free, Rule of Law must be present because a person must know how those who have monopolies on force will respond to his actions. In a system where law is arbitrary, one can never be free, for one can never know when one’s every day actions might suddenly become reason for being put to death.

IV. French Revolution

Absolutism law was allowed to endure in France for a much longer period of time, and in fact the king was allowed to engage in much worse atrocities than were seen in England. It should be no surprise that in the French Revolution, the monarchy was completely abolished in favor of a much more liberal system, whereas in England the monarchy was allowed to survive under limited parameters, even into the present day, due to an earlier compromise in the form of this bill of rights.

A. Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

The rise of liberty in France was somewhat quicker and more violent than it had been in England, and emphasized the natural rights of all men rather than the limitations to be placed on government, though such limitations would naturally follow such a philosophy. The French Revolution based many of its principles on those which had come out of the American Revolution, and Thomas Jefferson was even present at many proceedings in the formation of the new French republic. One of the keystones of the French Revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen penned at the French National Assembly in 1798. Here one sees a massive change from the prior feudal order in which each man’s worth and rights had been based on his societal status. This medieval philosophy was here replaced with one in which men were seen to be wholly equal to one another. For example, the document states,

  • “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights; social distinctions can be established only for the common benefit...The goal of every political association is the conservation of the natural and indefeasible rights of man; these rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”

B. Decree for Proclaiming the Sovereignty of All Peoples

Later, in 1792, the French National Convention restated these ideas in the Decree for Proclaiming the Liberty and Sovereignty of All Peoples in response to threats from monarchical states that feared French liberty, saying such things as,

  • “In the countries which are…occupied by the armies of [France], the generals shall proclaim at once…the sovereignty of the people, the suppression of all the established authorities and of the existing imposts and taxes, of seigniorial rights…of the nobility, and generally of all privileges.”

By the suppression of privilege, this meant that the French army which now was fighting throughout Europe had as one of its goals the destruction of feudalism. France was no longer merely expanding to gain power. It was expanding to spread an ideology, a thoroughly modern idea which would recur in the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

V. The Fall of Slavery

Slavery, an institution which stomps on the rights of the individual and has existed as long as there has been recorded history, has also seen its decline since the year 1500, despite the trans-Atlantic slave trade that existed up until the start of the 19th century. In some ways, it was the rise of this slave trade which allowed the wrongs of slavery to be clearly seen by much of the world. People around the newly globalizing world watched what was occurring in the slave trade between Africa, Europe and the New World, and some were driven to denounce and in some cases actively fight against it. With the rise in liberty which pervaded nearly the entirety of the world at the time, many were asking why slaves were not being given the rights which were being declared for all men.

One such condemnation of slavery came from the active Methodist leader of the 1700’s John Wesley. In 1774, he published his pamphlet Thoughts Upon Slavery, in which me makes such statements as,

  • “You have dragged (slaves) who had never done you any wrong, perhaps in chains, from their native shore. You have forced them into your ships like a herd of swine, them who had souls immortal as your own...Are you a man? Then you should have a human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another’s pain?”

Wesley’s goal here is obvious: he attempts show his readers that slaves are just as human as anyone else. If others are gaining individual rights, why not slaves?

However, proponents of both the trade and the practice were quick to counter such people as Wesley. In his Response to Governor MaCartney’s Questionnaire, W.S. van Ryneveld wrote,

  • “…the business is done. Slavery exists and is now even indispensable. It is absolutely necessary because there are no other hands to till this extensive country…Should the slaves be now declared free, that would immediately render both the country and these poor creatures themselves miserable…”

While the slave trade existed for another quarter century after Wesley’s writing, and the practice persisted for nearly a century (and in some ways into the present day), the important thing to note here is the change in mindset which began to grow. People were beginning to protest slavery on the ground that it violated the natural rights endowed upon human beings, in the case of John Wesley by their maker, and in the case of others by their inherent humanity.

VI. The Rise of Free Markets

The ideals of free markets went against the economic status quo of the entire rest of human history until its conception. For the majority of human history, the ruling class has determined how economic resources are to be produced and consumed based on what is best either for themselves or what they conceive to be the good of society overall. Even in the period following 1500, this form of economic thought still pervaded, and still very much pervades, society. Examples come from around the world.

For example, the Tokugawa Clan which ruled Japan in 1635 put forth the Closed Country Edict, which, among other things, announced such economic controls as

  • “No single trading city shall be permitted to purchase all the merchandise brought by foreign ships...After settling the price of white yarns, other merchandise [brought by foreign ships] may be traded freely between the [licensed] dealers.”

The idea here was to protect domestic trade as well as defend against what the ruling class saw as the dangers of European influence.

Adam Smith’s radical new economic doctrine directly challenged the merits of such a closed country philosophy, and claimed that not only did this misuse the nation’s capital, but also forced people to employ their capital in certain ways, thus limiting their range of “career choices.” In his magnus opus The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes,

  • “To give the monopoly of the home market to the produce of domestic industry…is in some measure to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capital, and must, in almost all cases, be either a useless or a hurtful regulation.”

According to Smith, such policies as the Japanese here enacted, which exist just as much in 2009 in the form of economic protectionism, actually restrain the populace instead of protect it due to the fact that this forces them to produce for themselves things which they otherwise would not have had to produce, directly limiting the number of choices each individual has in how to direct their endeavors. Smith further argues for freedom of the individual in how to employ his capital by stating,

  • “The price of monopoly is upon every occasion the highest price which can be got. The natural price…on the contrary, is the lowest price which can be taken.”

Smith argues that when each individual pursues his own ambitions unfettered by the fear of government or corporate force, this actually has the most benefit for society as a whole of any economic system.