Liberalism and Citizenship in the 19th Century

AHA Session 147
Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Director's Row H (Sheraton Denver Downtown, Plaza Building Lobby Level)
Michael James Douma, Georgetown University
Phillip W. Magness, George Mason University

Session Abstract

Although historians generally agree that the nineteenth century was an age of liberalism, they often disagreee about what liberalism was. By exploring liberal ideas in different contexts, the presenters in this session will demonstrate the broad strength and appeal of liberal ideas in a trans-Atlantic context. To understand the liberal tradition more clearly, the papers will explain who identified themselves as liberals, how the term “liberal” was used historically, and what ideas and movements were allied to its usage. Liberal ideas in the ninteenth century, they will show, were proposed as solutions to problems, whether economic, political, or cultural.

            Liberalism gave rise to new understandings of citizenship to solve problems of social order in an era of nation-states. The first paper is concerned with the French political theorist François Guizot and his evolving views on citizenship. Gianna Englert argues that for Guizot, citizenship required a broad extension of rights, particularly the right of suffrage. Economic participation, Guizot thought, allowed people to recognize social interests and participate in society.  The second paper rescues the Loco-focos from relative obscurity to show how this quintessentially liberal American political movement eqauted citizenship with political equality, anti-corporatism, and anti-slavery.  Anthony Comegna deomonstrates the broad coaltion that formed around liberal ideas in the Loco-foco movement. And in the third paper, the audience will hear about liberal views  on civil liberties in wartime, staring with the American Civil War. The liberal defense of citizenship posited that certain rights could not be infringed even during military conflict.  Robert Faith argues that historians have been too soft on government abuses of rights during wartime. Historians have been too uncritical of Abraham Lincoln’s repeal of habeus corpus, for example, while not recognizing the profoundly illiberal nature of the act. 

            Liberal ideas evolved in response to conflicts and political necessity, yet were rooted in a common belief in individual rights and constitutionalism. Liberalism infused popular movements, political parties, and philosophical discussion. By comparing liberal movements in France and the United States, this session will contribute to a broader understanding of the term liberal and promote discussion for further research into the terms’ meaning and legacy.

See more of: AHA Sessions