‘Liberal’ as a Political Adjective (in English), 1769–1824

40 Pages Posted: 29 Nov 2023 Last revised: 27 Mar 2024

See all articles by Daniel B. Klein

Daniel B. Klein

George Mason University - Department of Economics; George Mason University - Mercatus Center

Date Written: November 3, 2023


The data from text digitization 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 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.”

Key authors are sampled.

Keywords: Liberal, liberalism, Ngram, Adam Smith, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Dugald Stewart, Edmund Burke

JEL Classification: B12, A13, A12

Suggested Citation

Klein, Daniel B., ‘Liberal’ as a Political Adjective (in English), 1769–1824 (November 3, 2023). GMU Working Paper in Economics No. 23-37, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4621786 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4621786

Daniel B. Klein (Contact Author)

George Mason University - Department of Economics ( email )

4400 University Drive
Fairfax, VA 22030
United States

HOME PAGE: http://economics.gmu.edu/people/dklein

George Mason University - Mercatus Center ( email )

3434 Washington Blvd., 4th Floor
Arlington, VA 22201
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