English Liberalism


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    Which English kings and ministers were the most liberal and the most despotic?

    Were the Protestant kings generally as intolerant and murderous as the catholic ones?

    Aside from a desire to purify the church and live unmolested by the authorities, did the Puritans who came to the New World have legitimate fears of being subject to the sword at the hands of the rulers of England?


    Dear John,

    That’s a huge question and deserves an answer from a specialist in English history, which I, unfortunately, am not. I can say, without fear of much contradiction, that ‘liberal’ is not a concept that attaches itself to English kingship until perhaps the late 19th, early 20th century.

    Looking at the course of history, I cannot see any significant moral difference between Protestant and Catholic kings. all of them, with a few honourable exceptions, sought their own aggrandisement and enrichment, all of them engaged in wars that cost their subjects their lives and their property.

    Re the Puritans: yes; religion was very much a political matter in the 17th century, and daring to differ from the established Church tended to be viewed by the authorities as incipient, if not actual, rebellion. In England, Catholics were regarded as completely unacceptable, but dissenters (non-Church of England Protestants) came in a close second. See the life and career of John Bunyan!


    Dear Mr. Casey,

    I’ve been a subscriber here for a couple of years, and I’m hoping you can help. I’m looking for the libertarian or classical liberal explanation of the basis of the human rights to life, liberty, and property. Specifically, I’m in dialogue with some nationally known libertarian figures on the question of whether a human being has a right to life because the human is human. In other words, status as a human immediately means recognizing the human’s right to life.

    There is a thread of libertarian thought that says, no, humans do not have a right to life automatically. Rather, they have property rights in things that the society has decided constitute property.

    My understanding as a libertarian from the 1972 era was that humans have a right to life, and thus liberty and property, but that everything starts at the stated axion that human life is the highest value for a human and each human deserves respect for his or her value per se.

    I can make the argument on Judeo-Christian grounds; I’m interested if you have come across a formulation that is wholly secular from starting point to end.

    I do hope you receive this message, it is a serious inquiry.

    I’ve read some of your logical analyses on this and other topics here on the forum, and thus hope you have already thought about this issue.

    Thank you for considering my request.


    gerard casey

    Dear Richard,

    First of all, I must apologise for the delay in responding to your inquiry. I usually check in on Mondays and somehow, I don’t quite know how, I missed your post last Monday. Actually, now that I check back on my calendar, I see what happened. On Monday 3rd July, I was meeting a cousin of mine from the USA for the first time who was visiting Ireland. That threw my usual schedule off kilter.

    I am going to respond to your query by making use of some things I wrote in my Freedom’s Progress?

    All forms of society recognise (formally) the idea of property, but what (materially) constitutes property and in what way may vary to some degree from one society to another. So far, I am in agreement with those libertarians you mention who say that people have property rights in things that society decides can constitute property. This decision is not arbitrary but is related to the conditions of life in which that society finds itself.

    However, not all property can be conventional. If one did not in some sense own oneself, it is difficult to see how one could lay claim to anything else. This notion of a property in one’s self, a notion that was to achieve prominence in Locke’s Second Treatise on Government did not originate with Locke. The concept of self-ownership had been clearly articulated many years before Locke wrote. The medieval master of the University of Paris, Henry of Ghent, in a 1289 discussion of whether a man condemned to death could lawfully flee, argued that whereas others might have the right to use the criminal’s body in certain ways, only the criminal himself had a property right in his own body. Henry used the word ‘proprietas’ to describe this right, not the more common (and ambiguous) ‘dominium’. The criminal’s efforts of self-preservation (provided he did not thereby injure another) were equitable (fas), permitted by the law of nature and therefore licit (licitum) and right (ius) and, Henry argues, even necessary (necessitas).

    Some hundreds of years later, and still before Locke, the Leveller Richard Overton argued that, ‘To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s.’

    Note that, for Overton, individuals are given this property ‘by nature, and Henry of Ghent makes no appeal to Revelation in his account of ‘proprietas’.

    What Overton is saying seems to come to something like this. Simply by being, every man has a property in himself. If he had not, he couldn’t be himself. The principles of nature and equity and justice prohibit interference with this self-ownership by any third party. This property in oneself is at the root of all further distinctions between what belongs to you and what belongs to another. By nature, all men have this property in themselves so that all alike are equal and all alike are free.

    I hope this helps.

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