The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century by Helena Rosenblatt - review by Duncan Kelly

Duncan Kelly

Free Thinking

The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-first Century


Princeton University Press 348pp £27 order from our bookshop

The history of liberalism is a muddle, and even historians of liberalism are muddled about it. When they use the word, they routinely attach different and conflicting meanings to it. Sometimes it is taken to mean support for small government, sometimes the opposite; it can mean support for free markets, but not when state intervention and the defence of property rights are required. In part, this is a consequence of the most modern muddle of all, which is the conflation of ‘liberal’ and ‘liberalism’ into the idea of ‘liberal democracy’. Outside of academia, it is often hard to recall that this understanding of liberalism is of recent vintage. It really only began to gain traction in Anglo-American political thought and practice in the early 20th century. At the time of the First World War, liberalism started to align with the internationalism embodied in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, turning ‘liberal democracy’ into nothing less than a vision for the future of humanity. 

Out of this, a peculiar genealogy of liberalism came to be constructed. It usually ran from John Locke through the French and American revolutions and into the British and German ‘liberal’ 19th centuries. But this sort of hunt for a liberal origin story has been problematic, both because of the

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