While the word “liberalism” only appeared in Britain from the 1820s, this article argues that its prehistory must pay attention to the language of “liberality.” It suggests that until the 1760s, to be “liberal,” and to demonstrate “liberality,” were primarily associated with the exercise of charity, but that thereafter they increasingly came to refer to having an open mind: there were frequent appeals to the “liberal” and “enlightened” spirit of the times. Those latitudinarians and Dissenters pushing for more toleration in the 1770s were particularly attracted to “liberal” language, and pioneered the idea that “liberality of sentiment” was a necessary accompaniment to the pluralism thrown up by the right of private judgment. Only from the mid-1790s did anti-Jacobins start to fixate on this terminology, arguing that liberality was insidious because under the cover of a virtue it nurtured the indifference which enabled the enemies of religion to triumph. These arguments did not appeal beyond orthodox circles, but they indicate how established the language of “liberality” had become—it provides a framework for understanding the reception of “liberalism” after 1815.
Craig, D. (2019). The Language of Liberality in Britain, c.1760-c.1815. Modern Intellectual History, 16(3), 771-801. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1479244317000610