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The Language of Liberality in Britain, c.1760-c.1815

Craig, David

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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.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Nov 3, 2017
Online Publication Date Jan 9, 2018
Publication Date Nov 30, 2019
Deposit Date Nov 3, 2017
Publicly Available Date Nov 24, 2017
Journal Modern Intellectual History
Print ISSN 1479-2443
Electronic ISSN 1479-2451
Publisher Cambridge University Press
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 16
Issue 3
Pages 771-801


Accepted Journal Article (554 Kb)

Copyright Statement
This article has been published in a revised form in Modern Intellectual History This version is free to view and download for private research and study only. Not for re-distribution, re-sale or use in derivative works. © Cambridge University Press 2018.

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