19th Century Western Political Thought

The nineteenth century (1801-1900) began immediately after the upheaval of the American and French Revolutions. It started with the Napoleonic Wars, which were followed by the dramatic rise of the British Empire. Meanwhile, the United States was growing in power and size. In this context, political thought developed in multiple directions throughout the century. Tocqueville wrote his famous observations on American culture. John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, and other British authors contributed to the development of political philosophy. Tolstoy and Thoreau advocated a political approach based on non-violence. Nietzsche and Hegel laid philosophic foundations for new views of politics, ethics, and history. The anarchist movement began, with works by Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Peter Kropotkin.

During this period, too, the Industrial Revolution was rapidly changing the economic and social conditions of the Western world. The most important developments in political thought during this period were reactions to those changing conditions. Karl Marx and his companions proposed Communism as a comprehensive ideology, planting the seeds of numerous strands of political thought. Pope Leo XIII wrote on the questions of capital, labor, and liberty, setting the foundation for later Catholic social thought.

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This article provides a brief biography and outline of the ideas of Henry George, a highly influential American author of the late 1800s.

In this reaction essay, Goldstone asks: "Were the key changes rooted in some essentially Western social or cultural characteristics, so that other countries seeking to emulate Western growth should adopt those characteristics?

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Noted political scientist James Q. Wilson argues here that the observations Tocqueville made about America's uniqueness remain true today.

Darwinism designates a distinctive form of evolutionary explanation for the history and diversity of life on earth.

This article provides a brief biography of Nietzsche, an overview of his thought, and brief consideration of his impact on later thought.

This entry provides an overview of Hegel's social and political philosophy, specifically focusing on his main work The Philosophy of Right.

Spencer was initially best known for developing and applying evolutionary theory to philosophy, psychology and the study of society — what he called his 'synthetic philosophy'.

This article discusses Lord Acton's relationship with other Victorian era religious and political figures, his ideas on the relation of church and state, and his role in the First Vatican Council.

This article provides a brief biography of Lord Acton and an overview of his ideas and works.

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"Classic essay by Thoreau explaining why he went to jail rather than submit to a tax he felt unjust, Civil Disobedience served as inspiration to both Gandhi and Tolstoy and continues to be regarded as a definitive statement of the rights of the individual within the state."

An audio reading of Frederic Bastiat's The Law.

"Frank Turner, John Hay Whitney Professor of History and the director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, describes the life and writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth century French political philosopher best known for his work Democracy in America, published in 1835."

An audio reading of Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil.

An audio reading of Mikhail Bakunin's God and the State.

"This module shows how liberalism developed in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. In addition to examining the important debates, such as those between utilitarians and natural rights advocates and between supporters and opponents of state involvement in education, this module traces the rise and the ultimate collapse of liberalism. By the end of the nineteenth century, liberalism had all but died as an intellectual and political movement. It was replaced by various forms of collectivism, such as socialism, fascism, racism, nationalism, imperialism, and corporatism."

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In this volume, Proudhon lays out his proposal for the ideal political-economic system, which he argued would achieve freedom and happiness.

Kropotkin addresses himself here to young people about to enter their first job. He pleads with them not to be content with the way things are, and argues that if people keep their sense of justice, compassion, and regard for others, they will adopt socialist and revolutionary views.

American political activist Lysander Spooner defends the concept of jury nullification in this essay.

This is the text of a speech Kropotkin wrote to deliver in Paris. Although the government prevented him from actually speaking, this explanation of his version of Communism remains.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche takes up and expands on the ideas of his previous work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In doing so he attacks past philosophers for their alleged lack of critical sense and their blind acceptance of Christian premises in their consideration of morality. The work moves into the realm "beyond good and evil" in the sense of leaving behind the...

Capital provides Marx's analysis of the capitalist system of production. It was a foundational work for the development of Communist thought.

Tocqueville's famous analysis of the American economic and political system, as he observed during his travels of the country in the 1830s.

This book provides a positive statement of Kropotkin's vision of a society based on local organization, voluntary cooperation, and self-sufficiency. It was seen as an alternative to socialist and Communist views which advocated central planning of the economy.

This book discussed the idea of authority in society and in economic systems

This later work of Bakunin provides his critique of government and religion, and is a classic of the revolutionary anarchist movement.

These are the lectures given by the great English classical liberal historian, Lord Acton, in the academic years 1899-1901 at Cambridge University. It is a survey of modern history from the rise of the modern nation state to the American Revolution.

This volume consists of letters between Acton and Mary Gladstone, including their discussion of the hundred best books.

In this encyclical, Pope Leo XIII argues that true liberty can only exist within bounds of morality and law, without which "the freedom of our will would be our ruin.

The 'Manifesto of the Communist Party' was written by Marx and Engels as the Communist League’s programme on the instruction of its Second Congress ..., which signified a victory for the followers of a new proletarian line during the discussion of the programme questions.

At this point, Tocqueville’s discussion of private charity as opposed to public relief takes on added significance, for it confirms one of the main themes of Democracy in America: the importance of civil society.

Kropotkin provides in this book an extended version of his argument that "mutual aid" is a natural human tendency, and that society can be based on voluntary cooperation.

Although Lysander Spooner had strongly opposed slavery and defended the Constitution before the Civil War, after it he argued "On the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate slaves.... The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals." He argued that while slavery is wrong, the Southern states had a right to secede. By forcing them to remain in the Union, the government had effectively renounced the compact of the Constitution, he argued.

John Stuart Mill was a British political philosopher and politician. In this classic essay, he argues that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

"Classic essay by Thoreau explaining why he went to jail rather than submit to a tax he felt unjust, Civil Disobedience served as inspiration to both Gandhi and Tolstoy and continues to be regarded as a definitive statement of the rights of the individual within the state."

Charles Darwin's account of natural selection from his studies on the Galapagos Islands.

During the wars of the French Revolution Kant was inspired by the Treaty of Basel to contemplate how both self-interest and international cooperation might bring an end to war. This edition is interesting because it was published during World War One."

This is Hegel's last major work, designed to integrate ethical theory, natural rights, philosophy of law, and political theory into his philosophy of history. It is a classic work of social and political thought, with many interpretations. It influenced many other thinkers of the 19th Century.

"We must make land common property," argued this American political economist in this book, first published in 1879. Land is inherently the property of all, he argued, and so he advocated a "single tax" on the unimproved value of land.

Protection or Free Trade argues for "the futility and absurdity of" protective tariffs and advocates free trade.

The Revolutionary Catechism was meant to provide new members an idea of what would have to be accomplished; it does not describe the anarchist ideal but lists steps towards realizing it.

Pope Leo XIII critiques socialism and capitalism, defends property rights, and lays out guidelines for justice in society within the Catholic traditions of human nature and Western Civilization. He places responsibilities upon how labor and employers behave toward each other. Additionally, he outlines the roles of the individual, the family, fathers, the church, society, etc. 

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This page collects a number of his writings on political significance.

The co-author of The Communist Manifesto describes the condition of the English working class during the Industrial Revolution, providing an intense criticism of the current economic system.

Kropotkin argues that feudalism and capitalism create scarcity and poverty. He advocates an economic system based on voluntary cooperation, asserting that the tendency for mutual aid already exists in society.

Carlyle's account of the French Revolution influenced the political debate of the Victorian era.

This volume contains both parts of Lord Acton's "History of Freedom" lecture series, and other essays on history and religious and political liberty.

Lord Acton describes the history of liberty and its development from antiquity to the 19th century.

In this lecture, Lord Acton continues the history of liberty he began in his "History of Freedom in Antiquity," He argues that "religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious." Christianity provided the idea that the king was subject to a higher authority and is under the law, which provided the basis for limited government. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are thus the foundation of liberty.

Henry George argues in this short book that because every person has a right to life, they have a right to sufficient land to make a living off of.

In this book, Tolstoy lays out a plan of society based on literal interpretations of certain Gospel texts.

The Law, written by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, was famously influenced by John Locke's Second Treatise of Government and went on to inspire Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson.

Originally a letter to the editor in Fraser's Magazine for Town and Country, this essay was written by Mill as a response to Thomas Carlyle's argument that blacks were naturally inferior, and thus naturally subordinate to whites. Mill argues that this is not true, but that even if it was, would not justify the deprivations of liberty which Carlyle suggests.

After Tocqueville retired from public service, he wrote this political commentary on his own nation. He discusses how the French Revolution came about and what its effects were, concentrating on the intellectual influences.

This book provides a materialist and Marxist view of the origin of the family, asserting that neither the nuclear family, the state, or private property are natural institutions, but simply adaptations of a particular period of social evolution.

This volume presents an abridged version of Henry George's 1898 summary of his own political thought.

A lecture Kropotkin intended to give in Paris. He was prevented from giving his lecture because of French fear his speech would insight riots, while France attempted to ally itself with Russia.

This contribution to abolitionist literature argued that the US Constitution could be read to prohibit any state from establishing or maintaining legalized slavery. Others in the abolitionist movement had condemned the Constitution as illegitimate for compromising with slavery; Spooner argued that the Constitution "presumes all men to be free" and should be supported.

In this essay, Lysander Spooner defends private letter carrier project by arguing that the right to establish a post office did not give Congress authority to prevent anyone else from doing the same.

This volume is a collection of Nietzsche's unfinished writings, edited after his death by his sister.

This is the first of Nietzsche's major works on ethics.

In this article, Alexis de Tocqueville critiques socialism and defines certain characteristics all socialists believe in.

This book was written by Thoreau during his experiment in "simple living." It has influenced various environmental, sustainable living, and simple living movements.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argues that some types of property rights are illegitimate, and are being used to support tyranny; other types are natural and could be used to defend against tyranny

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