Classical liberalism is a political ideology that originated in the 19th century. It is often seen as being the typical ideology of the industrial revolution and the subsequent capitalist system. Ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought were first proposed by classical liberal thinkers, before they were also adopted by thinkers of other ideologies. The influence of classical liberalism has been so widespread that the majority of Western countries are considered to be liberal democracies.
The key characteristics of classical liberalism:
The importance of the individual
Toleration and diversity
As the industrial revolution began in the United Kingdom, so did the first conceptions of liberalism. The first liberal philosopher was John Locke (1632-1704) who defended religious freedom in his important work A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). However, he would not extend his views on religious freedom to Catholics.
Locke was responsible for the idea of "natural rights" which he saw as "life, liberty and property". Natural Rights theory was the forerunner of the modern conception of human rights. To Locke, property was a more compelling natural right than the right to participate in collective decision-making: he would not endorse democracy in government, as he feared that the "tyranny of the majority" would seek to deny people their rights to property. Nevertheless, the idea of natural rights played a key role in providing the ideological justification for the (at least moderately democratizing) American revolution and French revolution.
The main economist of classical liberalism was the Scotsman Adam Smith (1723-1790), who broadly advocated the doctrine of "laissez-faire" or "let [it] act" -- minimal government or command intervention in the function of the economy. Adam Smith developed a theory of motivation that tried to reconcile human self-interestedness with unregulated social order (mainly done in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)). His most famous work, The Wealth of Nations (1776), tried to explain how an unregulated market would naturally regulate itself via the "invisible hand" of aggregated individual decisions.
American thinkers were also heavily influenced by liberal ideas. Both the third and fourth Presidents of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Madison (1751-1836), put the Liberal movement's ideas into practice. Not only did they set up a liberal democracy, they also furthered liberal ideology's influence on the American system of government, by advocating a system of checks and balances, federal states' rights and a bicameral legislature (two-chambered, like the US Congress' Senate and House of Representatives.) The seminal exposition of Liberal values in American govenrment is The Federalist (1788), more commonly known as The Federalist Papers, by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay.
Classical liberalism today
John Stuart Mill (J.S. Mill, 1806-1873) was influential in developing modern concepts of classical liberalism. He opposed collectivist tendencies but also placed emphasis on quality of life for the individual. He also had sympathy for female suffrage and (later in life) co-operatives -- positions which were, however, made somewhat unclear by his support of the British Raj, or British colonialism in India.
Two groups, libertarians and neo-liberals (such as Margaret Thatcher), also claim the ideological inheritance of classical liberalism. These political philosophies are notable for focusing on the notion of "freedom" as it applies to the market. Some argue that this conflicts with classical liberal ideas and that even Adam Smith recognised the limitations of the free market as a sole means of social organization.
Classical liberalism in its various interpretations remains one of the most pervasive ideologies in the world to this day.