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Exploring Liberalism’s Lost History and Values

How has one word come to signify so many disparate meanings? “Liberal,” and the political ideology it spawned, “liberalism,” now largely denote “protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual.” But as Professor Helena Rosenblatt (The Graduate Center, CUNY) explains in her new book, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century, that hasn’t always been the case. Despite the term’s ubiquity, “liberalism” is also “a highly contentious concept, one that triggers heated debate.”

According to Rosenblatt, the French use it in reference to small government, while Americans use it in reference to big government. To complicate matters, libertarians — those who favor minimal government oversight — “claim that they are the true liberals.” As she writes, “Somehow these people are all supposed to be part of the same liberal tradition.”

Yet, the original values of liberalism have become obfuscated. The version widely used today — that promoting the individual — only arose in the 19th century. Before then, “it meant demonstrating the virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness.” And it’s telling that those who use the term today have lost sight of that history, she writes.

In The Lost History of Liberalism, Rosenblatt traces the word’s history. Moving from the Roman Republic in 44 B.C., she follows the ideology across wide swaths of time, space, and even thought. She examines its development across countries like France, Germany, and America; philosophies espoused by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke; and political ideas like American exceptionalism. In setting straight the term’s history, Rosenblatt better positions and prepares liberal thinkers for its future.

The book was named one of the best books of 2018 by Foreign Affairs.

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Helena Rosenblatt (Professor, History) | Profile 1

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The Graduate Center