Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Tuska Benes

Committee Members

Kathrin Levitan

Robert S. Leventhal


In this work I present an historical reconstructionist study of Lord Acton and Herbert Spencer within the overarching framework of the expanding circle of political power and participation in nineteenth-century Britain. I argue that the works and contexts of Acton and Spencer reveal that there was a shift from classical liberalism to new liberalism within British political thought. Contextual developments of the nineteenth century, such as the development and spread of evolutionary ideas and language as well as the emergence of an historical consciousness, undermined the conceptual framework underpinning the core values, individual liberty and individual rights, of classical liberalism. These contextual developments helped to replace the classical liberal conceptual framework of the early nineteenth century that visualized society as a composite of individuals -- individuals possessing reason, characterized by a static nature, and operating within a context of natural, universal law -- with a conceptual framework more particular to the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This later framework organicized society so that society itself became an entity. Within this conceptualization, societies as well as the individuals within them are viewed as outgrowths of the past. Societies and individuals do not operate within a context of natural, universal law, but in a context in which societies and individuals are the dynamic, ever-changing accumulations of past inheritances. Acton and Spencer operated within this later underlying conceptual framework. Though on the surface they may appear to fit in with classical liberalism, Acton and Spencer illustrate this newer framework, which holds the possibility of yielding results that are new liberal rather than classical liberal. This new underlying framework calls into question whether or not Acton and Spencer can be labeled classical liberals and sheds light on efforts of libertarians to claim classical liberalism as their own. Acton and Spencer can be more accurately conceived of as classical liberal stunt men; figures who resemble classical liberals enough to stand in for them just as the stunt man does for the action star but remain figures of an entirely different type.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


Thesis is part of Honors ETD pilot project, 2008-2013. Migrated from Dspace in 2016.

On-Campus Access Only