19th Century Political Ideologies

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  • 0:02 19th-Century Ideologies
  • 0:32 Liberalism
  • 1:37 Republicanism
  • 2:27 Socialism
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the principal political ideologies which developed and matured during the 19th century and the impact they have had on economies and politics since the 19th century.

19th-Century Ideologies

Throughout history, ideas have proven to be just as important as men and armies. Whether it's the religious teachings of men like Martin Luther or the secular ideas of men like Descartes, ideas can be just as influential - and just as dangerous. Perhaps no time in the world did so many ideas about how to approach the ever-changing world have such an impact as in the 19th century. On the heels of the Enlightenment, 19th-century activists and thinkers dreamt up new ways to approach society, economics, and political systems.


Perhaps the most important ideology born in the 19th century - one that still drives politics and economics in many countries today - is liberalism. It's important to note that 'liberalism' as the term is used today is not to what we are referring. Instead, 19th-century liberalism is more in line with the beliefs of those today who often consider the term a dirty word! Liberalism in the 19th century stemmed from the Enlightenment idea that man possessed a certain set of basic rights and liberties which were conferred to each individual upon their birth and could not be infringed.

This included various rights and freedoms, including the right to free speech and the right to private property. This last right, perhaps more than any other, continues to shape the world today. It was the belief of economists like Adam Smith, for example, that private industry was the best motor of economic activity and, if left alone, markets and employers would largely regulate themselves. While Smith believed some artificial regulation was necessary, many 19th-century liberals took his ideas to the extreme and proposed a laissez-faire economic system, where government or any other entity had no hand in the economic markets.


Liberalism's belief in individual freedoms and private enterprise lent itself to other, more radical ideologies as well. One of the most important was republicanism, or the belief that countries should be governed by elected officials and the officials accountable to the populace. While republicanism had been alive and well in the United States since the 18th-century Revolutionary War, 19th-century Europe was still largely ruled by kings and queens.

Republican sentiment in Europe varied wildly. Some merely wanted expanded suffrage to include the entire male electorate, or modest reforms that gave their national assemblies more power to govern. Others wished for the wholesale deposing of kings across the continent and the institution of a republican democracy like those in the U.S. or that were attempted in France in the late 18th century. Regardless of severity, all of these ideas stemmed from liberal ideals.


Certainly the 19th century's most radical ideology was socialism. Socialism grew out of the abhorrence of the conditions workers were often subjected to during the Industrial Revolution and the stark contrast between those conditions and the tremendous wealth being procured by the upper classes. Arguably the father of modern socialism was Karl Marx. Marx believed that the only way to remedy the ills of industrial society was a radical reconfiguration of society where everyone collectively owned property and the means of production were put to use for the good of all. Each worker, according to Marx, would work according to his/her own ability and receive an equitable share of the collective's profits according to his/her need.

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