Lieber's Notion of Democracy

In his youth Lieber was a fanatic rebel dedicated to his fight for liberty and democratic sovereignty. Although he refrained from militant activism for this goal after his youth, he remained to be a passionate proponent of liberalism.

He postulated a classic notion of liberalism: "Liberty must grow and live, live in the heart of every one, not only as an ardent desire, or an indefinite though not exciting notion, but as a knowledge of our political obligations and profound reference for political morality" (Manual of political ethics, Boston 1838, 76). Furthermore he emphasized that the state does not grant certain rights, but rather that rights of the state are granted by society consisting of free individuals.

Lieber's Notion
of Liberalism

His theory was based on Aristotelan tradition of contemplation of the relation between moral and polity. The thinking human being - as opposed to animals - is able to exert self-discipline and consequently act in a moral way. This basic treat of character is applicable to every individual human being, which leads to the individualization of moral standards instead of any collective moral standards. Implications of this concept are both a life right based on existence and a duty to live according to individual ethic standards based on the human ability to reason.


Out of this ethic understanding arises the idea of 'politics proper' which means an interpretation of general ethic ideas into solution specific political questions. This form of applied ethics, according to Lieber, should be taught to everyone.

Lieber maintained that liberty has to be realized in and by institutions. The national state seemed the natural vessel for liberty to prosper. In liberal thought the state's main function is to protect the individual's liberty. By being the ultimate instance to solve conflicts, the state's role reflects far-reaching tensions between liberty and equality, since pluralism is inclined to relativism. The idea of liberty always collides with demands for equality.

This conflict had already been realized by de Tocqueville who pointed out the perils of the ruling by the majority.

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This document was last updated on 01/24/98.