Politicians, economists, philosophers and social theorists who published their views on society and the inter-relationships between the social classes in the early part of the twentieth century, found it of necessity to engage with ideas which had been put forward in the nineteenth century. In Britain and America, this meant reassessing the work of, amongst others, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin and William Morris. Mill had held in his On Liberty (1859) that the individual is sovereign, and that governments should only have power to prevent an individual exercising his will where it might lead to the harm of others. Spencer, a tremendously popular writer in the later nineteenth century in America and the UK, rejected the tenets of orthodox Christianity, and applied the evolutionary theories most cogently addressed by Charles Darwin both to individual psychology and to society as a whole. Both Mill and Spencer were crucial to liberal ideas on both sides of the Atlantic, including those formulated by William James and John Dewey (included here) in the US, and by L. T. Hobhouse and others, in Britain. Such ideas underpinned the range of social issues confronted by, and the reforms introduced by, the British Liberal Party, from its election in 1906 to the beginning of the First World War in 1914. These included protection of the poor through welfare relief, and through state benefits and pensions. Often against the Liberal Party’s own inclinations, this trend in social thought also meant engaging with the campaign for votes for women (Mill had been an early advocate of women’s rights), and with the issue of independence for Ireland. In the US, as in Britain, liberal thought also led to much debate about the necessity for state intervention in education.
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