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The Classical Liberal legacy of Percy Bysshe Shelley


“I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature to journey across the great sandy desert of Politics.” In this manner, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) announced a political treatise entitled A Philosophical View of Reform (1819). It states, “The first principle of political reform is the natural equality of men, not with relation to their property but to their rights.” The unfinished draft was Shelley’s longest political statement delivered as nonfiction.

Coming from a celebrated poet, A Philosophical View should have been issued immediately and shelved with respect in the library of freedom. But it took almost a century after Shelley’s untimely death to appear. Several factors contributed. The Irish writer Thomas William Rolleston, who transcribed the book from barely legible notes, explained, “It was doubtless the unfinished condition of the MS., coupled with the feeling that all Shelley’s prose work is of subordinate interest as compared with his poetry, that led to the suppression for a hundred years of a work on which he himself set considerable store.”

Another factor in the book’s obscurity could be its dated tone, structure, and philosophical approach. Shelley infused his nonfiction with a flowery rhetoric that can sound odd to modern ears. The book’s rambling structure can also be jarring because it is not currently fashionable. Moreover, it sweeps through centuries of history and dozens of nations, making broad assertions about rulers, writers, and artists. In places, it resembles a stream-of-consciousness work.

Shelley’s political philosophy may also seem naive and dated. Like many contemporaries, Shelley believed in the moral perfectibility of man. Knowledge and art could persuade men to adopt moral virtues which would naturally result in a cooperative society with no need for government institutions. Indeed, government was the greatest obstacle to perfectibility and cooperation. In his pamphlet An Address to the Irish People (1812), Shelley declared, “Government is an evil; it is only the thoughtlessness and vices of men that make it a necessary evil. When all men are good and wise, government will of itself decay.’’ (Shelley’s views on government changed somewhat over time.)

As a schoolboy, Shelley was profoundly influenced by the philosopher and anarchist William Godwin and by his book Enquiry concerning Political Justice. Godwin’s Enquiry declared, “There are three principal causes by which the human mind is advanced towards a state of perfection; literature…; education; and political justice, or the adoption of any principle of morality and truth into the practice of a community.” Shelley believed men of letters and literature were the key to creating a just society; he collapsed the distinction between politics and poetry.

Reclaiming A Philosophical View

Shelley is often classified as a socialist or communist, whereas he falls more appropriately within classical liberalism. The confusion is somewhat justified.

Shelley was deeply influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who idealized primitive man and society. Many radicals were similarly drawn as a response to the Industrial Revolution, which they believed enslaved men and coarsened life. Most of them were socialists.

Shelley championed the cause of the common man. Indeed, one of his poems (Queen Mab, 1813) became known as the “Chartist’s Bible”; Chartism was a working-class movement in mid-19th-century England. Classical liberalism has a deep history of championing the common man, for example through the Anti-Corn Law League of John Bright and Richard Cobden. Nevertheless, this historical mantle has been utterly usurped by modern socialism.

Shelley could be contradictory. For example, he vigorously attacked the institution of marriage and argued instead for entirely voluntary unions. Yet he married twice in a traditional manner.  Such inconsistencies leave room for debate about where he genuinely stood. Moreover, his admirers span the political spectrum, including Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Friedrich Engels. If people are known by the company they keep or the fans they attract, then Shelley is difficult know.

The most powerful reason for confusion: Shelley often expressed his political philosophy through allegorical poems. That invites interpretation and makes his nonfiction works more important for providing clarity.

Thus, the most rewarding result of considering A Philosophical View is the rediscovery of Shelley’s classical liberalism.

Born into privilege and wealth

Shelley was born in 1792 in Sussex into a family of wealth and political connection. Educated at Eton and at Oxford, Shelley displayed the rebellion and literary genius that defined his life. Oxford lasted only one year, however. Shelley and the provocatively named student Thomas Jefferson Hogg published a short tract entitled The Necessity of Atheism, which argued against compulsory Christianity. University officials and bishops to whom an early draft had been circulated were deeply offended. In 1811 Shelley was expelled.

For the next two years, Shelley traveled England and Ireland to distribute pamphlets and to lecture. An 1812 pamphlet titled A Declaration of Rights showing the clear influence of Thomas Paine was deemed too radical for distribution in England. It stated,

Government has no rights…. It is therefore just, only so far as it exists by [the people’s] consent, useful only so far as it operates to their well-being…. No law has a right to discourage the practice of truth…. Law cannot make what is in its nature virtuous or innocent, to be criminal, any more than it can make what is criminal to be innocent. Government cannot make a law, it can only pronounce that which was law before its organization.

Shelley and his first wife eventually settled in an English village where he hoped to gather a community of radical friends. But his speeches and pamphlets had caught the eye of the British Home Office. The couple prudently left England again.

On returning, Shelley forged a warm friendship with Godwin and dove into the radical politics of London, particularly with regard to freedom of speech. Defending writers and publishers against censorship was a constant theme of Shelley’s life. One incident is indicative.  Leigh Hunt was a cofounder and editor of the Examiner, which John Stuart Mill called “the principal representative, in the newspaper press, of radical opinion.” In 1812 Hunt was charged with libel for an article that criticized the Prince of Wales. Hunt and his brother received two years’ imprisonment each. Although they were mere acquaintances, Shelley sent Hunt “a large sum of money” and faithfully corresponded with the imprisoned man. In turn, Hunt became the foremost champion of Shelley’s work.

In 1814 Shelley and Godwin became estranged.  Godwin’s 16-year-old daughter Mary (the future author of Frankenstein) ran off with Shelley. After Shelley’s first wife committed suicide, he and Mary wed. In 1818 they moved to Italy, where Shelley produced the massive body of work on which his reputation rests.  Four years later, at the age of 29, he drowned while sailing in a storm.

A philosophical view of reform

A Philosophical View opens,

Those who imagine that their personal interest is directly or indirectly concerned in maintaining the power in which they are clothed by the existing institutions of English Government do not acknowledge the necessity of a material change in those institutions.

The words were written in 1819. Europe had just emerged from the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), which ended with the Battle of Waterloo. In his introduction, Rolleston sketched the effects on England:

She had emerged victoriously, but the country was full of distress and unrest. The National Debt had risen to what was then considered an appalling figure. Prices of all the necessaries of life had soared…. England was facing a very threatening future under the rule, broadly speaking, of the country gentlemen and the Church of England, with some admixture of what Shelley calls the “new aristocracy,” the profiteers and speculators to whom the war had brought much wealth and a growing power. The working-classes on whom the system of taxation weighed with intolerable oppression had practically no voice in the still unreformed Parliament.

The working class was further burdened by Corn Laws, which imposed duties on imported grains in order to protect British agricultural interests. Every mouthful of food cost more.

On August 16, 1819, a crowd of 60,000 to 80,000 gathered in a Manchester field to demand parliamentary reform. Local authorities ordered the military to arrest speakers and disperse the assembly. A cavalry charged the peaceful crowd, killing an estimated 15 to 18 people and injuring hundreds more. The Peterloo Massacre, as it was called, is considered a turning point in English populism because it inspired movements such as Chartism and individuals such as the nonconformist liberal John Edward Taylor, who established the Manchester Guardian.

A Philosophical View was Shelley’s response, and his anger shows through. Consider his description of the military:

From the moment that a man is a soldier, he becomes a slave. He is taught obedience; his will is no longer, which is the most sacred prerogative of men, guided by his own judgement. He is taught to despise human life…. He is more degraded than a murderer; he is like the bloody knife which has stabbed and feels not: a murderer we may abhor and despise; a soldier, is by profession, beyond abhorrence and below contempt.

But Shelley did not call for anarchy, which he had come to view as dangerous in the hands of ‘unperfected’ men. He stated, “We would establish some form of government … through nonviolence for the purpose of securing five specific protections to the people.”

1.         We would abolish the national debt.

2.         We would disband the standing army.

3.         We would, with every possible regard to the existing rights of the holders, abolish sinecures.

4.         We would … abolish tithes, and make all religions, all forms of opinion respecting the origin and government of the Universe, equal in the eye of the law.

5.         We would make justice cheap, certain and speedy, and extend the institution of juries to every possible occasion of jurisprudence.

In his introduction Rolleston went out of his way to dispel the misconception that Shelley was a communist. He wrote,

[On] the question of property he was certainly no Communist. What a man had honestly earned was rightfully his, to hold and to bequeath. But there were dishonest and wrongful ways of procuring or of using property, and for property so acquired or used he had no respect. He believed, however, that these means would not flourish in any State where property and political rights were reasonably well distributed among the whole population.

But what if “well distributed” rights resulted in ill distributed wealth? Would Shelley have advocated a forced redistribution? He certainly idealized a society of roughly equal  wealth but that is true of various individualists throughout history. For example, the American individualist anarchist Josiah Warren joined communities that practiced a voluntary communism but he rejected the idea of enforcing it.

It seems clear Shelley would have rejected an enforced equality. For one thing, the government he envisioned is extremely limited and dedicated to removing obstacles to freedom, not to social engineering. Of his five “protections,” four removed laws or institutions; the other established “cheap, certain and speedy” justice. The intrusive  bureaucracy required by socialism would have appalled  Shelley.

Moreover, Shelley’s flashes of political and economic insight indicate a mind that would have seen the error of legislating how much a man could freely produce or keep. One such flash: On the question of currency issuance and repudiating the national debt, he wrote,

The existing government of England in substituting a currency of paper for one of gold has had no need to depreciate the currency by alloying the coin of the country; they have merely fabricated pieces of paper on which they promise to pay a certain sum. The holders of these papers came for payment in some representation of property universally exchangeable. They then declared that the persons who held the office for that payment could not be forced by law to pay. They declared subsequently that these pieces of paper were the current coin of the country.

Shelley’s home is within classical liberalism, which has long missed him.

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).