Monday, February 04, 2019

Correction: Alexander von Humboldt Did Not Use the Word "Liberalism" in 1804

A few years ago, I wrote a post on "The Evolutionary History of the Word 'Liberalism'."  I claimed that the first use of the word "liberalism" in its moral or political sense was by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Thomas Jefferson of May 24, 1804.  I had found the letter in Helmut de Terra's article "Alexander von Humboldt's Correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 103 (December 15, 1959), p. 787.  The second sentence of the letter reads: "I feel it my pleasant duty to present my respects and express my high admiration for your writings, your actions, and the liberalism of your ideas, which have inspired me from my earliest youth."

Recently, I have been reading Helena Rosenblatt's good book The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2018).  When I noticed that she had not identified von Humboldt's use of the word "liberalism," I wrote to her about this.  But then she pointed out to me that I was mistaken.  The letter was actually written in French, and Helmut de Terra had wrongly translated the French word liberalite as "liberalism."  Of course, the correct English translation would be "liberality."  The French word for "liberalism" is liberalisme, and that is not the word von Humboldt used.  You can see an image of von Humboldt's original letter here.

I am happy to correct my mistake.

No comments: