A history professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York debunks the popular myth of liberalism as a uniquely Anglo-American tradition centered on individual rights. She shows that it was the French Revolution that gave birth to liberalism and Germans who transformed it.
In this lively and penetrating book, Rosenblatt offers an intellectual history of the term [liberalism], from its roots in Roman notions of civic duty and public morality down to its modern use ... She also challenges the traditional narrative of liberalism as an Anglo-American project ... Rosenblatt shows that liberalism has survived thanks to its appeal as a moral ideal, a vision of political community that is based not just on interests but also on values: respect, tolerance, and justice.
Rosenblatt has written one of those rare academic books that, for all its brilliance, needed to be longer. For someone seeking to reevaluate Britain’s place in the history of liberalism, she devotes little sustained attention to British thought and politics. Locke, one of the prime targets of her revisionism, gets just three pages of close analysis. The epilogue, at only thirteen pages, cannot be more than suggestive. At times, Rosenblatt’s argument becomes so compressed that she fails to distinguish adequately between the history of the word 'liberal' and the ideas we now associate with it. The two are, after all, separable ... Yet at the same time readers will come away with the realization that the liberal ideal has a much richer, deeper, more varied past than they might imagine from accounts that stress only the supposed Anglo-American path to 'classical' liberalism.
Rosenblatt is impressive in the scope of her reading and at her best in identifying different usages of the term liberal ... Rosenblatt is at her best when showing that 'classical liberalism' is largely a retrospective construct, justifying one modern ideological reading that seeks to minimize the role of the state and maximise that of the market ... So what game is Rosenblatt herself playing as a 'conceptual historian'? Essentially she offers a history of the word itself; in which case, it seems, anyone is a liberal if they claim to be so ... Though Rosenblatt...[tries] to resist making it all a cozy Anglo-American party, [she has] written [a book] that can help readers on both sides of the Atlantic.