A Historical Sketch of Liberty and Equality is a window to one of the most important historians of all time.
This exclusive Liberty Fund edition of F. W. Maitland's classic includes a note on Maitland by Charles Haskins, and a general account of Maitland's life and work, "The Historical Spirit Incarnate: Frederic William Maitland," by Robert Schuyler.
A historian's historian, F. W. Maitland was never to be caught indulging in fanciful speculation about times long past. Rather, he said, "We shall have to think away distinctions which seem to us as clear as the sunshine; we must think ourselves back into a twilight." To achieve this discipline, Maitland chose his tools of historical analysis with a lawyer's care. For example, to decipher works of medieval law written in Anglo-French patois, he became "grammarian, orthographer, and phoneticist."
Thus did none other than Lord Acton declare Maitland to be "the ablest historian in England." In 1875, at only twenty-five years of age, Maitland, in pursuit of a fellowship in Cambridge University, submitted a remarkable work entitled "A Historical Sketch of Liberty and Equality as Ideals of English Political History from the Time of Hobbes to the Time of Coleridge."
“The simplest meaning of the word “Liberty” is absence of restraint. To the political philosopher it means absence of restraint on human action, and, since we are not speaking of the metaphysical freedom of the will, we may say absence of external restraint on human action. Further, as politicians, we are not concerned with those restraints which are due to causes over which we have no control; we have only to deal with those external restraints on human action which are themselves the results of human action. But we cannot say that the Liberty which our philosophers praise is an absence of all such re-straints: the inimization of all restraints on human action is an ideal of politics which has but lately made its appearance.
No, the Liberty which our earlier philosophers praise is: (1) The absence of restraints imposed by certain persons; or (2) The absence of certain forms of restraint; or ( 3) The absence of restraints on certain classes of actions.
To examine at some length the history of Liberty as a political ideal is the object of this present chapter.”
Frederic William Maitland
Frederic William Maitland (1850–1906) was an English jurist and historian who, like Pollock, attended Eton and then Trinity College, Cambridge. Maitland began publishing legal history in 1884 and four years later he was elected to the Downing Chair of the Laws of England. He founded the Selden Society in 1886 and served as its general editor.