I wanted to make a quick historical summary of all important events in the history of liberty. Liberty is a very small part of human history. Humans have existed for many thousands of years since they lived in civilizations. And for only a tiny bit for that history was liberty at least considered as an option. Here are all major events that I can think of that happened in this short history. I will mostly likely skip a lot of important events because of my ignorance. So this is really not the best list to make, but it gives at least some perspective on its history and mentions important people in the movement.
I divide advocates of liberty into three categories. I think this is a useful classification because there are many different people who argued for liberty, often from very different positions. In fact, many liberty advocates have often opposed one another and were enemies. These are three common categories.
Philosophical approach to liberty: The philosophical approach to liberty argues that liberty is a state of the world that needs to be achieved. The philosophical approach asks the questions of where rights come from? It asks the question of what is the state? Can the state legitimately exist? Does the state have any rights? This approach also reveals the huge double standards that people create between the state and the people. I mostly identify with this approach because I am far too stupid to argue for liberty from an economics point of view.
Economic approach to liberty: This is by far the most interesting of all approaches. And this is also by far the most difficult one. The economic approach is to argue why liberty is the most efficient system (or better "lack of system"). And why the state is inefficient. Why laws are inefficient, and why the market should not be opposed. Some economists may even argue that the state should be entirely abolished. The economic approach differs from the philosophical approach because it entirely rejects the philosophical approach. The economic method does not care whether something is consistent with philosophy or not, it just cares about how efficient and manageable a system (or lack of a system) is.
Ethical approach to liberty: This is an approach to liberty that I have little in common with. Since I am a nihilist I do not believe in objective morality. The advocates of liberty associated in this movement often include people who argue that liberty is moral. They may or may not use religion to justify this. There are atheists who use this approach because they claim they derive morality from secular principles. There are religious people in this movement who claim that God gave the gifts of liberty to people and therefore it is moral to preserve liberty. Whatever the person is there are a myriad of different kind of people in this movement alone. I do think that some of what they say is interesting. Because even though I do not accept any objective moral system I still have my own subjective moral values (which I can argue for, but I do not claim it to be objective or some non-sense like that). But overall I do not associate myself with these kind of people.
Now I will give a very short list of important events in the history of liberty thought, this is by no means complete. I am sure I missed a lot of important stuff because of my ignorance. I also applogize for mostly concentrating on America because that is mainly the side that I know of, there are other countries that need to be mentioned.
1689: I picked this date because I consider this date to be the birthday of liberty thought. This is the publication date of "Two-Treatises of Government" by John Locke. Locke was from what I know to be the first person to provide a definition and defense of liberty. He set into motion the very same ideas that are still used and defended today. He defined the notion of private-property rights. And was an influence to just about every other liberty advocate since then. Locke approached liberty from the philosophical approach.
1759: I picked this date because it was the publication date of the "Theory of Moral Sentiments" of Adam Smith. I never read Moral Sentiments and do not really know what the book is much about. But it was in a way a prelude to his major book "Wealth of Nations", published in 1776. Smith sought a moral defense of the laissez-faire system that he mostly advocated in the "Wealth of Nations". The major contribution of Smith was that he gave an economic defense of liberty. John Locke set into place a philosophical defense of liberty. But the economics of such a country was never defended by anyone before. Smith was an influence into arguing why liberty is prosperity for a nation. He was one of the founders of classical economics. Thus, Smith is mostly and economic defender of liberty. Though he gave some ethical arguments also he is not really known for that.
1776: This is the year of the American Revolution. It was the first time in history when a country was at least based off liberty principles. While it is true that there were inconsistencies and problems with formation of America, it was at least heavily inspired by liberty. With deep distrust of authority and decentralization of power. The biggest of all inconsistencies was of course slavery. If all men are naturally free then how does it give one group of men to enslave another group of men? If men cannot be enslaved to the government then how can other men enslave other men, does this not defeat the whole purpose?
1865: I picked this date because this marks the end of the Civil War. But the years leading up to this date are important too. The middle of the 19th century saw great influences in the liberty movement. These include Thoreau who influenced the early anarchist movements, and who practiced the civil disobedient act of tax resistance for his disapproval of slavery. This time period also included Lysander Spooner who was a very important figure in the abolitionist movement. In fact, he even went so far as to question the legitimacy of the Constitution. The years following the Civil War to the early 1900's was an example in history of a country based on the principles of liberty even more so than its days of the American Revolution.
1871: I pick this date as the publication of "Principles of Economics" by Carl Menger. Classical economics had many problems with it. There were different competing schools of economics that were being developed since then. One of the important ones in the free market movement was the Austrian one. It was largely developed by Menger, Mises, and Hayek. It is a little outdated and not mainstream, but it plays a very big role in the economics of liberty today.
1876: Not all people associated in the liberty movement were capitalists. There were quite a big number of socialists too. I picked this date as the death of Mikhail Bakunin. Who was an anarchist philosopher and activist who was also an opponent of capitalism. Bakunin accepted Marx's critique of capitalism but he was not a Marxist. He said that Marx was an authoritarian who argued for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Bakunin wanted to abolish the state and then private means of production so that the workers can be the direct owners of capital. Bakunin is a major influence to present day left-wing anarchists, such as Noam Chomsky (though I do not and never will consider Chomsky as an anarchist, I see him as an apologist for large governments).
1910 Emma Goldman: Emma still remains a very major influence in the anarchist movement. Emma moved to the United States during industrial years. She was an activist for communism. Like Bakunin she also was strongly anti-capitalism, but she was also anti-statism. Emma wrote several books on the topic of anarchism. She was also an activist for women's rights (one of the original legitimate feminists, not like the modern fascist feminists today) and she preached atheism. She was also strongly involved in the atheist movement. She seen Gov and God as being two masters over the lives of people that need to be overthrown and therefore often equated the two. Emma stirred riots and made the masses very angry.
1921: I picked this date because it was the publishing of "Risk Uncertainty and Profit" by Frank Knight. Knight was the founder of what is known as the Chigaco school of economics. The Chigaco school was a pro-free market economic school. It was a competitor with the Austrian economic school. I am no economist, so I am be totally off here, but from my impression the Chigaco school and Austrian school mostly agree with one another except on monetary policy.
1957: No discussion on liberty can be truly complete without mentioning Ayn Rand. Like Emma Goldman, Ayn Rand was a very powerful woman in the liberty movement. This date marks the publishing of "Atlas Shrugged", a novel that is the magnus opus of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand, in a way, invented a completely new case for liberty. Rand's approach to liberty was morality and ethics. I characterize Rand as an ethical libertarian, as opposed to an economic one (like Smith or Hayek) or a philosophical one (like Locke or Jefferson). Rand believed she could provide a purely secular account of morality, and such a system of morality immediately implied egoism, which in turn lead to the conclusion that liberty is the only moral political system. Just as Emma, Rand also very much hated religion. Besides for seeing it as irrational and stupid she seen it as a master over the lives of men and form of collectivism.
1962: This date is the publication of "Capitalism and Freedom" by Milton Friedman. But really this date is in memory of Milton, I just decided to pick this date. Milton was excellent at justifying freedom from a purely economic point-of-view. It did not matter what your system of values were. It did not matter what your philosophy was. He was able to ignore all of those issues and very nicely show why liberty is a favorable economic position. Milton, from the Chigaco school of economics, played a very big role in developing free market ideas further. His book on "Capitalism and Freedom" sold a lot of copies and even impacted populations in non-capitalism countries.
1962: Since John Locke the liberty movement was essentially unified together. There were some disagreements about economics and government size. But they mostly and supported one another. This movement was eventually shattered and the movement ripped apart into two groups that from this day on strongly oppose one another. This date marks the publishing of "Man, Economy, and State" by Murray Rothbard. Rothbard was the most radical person in history as of yet. Rothbard argued that the state is entirely unnecessary. Rothbard was an anarchist and even opposed the traditional liberty form of a government that was often supported. He argued that even such a government is intrusive, and if it is not intrusive it will be intrusive, it will grow. Furthermore, it is highly inefficient when replaced by private companies that manage law and security. He argued that all functions of the government can entirely be replaced by companies that compete with one another in the market, and this will be more efficient and peaceful because the state is nothing but a monopoly of certain services. Rothbard coined the term "anarcho-capitalism" that is used today. He was an economic and philosophical libertarian from the Austrian economic school.
1973: How radical and extreme can one possibly go? It turns out that Murray Rothbard is even less extreme when compared to David Friedman. I pick this date as the publishing of the "Machinery of Freedom" which became an influential book in the liberty movement. David entirely rejects all philosophical and moral arguments in favor of liberty and just argues that economically an anarcho-capitalist society would be the closest to an ideal society as one can get. David is more radical than Murray in the sense that Murray still maintains the John Locke notion of self-ownership and wants people to consent into legal systems that respect property. David does not care, he wants laws to be self-emerged market forces. David belongs to the Chigaco economic school. Murray and David were enemies of one another.
2005: This is the year Freedomain Radio was opened by Stefan Molyneux. I am not such a fan of Molyneux. He is a moralist, he is a non-determinist, Objectivist, for one thing, but he does have some new ideas and expresses himself well (not like a slobbering retard like me), and seems to be a nice person. Currently today he is influential in the liberty movement.
2008: Ron Paul did run for president once before, back in 1988. But he embarrassed himself under the libertarian party. In 2008 he got smarter and changed himself to a Republican. That way he got some influence in the elections. Though he did not win he inspired a lot of people to consider freedom, free markets, and peace - something he was never successful at doing in his earlier years. He remains today as the major public figure in the liberty movement. Actually this is ironic. If you told me that the most vocal person today in the liberty movement was a professional politician I would have laughed.
Present: The liberty movement is now alive more strongly than any other time in history. This is thanks to the internet. It is extremely small when compared to other movements but this is the strongest it ever been. Not just in America, but in all countries around the world. With such an interesting history it is a curiosity to see what the future of it will unfold.
I do realize that this is not the best list. And it is not explained in the best possible way, but that is okay, this is just a brief summary.
It is helpful to include three different kind of libertarians.
Liberals (Classical): These include some of the founding fathers. The philosophy of liberalism is that the government is to protect freedom and to serve the people. Liberals are in favor of very limited government with its main concern to protect the people. And in a few rare cases the government is to help the people if the need for it would arise. For example, classical liberals would not support welfare but they would support forgein aid to Haiti (during the earthquake) or government aid to Katrina victims. Milton Friedman, as surprising as it may seem to many, was one of the most moderate libertarians that I know of. He is best described as a (classical) liberal.
Minarchists: Others founders would better fit this description. Minarchists come from the word "minimal" and Greek word "archon" would means "rule". It is essentially the bare minimum government that one can have. A government whose only sole feature is to protect the rights of the people. Minarchists would be opposed to forgein aid to Haiti and Katrina victims. Ron Paul happens to be more extreme to Milton Friedman, Paul is a minarchist, and yes he was the only member of the House to vote against forgein aid to Haiti during its earthquake, because unlike a classical liberal he does not believe this to be the function of a government. Other famous minarchists include Hayek and Mises.
Anarchists: Not really considered as a political philosophy until the 1960's, even Ayn Rand opposed it. It comes from the Greek words "an" and "archon" which means "without rulers". Anarchists disagree with minarchists. They say that a minimal government always grows. It will start small but always end large. Therefore, all government must be abolished. They also believe that it is entirely unnecessary in providing the services that the state is supposed to provide.
There is one last thing that I wish to address. Advocates of liberty are often called a "cult". Ayn Rand is often described as running a cult. Stefan Molyneux has been also called a cult leader. Ron Paul has been called as being part of a cult. Milton has been said that he is part of the cult of the free market. And so on and so on.
I find this condemnation of liberty to be silly. The word "cult" for me is nothing just like how the worst "racist" is often used around. It is just to silent opposition. Anyone you disagree with is automatically called a "cult". What is a cult? I have no idea. Religion seems to be a cult but hardly it gets called that, because it is large. Liberty movement is small and it gets called a cult. See the difference?
Besides there is a something about cults. Cults have leaders you cannot disagree with. Cults have ideas you cannot challenge that are considered to be heresy. Let us see if this applies to the liberty movement?
It should be pretty obvious from the above summary of its history that there is no universal statement and no sacred leader of the movement. The liberty movement is very strongly divided on a lot of things. There are religious people and there are atheists. There are anarchists and there are minarchists. There are different economic ideas. There are different approaches to be taken. There are even some who are anti-capitalists. And within the movement some people who hate others. Take Ayn Rand, for example. Without a doubt she would have hated Ron Paul. Because Ron Paul is a Christian, and she hated all religion. While Ron Paul named his son, Rand Paul, after her, how ironic. Or consider Adam Smith. There are those who highly regard Smith as an important economic figure and intellectual, like the Chigaco school. While the Austrians often entirely ignore all of his work and never acknowledge it. There are moralists and there are nihilists. So I ask where exactly are the sacred principles? Where is the single leader who everyone follows? There is none. Nowhere to be found.