By most accounts, Italian-style liberalism failed. Explanations of its failure vary from economic backwardness or a political culture shaped by autocracy to claims that liberals ruined their chances by pursuing nothing but narrow middle class interests. This study examines the liberal record to weigh the accuracy of these approaches. Ashley focuses on three controversial issues: public works, social reform, and public order. The railroads would test liberal commitment to laissez-faire, labor laws their pledge to protect all citizens, and dissent their allegiance to individual rights. In each case, liberals compromised their principles. What they decided defined the Italian variant of liberalism by transforming it from a doctrine to concrete practices and political behaviors. Particularly after 1890, liberals increasingly made empiricism the primary justification for policy and dismissed abstract principles as beneath notice. This shift helps explain why liberalism lost authority and credibility as a set of moral imperatives and as a coherent world view in Italy, as well as why it failed to offer most Italians a compelling alternative to either Socialsim or Fascism. Examining what liberals said and did, however, does not entirely support the despairing judgment of so many historians. Italian liberals managed to build a liberal state and to make it function against intransigent obstacles.