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In Eric Foner's portrayal, American freedom is defined as having its origins in revolution (Foner, 2012). Throughout the history of the United States, the theme of freedom has remained constant, reaching its peak during the American Revolution, where the concept of freedom underwent a transformation, encompassing various meanings. Freedom held different connotations for different individuals; for the majority, it was associated with independence during the revolutionary period, but its implications were far more profound. To slaves, it meant liberation from bondage; for Native Americans, it meant the freedom to live peacefully, preserving their culture and lands without interference. Women sought freedom in the form of enfranchisement and participation. The white population's perception of liberty was multifaceted, varying across subgroups, with Puritans prioritizing religious freedom, while political elites emphasized independence and property ownership. Although these various freedoms coexisted during the revolutionary era, their attainment and impact were vastly different, and this essay will explore each of them.
Factors shaping the concept of American Freedom
Religion played a pivotal role in shaping the concept of American liberty. While the struggle for independence led to the flourishing and transformation of new ideas of liberty, religion had always been a central aspect of American society. The Puritan settlers of Massachusetts sought refuge from religious persecution in England, and they achieved this goal (CRF, 2013). The American Revolution catalyzed a movement that redefined religious freedom. It broke away from the British ideal of religious pluralism, allowing for a diverse array of Christian sects and even acceptance of different religions or non-religious beliefs. Although atheism was not widely accepted, the recognition of religious freedom had come a long way during the revolutionary era. The Great Awakening, which occurred just before the Revolution, further solidified religion as a fundamental liberty, encouraging a more nationalistic society and reshaping the social order of the church. Thus, Eric Foner's astonishment at the acknowledgment of religious freedom during the Revolution is less surprising, considering the influence of the Great Awakening and the efforts to distance America from British control (Foner, 2012). The separation from British Anti-Catholicism and the Church of England marked a new era of conscience and religious tolerance in America.
Race and slavery
Race was a crucial factor in understanding the concept of freedom for minorities during the American Revolution. The Constitution declared that "all are born equal" and that this truth is self-evident (National Archives, 2019). However, the reality for slaves was quite different, as they faced prosecution and forced unpaid labor, were denied the right to vote, and were considered only three-fifths of a person in the national electorate, clearly indicating their inequality. Thomas Jefferson had a somewhat more accommodating attitude towards Indians, suggesting they could be integrated into American society (National Archives, 2019). However, the majority of colonists wished to protect their own culture and lands, resulting in significant violence and forced removal, as evidenced by events like the Gnadenhutten massacre in 1782, where 96 unarmed Native Americans were killed in an effort to seize their lands (Harper, 2007). While Indians were treated with a semblance of humanity and were even invited by some revolutionary figures to become Americans, their concept of freedom was suppressed, and they were met with violence, forced removal, and the imposition of American ideals upon them.
In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson blamed King George III of Britain for promoting slavery, leading to the capture and transportation of individuals into slavery (Reynolds, 2009). This dilemma arose from the need to justify slavery while advocating for the equality of all men. However, the American Revolution did bring about some improvements in the freedom of slaves. The separation from Britain led to a rejection of British ideals, including slavery, as colonists blamed England for its introduction. As Gary Nash explains, the upheaval caused by the Revolution allowed slaves to be politicized and motivated to seek their own freedom (Nash, 2001). Approximately thirty thousand slaves took the opportunity to escape during the chaos of the Revolution. The concept of freedom for black Americans was primarily focused on achieving literal freedom from bondage, which became more attainable as the colonists were occupied with their own liberties and the Revolution. Runaway slaves even participated in the fighting against their former owners, further asserting their quest for freedom. Some were eventually transported to the Caribbean and Canada, forming the free black community overseas, demonstrating their capabilities when not bound by chains and whips. Additionally, in the Northern states, a degree of toleration towards non-whites began to brew, with protests against enslavement leading to Vermont drawing up a state constitution against it, eventually leading to the abolition of slavery in all Northern states by 1804 (Reynolds, 2009). However, the Founding Fathers understood that maintaining unity among all states after the Revolution required concessions, and the South was adamant about retaining slavery. Consequently, despite the progress made, entrenched racial segregation persisted, and thousands of slaves remained in bondage until emancipation was finally achieved in 1863.
Women's freedom was notably limited before the revolution, with their roles largely confined to that of lower-class citizens. As David Reynolds notes, the American Revolution was not truly revolutionary for women, as it failed to bring about substantial changes in their status (Reynolds, 2009). Women sought the freedom to engage in political and social activities, including voting and participating in public affairs, but their desires were largely disregarded. For instance, when Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, reminded her husband to "remember the ladies" in drafting the Declaration of Independence, her plea was ignored (Foner, 2012). Women did play a role in the revolution, participating in protests against the Townshend Act, accompanying men into battle camps, and providing crucial economic aid during the boycott of British Acts. Their most significant achievement in terms of freedom was perhaps the limited enfranchisement granted by New Jersey in their new state constitution, though they were still subject to property and economic requirements (Reynolds, 2009). However, this was far from revolutionary, as women continued to face disenfranchisement across most states. The Revolution remained male-centric, leaving women without true political and individual freedom. Men held authority in all aspects of society, from masters over slaves to husbands over wives. The so-called "new coinage of liberty" during the Revolution hardly included women (Foner, 2012). Attitudes towards women's freedom were summed up by William Griffith, a political spectator in New Jersey, who dismissed their enfranchisement as "perfectly disgusting," insisting that women were physically incapable of fulfilling any duty beyond their domestic roles (Reynolds, 2009).
Property and ownership
For many white colonists, property and economic freedom were central to their concept of freedom during the American Revolution, alongside the pursuit of independence. John Peter Zenger, a New York journalist, linked property with the eighteenth-century understanding of freedom. According to William Blackstone, individuals without property would be subject to the domination of others, suggesting that property ownership was necessary for basic economic freedom and control over one's life (Foner, 2012). However, as the Revolution progressed, the meaning of property underwent a transformation. It was no longer merely an economic requirement but became an ideological freedom, extending to include one's own self as property, transcending economic inequalities within society and rejecting British ideals. This shift in attitude shaped the United States, incorporating a larger segment of society, primarily white men, into the representation of American citizenry.
Independence was also a vital aspect of the concept of freedom, particularly during the Revolutionary Era. The surge of patriotism began with the Stamp Act, which was considered the "funeral of liberty" (Foner, 2012). The imposition of taxes on the colonists triggered resistance, leading to events like the Boston Tea Party, where 342 cartons of tea were thrown into Boston Harbor in protest (Reynolds, 2009). The subsequent Intolerable Acts further fueled the colonists' desire to break away from British rule entirely, extending beyond mere protest against taxes and acts. This active involvement in entrenching the idea of American liberty was emphasized in Thomas Paine's Common Sense, where he advocated for a complete divorce from the Old World (Paine, 1793). This eventually culminated in the drafting of significant documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.
The colonists aimed to create a new democratized culture, leading to significant changes in laws and political requirements. Voting became a universal right rather than a privilege based on qualifications, and indentured servitude was largely abolished. Attitudes towards slavery also evolved, especially in the North, where emancipation laws gradually took shape. Despite these advancements, independence remained a significant theme primarily for political elites and the white colonists, as they had already secured individual liberty and were now striving to expand on it. Meanwhile, other minorities, such as slaves, remained literally bound by shackles.
In conclusion, the concept of freedom differed for various races and genders before and after the Revolutionary era. Women sought freedom in political and social activities, such as voting and enjoying the same liberties as men, but these aspirations were largely ignored. Racial minorities, like Native Americans, sought to preserve their culture and lands but were met with violence and forced removal. Slaves sought literal independence from bondage, and although progress was made with the abolition of slavery in the Northern states, the black concept of freedom remained challenged until full emancipation in 1863. Property and economic freedom were central to the white colonists' perception of liberty, along with their pursuit of independence. The American Revolution did bring about significant changes, but it primarily catered to the white population and left other minority groups yearning for true freedom. The revolutionary era saw a concoction of various freedoms depending on race, gender, and social status, making it impossible to define it under a single concept of liberty.
- Foner, E. (2012). "Give Me Liberty! An American History." W. W. Norton & Company.
- Harper, S. P. (2007). "American Indian Wars." The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/02/us/02forgotten.html
- Reynolds, D. S. (2009). "John Adams: A Life." New York: Penguin Books.
- Nash, G. B. (2001). "Race and Revolution." The Journal of American History, 87(1), 143-162.
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