How was the Concept of Freedom Understood during the Era of the American Revolution?

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The definition of American freedom as described by Eric Foner was ‘born in revolution’ (Foner, 2012). Freedom has been a recurring theme for the United States, reaching its pinnacle during the American Revolution, where the meaning of the word had transformed and had different meanings. There are many concepts of freedom to different people, and a majority might associate freedom with independence during the revolutionary era however it was much more than that. For slaves, it would mean freedom from bondage, for Indians, freedom to live their lives peacefully and maintain their culture and lands without interference. Women also had a concept of freedom in the form of freedom for enfranchisement and participation. White liberty contained a plethora of different concepts because of their subgroups, while Puritans prioritised religious freedom, political elites favoured independence and property. While all these freedoms were present during the revolutionary era, there is a huge difference to the achievements of those freedoms and in this essay, I will explain each of them.

Religion was a major theme in defining American liberty. While the struggle for independence saw new ideas of liberty flourish and transform, religion was always a central matter in America. For example, the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts originally hailed from England and were seeking to remove themselves from religious prosecution and this was achieved (CRF, 2013). The American Revolution created a catalytic movement that changed the meaning of religious freedom. It was no longer dominated by religious pluralism, (which was a British ideal) such as Congregationalism and Protestantism but allowing a melting pot of different sects of Christianity and even different religions or non-religious beliefs as Eric Foner states ‘a papist, a Mohomatan, a deist, yea an atheist could become President’(Foner,2012). Atheism was frowned upon however it suggests how far religious liberty has come during the revolutionary era. Eventually, America transformed into a beacon of religious freedom towards the world. Just before the Revolution, the Great Awakening had occurred which was a movement of religious revivalism ensuring religion was a main ideal of America. The Awakening established religion as an important liberty and without it, it wouldn't be as prominent a topic in the revolutionary era, as it even encouraged a more nationalistic society. Even the social order of the church was even essentially destroyed. Therefore, when Eric Foner states his astonishment at the legitimate recognition of religious freedom during the Revolution, it is less of a surprise due to the Awakening ensuring religious ideals were at the forefront of American liberty and the attempt to remove America from any kind of British influence (Foner, 2012). No longer was America influenced by British Anti-Catholicism and the dominant Church of England; a separation from monarchical rule meant a new age of conscience and religious tolerance.

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Race is also an important matter in understanding minorities freedom during the American revolution. For example, The Constitution states that ‘all are born equal’ and that it is self-evident (National Archives, 2019). However, slaves were prosecuted and forced into unpaid labour, unable to vote and counted as only three-fifths of the national electorate, so evidently, they were unequal. Jefferson did have a lesser racist attitude towards Indians that they could be welcomed into the American citizenry. (National Archives, 2019). However, this was not what the majority wished for. They wanted to protect their culture and lands which was not respected and instead met by significant violence such the Gnadenhutten massacre in 1782, which killed 96 unarmed Native Americans in an effort take their lands (Harper, 2007). Therefore, although Indians were treated more human-like and were even invited by revolutionary figures such as Thomas Jefferson to become Americans, their concept of freedom was suppressed and instead met with considerable violence, forced removal and enforcement of American ideals to be entrenched in their way of living.

Jefferson, also an architect of Declaration of Independence stated George III, king of Britain was the cause of slavery; ‘captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither’ in his first draft of the document (Reynolds, 2009). This was of course just to account for the policy of slavery however this was a huge dilemma, to justify slavery while also advocating that all men are equal. However, slaves’ freedom did take a turn for the better during the American Revolution. A separation from Britain meant a full attempted removal from British ideals, and that included slavery, as colonists blamed England for the coming of slavery. For example, Gary Nash states that the slaves took the opportunity of an upheaval in normal life during the Revolution and ‘politicised by the language and modes of white protest and were quick to seize the opportunities for securing their own freedom’ (Nash, 2001) Some estimated thirty-thousand fled as chaos occurred in their towns and cities. Literal freedom from bondage, which was the overwhelming concept of freedom to blacks took to the fore by as colonists and slave owners were preoccupied with their own liberties as well as the Revolution. These runaway groups also took the Revolution to achieve literal freedom by fighting their old owners. Furthermore, some were even transported to the Caribbean and Canada at the end of the Revolution, making up the free black community overseas. This showcased their humane abilities when not whipped or held in shackles. There was a certain degree of toleration especially in the North towards non-whites brewing starting from protests against enslavement in England to Vermont eventually drawing up a state constitution against it, and by 1804 all the Northern states had laws which would eventually in time abolish slavery. (Reynolds, 2009). On the other hand, the Founding Fathers knew the fragility of maintaining an agreement with all states after the Revolution and knew that keeping slavery was the price that had to be paid for guaranteed unity, as the South were determined in keeping slavery. Therefore, although there was still entrenched racial segregation and thousands of slaves still were enslaved into the 19th century, the black concept of freedom was one that was most likely to be met. Before the revolution, emancipation laws seemed impossible. Post-revolution, they were in place in Northern states and paved the way for eventual complete emancipation in 1863.

Women were always seen as lower-class citizens before the revolution. For example: as David Reynolds states, the American Revolution emphasised complete upheaval of different ideals but in fact was not revolutionary, especially to women (Reynolds, 2009). They wanted the freedom to vote and actively participate in ‘manly activities’, such as politics and public affairs. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams famously reminded her husband to ‘remember the ladies’ when drawing up the Declaration of Independence (Foner, 2012). However, evidently, that was not upheld. When Adams said that ‘all men are equal’ he meant men in the literal sense, and that a woman’s sole purpose was to keep their husbands content and provide them with offspring. (National Archives, 2019). Women did play a role however in the revolution. They protested during the Townshend Act which enforced new taxes on resources such as paper and tea. Women also protested to Congress and accompanied their men into battle camps. They also gave important economic aid during the boycott of the British Acts. In terms of achieving their concept of liberty, this was very short-sighted. The most significant attempt of freedom for women achieved was most likely the example of enfranchisement by New Jersey in their new state constitution given they met the property and economic requirements so still barred an amount (Reynolds, 2009). However, women played an important role in voting against Democrats in New Jersey, and although their vote didn't count, in the end, their voices were heard and picked up by newspapers. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, this was not at all revolutionary and not at all meeting the concept of women’s liberty (Reynolds, 2009) They still never had proper political and individual freedom despite the rising egalitarian atmosphere and were still disenfranchised throughout most states. After all, the Revolution was male-centred, and did not undo their monopoly on society. There was an authority over someone in all fields for example, master over slave, husband over wives and especially man over woman. With the Revolution’s ‘new coinage of liberty’, women were hardly a part of it. (Foner, 2012). Therefore, women’s concept of freedom was not met, though discussed and very rarely applied. Republican ideas during the Revolution dominated society and segregated gender specific roles, men being involved in public affairs, while women becoming the embodiment of domesticity. William Griffith, a political spectator in New Jersey, sums up attitudes towards women’s freedom with his reaction towards their enfranchisement, calling it ‘perfectly disgusting’ and women are physically unable to fulfil a duty other than in the home (Reynolds, 2009).

To many white colonists, property and economic freedom was the central concept of freedom during the American Revolution as well as independence. For example, John Peter Zenger, a New York journalist stated that property was interwoven with the eighteenth century understanding of freedom. William Blackstone agreed with an elevated idea of property, arguing that men who do not possess any type of property would fall ‘under the immediate domination of others’ and those who did not have property which was seen as basic economic freedom could not even control their own lives. (Foner, 2012) However, as the Revolution progressed, so did the meaning of property. It was no longer based on economic terms but ‘Rather than property serving as a requirement to qualify for freedom, freedom could be imagined as a form of property’ (Foner, 2012). It was now an ideological freedom; its definition was extended to include one’s own self as property and this dismissed the economic inequalities within society and especially dismissing British ideals. This showed the change of attitudes that transformed the United States, incorporating more of the society, although mostly white men, into the represented American citizenry.

Independence was also included in their concept of freedom, especially during the Revolutionary Era. The surge of patriotism started with the Stamp Act seen as the so-called ‘funeral of liberty’ (Foner, 2012). The Act imposed taxes on the colonists, which they were up in arms about. This was the true start of the American Revolution. The Townshend Act followed in which the colonists replied with the dubbed ‘Boston Tea Party’ destroying 342 cartons of tea by throwing them in Boston Harbour (Reynolds, 2009), The Intolerable Acts followed which closed part of Boston in reply to the Party, which was the last straw for the colonists. America was no longer just protesting the taxes and acts, but British rule in whole. They were now taking an active role in entrenching the idea of US liberty, as reiterated in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense journal, where he advocated a divorce from the Old World. (Paine, 1793). This eventually led to the drawing up the documents Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights and the Constitution. Colonists wanted to essentially create a new democratised culture which led to a significant relaxing of laws and change in political requirements. For example, voting becoming a universal right rather than something where qualifications are needed. Indentured servitude was all but removed, and people certainly had a different attitude towards slavery as mentioned before, the North especially moving towards emancipation. Economic equality was also in the works as economic requirements were relaxed. Although independence battles brought about huge change in America, it was a significant theme mostly only important to political elites as well as the white colonists. They had already provided themselves with individual liberty and now moving on to expand on that, other minorities such as slaves were still literally in shackles.

In conclusion, I believe the concept of freedom was different for all races and genders before and after the Revolutionary era. Women wanted freedom in the form of political and social activities such as voting and to do enjoy freely the same liberties as men, however, this was largely ignored. Racial minorities such as Indians saw their freedom as maintaining their culture and lands, which was met with hostility and forced removal instead. Slaves wanted literal independence from bondage, and this was met to some extent through the abolishing of slavery in Northern states although Southern states still disagreed, this being the price of unity. To the colonists, freedom came in many forms from religious to property to independence. Religious liberty was completely transformed by dismissing pluralism and a big theme in defining American freedom brought to the fore by the Great Awakening and leading to a complete transformation in attitudes and the creation of a religious melting pot. Property also was a factor and was transformed into an ideological freedom, allowing for economic equality, as well as the obvious factor being independence, as a complete divorce from Britain and creating their own culture. However, ultimately there was not one concept of liberty that could describe the revolutionary era as there was a concoction of many different freedoms depending on race, gender, and stature.

Bibliography

  1. Crf-usa.org. (2013). [online] Available at: https://www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/gates/puritans-of-mass.pdf [Accessed 9 Nov. 2019].
  2. Foner, E. (2012). The story of American freedom. Winnipeg: Media Production Services Unit, Manitoba Education.
  3. HISTORY.COM (2019). Great Awakening. [online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/british-history/great-awakening [Accessed 9 Nov. 2019].
  4. Harper, R. (2007). Looking the Other Way: The Gnadenhutten Massacre and the Contextual Interpretation of Violence. The William and Mary Quarterly, 64(3), p.621.
  5. Nash, G. (2001). Race and revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  6. Paine, T. (1793). Common sense. 1st ed. London: Printed for H.D. Symonds.
  7. Loc.gov. (2019). Religion and the American Revolution - Religion and the Founding of the American Republic | Exhibitions (Library of Congress). [online] Available at: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/rel03.html [Accessed 3 Nov. 2019].
  8. Reynolds, D. (2009). America, empire of liberty. London: Allen Lane.
  9. National Archives. (2019). The Constitution of the United States: A Transcription. [online] Available at: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript [Accessed 4 Nov. 2019].
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