Freedom is a word we use regularly in the study of American history, but it is a concept that we do not often stop to consider. What exactly is freedom? Is it freedom from something, such as oppression by a tyrannical government, or is it freedom of something, such as the freedom to exercise your own religion without government interference?
Perhaps our sense of freedom in America has changed over time. For the original New England colonists, freedom was about religion, but today we yearn for freedom from the fear of terrorism.
At the founding of the nation in the 1780s, the wealthy White men who gathered in Philadelphian to craft our current system of government had to define freedom and find a way to guarantee it for future generations. Government, they knew had to protect rather than take away freedom. Of course, their ideas about freedom and ours are different. Many of them owned slaves, which is anathema to our sense of freedom.
What do you think? What is freedom?
In the years before American independence, an intellectual movement called the Enlightenment swept Europe and America. Philosophers proposed new ideas about government, including questioning the right of kings to rule and suggesting that all humans were born with basic rights. Many of these ideas were later used to justify the Declaration of Independence and formed the basis for the American system of government.
Americans had a long tradition of rebelling against governments they felt were unjust. Rebellions had taken place in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina during the colonial period. Americans also had a long history of ignoring laws they did not like. Smuggling to avoid paying tariffs or to avoid mercantilist laws was commonplace. For many years, British officials had not enforced trade laws in America since enforcement cost more than the potential tariff revenue the government might receive.
After the Seven Years War, the British government needed money and decided to start taxing the American colonists. This was not well received in America. A series of laws passed by the British Parliament were protested in the Americas. Most importantly, Americans believed that it was not fair to tax them without allowing them representation in Parliament. They called this taxation without representation.
Secondary Source: Painting
Grant Wood’s depiction of Paul Revere’s ride. Painted in 1931, Wood captures the drama of the event as seen from the perspective of many years later.
American patriots organized groups such as the Sons and Daughters of Liberty and Committees of Correspondence to organize protests, boycotts and to share revolutionary ideas. They served as an important first step toward national government by setting and enforcing policy.
The Revolution started in Boston, Massachusetts. This is where the most dramatic protests happened, such as the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. The British closed the port of Boston and Boston area patriots formed militias to prepare for war. The fighting itself started when British troops tried to capture a stockpile of weapons in the town of Concord a few miles from Boston.
The first battles of the American Revolution in April 1775 are called the Shot Heard ‘Round the World because they inspired other revolutionary movements, such as those in Haiti and France.
When colonial leaders met in 1776 at the Second Continental Congress, fighting had already begun in Boston. This time, the delegates voted to declare independence. They appointed a committee to write a document explaining their justification for this bold move. Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson all served on the committee. Jefferson wrote most of the document.
The Declaration of Independence included some of the most important ideas about the meaning of the United States. In it, the Founding Fathers declared that “all men are created equal.” They signed the Declaration on July 4, 1776, making it the nation’s birthday.
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. The introduction laid out basic ideas about human freedom and the meaning of America. Over time we have expanded our idea of what the Declaration means and who it applies to. For example, in the beginning the phrase “all men are created equal” only applied to White men who owned property. Today, we include men and women of all races and all stations in life.
FIGHTING THE WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE
The British and Americans started the War for Independence with distinct strengths and weaknesses. The British were a powerful nation with the world’s largest army and navy. The Americans knew the territory and were fighting a war for a cause. The British had to win. The Americans simply had to not lose and last long enough for the British to tire of the fight.
About 1/3 of Americans were patriots. About 1/3 were loyalists. Another 1/3 had no particular preference. After the war, many loyalists were treated badly, lost their property and moved to Canada.
Women supported the war by making clothing and by providing support services to the Continental Army, most famously as spies. They also took over the running of farms and businesses while their husbands were in the army.
The battles of the War for Independence were mostly victories for the British. In the early years of the war the Americans managed to resist and survive without complete destruction, which served as a moral victory and encouraged perseverance.
George Washington’s army spent the Winter of 1777 at Valley Forge where they learned tactics from European noblemen who came to help the Americans.
The French provided critical support at the end of the war by blocking the British escape from Yorktown with their warships. Washington’s army forced the British to surrender.
The Treaty of Paris of 1783 concluded the war. Britain recognized American independence and gave the United States all territory south of Canada and west to the Mississippi River.
Secondary Source: Painting
This famous depiction of the Declaration of Independence is a 12-by-18-foot work by American John Trumbull. Trumbull painted many of the figures in the picture from life, and visited Independence Hall to depict the chamber where the Second Continental Congress met. It hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
THE NEW GOVERNMENT
The national government was organized under a set of rules called the Articles of Confederation. It emphasized state power, giving only limited responsibility to the national congress. This was because the Revolution had been prompted by conflicts with a powerful national government in Britain that Americans believed had too much authority. Of course, this led to problems down the road.
An economic crisis in the 1780s increased social problems and showed the weaknesses of the government. In Massachusetts, poor farmers could not afford to pay back loans and found themselves in danger of losing land or going to debtor’s prison. Daniel Shays led a rebellion of these farmers against that state government. His rebellion failed, but it showed the rift between the wealthy who dominated government, and the people. It also showed the need for a federal government to maintain domestic security.
Colonial leaders met in Philadelphia to find solutions to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Their first important decision was to discard the Articles altogether and start over.
George Washington served as the Constitutional Convention’s president, but James Madison was the intellectual leader and primary author of the new system of government.
One important debate was the nature of the legislature. Populous states wanted a legislature that would have representation based on population. Smaller states promoted a plan for equal representation for each state. The Great Compromise produced our current Congress with a House of Representatives and a Senate.
The Founding Fathers were concerned about too much democracy. They created the Electoral College as a forum for debate in the selection of the president, thus insulating the president from the fickle will of the people. Our strange system of electing presidents today in a winner-take-all system is due to this early decision.
The Constitution protected slavery. It included requirements that states help return runaway slaves and gave slaves states extra representatives in the House. Slaves could be counted as 3/5 of a person.
The Constitution itself is not exciting to read. It is essentially a set of rules about how the government works. It outlines things like the number of years the president serves, and what powers the Congress has. However, the introduction, or Preamble is famous. The Preamble lays out the purpose of government. Its opening words “We the People” also emphasize the idea that government represents the people’s wishes and is chosen by the people.
PRESERVING THE RIGHTS OF INDIVIDUALS
The Constitution could not take effect until 9 of the 13 states ratified it. This led to an important period during which the public debated the merits of the new form of government. Central to this debate was the balance of power between the states and the federal government. Also important was the idea of individual freedom and the power of government over people.
Federalists liked the new more powerful federal government. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were Federalists. With John Jay they wrote the Federalists Papers to explain the virtues of the new Constitution. Their work remains an important explanation of the ideas that underlie our system of government.
Anti-Federalists saw the new Constitution as dangerous. They believed that states should hold more power than the federal government. Thomas Jefferson led this faction. Their most important objection was that the Constitution had no protections for individuals. While the Federalists argued that by separating power between three branches the government could not become so powerful as to take away people’s rights, the Anti-Federalists won the argument.
In the end, the Constitution was adopted as the Federalists wanted, and a Bill of Rights was added as the Anti-Federalists wanted. The Bill of Rights protects many of the basic freedoms that the British had violated before the Revolution. These include the right to free speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly. It guarantees the right to a trial by jury, protection from warrantless search and seizure and the right to own a gun.
It has been said that freedom isn’t free, and the Patriots who won our freedom on the battlefields of the War for Independence are rightfully remembered as American heroes. But what exactly is that freedom they fought to win?
The Founding Fathers first tried to preserve freedom through the Articles of Confederation, but farmers in Western Massachusetts rose up against that government. In their minds, the wealthy were manipulating government to their own purposes and taking away their freedom, sometimes quite literally, in the form of debtor’s prisons.
So the Articles were scrapped and replaced by the Constitution which has guided us for the past 200 years. The process of ratifying that Constitution gives us interesting insights into what Americans believed freedom was at the time, and the Bill of Rights, the most important outcome of that debate, has helped define freedom throughout the nation’s history. But what does freedom mean to you?
What is freedom?
BIG IDEA: Americans declared and fought for independence for a variety of reasons. Enlightenment ideas about government and economic factors were both important. These ideas were later incorporated into a new system of government.
The English settlers in America chose to declare and fight for independence after a long series of conflicts with their government. Most of these centered around economic problems and their right to participate in government. Americans were influenced by Enlightenment ideas.
American leaders did not want to declare independence right away and tried unsuccessfully to resolve their differences with the government in England. The Declaration of Independence laid out the reasons for independence and remains an important document in American history.
The War for Independence was long and difficult. Eventually with the help of the French, Washington’s army was able to force the British to surrender and recognize American independence.
For the first few years of American independence, the federal government was weak and ineffective at dealing with major problems. A rebellion in Massachusetts eventually pushed leaders to seek a new system of government.
The creation of the Constitution and our current system of government was due to problems that existed in the late 1780s and was the result of a series of compromises. The Founding Fathers tried to enshrine the ideals of the Revolution in a functioning system of government.
The debate about ratification of the new Constitution divided the nation’s leaders but led to the creation of the Bill of Rights.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence and later third president.
George Washington: Virginia planter, surveyor, officer in the Seven Years War, leader of the Continental Army in the Revolution, President of the Constitutional Congress and First President of the United States.
James Madison: Father of the Constitution and later 5th President.
Founding Fathers: The American leaders who led the nation through the Revolution, establishment of the new government, and in the first years of the Constitution. They include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.
Federalists: One of the first two political parties. They supported the Constitution, strong central government, Hamilton’s financial plans, and favored Britain over France. Washington and Adams were the only president’s from this party.
Anti-Federalists: People opposed to the ratification of the Constitution. They feared tyrannical central government and successfully argued for the inclusion of the Bill of Rights. They later formed the Democratic-Republican Party.
No Taxation Without Representation: Idea that the government should not levy taxes unless the people who must pay those taxes have the opportunity to elect members of that government.
Great Compromise: Compromised negotiated by James Madison at the Constitutional Convention resulting in a bicameral legislature with the Senate including two representatives from each state and the House with representation based on population.
Declaration of Independence: Statement passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 officially stating that the United States was independent from Britain.
Articles of Confederation: The plan for government created during the War for Independence. It featured a unicameral legislature, no executive, and favored state power over federal power. It proved ineffective and was replaced by the Constitution.
Constitution: The document that explains how the government works.
Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the Constitution. Ratified in 1791, they outline essential freedoms of all citizens.
First Thanksgiving: Celebration held in the fall of 1621 in Plymouth to celebrate the harvest. It was attended by both Pilgrims and their Native American friends.
Enlightenment: Time period in Europe and America in the 1700s characterized by an increased interest in science, new ideas about government and power, and a focus on order inspired by Classical Greece and Rome
Boston Massacre: Riot in 1770 between Boston citizens and British troops. It was exploited by Patriots to enflame anti-British sentiment.
Boston Tea Party: Protest by Boston Patriots led by Samuel Adams in which a cargo of tea was destroyed. It resulted in the closing of Boston Harbor.
Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Nickname for the opening battles of the American Revolution, so called because they inspired other Revolutionaries around the world.
July 4, 1776: The day the Declaration of Independence was signed. It is celebrated as America’s Independence Day.