Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

A thematic essay by Pulitzer prize-winning historian Eric Foner explores the centrality of freedom to America's identity and its complicated legacy.
Section 1

Documents spanning from 1655 to 1759 reflect how Native American and new immigrant groups negotiated sovereignty, coexistence, and systems of law, liberty, and labor. This section, headed by a contextual essay by Evan Haefeli, includes  William Penn's Deed with the Delaware Indians, Pennsylvania's "Charter of Liberties," petitions to allow and restrict immigration, and newspaper advertisements for slaves and indentured servants.

Section 2

Documents spanning from America's Revolutionary and early national period (1765 to around 1840) highlight growing tensions over colonial sovereignty as Americans attempted to assert their freedoms as British subjects before declaring independence and setting up their own systems of government. This section includes numerous founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence, early notes for the Articles of Confederation, and a handwritten draft of the Constitution.

Section 3
The documents in this section, spanning from 1776 to 1844, show how Americans grappled with slavery and inequality in a nation that had just declared that "all men are created equal." Headed by a contextual essay by Gary Nash, this section reflects the formation of America's earliest antislavery organization, Pennsylvania's decision to enact "Gradual Abolition" of African American slaves, the expansion and restriction of voting rights during the early decades of the 19th century, and religious and ethnic intolerance.
Section 4
This section contains documents from 1855-1864 that provide insight into the crisis the existence of slavery posed to the expanding nation and the extent to which Americans were motivated by differing conceptions of what "freedom" meant. Headed by a contextual essay by Richard Newman, this section includes an excerpt from the journal of Underground Railroad operative William Still, letters from witnesses to Civil War battles, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Section 5
As emancipation, increased immigration, and industrialization changed America's demographics and landscape, laborers and employers as well as new immigrants and "native" Americans negotiated shifting relationships of power, equality, and opportunity. Documents in this section, headed by a contextual essay by Walter Licht, include a handwritten note from Susan B. Anthony, reports and cartoons on Chinese and European immigration, and letters from a suffragist protesting for the women's vote in the 1910s and '20s.
Section 6
As America engaged in imperial ventures and positioned itself as the leader of the "free world" in opposition to totalitarian regimes, its citizens were forced to confront realities of what American freedom meant—or should mean. Documents in this section, spanning from 1900 to 1953, include a WWII propaganda radio play, correspondence between a Japanese-American citizen detained by the FBI as an "enemy alien" and his wife and children in an internment camp, and anti-Communist and anti-McCarthy publications. Emily Rosenberg contributes a contextual essay.
Section 7
This section, introduced by a contextual essay by Thomas Sugrue, provides a glimpse of the ways diverse groups of American citizens resisted cultural, political, and economic marginalization to assert their rights, fight for fuller inclusion in American society, and achieve the freedoms and opportunities enjoyed by their fellow citizens.

Welcome to Preserving American Freedom: a digital history exhibit that explores the complicated history of American freedom through 50 documents in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Detailed transcriptions and annotations of the 50 documents, spanning from 1655 to 1978, are presented alongside digital facsimiles of the originals and contextualized by historical essays, biographies, graphic materials, and tools for educators.


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Begin exploring the exhibit by clicking through the exhibit sections (above and on the sidebar to the right).

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