Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Liberty, Diversity, and Slavery: The Beginnings of American Freedom

By Evan Haefeli, Columbia University

The United States of America has a reputation as a beacon of freedom and diversity from the colonial period of its history. From the beginning, however, Americans' freedoms were tied to a mixture of religious and ethnic affiliations that privileged some inhabitants of North America over others. Although European ideas of liberty set the tone for what was possible, those liberties looked somewhat different in colonial North America, where indigenous and African peoples and cultures also had some influence. The result was greater freedom for some and unprecedented slavery and dispossession for others, making colonial America a society of greater diversity—for better and for worse—than Europe.

America's indigenous traditions of immigration and freedom created the context that made European colonization possible. Since time immemorial, the original inhabitants of the Americas were accustomed to dealing with strangers. They forged alliances and exchange networks, accepted political refugees, and permitted people in need of land and protection to settle in territories that they controlled but could share. No North American society was cut off from the world or completely autonomous. Thus, there was no question about establishing ties with the newcomers arriving from Europe. Initially arriving in small numbers, bearing valuable items to trade, and offering added protection from enemies, these Europeans could, it seemed, strengthen indigenous communities. They were granted rights to use certain stretches of land, much in the way that other Native American peoples in need would have been, especially in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. However, Europeans, and all they brought with them—disease, beliefs regarding private property, ever more immigrants, and, occasionally, ruthless violence—undermined indigenous liberty. When Native Americans contested this, wars erupted—wars they could not win. Those who were able to avoid living as slaves or virtual servants of the Europeans (as some did) were driven from their homes.

Occasionally, a colonial ruler who wanted to preserve peace, like William Penn, would strive to respect the rights of indigenous Americans. However, given that both indigenous and European ideas of liberty rested on access to land and its resources, it was difficult for both Europeans and Native Americans to be free in the same territory at the same time without some sort of neutral arbiter. On the eve of the American Revolution, it seemed as if the British government might be able to play that role. After all, British Americans also looked to the monarchy to guarantee their liberties. American independence ended that option. Thereafter, America's original inhabitants had no one to mediate between them and the people who gained so much from exploiting them. Nor did the Africans brought as slaves to work what had once been their land.

For Africans, as with Native Americans, liberty was inseparable from one's family ties. Kinship (whether actual or fictive) gave an individual the rights and protection necessary to be able to live in freedom. To be captured by enemies and separated from one's kin put a person in tremendous danger. Although some captives could be adopted into other societies and treated more or less as equals, most were reduced to a condition of slavery and had little influence over their destiny. Even before they arrived in North America, Africans brought to the New World as slaves had already been separated from their home communities within Africa. Without kin, they had to forge new relationships with complete strangers—and everyone, including most fellow Africans they encountered, was a stranger—if they were to improve their lot at all. Escape was very difficult, and no community of fugitive slaves lasted for long. Unlike Native Americans, who could find a degree of freedom by moving away from the frontier, Africans had to struggle for what liberty they could from within the British society whose prosperity often depended on their forced labor.

Europeans, particularly those with wealth enough to own land or slaves, possessed the greatest freedoms in early America. The French, Spanish, and Dutch established colonies on land that would eventually become part of the United States. Each brought a distinct approach to liberty. For the French and Spanish, who came from societies where peasants still did most of the work of farming, liberty lay in the avoidance of agricultural labor. Aristocrats, who owned the land and profited from the peasants' toil, stood at the top with the most freedom. Merchants and artisans, who lived and worked in cities free of feudal obligations, came next. In North America, the French fur traders who preferred to spend their lives bartering among Native Americans rather than farming in French Canada echoed this view of freedom. Missionaries attempting to convert those same peoples could be seen as another variant of this tradition of liberty, one unknown to the Protestant British. In every colony, Europeans lived in a range of circumstances, from poor indentured servants to wealthy merchants and plantation owners.

Religion was inseparable from the experience of liberty in the European empires. The French and Spanish empires were officially Roman Catholic and did all within their power to convert or expel those who would not conform. The Dutch, on the other hand, had a different approach, befitting their condition as a small, newly independent, but economically dynamic nation. Though only Reformed Protestants enjoyed the full benefits of Dutch citizenship, they displayed an unusual openness to talented foreign immigrants, like Iberian Jews, while they relegated native-born Roman Catholics to second-class status. It was through their ties to Amsterdam, Dutch Brazil, and the Dutch Caribbean that Jews first staked a claim to live and work in North America.

The English colonies played the definitive role in early America's experience of liberty. As immigrants from Scotland, Germany, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere became incorporated into the Anglo-American world, they staked a claim to liberty through British culture and institutions. The heritage on which the British Empire rested was complicated, however, encompassing a great deal of political conflict (two revolutions in the seventeenth century alone) and religious diversity. The British colonies in North America were home to the Puritans of New England, the Quakers of Pennsylvania, and the Roman Catholics of Maryland, as well as to Anglicans, members of the Church of England. Living in America offered an excellent chance to claim the rights and liberties of Englishmen, even when it seemed like those liberties were imperiled back in Europe. Indeed, the desire to preserve those liberties from the threat of a new British government prompted colonists to fight for independence in 1776.

Liberty in eighteenth-century Britain was associated with the national representational body of Parliament and the Protestant religion, which had been declared the official faith of England in the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, a long cycle of constitutional crises, civil wars, and revolution drove home what by the eighteenth century was a commonplace ethos for many Englishmen: liberty depended on Protestantism, property ownership, and a monarchy mixed with representative government. Conversely, Catholicism and absolute monarchy, as existed in Spain and France, brought tyranny and a loss of liberty.

Liberty thus began in America with a peculiar mix of religious, ethnic, political, economic, and legal associations, all of them based on denying civil, religious, and economic liberty to others. Among the free, European-descended, Protestant colonists who enjoyed the most liberty, only men with property—who were deemed eligible to vote and hold public office—gained the full benefits. The liberties of women, children, and men without property depended on their connections to propertied men, whether as relatives, patrons, or employers. As most British colonists understood history, English liberties had been secured only after a long, hard fight, and these liberties were under constant threat—from Roman Catholics, the French, or the greed and corruption that, they thought, inevitably arose when those in government grew too powerful. Liberty, they believed, was limited. The idea that everyone could enjoy similar liberties did not cross their mind; they worried instead about the possibility that everyone in America could be a slave or servant to someone else.

In many ways, the story of American liberty is about how people of different religious and ethnic origins gradually acquired rights that had been associated only with Protestant English men of property. Despite their original association with a particular national, ethnic, and religious group, English liberties proved fairly flexible in America. Americans lived in a society with more chances to attain the ideal of liberty associated with owning property—particularly a farm of one's own—than was possible in England, where property ownership was increasingly restricted to a small elite. Colonies like Pennsylvania granted far more religious freedom than existed in England. The colonial charters granted by the British monarchy protected these liberties, and, in fact, Pennsylvania celebrated the anniversary of these constitutional freedoms guaranteed by the English crown when it the commissioned the liberty bell.

The early American belief in the limited nature of liberty helps us to understand why it was so difficult for those who had it to extend it to others. Americans lived in a world full of slavery—the ultimate opposite of freedom—an institution that had not been present in England for hundreds of years. And yet, the colonial history of America, tied very early to the promotion of slavery, convinced many colonists that the ability to hold non-European people (mostly African, but also Native American) as slaves was a fundamental English liberty. Some even returned to England with their slaves, and expected English laws to protect their property in people as they did in the colonies. Free colonists were surrounded by people—servants and slaves—who either lacked liberty or, as in the case of Native Americans, were rapidly losing it. This paradox helps explain the reluctance of colonial Americans to allow others, like more recent German immigrants, to share the same liberties they enjoyed. In many ways, their prosperity depended on those peoples' lack of liberty and property. All could try for freedom in colonial America, but not all had equal access to it.

America's history of liberty is inseparable from its history of immigration and colonization dating back to the first Native American treaties. Unfortunately, the liberty Europeans claimed in America was accompanied by slavery and reduced liberties for many others. The possibility of liberty for some was always accompanied by a struggle for freedom for many others.

Evan Haefeli is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University, where he researches and teaches on Native American history, colonial American history, and the history of religious tolerance.