Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Struggling for Freedom in the Early Republic

By Gary B. Nash, UCLA


Seal of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers (Collection 490), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

"We can see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used. We are now really another people, and cannot again go back to ignorance and prejudice. The mind enlightened cannot again become dark." This is how Tom Paine, the consummate pamphleteer of the American Revolutionary cause, reflected on how the earth turned and the stars began to realign as the long war with Great Britain entangled Americans in a concurrent search for a new and durable society based on ideas of freedom and equality.

The search would be long and hard, particularly for women, religious minorities, and those of African descent. For the latter, legal freedom—freedom from bondage—was the priority; political freedom—the entitlement to the rights of citizens—came second. Led by Quakers, who by 1775 had vowed to cleanse themselves from slaveholding and established the first abolition society in the western world, the crusade to make good on the claim of inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would take generations to fulfill. John Dickinson's manumission of thirty-seven enslaved males and females in 1777 was one of many individual acts in eastern Pennsylvania that sparked African Americans to believe that a new dawn was breaking. Reading this document carefully, one can see how Dickinson protected his interest in the labor of those he had held as slaves but now intended to free. This gradualist approach to removing the cancer of slavery from the body politic as a new republic took form can also be seen in the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. However, in both the preamble to this act, as well as in the 1787 Constitution of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery (a reorganization of the abolition society first formed in 1775), the core principle was laid down unambiguously that all humans, of whatever "colour, situation, religion, or different states of society," were "of one flesh," "members of the same family," and "the work of an Almighty Hand." These promissory notes, pledging "the blessings of freedom to every part of the human race," would echo down the corridors of history to every part of the world.

Such promises, even if enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, had to be fulfilled on a day-by-day and even case-by-case basis. The voluminous papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) include details on how men such as Thomas Harrison and others of the Acting Committee haunted the courts in attempts to gain the freedom of those allegedly born free and snatched into enslavement. Such cases demonstrate the work proceeding at ground level even while the PAS was making the first petition to Congress, signed by its president, Benjamin Franklin, to use the "many important and salutary powers . . . vested in you" to secure "the blessings of liberty . . . without distinction of color, to all descriptions of people," and, as a result, to remedy the outrage suffered by those of African ancestry, "who alone in this land of freedom . . . are groaning in servile subjection." This petition enraged most southern congressmen—and embarrassed many from the north as well—because it stood witness to the "inconsistency [of continuing enslavement] from the character of the American people."  The petition bore no fruit, but it did occasion lengthy deliberations at a time when most members of Congress were far more interested in debating Alexander Hamilton's funding and assumption bills.

If the Society of Friends was instrumental in working to secure the "blessings of liberty" for all Americans, they were also dangerously vulnerable in the midst of a protracted war for independence because of their peace testimony. With the British army poised to take Philadelphia by storm in August 1777, the state's revolutionary government arrested twenty pacifist Quakers suspected of collaborating with the British. In the detainees' appeal to the Continental Congress, one can feel the pain of some of the city's most eminent Quakers who, while holding fast to their belief that "all outward wars and fightings are unlawful," pleaded that they had been seized, confined, and sentenced to exile without any opportunity to answer the charges against them. With due process denied, they warned that "liberty, property, and character of every Freeman in America is, or may be, endangered." Such were the fragilities of civil liberties in time of war. In Pennsylvania, where Quakers almost a century before had led the way in establishing freedom of religious conscience as a birthright, leading Friends found themselves denied a chance to defend themselves against what they regarded as unwarranted charges. Six months later, General Washington intervened on the exiles' behalf, granting them permission to return to British-occupied Philadelphia.

For Philadelphia's poor women, legal and religious freedom were important, but the ability to sustain themselves and their families trumped every other form of freedom. Yet the pursuit of economic survival sometimes brought them up against male-dominated local government. In 1805, women street vendors, who made a "slender subsistence" by selling cakes, fruit, nuts, and other small delicacies, found themselves driven from the streets by an ordinance of Philadelphia's Select and Common Councils that demanded that all vending take place in the licensed city market stalls. Denied a formal voice in the political process, they utilized the one means available to those without power to make their case to government: the petition. And at a time when ideas were in flux about how the public markets could best serve the people, women entered the local political arena by way of their petition. The petitioners, many of them widows,  argued that the ordinance militated "against the poor, the aged, and the infirm alone," since better circumstanced vendors had found ways around the ordinance.

The struggle for religious freedom took another turn during the War of 1812 when Philadelphia's black Methodists, who had worshiped semi-independently at their Mother Bethel church since 1794, faced the determination of white Methodists to rein in black religious self-governance. We often think of religious freedom as the right to follow one's innermost beliefs and to enjoy freedom from religious persecution, but religious freedom also means institutional freedom—the right to build a church, or a denomination, on one's own terms. In 1815, black Methodists, under Richard Allen's tutelage, rose up—bodily and verbally—to stop white Methodist preachers from occupying Mother Bethel's pulpit. In so doing, they sought to prove that they had the authority to control the internal affairs of the all-black church. Over more than a year, the matter worked its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the black Methodists' ecclesiastical autonomy in 1817.

While gaining congregational and denominational independence, black Philadelphians fought desperately in the late 1830s to hold on to the political freedom that they had enjoyed since 1776. In 1838, facing disenfranchisement at the hands of white delegates to a constitutional convention charged with revising the state's fundamental document, black leaders, including Robert Purvis, two of James Forten's sons, and several black ministers, published an Appeal of Forty Thousand Citizens Threatened with Disfranchisement. Here one sees that freedom once won can still be lost by a stroke of the pen. In an early case of fighting what we today call voter suppression, black Pennsylvanians reached out to the white public to warn that "when you have taken from an individual his right to vote, you have made the government, in regards to him, a mere despotism; and you have taken a step towards making it a despotism to all." That black Pennsylvanians were unsuccessful in their appeal, losing a freedom they had exercised for forty-seven years and would regain only after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, warns us that without vigilance and determination, freedom—whether political, economic, or religious—is never guaranteed.

Religious freedom became a burning issue again in the 1840s when Irish Catholic immigrants faced rabid white Protestant hostility. Threatened economically by the flood of cheap immigrant labor and impassioned by a hatred of what they regarded as superstitious papists, white workingmen flocked to the Native American (or anti-Catholic) Party, which proposed denying citizenship to any immigrant for twenty-one years. By 1844, Protestant militancy turned violent after the bishop of Philadelphia requested that Catholic schoolchildren be allowed to read their own Bibles and be exempted from Protestant prayer. In the anti-Catholic riots of May 1844, the belief of Major General Robert Patterson, commanding the First Philadelphia Brigade, that he had "sufficient force to protest all religious denominations . . . at all places within his command, in the exercise of divine worship" was dreadfully shattered when Protestant mobs burned down two Catholic churches, a female seminary, and the houses of at least thirty Catholic families in the Kensington district. Riots continued through the summer of 1844, leaving the principles of Penn's City of Brotherly Love in tatters.

The struggle for freedom in its many dimensions never followed a linear path.  Gains made in one era were sometimes annulled in another, regained only after another effort. This was the way of a sprawling democracy launched on what Jefferson called "the boisterous sea of liberty."

Gary Nash is Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA and Director of the National Center for History in the Schools. Author of several dozen books, he served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1994-1995 and is an elected member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Society of American Historians, and the American Antiquarian Society.