Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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IN SEARCH FOR FREEDOM Essays on America’s Founding

INTRODUCTION

After the colonists won their independence from England, they created the Constitution of United States of America in 1787.  As the world learned that the U.S. Constitution was founded on a set of unique principles guaranteeing personal freedom and was to be governed by and for its citizens, immigrants from Europe began arriving on these shores by the thousands.  Initially, the means of transportation was a two or three-month voyage across the stormy Atlantic Ocean.  Between 1880 and 1920, as the U.S. entered into its industrial age, steam ships reduced the travel time to two or three weeks, bringing more than twenty million European and Asian immigrants to North America.          

The United States still represents a beacon for freedom-seeking people from around the world.  This country was created when the principles of individual rights were enshrined in our founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.  Today, foreign travelers applying for U.S. citizenship are required to study and pass tests relating to our founding documents, and once approved, they are welcomed as American citizens in the freest, most ethnically diverse country on the earth.However, prior to declaring their independence from England in 1776, the colonists were not free.  Throughout the 1600s and first half of the 1700s, they were subjects of England’s King George III. 

However, unlike their cousins in England, they were not allowed to have colonial representatives in Parliament or often in legal matters.  English governors, judges, and military forces were sent to the colonies to ensure that the colonists followed the laws and paid their taxes.  In time, Parliament’s abuses created great unrest among the colonists, and eventually they united in protesting against Britain’s tyranny.

In the following Freedom essays, we will explore England’s early colonization of North America.  Their first attempt at establishing a settlement was in 1587.  The Roanoke Colony, in what is now North Carolina, was unsuccessful.  In 1607, the people of the Jamestown settlement faced many of the same harsh conditions, including starvation, as they did in Roanoke.  However, Jamestown later became part of the British Colony of Virginia in 1624.  Likewise, the Pilgrims’ 1620 settlement in Plymouth later became part of the British Colony of Massachusetts in 1691.  In the span of 170 years, from the Virginia Colony in 1624 to the Georgia Colony in 1732, Britain established a total of thirteen colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America.  Even though the colonists were loyal British citizens, over time it became clear that successive British monarchies viewed them as second-class citizens and little more than a tax resource for the royal treasury.

The English government like other world monarchies in history sanctioned various kinds of bondage, even of its own citizens.  In order to build their empires, especially before the machine age, they needed unlimited manpower which they obtained through active participation in the slave trade.  Although not the first to have slaves in the Americas, in the early 1500s the Spanish and French bought kidnapped men, women, and children from African slave traders and imported them to work in Brazilian mines.  They also imported a steady stream of slaves to work on the sugarcane and tobacco plantations in the Caribbean Islands and to the Spanish Colony of what is now Florida.  Eventually the British also began importing slaves to Jamestown and to their future colonies in North America.

The attitudes about slavery varied among the British colonists.  The people in the northern colonies generally thought slavery was immoral.  While they needed a workforce to expand their economies, they preferred paying laborers outright or by utilizing the system of indentured servitude, hiring European immigrants and slaves to work in exchange for board, room, and other expenses for a set period.  Once the contract was fulfilled, the workers were then released from servitude.  Since cold winters shortened their farming seasons, the northern colonies relied on other available resources such as lumber, furs, iron ore, granite, fish, and whale oil, for trade with the European markets.  They preferred paying laborers outright or using the system of indentured servitude for slaves and European immigrants seeking to escape financial and religious persecution.  This system provided a workforce for the colonists and allowed workers to exchange their labor for board and room.  Once the contract was fulfilled, the workers were then released from servitude.

However, the heat, humidity, and rain created a longer growing season for many of the southern colonies.  These were ideal conditions for growing crops like tobacco and cotton, therefore, the British colonies in the south created an agrarian-based economy which relied heavily on farmers and slave laborers.  Although the southern colonies’ representatives joined with their northern neighbors in signing the Declaration of Independence and fought alongside their northern brothers against British tyranny throughout the Revolutionary War, once the war ended, they held fast to their “right” to own slaves.

In 1775, as British military aggressions began to increase in Massachusetts, news of their repeated attacks on Concord, Lexington Green, and Bunker Hill reached the rest of the colonies. The Colonial Representatives to the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia’s State House and agreed that it was time to separate from England and form their own governing body.  They set in motion a bold course of action when they unanimously signed their names to the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 and had it sent to England’s King George III.

When the document was presented to the King, he and his court considered the Colonists’ statement of independence to be an act of insurrection.  His government responded by sending a powerful naval fleet to Boston to crush a possible rebellion.  What they encountered was a grueling Revolutionary War with America’s Continental Army.  To their great humiliation, the war ended when the British surrendered to General George Washington and his French allies at Yorktown, in 1781.  However, even after the British and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783, there would be years before the two adversaries could settle their numerous differences.

In 1776, the thirteen colonies became thirteen states when they declared independence from England.  In 1781, after signing the international Treaty of Paris, America became a sovereign country.  The American states became the United States of America after the passage of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in 1788 and 1791, respectively.          

In future essays, readers will learn about the lives of some of our better-known founders like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and George Washington.  What were their boyhood years like growing up in Colonial America?  And how, as young men, did their keen interests in self-improvement begin to develop them as men?  One can also see how their experiences as young adults helped form them into the leaders their country would need during its tumultuous years of early statehood.

You will also be introduced to some of the Patriots whose stories may have been lost to history.  We are familiar with Paul Revere, one of the original Sons of Liberty, and his famous 1775 “Midnight Ride” alerting the colonists, “The British are coming!”  We will also meet another Patriot, sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington, who rode her horse forty miles throughout a stormy night, warning her Connecticut neighbors that the British were on the attack.  Within months, Salem Poor, and other freed black men, joined the Massachusetts’ Minutemen at the Battle of Bunker Hill and continued the fight against the British during the Revolutionary War campaign.  As the war proceeded, you will also meet some of the unique men and women who served in General George Washington’s spy ring.

By winning the Revolutionary War, the courageous Americans not only freed themselves from Britain’s bondage, they also renounced the world’s 5000-year history of authoritarian rule.  At the same time, the colonists, who had long-suffered under the dictatorial abuses of the British government, had profound distrust of any kind of governmental control over their lives.  Even though the thirteen colonies were united in their fight against the British Army, after the war, they went back to functioning independently from one another.  Some colonies had their own customs, rules, and even currencies which often led to trade disputes with one another.

During the summer of 1787, state delegates convened in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.  Their task was to create a system of government that could unite the states for a strong national defense against future threats of war, regulate a national currency, and ensure a robust national and international trade for the colonies, among other enumerated powers.   To achieve these goals without reverting to another dictatorial government, it was essential that the delegates provide equal representation among states whether they have large or small populations, ensure protection of individual citizens’ rights, and to create a system with checks and balances against the tendency of governments to abuse power.  

After four months of intensive debate, a consensus was reached among the delegates and they presented the Constitution of the United States which was ratified by all thirteen states, on June 21, 1788.  The Constitution grants the government limited, and enumerated rights and responsibilities.  However, James Madison warned that “there are more instances of the abridgment of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”  Consequently, the Bill of Rights, the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, guaranteed that rights not delegated to the U.S. government “…are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”  

In order to protect the hard-won freedoms our founding mothers and fathers preserved for their descendants, the intent of the Framers was that future Americans would routinely refresh our knowledge of our rights and responsibilities as outlined in our Founding Documents.  In addition to understanding our country’s history, it is only by remaining an educated citizenry that we can keep a vigilant watch over our elected officials while ensuring they adhere to our Constitutional principles.

As the colonists forged their way in the wildernesses of North America, they began to develop a sense of independence, although they were still British subjects.  While they chaffed under the abuses brought upon them by the British aristocracy, they held dear certain customs from their English motherland, especially the importance placed on education.  After gaining their freedom from the British crown, the Founders frequently encouraged literacy among the American citizens, with special emphasis on knowing how to preserve their newly established Constitution and Bill of Rights.

“Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.”   - Benjamin Rush, Essay, 1786

“Children should be educated and instructed in the principles of freedom."                                                                                   - John Adams, Defense of the Constitution, 1787

In the 21st Century, we have easy access both online and in libraries, from which we can increase our understanding about the remarkable people and the events which led to the founding of the United States.  Also, as you read the IN SEARCH FOR FREEDOM essays, it is our hope that you will explore the references which have been provided.