IN SEARCH FOR FREEDOM
Essays on America’s Founding
Who were the people in the 1600s who left their ancestral homes in England, and embarked on months-long voyages across the stormy Atlantic Ocean, only to arrive in the raw wildernesses of North America? Even though at that time, England’s agricultural and animal husbandry systems, and its advanced arts and crafts made England one of Europe’s most cultivated societies. And, for the educated classes, it was also the home of two world-renown universities, Oxford and Cambridge. England had also built the most powerful military force in the known world. However, the commoners’ lives were largely spent in servitude to the monarchy.
The whole of the English economy, its dominant church, and all of the land was controlled by the sitting king and his hand-picked elite classes. The working classes, however, provided the basis for the economy. They were mostly farmers, craft persons, and servants, but under the feudal system, there were few opportunities for them to improve their own living conditions, or even practice their own faith. Consequently, when the king approved settlements in the New World there were English subjects who were willing to risk everything they knew, even their own safety, to start a new life in the unknown territories of North America.
The In Search of Freedom essays are intended to provide an overview of the events in the 1600s and 1700s that helped create the United States of America. We will also profile some of the people, from the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and the everyday men and women, who were determined to throw off the shackles of tyranny so they, and we, might live in a free country. We will explore England’s early colonization of North America. In 1607, Jamestown became the seat of government for Virginia, the first British colony in the New World. In 1620 the Pilgrim’s settlement in Plymouth became the second British colony, with the whole of the Massachusetts territory becoming an official British colony in 1691.
Over the span of the next 170 years, the British established a total of 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. Even though the colonists were loyal British citizens, they did not have the same rights as their British cousins. Over time, it became clear that successive British monarchies viewed them as second-class citizens. The expectations of the colonists were that they were to provide England with raw materials while purchasing finished goods and services exclusively from England--with elevated prices and increasingly higher taxes on those goods. The colonial communities were also burdened by British governance, backed by their dominant military, but were denied legal representation in the British Parliament. These abuses created great unrest among the colonists and eventually caused them to unite in protest against Britain’s tyranny.
Matters reached a climax when British soldiers began aggressively attacking the colonists in Massachusetts culminating in the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775.
After repeated attempts at reconciliation with England, the American Continental Congress presented King George, III with their Declaration of Independence in 1776 which made clear that the Americans believed that …all men were created equal… And as such, the Americans intended to free themselves from their British overlords. The king’s response was to raise taxes and send tens of thousands of additional British and Hessian troops. They were met by General George Washington’s considerably smaller, newly formed Continental Army, and the Revolutionary War ensued.
Eventually, the out-numbered, out-financed, and out-armed colonists won their independence when they defeated the British army at the Battle of York in 1781. Now, their task was to structure a representative government for their new republic--one that would protect its citizens from ever being ruled by monarchial elites again.
After 6 years of careful deliberations by the Founding Fathers and, on the authority of the people only, the Constitution of the United States of America was ratified in 1787, followed by the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
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 American shores by the thousands. Initially, the means of transportation was a two to three-month voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1880 and 1920, steamships reduced the travel time to two or three weeks as the U.S. entered into its industrial age, 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 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 these founding documents, and once approved, they are welcomed as American citizens in the freest, most ethnically diverse country on the earth.
The British government, like other world monarchies in history, sanctioned various kinds of bondage, even of its own citizens. To build their empires, especially before the machine age, they needed unlimited manpower which they obtained through active participation in the slave trade. Although they were not the first to have slaves in the Americas. In the early 1500s, African slave traders kidnapped and sold men, women, women, and children to Spanish and French privateers who 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. In the early 1600s, the British also began importing white and African slaves and indentured servants to work in the agrarian economies of the southern colonies.
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 of time. 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 and European immigrants seeking to escape financial and religious persecution made themselves available for hire.
The heat, humidity, and rain created a long 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 that 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 of 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 nation. 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? One can see how their experiences and determined self-improvement as young adults helped form them into the leaders their country would need during its tumultuous years leading up to 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.
With our victory in the Revolutionary War, the courageous Americans freed themselves from Britain’s bondage and 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 a 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 returned to functioning as independent states. Some states had their own customs, rules, and even currencies which often led to trade disputes with one another.
During the summer of 1787, after six years of careful deliberations, state delegates again convened in Philadelphia to formalize the U.S. Constitution. Their task was to create a system of government that could unite the states, create 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 for all of the states, ensure the protection of individual citizens’ rights, and create a system with checks and balances against the tendency of governments to abuse power.
The Constitution grants the government limited rights and responsibilities. However, Founding Father and future U.S. President, James Madison warned that “there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” Madison was instrumental in the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, which guaranteed that rights not delegated to the U.S. government “…are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
To protect the hard-won freedoms our founding mothers and fathers had preserved for their descendants, the Framers intended that future Americans would routinely refresh their 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 British colonists forged their way into the wildernesses of North America, they began to develop a sense of independence. 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
The In Search for Freedom essay series will hopefully provide an overview of the remarkable people who had the courage to break the chains of tyranny and slavery which had dominated worldwide cultures for centuries. These early American Patriots paved the way for future generations to live and prosper in the freest country in history. To assist our readers in gaining additional information about our history, we encourage you to explore the references provided with each essay.
Much has been given to those of us living in 21st-century America. However, history proves that freedom isn’t free. It is up to us to cultivate our own sense of patriotism so that we can preserve the wisdom found in our Founding Documents, and maintain a government designed by We the People.