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The Rallying Cry

The Rallying Cry

By Eric Foner | HUMANITIES, March/April 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

A forthcoming book by historian Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, describes how the concept of liberty gained new dimensions in colonial and Revolutionary America.


American freedom was born in revolution. Liberty, of course, did not suddenly enter the American vocabulary in 1776; indeed, few words were as ubiquitous in the transatlantic political discourse of the eighteenth century. Colonial America was heir to many understandings of liberty, some as old as the city-states of ancient Greece, others as new as the Enlightenment.

One common definition in British North America saw it less as a political or social status than as a spiritual condition. In the ancient world, lack of self-control was understood as a form of slavery, the antithesis of the free life. "Show me a man who isn't a slave," wrote Seneca. "One is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition." This understanding of freedom as submission to a moral code was central to the Christian cosmology that suffused the worldview of the early colonists. Wherever it flourished, Christianity enshrined the idea of liberation, but as a spiritual condition rather than a worldly one. Since the Fall, man had been prone to succumb to his lusts and passions. Freedom meant abandoning this life of sin to embrace the teachings of Christ. "Where the spirit of the Lord is," declares the New Testament, "there is liberty." In this definition, servitude and freedom were mutually reinforcing, not contradictory states, since those who accepted the teachings of Christ became "free from sin" and "servants to God" simultaneously.

The Puritan settlers of colonial Massachusetts, who believed their colony the embodiment of true Christianity, planted this spiritual definition of freedom on American soil. In a 1645 speech to the Massachusetts legislature that epitomized Puritan conceptions of freedom, John Winthrop, the colony's governor, distinguished sharply between "natural liberty," which suggested "a liberty to evil," and "moral liberty . . . a liberty to do only what is good." This definition of freedom as flowing from self-denial and moral choice was quite compatible with severe restraints on freedom of speech, religion, movement, and personal behavior. Individual desires must give way to the needs of the community, and "Christian liberty" meant submission not only to the will of God, but to secular authority as well, to a well understood set of interconnected responsibilities and duties, a submission no less complete for being voluntary. The most common civil offence in the courts of colonial New England was "contempt of authority." The unrestrained individual enjoying natural rights, whom later generations would imagine as the embodiment of freedom, struck these Puritan settlers as the incarnation of anarchy. "When each man hath liberty to follow his own imagination," declared Puritan minister Thomas Hooker, disaster inevitably resulted, for "all prejudice the public good."

Communal authority was always weaker in the more secular colonies to the south of the Puritan commonwealth. Even in New England, willingness to accept community regimentation in the name of liberty soon waned. By the 1750s, the idea of New England's special place in God's plan for humanity had been subsumed in the more general celebration of the entire Anglo-American Protestant world as a bulwark against tyranny and popery. Yet the Christian understanding of liberty as spiritual salvation survived to the Revolution and, indeed, our own time. The religious revivals of the late colonial era, known to historians as the Great Awakening, reinforced this understanding of freedom. On the eve of independence, ministers like Jonathan Boucher were insisting that "true liberty" meant "a liberty to do every thing that is right, and being restrained from doing any thing that is wrong," not "a right to do every thing that we please."

This equation of liberty with moral action flourished as well in a secularized form in the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century. If religious liberty meant obedience to God, "civil liberty" rested on obedience to law. As far back as the ancient world, Aristotle had cautioned men not to "think it slavery to live according to the rule of the constitution." The law was liberty's "salvation," not its adversary. Liberty, wrote John Locke, meant not leaving every person free to do as he desired, but "having a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power." As Locke's formulation suggests, liberty in its civil form depended on obedience to the law, so long as statutes were promulgated by elected representatives and did not operate in an arbitrary manner. Here lay the essence of the idea of British liberty, a central element of social and political thought on both sides of the Atlantic. Until the 1770s, most colonists believed themselves part of the freest political system mankind had ever known.

By the eighteenth century, the "invented tradition" of the freeborn Englishman had become a central feature of Anglo-American political culture and a major building block in the sense of nationhood then being consolidated in Britain. By self- definition, the British nation was a community of free individuals and its past a "history of liberty." Belief in freedom as the common heritage of all Britons and the British Empire as the world's sole repository of liberty had helped to legitimize the colonization of North America in the first place.

Of course the idea of freedom as the natural condition of mankind was hardly unknown in a nation that had produced the writings of John Milton and John Locke. But British freedom was anything but universal. Nationalist, often xenophobic, it viewed nearly every other nation on earth as "enslaved" -- to popery, tyranny, or barbarism. "Freedom . . . in no other land will thrive," wrote the poet John Dryden; "Freedom is an English subject's sole prerogative." Britons saw no contradiction between proclaiming themselves citizens of a land of freedom precisely when British ships were transporting millions of Africans to bondage in the New World. "Britons never, never, never will be slaves," ran the popular song, "Rule Britannia." It did not say that Britons could not own slaves, since for most of the eighteenth century, almost no one seemed to consider Africans entitled to the rights of Englishmen.

Nor was British liberty incompatible with wide gradations in personal freedom at home -- a hierarchical, aristocratic society with a restricted "political nation" (those entitled to vote and hold office). The common law's protections applied to everyone, but property qualifications and other restrictions limited the eighteenth-century electorate to less than 5 percent of the adult male population. (The "right of magistracy," wrote Joseph Priestley in his Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768), was not essential to British freedom. Men "may enjoy civil liberty, but not political liberty.") Nor did British law view laborers as wholly free. Vagrancy statutes punished those without visible means of support, "master and servant" laws required strict obedience of employees, and breaches of labor contracts carried criminal penalties. The very navy whose domination of the high seas secured the nation's freedom from foreign domination was manned by sailors seized by press gangs from the streets of London and Liverpool. In this sense, British freedom was the lineal descendant of an understanding of liberty derived from the Middle Ages, when "liberties" meant formal privileges such as self-government or exemption from taxation granted to particular groups by contract, charter, or royal decree. Only those who enjoyed the "freedom of the city," for example, could engage in certain economic activities.

Whatever its limitations and exclusions, it would be impossible, as one scholar writes, "to overemphasize the degree to which eighteenth-century Englishmen reveled in their worldwide reputation for freedom," an observation as applicable to the American colonies as the mother country. One could, if one desired, subdivide British liberty into its component parts, as many writers of the era were prone to do. Political liberty meant the right to participate in public affairs; civil liberty, protection of one's person and property against encroachment by government; personal liberty, freedom of conscience and movement; religious liberty, the right of Protestants to worship as they chose. But the whole exceeded the sum of these parts. British liberty was simultaneously a collection of specific rights, a national characteristic, and a state of mind. So ubiquitous and protean was the concept that what would later seem inconsistent elements managed happily to coexist.

British freedom, for example, incorporated contradictory attitudes about political power. Power and liberty were widely believed to be natural antagonists and in their balanced constitution and the principle that no man, even the king, is above the law, Britons claimed to have devised the best means of preventing political absolutism. These ideas pervaded not just the political sector but far more broadly in British society. Laborers, sailors, and artisans spoke the language of common law rights and British freedom as insistently as pamphleteers and Parliamentarians. By the eighteenth century, the category of free person had become not simply a legal status, as in medieval times, but a powerful element of popular ideology. On both sides of the Atlantic, liberty emerged as "the battle cry of the rebellious." Frequent crowd actions protesting infringements on traditional rights gave concrete expression to the definition of liberty as resistance to tyranny. "We are Free-men -- British subjects -- Not Born Slaves," was a rallying cry of the Regulators, who protested the underrepresentation of western settlements in the South Carolina legislature during the 1760s.

This tension between freedom as the power to participate in public affairs and freedom as a collection of individual rights requiring protection against governmental interference helps define the difference between two political languages that flourished in the Anglo-American world. One, termed by scholars republicanism (although few in eighteenth-century England used the word, which conjured up memories of the time when King Charles I went to the gallows), celebrated active participation in public life as the essence of liberty. Tracing its lineage back to Renaissance Florence and beyond that to the ancient world, republicanism held that as a social being, man reached his highest fulfillment in setting aside self-interest to pursue the common good. Republican freedom could be expansive and democratic, as when it spoke of the common rights of the entire community. It also had an exclusive, class-based dimension, in its assumption that only property- owning citizens possessed the quality known as "virtue" -- understood in the eighteenth century not simply as a personal, moral quality but as a willingness to subordinate private passions and desires to the public good. "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom," wrote Benjamin Franklin.

If republican liberty was a civic and social quality, the freedom celebrated by eighteenth- century liberalism was essentially individual and private. According to John Locke, the founding father of modern liberalism, government is established to offer security to the "life, liberties, and estates" that are the natural rights of all mankind, and essentially should be limited to this task. For Locke and his eighteenth-century disciples, liberty meant not civic involvement but personal autonomy -- "not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown Arbitrary Will of another Man." Protecting freedom required shielding a realm of private life and personal concerns -- including family relations, religious preferences, and economic activity -- from interference by the state.

Critics condemned it as an excuse for selfishness and lack of civic-mindedness. "The freedom . . . that I love," declared Edmund Burke, "is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish Liberty. As if every Man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The Liberty I mean is social liberty." Yet it is easy to understand liberalism's appeal in the hierarchical Atlantic world of the eighteenth century. It called into question all the legal privileges and governmental arrangements that impeded individual advancement, from the economic prerogatives of chartered corporations to legalized religious intolerance.

Eventually, liberalism and republicanism would come to be seen as alternative and contradictory understandings of freedom. In the eighteenth century, however, these languages overlapped and often reinforced one another. Many leaders of the Revolution seem to the modern eye simultaneously republican (in their concern for the public good and citizens' obligations to the polity) and liberal (in their preoccupation with individual rights). Both political ideologies could inspire a commitment to constitutional government, freedom of speech and religion, and restraints on arbitrary power. Both emphasized the security of property as a foundation of freedom. The pervasive influence of Protestant morality, moreover, tempered what later would come be seen as liberalism's amoralism.

Certainly, in the colonial era, "liberty" stood as a meeting point between liberal and republican understandings of government and society. Moreover, whether liberal, republican, or some combination of the two, most eighteenth-century commentators assumed that only certain kinds of persons were fully capable of enjoying the benefits and exercising the rights of freedom. On both sides of the Atlantic, it was an axiom of political thought that dependents lacked a will of their own and thus were incapable of participating in public affairs. Liberty, wrote the influential political theorist Richard Price, rested on "one general idea . . . the idea of self-direction or self-government." Those who did not control their own lives ought not to have a voice in governing the state. Political freedom required economic independence.

Property, therefore, was "interwoven" with eighteenth-century understandings of freedom, as New York publisher John Peter Zenger put it in 1735. The independence entailed by property was an indispensable basis of liberty. Samuel Johnson's dictionary defined "independence" as "freedom," and Thomas Jefferson insisted that dependence "begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." Hence the ubiquity of property qualifications for voting in Britain and the colonies. The "true reason" for such requirements, William Blackstone explained in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, was that men without property would inevitably fall "under the immediate domination of others." Not only personal dependence, as in the case of a domestic servant, but working for wages was widely viewed as disreputable. Many years would pass before the idea gained acceptance that wage labor was compatible with genuine freedom.

Those who drew up plans to colonize British North America expected to reproduce the hierarchical social structure of the mother country. But from the earliest days of settlement, migrants from Europe saw in the New World the promise of liberation from the economic inequalities and widespread economic dependence of the Old. John Smith had barely landed at Jamestown in 1607 when he observed that in America, "every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land." During the whole of the colonial era, most free immigrants expected to achieve economic autonomy in America. The visions of liberty that emigrants brought to colonial America always included the promise of economic independence and the ability to pass a freehold on to one's children.

Defining freedom in terms of economic independence drew a sharp line between those classes capable of fully enjoying its benefits and those who were not. In the eighteenth century, economic autonomy was far beyond the reach of most Britons. Even in colonial America, most of the population was not, by this standard, truly free. Lacking a hereditary aristocracy like that of England, colonists prided themselves on having "no rank above that of freeman." But there were many ranks below. The half million slaves who labored in the mainland colonies on the eve of independence obviously stood outside the circle of free persons. For free women, whose identity was dependent upon that of their fathers or husbands, opportunities for economic autonomy barely existed. Women, moreover, were deemed by men deficient in rationality, courage, and the broad capacity for self-determination -- the qualities necessary in the public-spirited citizen. Whether in the economy or polity, autonomy was a masculine trait, dependence the normal lot of women.

Even among the white male population, it is sometimes forgotten, many varieties of partial freedom coexisted in colonial America, including indentured servants, apprentices, domestic laborers, transported convicts, and sailors impressed into service in the British navy. Freedom in colonial America existed along a continuum from the slave, stripped of all rights, to the independent property owner, and during a lifetime an individual might well occupy more than one place on this spectrum. Indentured servants, who voluntarily surrendered their freedom for a specified time, comprised a major part of the non-slave labor force throughout the colonial era. As late as the early 1770s, nearly half the immigrants who arrived in America from England and Scotland had entered into contracts for a fixed period of labor in exchange for passage. Indentured servants often worked in the fields alongside slaves. Like slaves, servants could be bought and sold, were subject to corporal punishment, and their obligation to fulfill their duties was enforced by the courts. "Many Negroes are better used," complained one female indentured servant in 1756; she went on to describe being forced to work "day and night. . . then tied up and whipped." But, of course, unlike slaves, servants could look forward to freedom from their servitude. Assuming they survived their period of labor (and many in the early years did not), servants would be released from dependency and receive "freedom dues." Servants, a Pennsylvania judge remarked in 1793, occupied "a middle rank between slaves and freemen."

The prevalence of so many less-than-free workers underpinned the widespread reality of economic independence, and therefore freedom, for propertied male heads of households. This was most obvious in the case of slaveholding planters, who already equated freedom with mastership, but also true of the countless artisans in Northern cities who owned a slave or two and employed indentured servants and apprentices. (In New York City and Philadelphia, artisans and tradesmen, who prided themselves on their own independence, dominated the ranks of slaveholders.) And the vaunted independence of the yeoman farmer depended in considerable measure on the labor of women. The cooking, cleaning, sewing, and assistance in agricultural chores by farmers' wives and daughters often spelled the difference between self-sufficiency and economic dependence. In the household-based economy of colonial America, autonomy rested on command over others.

The eighteenth century witnessed an increase in social stratification in colonial America and the rise of a wealthy gentry exercising more and more dominance over civil, religious, and economic institutions and demanding deference from their social inferiors. Nonetheless, by the time of the Revolution, the majority of the nonslave male population were farmers who owned their own land. With the household still the center of economic production, the propertyless were a far smaller proportion of the population than in Britain and wage labor far less prevalent. Among the free population, property was more widely distributed than anywhere in Europe. In colonial America, writes one historian, lived "thousands of the freest individuals the Western world had ever known."

Thus, an abhorrence of personal dependence and the equation of freedom with autonomy sank deep roots in British North America not simply as part of an ideological inheritance, but because these beliefs accorded with social reality -- a wide distribution of productive property that made a modicum of economic independence part of the lived experience of large numbers of colonists. What the French essayist Hector St. John Crevecoeur identified in 1782 as the hallmark of American society -- its "pleasing uniformity of decent competence" -- would form the material basis for the later definition of the United States as a "producer's republic," as well as its corollary, that widespread ownership of property was the social precondition of freedom.

With its wide distribution of property (and therefore a broadly participatory political life), its weak aristocratic power, and an established church far less powerful than in Britain, colonial America was a society with deep democratic potential. But it took the struggle for independence to transform this society not only into a republican polity without a king, but into a nation that enshrined equality and opportunity as its raisons d'etre and proudly proclaimed itself an asylum for liberty for all mankind. The Revolution unleashed public debates and political and social struggles that democratized the concept of freedom.

The American Revolution was fought in the name of liberty. On the road to independence, no word was more frequently invoked, although it rarely received precise definition. There were liberty trees, liberty poles, Sons and Daughters of Liberty, and an endless parade of pamphlets with titles like A Chariot of Liberty and Oration on the Beauties of Liberty. Throughout the colonies, British measures like the Stamp Act of 1765 were greeted by mock funerals of liberty, carefully choreographed spectacles in which a coffin was carried to a burial ground only to have the occupant miraculously revived at the last moment (whereupon the assembled multitude repaired to a tavern to celebrate). Liberty was more than an idea for those resisting British authority; it was a passion. Sober men spoke longingly of the "sweets of liberty." All sorts of hopes and expectations came to be embodied in the idea of freedom. Commented a British emigrant who arrived in Maryland early in 1775: "They are all liberty mad."

Americans during the age of revolution did not start out to transform the rights of Englishmen into the rights of man. The very first colonial charter -- Virginia's, in 1606 -- had granted settlers the same "Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities" as if they resided "in our Realm of England." And a century and a half later, American colonists shared in the intensification of British nationalism, reaffirming their loyalty to king and constitution. Resistance to British revenue measures of the 1760s began by invoking Americans' "rights as British subjects" within the framework established by the British constitution, "the best that ever existed among men." At the outset, opposition to imperial policies invoked time-honored British principles (no taxation without representation, trial by jury) and employed modes of resistance long familiar in the mother country, from petitions and pamphlets to crowd activity. British measures of the 1760s such as the Stamp Act, Quartering Act, and Townshend Duties were sometimes assailed in terms of natural rights, but far more frequently in the name of the "rights and privileges of freeborn Englishmen," especially freedom from arbitrary government, security of property, and the right to live in a political community to whose laws a people, through their representatives, had given consent. As late as 1774, appeals to natural law were often combined with a hodgepodge of other claims to liberty, as in the "ancient, constitutional, and chartered Rights" invoked by Virginians. In the same year, the first Continental Congress defended its actions by appealing to the "principles of the English constitution" and the "liberties . . . of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England."

As the conflict deepened, however, colonial leaders came to interpret metropolitan policies as part and parcel of an immense conspiracy to destroy the liberty of America, and their own resistance not merely as a struggle over specific legislation but as an episode in a global conflict between freedom and despotism. The Intolerable Acts of 1774, which suspended the Massachusetts legislature and closed the port of Boston, represented the final stage in this British design "for enslaving the colonies." Now, the right to resist arbitrary authority and the identification of liberty with the cause of God, so deeply ingrained by the imperial struggles of the eighteenth century, were invoked against Britain itself.

The coming of independence rendered the rights of freeborn Englishmen irrelevant in America. As late as March 1775, Edmund Burke assured the British Parliament that the colonists were devoted not to "abstract liberty" but to "liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles." The deepening crisis inevitably pushed Americans to ground their claims in the more abstract language of natural rights and universal liberty. In a merging of the evangelical belief in the New World as the future seat of "perfect freedom" with the secular vision of the Old as sunk in debauchery and arbitrary rule, the idea of British liberty was transformed into a set of universal rights, with America a sanctuary of freedom for humanity. Ironically, it took an emigrant from the lower classes of England, who only arrived in America in 1774, fully to grasp this breathtaking vision of the meaning of independence. As Thomas Paine proclaimed in January 1776 in the most widely-read pamphlet of the era, Common Sense:

O! ye that love mankind . . . stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her as a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

Written, as Paine later observed, to help men "to be free," Common Sense announced a prophecy from which would spring the nineteenth-century idea of the United States as an "empire of liberty." Unburdened by the institutions that oppressed the peoples of the Old World -- monarchy, aristocracy, hereditary privilege -- America, and America alone, was the place where the principle of universal freedom could take root. Six months later, the Declaration of Independence would legitimate American rebellion not merely by invoking British efforts to establish "absolute tyranny" over the colonies, but by referring to the natural, unalienable rights of mankind, among which liberty was second only to life itself. In the Declaration, "the Laws and Nature and Nature's God," not the British constitution or the heritage of the freeborn Englishman justified independence. The idea of liberty as a natural right became a revolutionary rallying cry, a standard by which to judge existing institutions and a justification for their overthrow. No longer a set of specific rights, no longer a privilege to be enjoyed by a corporate body or people in specific social circumstances, liberty had become a universal, open-ended entitlement. And the contradiction between the ideal of universal liberty and the reality of a society beset with inequalities would bedevil American public life during the Revolution and long thereafter.

About the Author

Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University.

Funding Information

This article is adapted from The Story of American Freedom, to be published in October by W.W. Norton. Research for the book was supported by an NEH grant. Foner won the Bancroft Prize for an earlier work, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.