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Freedom: A History of Us
British monarchs did as much as colonists themselves to create the idea of America as an asylum for "those whom bigots chase from foreign lands" by actively encouraging continental emigration to the New World in order to strengthen their colonies without depleting the population of the British Isles. As Marilyn C. Baseler writes, colonial liberty of conscience "was largely a byproduct of English policies and did not necessarily reflect a strong commitment by America's early settlers to the principles of religious freedom. The growth of the three most dynamic empires of the eighteenth century—the British, French, and Dutch—depended on the debasement of millions of people into slavery and the dispossession of millions of native inhabitants of the Americas.
The yoking of freedom and domination was a global phenomenon, intrinsic to the imperial expansion of Europe, England's mainland colonies not excepted. Nonetheless, all three empires developed discourses claiming a special relationship to freedom partly in contrast to the Spanish, who were seen as representing tyranny at home and a peculiarly inhumane form of imperialism overseas.
From an international perspective, claims by Britain and its colonies to a unique relationship with liberty ring somewhat hollow. The Dutch actually had more justification in claiming to represent the principle of religious toleration, while France respected the principle of "free air"—which liberated any slave setting foot on metropolitan soil—well before Great Britain. Nonetheless, the idea that the Anglo-American world enjoyed a unique measure of freedom was widely disseminated in the colonies. Belief in freedom as the common heritage of all Britons was, Jack P.
Greene writes, the "single most important element in defining a larger Imperial identity for Britain and the British Empire.
The coming of independence rendered the rights of "freeborn Englishmen" irrelevant in America. But the revolution did more than substitute one parochial ideology of freedom for another. The struggle for independence universalized the idea of American freedom. Even before , patriotic orators and pamphleteers were identifying America as a special place with a special mission, "a land of liberty, the seat of virtue, the asylum of the oppressed, a name and a praise in the whole earth," to quote Joseph Warren.
This vision required a somewhat exaggerated negative image of the rest of the world. In Asia and Africa, "the very idea of liberty" was "unknown. Here, and here alone, was "the country of free men. This sense of American uniqueness was pervasive in the revolutionary era, as was the view of the revolution as not simply an internal squabble within the British Empire but the opening of a new era in human history.
The point was not necessarily to spark liberation movements in other countries but to highlight the alleged differences between the United States and the rest of mankind. One pamphleteer of , Ebenezer Baldwin, predicted that even in the year America would remain the world's sole center of freedom.
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But while affirming their uniqueness, Americans from the outset were obsessed with the repute in which they were held abroad. George Washington defended the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, in part, because of "the impression it will make on others"—the others being European skeptics who wished to see the world-historical experiment fail because they did not believe human beings could "govern ourselves. In his History of the American Revolution , David Ramsay, the father of American historical writing, insisted that what defined the new nation was not the usual basis of nationality—a set of boundaries, a long-established polity, or a common "race" or ethnicity—but a special destiny "to enlarge the happiness of mankind.
Prescott, Francis Parkman, and George Bancroft. In their account, the seeds of liberty, planted in Puritan New England, had reached their inevitable flowering in the American Revolution and westward expansion. These writers were fully aware of the global dimension of American history, but their conviction that the United States represented a unique embodiment of the idea of freedom inevitably fostered a certain insularity. Since territorial growth meant "extending the area of freedom," those who stood in the way—European powers with legal title to part of the North American continent, Native Americans, Mexicans—were by definition obstacles to the progress of liberty.
In the outlook of most white Americans, the West was not a battleground of peoples and governments but an "empty" space ready to be occupied as part of the divine mission of the United States. American expansion, which involved constant encounters with non-white people or people like the Mexicans defined as non-white , greatly enhanced what might be called the exclusionary dimensions of American freedom.
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The nation's rapid territorial growth was widely viewed as evidence of the innate superiority of a mythical construct known as the "Anglo-Saxon race," whose special qualities made it uniquely suited to bring freedom and prosperity to the continent and the world. America may have been an empire but, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, it was an "empire of liberty," supposedly distinct from the oppressive empires of Europe. Of course, the contradiction between the rhetoric of universal liberty and the actual limits of freedom within the United States goes back to the era of colonization.
The slavery controversy was primarily a matter internal to the United States. But as an institution that existed throughout the Western hemisphere, and whose abolition was increasingly demanded by a movement transcending national boundaries, slavery's impact on American freedom had an international dimension as well. Slavery did much to determine how a nation born in revolution reacted to revolutions abroad. American culture in the antebellum period glorified the revolutionary heritage. But acceptable revolutions were by white men—like the Greeks or Hungarians—seeking their freedom from tyrannical government, not slaves rebelling against their own lack of liberty.
Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner were not part of the pantheon of national heroes, nor was Toussaint L'Ouverture greeted with the same enthusiasm as Louis Kossuth. Indeed, unlike the French, whose revolution certainly had its share of violence, the carnage in Saint-Domingue was taken to demonstrate that blacks lacked the capacity for self-government—in a word, they were congenitally unfit for the enjoyment of freedom.
As the nineteenth century wore on, the centrality of slavery to American life exposed the nation to the charge of willful hypocrisy, and from no quarter was the charge more severe than from blacks themselves. Black abolitionists were among the most penetrating critics of the hollowness of official pronouncements about American freedom. In calling for a redefinition of freedom as an entitlement of all mankind, not one from which certain groups defined as "races" could legitimately be excluded, black abolitionists repudiated the rhetorical division of the world into the United States, a beacon of freedom, and the Old World, a haven of oppression.
Before you boast of your freedom and Christianity, do your duty to your fellow man. Most strikingly, abolitionists, black and white alike, reversed the familiar dichotomy between American freedom and British tyranny. Once slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, the former mother country represented freedom more genuinely than the United States. August 1, the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies, became the black Fourth of July, the occasion of annual "freedom celebrations" that pointedly drew attention to the distinction between the "monarchial liberty" of a nation that had abolished slavery and "republican slavery" in the United States.
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With the passage in of the Fugitive Slave Act, several thousand black Americans fled to Canada, fearing reenslavement in the United States. Which country was now the asylum of the oppressed? As Linda Colley has argued, the abolition of slavery in enabled Britons to regain the earlier sense of their own nation as a paradigm of freedom.
Emancipation demonstrated Britain's superior national virtue compared to the United States, and gave it, despite the sordid realities of British imperialism, an irrefutable claim to moral integrity. A similar process occurred in the United States. After decades of the slavery controversy, which had somewhat tarnished the sense of a special American mission to preserve and promote liberty, the Civil War and Emancipation reinforced the identification of the United States with the progress of freedom, linking this mission as never before with the power of the national state.
By the s, James Bryce was struck by the strength not only of Americans' commitment to freedom but by their conviction that they were the "only people" truly to enjoy it. If, in the nineteenth century, America's encounter with the world beyond the Western hemisphere had been more ideological, as it were, than material, the twentieth saw the country emerge as a continuous and powerful actor on a global stage.
At key moments of worldwide involvement, the encounter with a foreign "other" subtly affected the meaning of freedom in the United States. One such episode was the struggle against Nazi Germany, which not only highlighted concern with aspects of American freedom that had previously been neglected but fundamentally transformed perceptions of who was entitled to enjoy the blessings of liberty in the United States. It also gave birth to a powerful rhetoric, the division of the planet into a "free world" and an unfree world that would long outlive the defeat of Adolf Hitler.
Even before the United States entered World War II, the gathering confrontation with Nazism helped to promote a broadened awareness of civil liberties as a central element of American freedom. Today, when asked to define their rights as citizens, Americans instinctively turn to the privileges enumerated in the Bill of Rights—freedom of speech, the press, and religion, for example.
But for many decades, the social and legal defenses of free expression were extremely fragile in the United States. A broad rhetorical commitment to this ideal coexisted with stringent restrictions on speech deemed radical or obscene. It was only in that the Department of Justice established its Civil Liberties Unit, for the first time in American history, according to Attorney General Frank Murphy, placing "the full weight of the department There were many causes for this development, from a revulsion against the severe repression of the World War I era to a new awareness in the s of restraints on free speech by opponents of labor organizing.
But what Michael Kammen calls the "discovery" of the Bill of Rights on the eve of the American entry into World War II owed much to the ideological struggle against Nazism and the invocation of freedom as a shorthand way of describing the myriad differences between American and German society and politics.