J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013

“Preserving American Freedom” from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Preserving American Freedom is “a digital history exhibit that explores the complicated history of American freedom through 50 documents in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.”

In addition to those documents, the exhibit includes eight essays about American ideas of freedom in different eras. In the introductory essay, “The Contested History of American Freedom,” Eric Foner writes:
The early settlers of Great Britain’s North American colonies brought with them long-standing ideas about freedom, some of them quite unfamiliar today. To them, freedom was not a single idea but a collection of distinct rights and privileges that depended on one’s nationality and social status. “Liberties” meant formal, specific privileges—such as self-government or the right to practice a particular trade—many of which were enjoyed by only a small segment of the population. . . .

The struggles in England that culminated in the Civil War of the 1640s and, half a century later, the Glorious Revolution, gave new meanings to freedom. Alongside the idea of “liberties” that applied only to some groups arose the notion of the “rights of Englishmen” that applied to all.
Or at least all English men.
Resistance to British efforts to raise revenues in America began not as a demand for independence but as a defense, in colonial eyes, of the rights of Englishmen. The Stamp Act Congress of 1765 condemned the principle of taxation without representation by asserting that residents of the colonies were entitled to “all the inherent rights and liberties” of “subjects within the Kingdom of Great Britain.” But the Revolution ended up transforming these rights—by definition a parochial set of entitlements that did not apply to other peoples—into a universal concept. The rights of Englishmen became the rights of man.

The struggle for independence gave birth to a definition of American nationhood and national mission that persists to this day—an idea closely linked to freedom, for the new nation defined itself as a unique embodiment of liberty in a world overrun with oppression. This sense of American uniqueness—of the United States as an example to the rest of the world of the superiority of free institutions—remains alive and well even today as a central part of our political culture. Over time, it has made the United States an example, inspiring democratic movements in other countries, and has provided justification for American interference in the affairs of other countries in the name of bringing them freedom.
The loyal Boston 1775 reader who first pointed me to this site saw that sort of rhetoric and all the prominent mentions of the project’s corporate sponsor and wondered how solid the history was. The essayists are top-notch historians. The sort of “American exceptionalism” Foner writes about is the version of the progressive left—that the U.S. of A. has a legacy of moving toward equality and democracy to live up to, as opposed to a divine fiat to stand over the rest of the world.

TOMORROW: A prominent Pennsylvanian.


Chaucerian said...

Did you intend the title to be ambiguous? (Today seems to be a confusing day for governmental and democratic issues generally.)

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t have to intend ambiguity to embrace it.