“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the words that established an independent United States. It is these values that many continue to point to as essential to the nature of the country—the promise of existence as human, the assurance of freedom from tyranny, the right to pursue wellness. They are supreme ideals, a foundation of justice and equality upon which to build a society. But, the idea that these rights should extend to all humans is relatively new to U.S. history—the founding fathers did not intend for the full extension of the Declaration of Independence to colonial women, native peoples, or enslaved or free people of African descent.
In fact, in July 1852, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and orator, called attention to the fact that people of African descent continued to be denied the rights inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. By continuing slavery, the U.S. government did not merely fail to deliver the basic rights to enslaved people, it actively prevented these people from being able to obtain life, liberty, or wellness. “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” said Douglass. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
[A transcription of the speech can be found here.]
Truly, independence did not belong to all people. It certainly did not belong to all people in the former colonies in 1783. The peace treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and acknowledged the autonomy of the colonists also ignored land rights of native peoples (allowing them to be seen as “foreign nations” by the new U.S. government) and characterized black people as property. The new nation did not affirm the liberty of women of any race or ethnicity.
In fact, the Revolution itself, which we often view as an inevitable and logical response to the tyranny of British government, did not belong to all people in North America either. The common focus on the words of Jefferson and Paine, the idealistic commitment in action of Paul Revere and George Washington, and the engagement of crowds to fight British taxation often belies that “pursuit of happiness” in the colonies did not always take the form of allegiance to the patriots.
Notable members of the “Sons of Liberty,” a name given to some groups of colonial patriots leading the fight for independence. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).
For many white colonists, objection to taxation without representation did not necessitate a desire for independence. Many, attached to their British identity and the safety of being part of a larger British empire in the face of competition from the French for land, fought as loyalists. Even some of those who fought with the patriots in Quebec, Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord did so hoping to gain better representation in Parliament or autonomy over colonial finance rather than a complete break from Britain.
For enslaved people, forms of government or taxation were largely irrelevant. Freedom from tyranny meant freedom from the bonds of slavery. Enslaved people selected their alliances based on who they believed would deliver this liberty. Some fought for the patriots, hoping that this would earn them the loyalty of a new government if independence were to occur. Others fought for the British, expecting that their service would be exchanged for freedom by a British government whose politics seemed to be drifting towards the prospect of abolition.
For native peoples, alliance-building was also a gamble. For native nations that aligned themselves with the patriots, promises of fuller autonomy after independence were key. For those aligned with the British, there was a reliance on a stronger hand from the metropole, which had typically restricted colonists’ expansion and the movement of the frontier.
Thinking beyond the patriotic language of the Sons of Liberty, we are forced to ask many more questions about American Independence. Whose Revolution was this? What was rebellion really about? What did “liberty” mean to different people in the colonies? How do we explain those who were “patriotic” to something other than the ideals of the patriots? How does this diversity of identity, political opinion, and economic interest help us understand the United States today?
These questions have profound importance for understanding the past and the future of the United States. Acknowledging that independence in the eighteenth century was incomplete helps show the reality of the United States being a continued work in progress. Freeing the country from the illusion that the pinnacle of justice and liberty was situated hundreds of years ago empowers learners to consider what the national goal should be, which of the principles of independence and revolution still need to be attained, and what we can learn from both the successes and limitations of the past. Examining how people in the revolutionary era made choices helps learners grapple with the options they face today.
Keep a look out for the new Choices curriculum unit, The American Revolution: Experiences of Rebellion, coming in 2016!
The unit considers how the varied populations of seventeenth and eighteenth century North America experienced and viewed colonization and revolution, encouraging students to step into the shoes of people in 1776 to debate the future of the thirteen colonies.
Watch our home page for the release of this unit.