Colonial North America had many understandings of freedom. Inhabitants of North America experienced a diverse mixture of ethnic, political, economic, legal and religious affiliations which favored some inhabitants more than it did others.
Economic definition of freedom
Freedom in the 17th century depended on property ownership, Protestantism and political governments. Women for instance, depended on their connections to men with property, whether as employers, relatives or patrons for their economic freedom. Also, Native Americans who were wealthy enough to own land or slaves found a degree of freedom in avoiding agricultural labor. Owning slaves who were meant to do the farming work brought a clear approach to freedom. This degree of freedom existed in from economical point of view. Men with property enjoyed the most liberty since they were considered powerful and had economic freedom. However, there soon emerged a worry about the possibility of everyone in America becoming a slave or servant to someone else due to the limited economic freedom (Keen & Mackintosh, 2001).
The Native Americans’ belief that there was limited degrees of freedom underlines the reason as to why those who enjoyed economic and political freedoms were reluctant to extend the freedom to others. Aristocrats, who were the land owners were the most benefitting from the slave’s toil. Also part of those who enjoyed the economic freedoms of having slaves were the French fur traders and the Merchants and artisans who lived in cities without feudal obligations. The colonial History of America ties it to promoting slavery through suggesting that it was a fundamental English liberty to hold non-European people as slaves (mostly Africans and North Americans). Some colonists opted to return to England with their slaves expecting English laws to protect their property in people (Chowdhury, Denters, & Waart, 1992).
Given that both Native American and European views on freedom were based on the access to land and its resources, the two could not be completely free in the same territory without occasional clashes. The independence of America resolved such cases and preserved the peace of the land. Initially a degree of freedom was enjoyed by immigrants who were granted rights to use stretches of land and exchange networks until it was discovered that this not only made European colonization possible but also undermined the freedom of Native Americans. Thus, civil freedom protected an individual’s property from encroachment by the government.
Religious definition of freedom
According to Contorno, Heckner, Cox, Hanson, and Sanderson (1975), part of North America’s definitions of freedom was the understanding of freedom as a submission to a moral code. Initiated by the Puritan settlers, this spiritual definition of freedom suggested the adoption of Christianity and reinforced the importance of good morals in a community. The Puritan settlers of colonial Massachusetts believed that freedom could only be achieved by abandoning one’s life of sin and adopting the teachings of Christ. This definition of freedom was compatible with restraints on freedom of movement, speech and general behavior. According to the Puritan leader’s spiritual freedom was a connection between ‘natural freedom’ which suggested freedom from evil and ‘moral freedom’ which suggested freedom to do only that which is good.
Religious freedom meant that Protestants had the right to worship as they chose.
Political definition of freedom
Political freedoms meant that some individuals had the rights to participate in public affairs (entitlement to holding office and to vote). British culture and institutions also brought a degree of freedom in North America. The land in which the British Empire rested had a complicated political and religious set-up. Immigrants from Scotland, France Germany and other places claimed freedom through the British cultures and institutions and when the threat of a new British government presented itself, colonists fought for independence (Contoro et. al., 1975).
Political freedom was later associated with the national parliamentary body and the protestant religion. After the long hard fight for independence, English freedoms had been secured. However, these freedoms were under constant threat due to corruption and greed from those who were in government.
Personal/ Social definition of freedom
For most Africans as was with Native Americans, freedom was considered as being inseparable from one’s family ties. The family ties gave one the rights and protection necessary in order for them to live in freedom. Being away from family or being taken away by enemies gave an individual a sense of danger even though some captives were treated as equals by their captors. Most captives were nonetheless taken as slaves and had very little influence over their future due to prolonged slavery. The time in slavery was a limitation to freedom considering the hours of work and the separation from their home communities. Unlike Africans, some Native Americans found a degree of freedom in moving away from their communal lands.
Personal freedom meant an individual had freedom of speech, movement and a free conscience to do whatever they pleased as long as it was right legally and socially.
Chowdhury, S. R., Denters, E. M., & Waart, P. J. (1992). The Right to development in international law. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Contorno, N., Heckner, P., Heckner, W., Cox, N., Hanson, R., Sanderson, J. (1975).The People’s Laws. Milwaukee, WI: Heritage Military Music Foundation.
Keen, P. G., & Mackintosh, R. (2001). The freedom economy: Gaining the M-commerce edge in the era of the wireless Internet. Berkeley, Calif.: Osborne/McGraw-Hill.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.