Freedom in America: Our Cultural Heritage

From its earliest history, the United States has been identified as the land of freedom. In 1814, Francis Scott Key touted America as the land of the free and the home of the brave in his poem that later became America’s national anthem, but explaining American freedom has been problematic throughout our nation’s history. Freedom and liberty, although not synonymous, are very closely linked and many Americans differ in defining these terms as they apply to America’s brand of freedom and the liberties they think its citizens should possess.  Oddly, this battle has been waged long before America obtained its independence.

Although people from many different cultural backgrounds inhabited America at its founding, it was the decedents or actual immigrants of four major migrations out of England that are most responsible for establishing America as an independent nation and leaving an indelible cultural stamp upon it. Consequently, the amalgamation of each culture’s ideas of freedom and liberty has incongruently defined freedom in America that persists to this day.

These four migrations were: the Puritans (1629-1641), the Cavaliers and indentured servants (1642-1675), the Quakers (1675-1725), and the Scotch-Irish and northern border English (1717-1775).

The Puritans, who predominately originated in eastern England, fled as a result of King Charles I’s “eleven years’ tyranny” in which Charles tried to rule England without a Parliament and Archbishop Laud purged the Anglican Church of its Puritan members.

Approximately 21,000 Puritans settled in Massachusetts over an 11 year time frame. They were reformed in their theology and believed in “ordered liberty” structured by their magistrates and imposed upon their society. They spoke about and recognized individual liberties, but these liberties were subordinate to the liberty of the community.

In their view, the common good was more important than individual freedom, which they demonstrated in their highly restrictive laws. Nobody was allowed to live in or even move around in their community without permission from the General Court. “The General Court also passed sweeping statutes which allowed the magistrates to suppress almost any act, by any means.”[1] Four hundred years later, Puritans are still remembered as having a very repressive form of society.

Another component of ordered liberty is “soul liberty” which they defined as a Christian community’s freedom to serve God in the world. “In their minds, this idea of religious liberty was thought to be consistent with the persecution of Quakers, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and indeed virtually everyone except those within a narrow spectrum of Calvinist orthodoxy.”[2] Soul liberty manifested itself through compulsory church attendance and rigorous Sabbath laws of which even the Indians were compelled to observe.

A final component of ordered liberty is “freedom from fear” or more plainly described freedom from ill-fated circumstances. This idea was a precursor to libertarian conceptions of social problems and solutions that gave rise to the idea government can resolve all problems in society and people have a “right” to such protection by the government.

The Cavaliers and their indentured servants, who predominately originated in southern England, fled as a result of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector of the Common Wealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Although civil strife was a major cause of their migration it was not the only reason, because their migration began before Cromwell established his protectorate and ended long after the Stuart kings were restored to the throne in 1660.

Approximately 50,000 Cavaliers and their indentured servants settled mainly in Virginia over a 33 year time frame. The Cavaliers were Anglicans who believed in dominion liberty. Their view of liberty was that only free-born Englishman had liberty and of those, some had more liberty than others with the aristocratic Cavaliers having the most.

The English traveler Andrew Burnaby observed “the public and political character of the Virginians corresponds with their private one: they are haughty and jealous of their liberties, impatient of restraint, and can scarcely bear the thought of being controlled by any superior power.”[3]

The essence of the Virginia Cavaliers’ ideas on freedom is found in the power to rule and not be overruled by others and in that liberty did not belong to everyone. To them, losing the power to rule denigrated them to slavery and the “right to rule” was guaranteed by the “charter of the land”. Those who surrendered this right became “slaves”.

Based on these ideas, there is no coincidence this culture was the main proponent of slavery in America. The Virginia planter demanded the freedom to enslave others while the enslavement of others, in turn, increased his hierarchical view of liberty.

One can see this hierarchical view in how they ranked themselves according to worldly assets; the more wealth one possessed the more liberty one enjoyed. Their personal liberty also increased by enslaving others, so the more slaves one owned the more liberty one obtained.

In contrast to their view of personal liberty, the Cavalier culture also germinated ideas on limited and self-government. They believed the preservation of liberty required the protection of the state, but the state was limited to the minor role of preserving individual liberty so individuals could operate without state control over their lives. Evidence of this is seen in the fact Virginians agreed to stand behind Governor Berkeley between the years 1643 to 1652 in return for “light taxes and loose restraints”.[4]

Along with Berkeley’s bargain came his statutory concession that allowed appeals to be taken from the courts to the Assembly. “This reform established the rule of law in a way which made the gentlemen-burgesses of Virginia the masters of their own world.”

Two final aspects of the Cavalier’s dominion liberty are social independence and dominion over self. The idea of social independence gave each person sovereignty on their own property; a place where no government could interfere in their lives.

Dominion over self entailed the idea “a truly free man must be the master of his acts and thoughts. …, a gentleman was expected to be the servant of his duty”.[5] These ideas gave rise to the nobility of character as seen in both George Washington and Robert E. Lee and were instrumental in establishing a new form of government in America.

The Quakers, who predominately originated in midland England, also fled severe religious persecution, but primarily immigrated to America for evangelistic purposes. Approximately 23,000 people from the Society of Friends and their sympathizers eventually settled in Pennsylvania over a 50 year time frame and their ideas were rooted in reformed theology.

“Quakers believed in the idea of reciprocal liberty that embraced all humanity, and was written in the golden rule”[6]; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Chief among their reciprocal liberty concept was the idea of liberty of conscience.

To the Quakers, liberty of conscience gave each person the liberty to believe whatever they wanted to believe, even if what they believed was at odds with Quaker doctrine or outright false.

William Penn, proprietor and founder of Pennsylvania said, “Liberty of conscience is every man’s natural right, and he who is deprived of it is a slave in the midst of the greatest liberty.”[7] To the Quakers, liberty of conscience “was a means to a greater end: the triumph of Christian truth in the world.”

William Penn also bestowed three secular liberties upon his colony that he borrowed from the “rights of an Englishmen”: first a “right and title to your own lives, liberties and estates; second, representative government; third, trial by jury.”[8]

Penn, however, extended these rights far beyond their limits set in England or any other American English colony. For example, “Penn insisted that every free-born Englishman had a right to be tried by his peers; that a jury had the right to decide the questions of both fact and law; and that the law could not be used to punish a jury for its verdict.

The laws of Pennsylvania at that time also guaranteed the right of every freeman to a speedy trial, to a jury chosen by lot in criminal cases, and to the same privileges of witnesses and counsel as the prosecution.”[9] In representative government, “Pennsylvania law required that taxes could be imposed only by consent of the governed, and that all taxes expired automatically after twelve months.”[10]

Finally, the Quakers also struggled with the issue of race slavery. At one time, over 70 percent of the leaders of the Philadelphia yearly meeting owned slaves as also did William Penn. Eventually, their ideas of reciprocal liberty triumphed over fiscal and legislative impediments to make them the first successful example of abolition anywhere in the western world.

The Scotch-Irish and northern border English, originated in lowland Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the northern border counties of England. Most all of them were ardent Presbyterians or otherwise reformed in their theology and they fled both religious and economic persecution in search of a better life for their families.

Approximately 275,000 people from these areas came to America over a 58 year time frame with two-thirds of them arriving in the last decade leading up to 1775. They came to nearly every port in America, but predominately to the port of Philadelphia and were not kindly treated at any port in which they docked.

Never a group to stay in one place for very long or shy away from a good fight, they moved into the backcountry, spilled out through the Cumberland Gap in western Virginia and eventually settled most of the West.

This group constitutes the largest migration from England to settle in America prior to its founding and they are the pattern upon which most stereotypes of Americans are based. Cracker, Redneck and Hoosier are epithets they carried with them from North Britain and all describe the same “paradox of poverty and pride”.

American Country music is part of their cultural legacy and they are America’s warrior culture from whom most of the men in combat arms throughout US military history have descended.

This group believed in natural liberty which they carved out of the backcountry of the United States. “Natural liberty consists in the power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, except from the laws of nature. It is a state of exemption from the control of others, and from positive laws and the institutions of social life. This liberty is abridged by the establishment of government.”[11]

Fiercely independent, they did not want anything from the government or for the government to interfere in their lives. They upheld “the principles of minimal government, light taxes, and the right of armed resistance to authority in all cases which infringed liberty.”[12]

Examples of some prominent men from this culture include: Patrick Henry, Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Zachery Taylor, James K. Polk, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Nathan B. Forrest, Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton, and Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. The fighting prowess of this group was instrumental in establishing America, keeping it and winning most of the wars throughout American history. Like the other three groups, their cultural legacy is alive and well today.

In summary, the Puritans believed in “ordered liberty” in which the liberty of the community took precedence over the liberties of individuals. The Cavaliers believed in “dominion liberty” in which only free born Englishman had liberty and their liberty was hierarchical such that the more wealth one possessed the more liberty one had. The Quakers believe in “reciprocal liberty” which gave people complete freedom of conscience even if a person’s beliefs contradicted those of the Quakers. Finally, the Scotch-Irish and northern border English believed in “natural liberty” in which each person had the freedom to act as they saw fit, constrained only by the biblical “laws of nature”.

Comparatively, the ideas about freedom from each one of these four groups are at odds with each other and in some cases, like ordered and natural liberty, they are completely incompatible. Yet, people from each one of these groups came to America searching for a place where they could enjoy their vision of freedom. Either they or their descendants fought for that vision and established the United States as an independent nation. Later, representatives from three of these groups came together to develop a means to form a more perfect union, in which they could better live together, state beside state, while maintaining their individual cultural identities within each state.

Regardless of how incompatible each group’s ideas of freedom may be, they each rightfully established their society based upon their view of freedom to pursue their own happiness. The US Constitution allowed them to do this and in the freedom to pursue one’s own happiness we find the true meaning of freedom in America.

Freedom to organize one’s society within each State, exempt from the interference of people in other States or the national government. There is no freedom in America if one State or several States impose their vision of freedom upon another, or if the national government taxes the people from one State to subsidize stupidity or any other policies in another.

A limited government with clearly defined and expressly written delegated powers was meant to prevent these things from happening. If we want freedom in America, then we need to uphold this principle of limited government and non-interference into the lives of others across state borders. In this we should all be able to agree in order to make America free.


[1] David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), 200.

[2] Fischer, 201.

[3] Burnaby, Travels (1812), 715; quoted in Breen, Tobacco Culture, 244; as quoted in Fischer, 411.

[4] Fischer, 415.

[5] Fischer, 416.

[6] Fischer, 597.

[7] Fischer, 598.

[8] Fischer, 599.

[9] Fischer, 600.

[10] Fischer, 600.

[11] Webster’s 1828 Dictionary

[12] Fischer, 778.

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