British North America was an interesting place in pre-colonial and colonial times. While it is empirically clear that the intentions of the settlers was to proverbially “start over”–free from the strict Anglican Church on the English Mainland–the success of this venture to the extent on which they expected is up for debate. As far as religious freedom, men such as William Penn proved that this could successfully be established. In this way, the evolution of North America was direct affected by the Enlightenment, as well as the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, there are stories such as the Quakers that point to the contrary. On the whole, although social norms had changed in the colonies, it is impossible to ignore the lasting effect British ownership and occupation had–and in some ways still has–on America.
Religious Freedom in The New World
Religious freedom is one of the key reasons the first settlers made the harsh and dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean. Going back to a document as important as The Mayflower Compact, or the first example of written law in America, the freedom of religion was indeed preserved. Of course these settlers were given permission by England to settle the area–one deceptive way used to proliferate the policy of imperialism and colonialism.
When the Puritans first arrived from England, it seems the preservation of the freedom of religion, as well as other freedoms, were indeed preserved over anything else. Moving past the Mayflower, there are countless other settlements that quickly followed that preserved freedoms above all else. Famous settlements such as Jamestown in what is now Virginia became well known for their tolerance in a general sense, and was just the precursor for what would go down as the most tolerant place in colonial America–Pennsylvania.
William Penn and Religious Freedoms
William Penn, nobility in England at the time, was given a land grant in what is modern-day Pennsylvania–obviously named for its founder. The colony explicitly granted many social freedoms unheard of at the time–especially the freedom of religion. In fact, there are a few modern-day testaments to the freedoms exhibited within Penn’s colony.
Before the land grant was even given, a religious group known as the “Pennsylvania Dutch” already occupied some of the land. The English-named group actually had its origins in Germany–when asked where they were from, they responded with “Deutschland”–which is Germany in German. However, the sound of the word was confused, and thus the Pennsylvania Dutch were born. This religious group still exists to this day–even preserving some of their Germanic language–in Amish and Mennonite communities living in present day Pennsylvania. These very traditional people still preserve the traditional dress, as well as the traditional way of life as their ancestors did–all because of the freedoms afforded to them by the colony of Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Dutch was not the only religious group that sought refuge in William Penn’s new colony. This is where the question of religious freedom in the colonies as a whole is also called into question in many ways. The Quakers were a peaceful religious group that faced extreme persecution is certain areas of the country, in particular New England. Their clash in beliefs with the Puritanical orders of New England lead to internal and external conflict that resulted in violence–something the Quakers hate. They found their religious freedom–especially from persecution–in William Penn’s colony.
Success of Religious Freedom
Overall, it is clear that simply moving people will not make them more tolerant. In England, it was the government persecution these groups feared. Unfortunately, in the New World in many places it was a war between religious factions–especially in the case of the Quakers. However, the story of Pennsylvania as a whole points to the freedom promised. Although exaggerated, there were more opportunities for specific freedoms in the New World compared to mainland England.
The Colonies and a Lasting British Impression
It is apparent to anyone studying early American history the uniqueness of the colonies as a whole. Spanning a large amount of latitudes, the diversity of the terrain contained in the American colonies made them more than attractive, but clearly self-sufficient as well. The American Southeast had the space and climate to grow and produce raw materials that could constantly feed the North’s manufacturing. The opportunities for raw lumber were also a major benefit to the actual property the colonies laid on.
This was absolutely not something Britain wanted to happen. Essentially acting as a middleman, it was much more lucrative to place obscene taxes on this flow of goods and raw materials transferred between the colonies. In addition, it was British imperial policy to rape a places’ raw materials–including workers–to benefit the mainland. This was the way the British Government maintained the power they did for such a long time–the simple concept of imperialism.
The concept of imperialism implies some way of enforcing the laws of the mainland. These men were British nobility given charters to a certain plot of land, or something similar. Here they set up the same exact feudal system that existed in England at the time, with wealthy landowners benefitting from the people on their land. Contemporarily, there is no place this manifests itself more than in the South. The concept of the plantation system is nothing besides a renamed and rebranded feudal system. There is where the image of the Antebellum South has its roots in–the British Aristocracy’s high society was just translated into the American South.
The South, however, is not the only place British roots remained–another rebranded Aristocracy. Fast-forwarding a little bit, there was a large population residing in New England that actually helped the British during the War of 1812. Named the “Green Light Federalists”, this group assisted in arming and quartering British troops during the War–these people were not happy with the direction the fledgling country was going in, and would have preferred British ownership and, naturally, protection.
British Thought and American Policy
Perhaps the most prolific example of British thought in American policy, as well as the influence the British had on America, lies within the text of both The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
There are a few examples of this–each just as convincing as the last. To quote Jefferson, all men are guaranteed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. To quote John Locke, a British Philosopher, all men are guaranteed their rights to “life, liberty, and property”. Jefferson had an extensive personal library (which actually started the collection at the Library of Congress upon his death), which most certainly included the works of Locke.
Many of the Civil Liberties outlined by the colonists as grievances truly have their roots in English thought. Perhaps the most pervasive piece of evidence lies in the epitome of American Civil Liberties–The Bill of Rights. Looking at the text of both documents, they protect virtually the same basic human rights. The Constitution was certainly based on the principles outlined in the Magna Carta–also a British document, enforced on the mainland.
Many of the ardent revolutionaries were in fact British born (on the mainland). One such man is Thomas Paine–a political philosopher and major figure in the Revolutionary War, as well as the French Revolution–who was in fact schooled in England. When one’s own policy is used against them it is not always to copy, but to not repeat the same mistakes–or, in this case, to distill these documents down to their bare bones, and ensure all rights are preserved.
‘America A Narrative Story Ninth Edition Volume One by Tindall & Shi pages 114-155 & pages 158-179.
Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson The Politics of Enlightment and The American Founding by Darren Staloff pages 3-43