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Freedom, pt 1: English settlers inspiration

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Interviewer: To what degree did ideas of freedom inspire English settlers in North America?

Eric Foner: England was rather late in establishing settlements in the New World compared to some of its rivals—France, Spain, the Dutch, etc.—in the sixteenth, seventeenth centuries. English settlements in the area that became the United States had many motivations: national power, national grandiosity, combating the power of rival empires. But the English also prided themselves on being exemplars of freedom. They had a constitutional monarchy, which the other countries didn't have. They had a long tradition of the common law, trial by jury, certain basic rights of citizens, and the Magna Carta and other great documents like that. And they certainly believed (they weren't just saying this as propaganda) that they were bringing a kind of freedom to the New World. They even believed that they were bringing freedom to the Native American population, rescuing them from what they saw as the tyranny of Spanish rule, or something like that. Now, of course, it didn't always work out that way, but the notion that England's was an empire of freedom was very important at least ideologically in justifying English expansion in the seventeenth and then eighteenth centuries.

Freedom, pt 2: differing views of freedom

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Interviewer: What were the different ideas of freedom that the English settlers brought with them to America?

Eric Foner: In the early days of settlement in the seventeenth century, settlers brought ideas of freedom, some of which are quite familiar to us today and some of which really are very different and don't exist at all. One idea was that owning land was really the essence of freedom; to be economically independent was the basis of freedom. Now, today, owning land is not really most people's definition of what freedom is; the number of farmers is very, very small, of course, in modern society. Many of them came over for religious freedom, as they understood it. England, like other European countries, had an established church. People who didn't belong to it were persecuted, and some could also be executed for practicing religion in the wrong way as far as the government was concerned. The right to worship as you please, the right to establish a church as you please, was very important to some of the early colonists. But of course many people came because conditions in England were very poor at that time. England was going through a serious economic crisis, so it wasn't exactly freedom they were seeking. They were seeking a livelihood; they were seeking simply the ability to earn a living in a way that they couldn't given the economic crisis that England was going through.

Freedom, pt 3: settlers and Indians

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Interviewer: How did the Indians they encountered here fit into the English conceptions of freedom?

Eric Foner: Well, of course, the establishment of English settlements by early colonists and then throughout the seventeenth century created a tremendous crisis for the Native American population. The English brought devastating diseases, epidemics, with them. The Native Americans had not been exposed to those microbes and suffered tremendous losses of populations. The English were far advanced in military technology and could conquer these people even when they traded with them. The trade undermined Indian economies; they introduced goods, which wiped out Indian crafts, etc., but the English also felt that the Indians' society didn't quite measure up to the English idea of freedom. Of course, the Indians were not Christians and Christianity, Protestantism, was tied up with the British notion of freedom. Very few Indians seemed to be interested in converting to Christianity, which the English found hard to understand. Indian forms of labor were very different than what the English were used to. In many Indian communities women did a lot of field work—men were out hunting, women worked in the fields—and this was considered quite unusual and in fact a violation of women's freedom. The freedom of women was to stay in the home, according to the English, and operate according to traditional gender norms, and they thought that the Indian women lacked freedom because they were out working all the time, growing crops. So, there was this really tremendous culture clash, and the English sometimes understood this as a clash about freedom, that the Indians just simply didn't measure up to the English notion of what freedom ought to be. Obviously, Indians had their own ideas of freedom, which differed from what the English were trying to persuade them of.

Freedom, pt 4: the English Civil War

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Interviewer: How was the idea of freedom transformed during the English civil war?

Eric Foner: The English civil war, which took place in the 1640s and really then into the 1650s, was a tremendous political crisis. It originated with the battle between parliament and the king over political power over the religious direction of the country. It led to the armed battle between the two forces, which led to the overthrow of the monarchy for a while and the execution of King Charles I. This crisis of authority opened the door for many groups to somehow emerge on the stage of politics and put forward new ideas which really hadn't been heard of before then. For example, the Levelers, the first really political democratic movement in American history, put forward demands for universal suffrage for men, for religious toleration for all people, and for the abolition of the monarchy—the establishment, really, of a democratic republic in England. So the idea of freedom as something that was based on equality, equality of rights for all citizens, was given a tremendous impetus by the English civil war. Even though the Levelers were suppressed and some of these more radical groups were suppressed, their ideas, their definition of freedom, still survive in English society, and they gained a kind of popular residence long after the English civil war was over.

Freedom, pt 5: 15th and 16th century freedoms

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Interviewer: You say, in Chapter 1, that at the time of Europe's expansion across the Atlantic in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many modern civil liberties did not exist. What was the situation then, with regard to freedom of religion, freedom of the press and free speech?

Eric Foner: In the colonial era of American history, most of the civil liberties that we now almost take for granted didn't really exist in anything like a full form. For example, in England, up until the very end of the seventeenth century, you needed government permission to print things, to publish things—the government could censor in advance those publications it didn't like. And even after that lapsed, both in England and in the American colonies, people could be hauled into court and jailed for contempt of the legislature, for seditious writings—in other words, for writings criticizing those in power. Freedom of religion was very sparsely recognized in this period. There were some places that did allow religious toleration; virtually every nation—the Dutch are, I think, an example to the contrary—had an established church. That is to say, the government financially supported a particular religious denomination, and if you didn't belong to that denomination, you didn't enjoy nearly the same rights as others. Catholics in England could not vote until the nineteenth century, could not hold office, etc.; in France, Protestants, Huguenots, were driven out of the country, so there was no real notion of religious toleration.

Now even in the American colonies, some of them had more religious toleration largely in order to attract immigrants from various parts of Europe, but every colony except only a handful had an established church. I think Rhode Island didn't, but every other colony had one, and there were political disabilities against those who did not belong to the established religion; the notion of just the free exercise of religion without any governmental interference or governmental favoritism to one religious group or another really didn't exist in the colonial era.

Freedom, pt 6: new ideas of freedom

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Interviewer: You say that, during the English Civil War, between 1640 and 1660, the idea of freedom suddenly took on new and expanded meanings in England. Could you explain?

Eric Foner: Well, the English Civil War of the 1640s and '50s was a good example of something that happens over and over again in the history of freedom, which is: battles over one kind of freedom sometimes expand to encompass many others. The struggle that led to the English Civil War was a battle over the power of the king versus the power of Parliament, and to some extent a religious battle between Protestantism and some who thought that the country was moving back to Catholicism. But the very fact that you had a civil war, and that eventually the king was overthrown and executed, opens the door to many other people to put forward other claims to liberty: demands for freedom of expression, freedom of speech—which, as I said before, didn't really exist very strongly in England—demands for complete freedom of religion, demands for an expansion of the right to vote. At that time you really needed to own a lot of property to vote, but people were now demanding, well, if we're throwing out the king and setting up a new government, why doesn't every adult male—women didn't vote then—get the right to vote? There were those who wanted a more equal distribution of property. In other words, the question of freedom became a point of public debate, and all sorts of new ideas about freedom were galvanized because of the political crisis that the Civil War represented.