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17th century society

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Interviewer: In the seventeenth-century colonies there seemed to be varying degrees of freedom in a fairly fluid society. How would you describe seventeenth-century society in terms of freedom?

Eric Foner: Well, in the early colonies, in the seventeenth century, settlers lived, you might say, on a "spectrum" that encompassed a wide variety of different kinds of freedom. At one end there were the people who were, you might say, "fully" free. These were landowners, planters, merchants, lawyers, and prosperous people. They enjoyed all the political rights, the right to vote, the right to hold offices, assuming they were Protestant; they were full members of the political society. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, were slaves. Slavery was not a large institution in the seventeenth century, but it was there from the very beginning, and obviously the slave is the opposite of freedom, deprived of all of his rights. In the middle was a vast array of population that had, you might say, "partial" freedom. These were indentured servants. Most English who came over came as indentured servants, people who traded away their freedom for a few years in exchange for passage to the New World. So, while they were contracted to work, they weren't really fully free. They could be bought and sold like slaves. They could be whipped, punished, etc., but they would become free after a certain number of years. Women certainly didn't enjoy anything remotely like what we would consider freedom today. Women, if they were married, were really considered an appendage of the husband; all of their rights were exercised through the husband, and they had very, very few independent legal rights. So, the society was shot through with different levels of freedom, and freedom was not a universal ideal. People's ideas of liberty (or, as the phrase was then, "liberties") varied enormously depending on what status you had in society. The liberty of a big landowner was very different than the liberty of an indentured servant. There was no notion of liberty that was the same for everybody.

Origin of North American slavery

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Interviewer: How did slavery originate in the seventeenth-century North American colonies? How did it develop there compared to in Brazil or in the Caribbean?

Eric Foner: Well, because the British settlement in North America came relatively late after the settlement of the Spanish empire and the Caribbean and parts of Brazil, slavery also developed late. By the time Virginia and Maryland were founded, slavery was already a thriving institution in much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, but it developed slowly here. The people who came from England—the companies and the individuals who created these colonies—did not intend to create slave plantation societies. They were planning to create societies very similar to the society that was there in England. Slavery developed over time, and the reason was really the labor shortage. It was very hard to attract laborers, people to come from England or other parts of Europe to the colonies. They could get indentured servants, many of whom ran away or died within only a few years. Because the death rate was so high in the early years it didn't make sense to pay the extra money to buy a slave who was going to labor for many years, because probably they were not going to live to a great life expectancy either. But as the plantation system developed, as tobacco growing became the backbone of the Chesapeake area—Virginia and Maryland—the demand for labor became so enormous that it couldn't be met any more by indentured servants from Europe. By the end of the seventeenth century, they were shifting over to this slave population from Africa or from the West Indies. The slave trade was a regularized commerce that was very easy to plug into. So, it was really the rise of plantation agriculture that was the impetus for the massive introduction of slavery in the British colonies.

Origin of religious freedom

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Interviewer: It's often said that the Puritans migrated to North America in search of religious freedom. To what degree is that accurate? Where does the idea of America as a haven for religious liberty come from?

Eric Foner: The Puritans came to Massachusetts seeking religious freedom, but their concept of religious freedom was not at all the same as ours. They meant religious freedom for themselves that was the right to worship, to establish churches as they saw fit, which they were unable to do in England. They were becoming more and more estranged. These were Protestants; they were members of the Church of England, but they feared that the Church of England had too many residues of Catholicism in it—in its worship, in its doctrine. They wanted to create a more purified, as they saw it "Puritan," church. But that didn't mean that other people could come and worship the way they wanted to. The Puritans expelled people—Ann Hutchinson, Roger Williams—who challenged their particular religious doctrines. They didn't allow Roman Catholicism at all. They burned a few Quakers at the stake after these Quakers were banished and came back and kept trying to find converts. They banned many other Protestant groups, Baptists, etc. So, to the Puritans, religious liberty meant following the true faith, which to them was their faith, and so it was the right to worship as they thought was the proper way. Now, religious freedom came to America in other colonies, and not to Massachusetts for a long time. Pennsylvania was established in 1680 by William Penn, who was a Quaker who wanted to make it a haven for persecuted religious groups from all over Europe, and in Pennsylvania the government did not prescribe any religious belief. There was no established church; there was no law about how you had to practice religion. Maryland, at various times (it's a complicated story) had a religious tolerance principle; they mostly wanted to attract Catholics who were persecuted in all of the Protestant countries. Religious liberty grew because of the need to attract settlers, and the right to worship as you please became a major incentive for people to migrate from Europe to the New World. So, in a sense, because of the competition for population more and more colonies by the eighteenth century had adopted religious toleration in order to attract more people to settle there and to build up their economies.

Religious freedom in Maryland

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Interviewer: You call the Act Concerning Religion adopted by Maryland in 1649 as a "milestone in the history of religious freedom in colonial America." Why is that?

Eric Foner: Well, Maryland, in 1649, adopts this legislation allowing for religious toleration. In other words, that people can worship freely, without any punishment, without any disability; the government is not going to interfere in religious worship. The reason for that is partly because Maryland had been wracked by the same kind of struggles that were going on in England at the time: Protestants and Catholics fighting each other, supporters of the king and Parliament fighting each other, there were years of anarchy in Maryland in the 1640s. Also, Maryland had been established largely by Catholic proprietors, and Catholics were not given toleration throughout most of the British Empire. So in order to bolster their position as a religious group in Maryland during the English Civil War, Catholics wanted to formalize the fact that all groups would enjoy religious rights. This was important because it is one of the very first public legal statements of this principle of religious toleration. It doesn't last; it's overturned for a while later, then it comes back again; most of the other colonies do not adopt religious toleration until much later, but the Maryland Act is really a milestone, in a sense, on the road to a much greater religious freedom which will eventually be enjoyed at the time of the American Revolution and the Constitution.

Religion and American life

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Interviewer: In the forthcoming fourth edition of Give Me Liberty you’ve chosen to strengthen the coverage of American religion throughout the book. Why did you choose this subject as one focus of the revision, and how does the subject work with the book’s overall theme of a changing American freedom?

Eric Foner: In previous editions of Give Me Liberty, American religion was discussed at many points. You can hardly avoid it if you’ve giving a comprehensive view of American history. But in the present, in the last couple of years, the role of religion, of religious belief, religious faith, and religious liberty in American life has come to the fore again as a major public question, just as it has at numerous points in our history. And I think that for that reason it’s important to put greater emphasis on students’ understanding the very complicated history of religion and religious liberty in our past.

Today there are debates about the role of Muslims, for example, in American life, and how far religious toleration can and should go. Many non-Muslims are uncomfortable with the growing number of Muslims in this country, even though most of them are law-abiding, patriotic Americans.

Debates about the role of religion in politics, the so-called Christian Conservatives, as a significant part of the Republican Party, and their role in shaping national policy is controversial today and there are antecedents of that all the way back.

Also important is the issue of how religious beliefs entitle someone to not adhere to national law. There are debates over whether religiously grounded institutions, for example, must provide health insurance coverage to their employees, coverage which includes birth control. Some religious groups, the Catholic Church particularly, are against birth control on principal. Do they have the right to say that a non-Catholic person working for a Catholic employer cannot have access to birth control through their health insurance?

These are all complicated questions, which, again, have not recently arisen. They go way back in American history.

As to the theme of religion and American liberty, I think those two things are deeply entwined in our history, particularly the question of what is religious liberty. On the one hand, I think many Americans would say that we don’t have an established church. Unlike many other countries, there is no one church that receives public funding or is the official church of the country. Many, many countries have such a church. In England it’s the Anglican Church. In parts of Scandinavia it’s the Lutheran Church. Other countries have seriously separated religion from any kind of role in public life. The French try to do that, although are not always 100% successful.

We do not have an established church. That is, no church receives direct public funding from the government and there are no religious tests for holding office. You can be a member of any religious faith, or none, and be president or a member of congress or any kind of public official. There is no religious requirement to vote, or anything like that.

However, what’s interesting, and this goes back to the Constitution itself, which is a very secular document, the irony is that the lack of any established church has actually strengthened religion in this country. It has created a kind of free market of religion, with all of these different groups, dozens and dozens of denominations, all of them competing on an equal plane, struggling to gain adherence. In fact, this competition amongst religious groups makes the country more religious. The United States has far more people going to church regularly than most Western European countries.

One gets to more complicated issues when one gets to the question, for example, of religious groups imposing their views on others. Now, this goes all the way back to the days of the Puritans who, of course, did not believe in religious liberty in the colonial era. They thought that this was a Puritan colony and that one had to be a Puritan. If you’re not, leave. The notion of people being free to practice other religions didn’t occur to them. There was one true religion and the government should promote that.

We don’t have that view today but still we have many people who, in the name of religion, want to impose their particular beliefs on the whole society in an effort to make society more religious, more Christian, more moral.

And so, again my feeling is that this goes back deeply into American history and I think it enables students to understand the current controversies if they look back at how those conflicts have worked out in the past.