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British liberty

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Interviewer: What was the concept of British liberty and why did the Americans claim that the British were trying to enslave them?

Eric Foner: The concept of British liberty was critical to political thought among both leaders and ordinary people, or, both sides of the Atlantic, in the eighteenth century. It was widely accepted both in Britain and in the colonies that Britain was a unique home of liberty. British liberty meant limits on the power of the government after the great struggles of the seventeenth-century system had pretty much solidified, which was a limited monarchy. You had a monarchy but with great power in parliament; to check the power of the king you had what they called a "balanced constitution," with all the different parts balancing each other, and therefore none could become oppressive. The rights of Englishmen were well respected—trial by jury, habeas corpus, a rule of law in contrast to the absolute monarchies of France or Spain. In England it was the rule of law. Every citizen was protected by the law; the king could not act in a highly arbitrary manner, and that was considered the basis of freedom, certainly, in its political manifestations. Now, of course, the very term "British liberty" was not an accidental term. It was for British people; it didn't apply to Spanish, it didn't apply to Catholics by large, and it certainly didn't apply to Africans. At the same time that they were glorifying British liberty they were bringing millions of Africans in British ships to be slaves in the New World. But that was no contradiction, they said—they were not British, they were not entitled to British liberty. This was only a parochial idea for a particular people and other people were sort of outside of it. But for those within the boundary of freedom they certainly felt that they were the freest people on earth.

Christian republicanism

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Interviewer: In the chapter on the American Revolution you include a new discussion of Christian Republicanism. Would you explain what this was and why it was significant for the revolution?

Eric Foner: I use the term Christian Republicanism to describe a particular set of beliefs held by the Founding Fathers. Today there’s a lot of controversy and, I think, misinterpretation, of what the founders’ views of religion and the relation of religion to the national state were, or should be.

Many of the leading founders were what we call Deists. That is, they believed in a god but not in organized religion in any dramatic way, at least for themselves. God had created the world, and created it operating according to the laws of science, particularly as revealed by Isaac Newton and others. This is the so-called "watchmaker" god. In other words, the world was so complicated and operated according to such dramatic laws that it could not have come about haphazardly or accidentally; there must be some mind or purpose that had created everything. But once doing that, god did not intervene in the world anymore and there was hardly any point in praying for divine intervention or worshiping god in any dramatic way. The way to worship god was to study his creation—the world, science, etc.

Now, there were many others who didn’t hold those views but for Founders like Jefferson and Jon Adams and Benjamin Franklin, this was the religion of The Enlightenment. Nonetheless they still insisted that, if not for them, deep religious commitment was important for most people. In a republic, that is, a government based upon the will of the people, there is no monarchy setting down principles from on high. There is no established church where people are required to adopt a certain set of beliefs. Well, a republic requires virtue. It requires moral behavior on the part of the citizenry to survive. If government is based on the people, the people had better be upstanding citizens. Well, what is going to make them that?

This is where Christianity comes in. People like Adams were very explicit in saying, to paraphrase, "I don’t believe in this stuff but ordinary people need a code of moral behavior so that they don’t succumb to vice and licentiousness and immorality." So, Christianity is necessary for a republic to survive because it provides a set of moral standards that help to uplift the citizenry. I don’t know if you call that a religious belief or simply a belief in the political usefulness and utility of Christianity. It’s a particular set of ideas that we really don’t have anymore, although there are echoes of it. I know that in the 1950s President Eisenhower used to talk about the importance of religion in underpinning the country. He said, "I don’t care what religion it is but some kind of religious belief is necessary for people to live a moral life."

And so, this Christian Republicanism is not related to any specific denomination. It’s more a view that religion underpins the functioning of a republic such as the one established during the American Revolution.

The independence movement in Massachusetts and Virginia

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Interviewer: How did social tensions in America affect the independence movement? How did the social makeup of the middle colonies, for instance, create different pressures on the revolutionary leadership than those in Massachusetts or Virginia?

Eric Foner: All the American colonies in the years leading up to the War for Independence had social tensions within them of one kind or another. In the South there was the tension created by the massive existence of slavery. In the middle colonies there was the tension created by considerable ethnic diversity. There had been immigration from many, many different parts of Europe, different religious groups, etc. New England had fewer tensions because New England basically was still Puritans and their descendants; there had been very little further immigration into New England. But the existence of these tensions affected the root of independence; many leaders of the colonies eventually came to fear that British rule was threatening their liberty. I mean, that's what they said and that's why they struck for independence, but in those colonies where the rulers felt most secure in their control, they were the ones most likely to go forward toward independence, and of course the best examples are Massachusetts and Virginia. The leaders of Massachusetts and Virginia had very little in the way of any threat from below, and so they figured basically they could maintain their hold on power even if they broke from Britain. But in the middle colonies there was great fear among the traditional elite that if the power of Britain was removed, there would be social upheavals within the colony, and lower-class people and different religious groups would try to seize power that they had not enjoyed before the Revolution, and so there the elites, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York, were very slow. They were the last ones to accept the idea of independence because they thought independence would mean anarchy and would mean that maybe they would be overthrown within their own colony.

The Declaration of Independence, pt 1

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Interviewer: What's your assessment of the Declaration of Independence and its significance? How can we reconcile the ideals of the declaration with Jefferson's status as a slaveholder?

Eric Foner: The Declaration of Independence is really not only the founding document of America as an independent nation but also, you might say, a founding document of America as an idea, an ideology. The preamble, Jefferson's preamble which puts forward this idea of the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all men are created equal, sets forth ideals which became deeply engrained in American political life and remain so to this day. The rest of the Declaration is very different; I mean, what is the purpose of the Declaration? It is a justification for rebellion. Most of it is a list of grievances against George III, most of which we don't even remember and have no relevance—quartering soldiers and people's homes, nobody's doing that nowadays. So most of those grievances are forgotten, but it's the initial statement—that government rests on the consent of the governed, that people have inalienable rights that government cannot trample on, that everybody has a claim to equal treatment. Those ideals give the Declaration its timeless appeal. Now, of course, those were ideals, they were not realities for everybody in colonial and revolutionary America. Everybody knows that Jefferson owned over a hundred slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. How could a man who owned a hundred slaves write "all men are created equal"? Well, that is the contradiction of the American Revolution. It was put forward, it was propelled forward, by the cause of liberty and yet one-fifth of the American population at that very moment were African-American slaves to whom the Declaration didn't apply.

The Declaration of Independence, pt 2

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Interviewer: In Chapter 5 you include a new discussion of the Declaration of Independence as a document that quickly took on global significance in the period and immediately after. Would you comment on that and on the continuing significance of the Declaration?

Eric Foner: The American Declaration of Independence of course has had a tremendous worldwide impact, starting with the very moment it was issued. Numerous nations throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have developed their own declarations of independence—colonial areas seeking national independence—and have issued documents not identical to Jefferson’s but in some ways modeled on or influenced by Jefferson’s, ranging from the Spanish colonies in the New World—the Latin American nations that fought for their independence in the early nineteenth century and issued their own declarations of independence—to twentieth-century nations such as Vietnam in 1945 right at the end of World War II that declared its independence from France and utilized a document modeled in many ways on Jefferson’s Declaration.

I think what’s interesting is that the Declaration of Independence in its global impact has two somewhat different aspects. One, probably the most common, is the Declaration of Independence as a model for a colony-seeking independence—national independence, the right to throw off the rule of some other country and establish your own autonomy, that’s what the American Revolution was, of course. Two, the Declaration of Independence also has the great Preamble by Jefferson, which is not about nation but about human rights—all men are created equal, all people have these inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those values appeal to people all over the world, sometimes against their own government. Those things could be used to criticize the nation, not just to extend the power of the nation. So even within the United States people like slaves, laborers, women have seized upon the language of equality in the Declaration to push forward their own claims, and all over the world those universal values have inspired people throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up to the twenty-first century. It’s those two elements of the Declaration of Independence that I think have combined to have such a broad international impact.

Thomas Paine

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Interviewer: What was the impact of Thomas Paine on the revolutionary situation and what would you say is his lasting significance?

Eric Foner: Thomas Paine was one of the great political pamphleteers of all time. In fact, you might say he was the first man to make a living as a political pamphleteer. Many people had written political pamphlets but those had been lawyers, merchants, planters. That wasn't their occupation, writing political pamphlets. Paine, in his great pamphlet "Common Sense" in 1776, which was an argument for American independence, and then later in life in other such pamphlets, pioneered a new style of political writing. He not only made the argument for independence more powerfully than anyone else but he wrote in a different style than previous writers. It was simple, it was direct, it was addressed to a mass audience, not simply to the educated elite. The very title of his pamphlet said something: "Common Sense." Anybody can understand this; you don't need a high-class education, you don't need to have Latin phrases, you don't need to know all the law books. Anybody with common sense, which anybody has, can think about politics. So Paine democratized political discussion. "Common Sense" sold far more copies than any political pamphlet had ever sold in history up to that point—over 100,000 in a population of 2.5 million. It was an enormous best-seller because he combined these very clear logical arguments with a language that was accessible to ordinary people, and in so doing he really transformed the whole nature of political writing.