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American Revolution, pt 1: the principle of equality

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Interviewer: How did the Revolution make the principle of equality a part of American freedom, and what were the limits to equality at this time?

Eric Foner: Like many revolutions, the American Revolution opened up new issues that weren't even anticipated by the people who started the Revolution. The French Revolution, of course, is a classic example of that; so is the Russian Revolution. The American Revolution didn't go to quite the same stages as those, but it certainly threw open all sorts of questions about the nature of political and social life, far more than the question of whether America should be part of the British Empire or its own independent nation state. Equality became the rallying cry for large numbers of people who said, We need change at home. It's one thing to break away from Britain, but our own society's too hierarchical, too unequal, so the claim to equality—whether it's the right to vote, whether it's greater rights to women, whether it's abolition of slavery—this came out of the Revolution. It's not the course of the Revolution, but once authority breaks down, once a revolution is in process, other people will use that situation and the rhetoric of revolution for their own purposes; so, a grieved group throws forward this idea of equality to put their own claims for better treatment forward, and that's part of what makes a revolution a revolutionary movement.

American Revolution, pt 2: limits of equality

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Interviewer: What were the limits to equality at that time?

Eric Foner: The claims to equality go very far forward during the Revolution, but they stop at a certain point; they don't go all the way. White men gained far greater rights than they had before. The right to vote was tremendously democratized; religious freedom was institutionalized in most of the colonies that had become states. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, these ideals got a tremendous boost from the Revolution. On the other hand, other claims were put forward but were not successful. Some people claimed greater rights for women given the ideology of equality, but women didn't gain a lot of new rights when it came to the Revolution, and of course the greatest contradiction, slavery, had an ambiguous outcome from the Revolution. On the one hand, slavery is put on the path to abolition in the northern states. And part of that is because of the revolutionary ideology. On the other hand, in the southern states slavery survives, though it was very weakened for the moment and thousands of slaves in the name of liberty ran away from the plantations. They ran away to the British, they seized their own freedom, but nonetheless slavery survived and continued to grow during this period. So, the cry of equality picked up by the African-Americans was not recognized by the rest of the American society.

American Revolution, pt 3: religious freedom

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Interviewer: How did the Revolution affect religious freedom?

Eric Foner: The expansion of religious freedom was one of the major and perhaps surprising results of the American Revolution. Before the Revolution, most of the colonies had an established church. One or two didn't but most of them had an established church, that is, a church supported by public funds. Tax funds go to support this particular denomination—Congregationalism in New England, the Anglican Church in some other colonies. Most of the colonies outlawed Roman Catholicism; in most of the colonies Jews could not exercise political rights. There were stringent restrictions on political participation depending on religion. The Revolution greatly expanded religious freedom. Some states like Virginia passed these very sweeping laws for religious toleration, while many states removed public support: they were no longer going to give money to one or another religious group. They now had to compete in the free marketplace, you might say. The Constitution contains no religious qualification whatsoever for voting or holding office. The president can be anything. He can be Protestant, Jewish, Muslim—he can be an atheist. There is no requirement in the Constitution, so this separation of church and state, which really hadn't happened except for in a few colonies before the war, was one of the major consequences of the Revolution.

Bill of Rights, pt 1

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Interviewer: Getting back to the Constitution, how did the Bill of Rights emerge from the debate over ratification of the Constitution, and could you comment broadly on the significance of the Bill of Rights at the time, and then over the course of American history?

Eric Foner: Well, of course, the writing of the Constitution in 1787 was followed by a very powerful debate over ratification. Nine states had to ratify the Constitution for it to go into effect. Now, many critics of the Constitution, the so-called Anti-Federalists—the Federalists were the people supporting this Constitution—the Anti-Federalists claimed that the Constitution was creating a government which would be too powerful, a central, national government which would ride roughshod over the rights of the states and of individuals. Many of the state constitutions had bills of rights, indicating the basic civil liberties of citizens. The original federal Constitution didn't have one. James Madison, the basic author of the Constitution, said we don't need a bill of rights because this government is elected by the people, how can the people suppress their own rights? But the Anti-Federalists insisted on this, and basically, one of the deals or arrangements that Madison agreed to in order to get ratification in the key states of New York and Virginia, which were strongly divided, was that, once the Constitution was ratified, Congress would propose amendments to guarantee these basic individual rights.

In 1791, Congress passed the first ten amendments, which then were ratified by the states, the Bill of Rights. The first one is "Congress shall make no law restricting the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press;" and it goes on listing your basic rights: trial by jury, the right to a jury of your peers, the right to a lawyer, the right not to have cruel and unusual punishment, the right not to be forced to be a witness against yourself, etc. At the end, the Bill of Rights says that all the rights not specifically given to the federal government are retained by the states and the people. So the Bill of Rights was meant to insure that the national government did not override or suppress the basic liberties of American citizens. It only applied to the national government; at that point it had nothing to do with the states. The states could suppress your freedom of speech, and they did, in many cases without violating the Bill of Rights, which only refers to Congress and the federal government.

But the Bill of Rights becomes a sort of key statement of American liberty. But for many years it was not really enforced; it was violated in many instances. Later on, after the Civil War and then into the twentieth century, many of these protections are then applied to the state governments as well as the federal government. It's really only in the twentieth century that we get a whole jurisprudence of civil liberties; that is, that courts begin handing down decisions protecting the rights inscribed in the Bill of Rights, so it takes a long time for the Bill of Rights really to become a living, vital part of our legal judicial system.

Alien and Sedition Acts

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Interviewer: What were the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, and why were they adopted? How effective were they, and comment on their overall significance as well.

Eric Foner: In 1798, the United States, under the presidency of John Adams, was involved in what was called the Quasi War with France. France and England were at war; the United States wasn't fully at war but it was engaged in certain naval battles with France, and there was fear of a broader war. Congress, under the control of the Federalist Party, passed these Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Alien Act basically gave the president the right to deport any immigrant he wanted, largely because the Federalist Party thought a lot of these immigrants coming in during the 1790s were radical Jeffersonians who were voting for the Jeffersonian Republican Party. The Sedition Act basically made it a federal crime to criticize the government. As in other wars, the government doesn't like criticism, and it defines criticism of its policies as unpatriotic, as seditious, et cetera. So, the Sedition Act made it possible for the federal government to prosecute and jail, particularly, newspaper editors who criticized the Adams administration. It was mostly a political measure; these newspapers weren't doing anything that had any effect on the Quasi War with France. But an election was coming up two years later, the election of 1800, the Jeffersonian Party was rising, and the Adams administration was trying to crush out political opposition. Somewhere between ten and fifteen newspaper editors actually were put on trial under the Sedition Act, and some of them were thrown in jail. The most famous was Matthew Lyon, a member of Congress from Vermont, who also edited a newspaper that was very strongly anti-Adams, and he was actually convicted under the Sedition Act and jailed for a while. But the reaction against this was very strong, and actually contributed to the election of Jefferson in 1800, when the slogan of the Jeffersonians was "Jefferson and liberty," and one of the things they meant by "liberty" was rescinding the Alien and Sedition Acts, which they did soon after getting into office.