July 1, 2011
Spirit of 1776: Professor says extent of our liberty, shape of our republic still evolving long after American Revolution
The founding of the United States was based on an ideal of liberty. Though the initial extent of that liberty was limited, it's important to see the aspirational goals of the American Revolution as a work in progress -- not a finished product, according to a Kansas State University American History expert.
The nation's founders argued volubly with each other over the extent of liberty and the shape of the republic, just as politicians continue to do today, said Louise Breen, a K-State associate professor of history who teaches a course on the American Revolution.
"The founders failed to extend liberty universally to all people, as their ideology implied," she said. "Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slaveholder. But because the core principles of liberty are malleable and expansive, each generation of Americans can stretch the bounds of liberty to encompass more of the groups that were excluded."
Breen said the Declaration of Independence was basically an indictment of King George III for wrongs that he had done to the colonies. It was of great symbolic and ideological importance because the colonies had been established by a series of charters granted by English monarchs.
"Colonists were frustrated with parliamentary acts that they believed circumscribed their customary liberties," Breen said. "In 1776 the protest movement turned into an independence movement, and many finally came to believe that England's king was as much at fault as England's Parliament."
In breaking with the king, revolutionaries were breaking the one remaining tie with the English empire, she said. The tie was an emotional one. Some of the first responses to the reading of the Declaration of Independence were the destruction of images of the king and celebration.
"Celebrations involving public readings of the declaration took place all over the new nation," Breen said. "These localized festivities included illuminations, drinking in taverns, the making of raucous toasts, shouts of approbation and the burning of effigies of the king."
Breen said celebrations were not centrally planned because there was no real national center, but a sense of solidarity was established among those who supported independence because newspapers carried stories that detailed celebrations from faraway areas.
People today tend to think that it was natural for colonists to have developed a pronounced sense of national identity in this early period, but the Revolution and the new nation were not inevitable.
"It's important to recognize the tremendous achievements of the founding generation but not to assume that decisions came easily to them or were made without conflict," she said.