American History Journal

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American History Journal

American History Journal

Question: How are the ideas/ideals of the Declaration transforming American life and politics in the time period covered by these documents? How do the individuals, groups, and/or governments covered by the primary source documents draw lines between which people/groups can participate in this promised equality? Which document(s) present the broadest view/interpretation of the principles of the revolution (consent of the governed, equality, etc.)?

After the Declaration of Independence, people reflected upon these ideas throughout life and politics. Reflected, in my opinion, would be an understatement because of the diction used in these primary sources. “Is it not an insult to common sense to say that a government can be formed the authority of the people only when near half of them are excluded from any share in the election…which is to form the government?” (pg.113, The Right of “Free Suffrage” 1776) This letter from the Watchman does commend the actions of the government and “honorable Congress” make, but later do mock their words. It is ironic that one can say that a government is under the “authority of the people” yet make specifications on who has the right to vote, going against the Declaration’s “an equal claim to all the privileges, liberties, and immunities” of citizens. It is hypocritical to declare that “part of the people should engross the power of electing legislators for the whole community.” Notice how simple, yet focused this argument is – the Watchman shows that the government is either not realizing the words of the Declaration or not accepting it. The excerpt makes clear that every man, whether rich or poor, has a “personal liberty” to take hold of his life of whatever he may have (or little may have) in possession because once a government makes a decision, it affects every citizen that is to abide by their law. He plays devil’s advocate and challenges that if the rich lost their say in government, would they not riot? (pg 113,114 The Right of “Free Suffrage” 1776) I think it is also important to note that it is important how firm yet formal this excerpt is, as it is not directly insulting the government but rather questioning its decisions. “…[Let] all hateful distinctions cease….let a government be established…and the cause of America maintained” allows the reader to infer that though these comments are harsh, they are genuine and in no way to disrespect the government. (pg 113,114 The Right of “Free Suffrage” 1776) I feel that in this primary source, the Watchman did not specify what type of man was given freedom to vote, but he did exclude women.
The Declaration did cause an uproar where only people are influenced by the Declaration, are in fact challenging authorities who will not interpret its words correctly especially by their actions. Liberating Indentured Servants, a source from the New York Independent Journal, stated: “…a number of Citizens of this State, have proposed to liberate a cargo of Servants by paying their passage.” (pg 118, Liberating Indentured Servants 1784) Notice how the word ‘liberate’ is used in this sentence, a word that has been stressed upon the Declaration. The citizens who chose to do this expressed that holding someone of their human rights is not liberating, but perhaps having these same people be a part of “free labor” proves more liberty than slavery. It is important to note how this journal was specific in a race, clearly stating “white people” within the first sentence limiting this freedom to white men because there was no other specification of women or slaves in this primary source. However, it is admirable nonetheless that these citizens did take a large step of demanding liberty for those who were considered indentured servants at the time and instead of asking for permission to do this, made the action themselves and wrote a “request to meet” the same evening of when this action was made. (pg 118, Liberating Indentured Servants 1784) This primary document drew a fine line between that of slavery and indentured servants because although the two were similar, the document was only stressed upon freeing indentured servants.
The ideals of the Declaration transforming Americans perspectives ranged from people of all over the spectrum. In the Quock Walker Case, a case in which a black man sued his current master for assault, the judge took the initiative to declare that the “idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature.” This shows that not only were the common people questioning who were deemed to be granted freedom, but also those of higher authority. The judge elaborated that the only perpetual servitude a human can do is through his or her own consent, consistent with work of free labor, similar to that seen in the primary source pertaining to indentured servants. I do not feel like there was a fine line that only specified who was to be granted freedom because the judge took on the subject of slavery which was not mentioned in other documents.
Because of the Declaration of Independence, many people interpreted these words differently, especially that of equality. Because of this, some of these people wanted to cast their ideas to the government on how equality can be shown through their own point of view. Noah Webster based his views on Montesquieu, a French political theorist. Though many people did associate the word of “equality” as one that pertains to equal opportunity for everyone, Webster took on a different point of view and did so by proposing equality in living conditions, especially that of land. He begins his document with summarizing English history and connects this to something America should also adapt by stating “..but we observe that the power of the people has increased in an exact proportion to their acquisitions of property…wherever we cast our eyes, we see this truth, that property is the basis of power; and this being established as a cardinal point, directs us to the means of preserving our freedoms.” (pg. 115, Noah Webster on Equality 1787) He later mirrors Montesquieu’s views and states that they represent “virtue, patriotism, or love of a country.” In a way, he makes direct claims that on the surface, do deem to be true. For example, he states that land gives an individual not only power, but freedom and hence will later prove itself capable in society to prevent “a restriction of the press, and abolition of trial by jury or the abridgement of any other privilege.” (pg 116, Noah Webster on Equality 1787) This shows a beautiful example of how the Declaration stimulated ideas from the people, which caused them to openly portray their opinions on what should be done in the government. This primary source I feel did exclude out women’s right to freedom because Webster essentially wanted to adopt the English system of freedom in America.
Another example is that of Abigail Adams in her views for women to also have an equal part of the liberties and freedoms that men were given. She states that the “passion for Liberty cannot be equally strong….[because] it is not founded upon that generous and Christian principle of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us…” which shows her comparison with Christianity and liberty as others see it. She says that although the steps that her husband is taking is a positive one, but says its a “temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habituations.” (pg 107, Abigail and John Adams on Women and the American Revolution 1776) She highlighted her Code of Laws that would put more emphasis on the women in society and repeatedly asks her husband to be “more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” (pg 108, Abigail and John Adams on Women and the American Revolution 1776) Clearly, she is asking for a change in the customs that have been around for quite some time. She redefines freedom and liberty in the case of women and further warns her husband that if freedom for women is not pursued, it will be through “a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or no representation.” (pg 108, Abigail and John Adams on Women and the American Revolution 1776) Though she does mention women, I do not feel this primary source limits or draws a line between any person or type of person to be excluded. She does not go into detail of which type of women, but because Mrs Adams did stress upon the minority of a group, this makes me believe that there was no race specified because she wanted equal rights for all women regardless of their race or color.
In regards to the documents with the broadest view of interpretation, I would have to label them as Abigail Adams letter to her husband, The Right of Free Suffrage, and the judge’s statement to the jury in the Quock Walker Case. These three documents only challenged the idea of the Declaration, and what was to be stressed upon. All three documents showed that the Declaration was not to be taken lightly, and should be followed as the way it was written.

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