• How did equality become a stronger component of American freedom alter the Revolution?
• How did the expansion of religious liberty alter the Revolution reflect the new American ideal of freedom?
• How did the definition of economic freedom change alter the Revolution, and who benefited from the changes?
• How did the Revolution diminish the freedoms of both Loyalists and Native Americans?
• What was the impact of the Revolution on slavery?
• How did the Revolution affect the status of women?
Born in Massachusetts in 1744, Abigail Adams became one of the revolutionary era’s most articulate and influential women. At a time when educational opportunities for girls were extremely limited, she taught herself by reading books in the library of her father, a Congregational minister. In 1764, she married John Adams, a young lawyer about to emerge as a leading advocate of resistance to British taxation and, eventually, of American independence. During the War of Independence, with her husband away in Philadelphia and Europe serving the American cause, she stayed behind at their Massachusetts home, raising their four children and managing the family’s farm. The letters they exchanged form one of the most remarkable correspondences in American history. She addressed John as “Dear friend,” and signed her letters “Portia”—after Brutus’s devoted wife in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Though denied an official role in politics, Abigail Adams was a keen observer of public affairs. She kept her husband informed of events in Massachusetts and offered opinions on political matters. Later, when Adams served as president, he relied on her advice more than on members of his cabinet.
In March 1776, a few months before the Second Continental Congress declared American independence, Abigail Adams wrote her best-known letter to her husband. She began by commenting indirectly on the evils of slavery. How strong, she wondered, could the “passion for Liberty” be among those “accustomed to deprive their fellow citizens of theirs.” She went on to urge Congress, when it drew up a “Code of Laws” for the new republic, to “remember the ladies.” All men, she warned, “would be tyrants if they could.” Women, she playfully suggested, “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
It was the leaders of colonial society who initiated resistance to British taxation. But, as Abigail Adams’s letter illustrates, the struggle for American liberty emboldened other colonists to demand more liberty for themselves. All revolutions enlarge the public sphere, inspiring previously marginalized groups to express their own dreams of freedom. At a time when so many Americans—slaves, indentured servants, women, Indians, apprentices, propertyless men—were denied full freedom, the struggle against Britain threw into question many forms of authority and inequality.
Abigail Adams did not believe in female equality in a modern sense.
She accepted the prevailing belief that a woman’s primary responsibility was to her family. But she resented the “absolute power” husbands exercised over their wives. “Put it out of the power of husbands,” she wrote, “to use us as they will”—a discreet reference to men’s legal control over the bodies of their wives, and their right to inflict physical punishment on them. Her letter is widely remembered today. Less familiar is
John Adams’s response, which illuminated how the Revolution had unleashed challenges to all sorts of inherited ideas of deference and authority: “We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.” To John Adams, this upheaval, including his wife’s claim to greater freedom, was an affront to the natural order of things. To others, it formed the essence of the American Revolution.
Abigail Adams, a portrait by Gilbert Stuart, painted over several years beginning in 1800. Stuart told a friend that, as a young woman, Adams must have been a “perfect Venus.”
The American Revolution took place at three levels simultaneously. It was a struggle for national independence, a phase in a century-long global battle among European empires, and a conflict over what kind of nation an independent America should be.
With its wide distribution of property, lack of a legally established hereditary aristocracy, and established churches far less powerful than in Britain, colonial America was a society with deep democratic potential. But it took the struggle for independence to transform it into a nation that celebrated equality and opportunity. The Revolution unleashed public debates and political and social struggles that enlarged the scope of freedom and challenged inherited structures of power within America. In rejecting the crown and the principle of hereditary aristocracy, many Americans also rejected the society of privilege, patronage, and fixed status that these institutions embodied. To be sure, the men who led the Revolution from start to finish were by and large members of the American elite. The lower classes did not rise to power as a result of independence. Nonetheless, the idea of liberty became a revolutionary rallying cry, a standard by which to judge and challenge home-grown institutions as well as imperial ones.
Jefferson’s seemingly straightforward assertion in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” announced a radical principle whose full implications no one could anticipate. In both Britain and its colonies, a well-ordered society was widely thought to depend on obedience to authority—the power of rulers over their subjects, husbands over wives, parents over children, employers over servants and apprentices, slaveholders over slaves. Inequality had been fundamental to the colonial social order; the Revolution challenged it in many ways. Henceforth, American freedom would be forever linked with the idea of equality—equality before the law, equality in political rights, equality of economic opportunity, and, for some, equality of condition. “Whenever I use the words freedom or rights,” wrote Thomas Paine, “I desire to be understood to mean a perfect equality of them The floor of Freedom is as level as water.”
Americans have frequently defined the idea of freedom in relation to its opposite, which in the eighteenth century meant the highly unequal societies of the Old World. This engraving, The Coronation of Louis XVI of France, reveals the splendor of the royal court, but also illustrates the world of fixed, unequal classes and social privilege repudiated by American revolutionaries.