The Founders' Ideas of Freedom and Equality

The Founder's ideas of freedom differed greatly from the ideas of freedom and equality held by most Americans today. Indeed, as Constitutional scholar and Columbia professor Eric Foner tells us in The Story of American Freedom, "colonial America was a society with deep democratic potential." (p. 12) The key word here is, of course, "potential." Early America was not democratic as we think of the term today, but it had the potential to become democratic. In other words, the words of the Founding Fathers in the founding documents made it possible for a broader meaning of freedom and equality as the nation grew. Indeed, the idea of freedom was developing - Freedom posterand it took the struggle for independence to transform this society into a nation that proclaimed itself to be an asylum for liberty for all mankind. So, let’s begin to look at the development of the idea of freedom.

For the Founders, the idea of liberty contained in the words in the Declaration of Independence was revolutionary. To them liberty was not British law based upon the hereditary rights of freeborn Englishmen. Rather, liberty was for those Americans who worked hard for it. And guaranteeing such liberty justified fighting for independence from the British. Independence meant a new birth of freedom.

So, what were the essential characteristics that defined the idea of freedom in Revolutionary America?

But freedom still had very clear boundaries during the Revolutionary Era. After the Revolution, the boundaries of freedom were extended largely to free white men, who in some states, must own property or be able to pay taxes. Those not entitled to freedom were all African-American slaves - who were not considered people - and in most states, freed African Americans - as well as all women.

The boundaries of equality were even more narrow.

Thus, the Founders were not hypocites as we so often think about with our 21st Century minds. They meant it when they said, "all men are created equal."