There was considerable ethnic, racial, and religious diversity represented in North American during the period from 1600 to the 1750s. And, there is no question that concepts of “freedom” or “liberty” differed according to each group’s experiences in the New World and according to their concepts of “freedom.” To the extent one focuses on “Anglo” America, in effect, the British colonies, it is fair to say that freedom was a tenuous proposition to some and the lifeblood of others.
British colonials were the most powerful force in the region. Backed by the British Crown and enforced by the British Army and Navy, freedom in the colonies was whatever officials back in England said it was. Constraints on personal freedom or liberty would, of course, become the basis of the American Revolution, and would provide the foundation for the form of constitutional government we enjoy today. For British settlers in North America, though, there is no question that considerable personal freedom existed, so long as one’s community did not come under attack from other communities.
When focusing on diversity in the North American colonies of Britain, however, experiences with freedom begin to diminish very rapidly. While abolitionists existed and were active during the period in question, they were relatively few in number and possessed of none of the strengths required to materially affect the plight of slaves captured in Africa and brutally transported to North America in chains for use as cheap labor. For these African slaves, freedom ceased to exist as anything but a memory once they were seized by slave traders. While Africa did not lack for tribal and ethnic conflict, any vestiges of freedom they once enjoyed vanished once dragged aboard ship and chained to poles in the cargo holds. As shipments of new slaves continued to arrive, their numbers obviously swelled [estimates of the number of slaves from Africa brought to British North America during the period in question are difficult to come by, but enough is known to state that tens of thousands of slaves were brought to North America from Africa, not including thousands more who died en route and whose bodies were dumped overboard.]
The indigenous peoples who occupied North America prior to the arrival of the Europeans certainly had a vastly different conception of freedom than the European immigrants, especially those, like the Puritans, who emigrated to the New World for the purpose of enjoying some measure of religious freedom. As native tribes were increasingly and systematically marginalized, their concept of freedom was transformed from the culture they knew to one permeated and constrained by armed encroachments on their territories. And even the Puritans experienced divisions and practices that constituted restrictions on their sense of freedom. In short, perceptions of “freedom” varied according to where one ranked in the hierarchy of colonial possessions, and how one’s community was treated by larger, better armed and disciplined communities.