Give me liberty!: An American History (chapter 6), Eric Foner: how did the American Revolution contribute to expanding the political engagement of everyday Americans? How did ideas on equality, democracy, and the creation of a republic contribute to political rights and institutions?

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Instituting “rights” in the foundational documents required defining to whom those rights applied. It was argued that the rights also involved responsibilities; the idea of civic duty was firmly established from the early days of the republic. While established at the national level, those concepts applied to states as well; they were derived from principles included in individual states' declarations of autonomous statehood, and were also ensconced in the constitutions that each state crafted. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that the majority of colonists did not necessarily support independence, at least initially; many considered such talk subversive or treasonous, and remained “loyalists” through the end of the war, and returned to England or went other colonial areas, such as Canada.

Arriving at a set of principles that would be forever enshrined in writing was no easy task. Both public debate and political organization were required to make the dream a reality. Economic questions were also intertwined with ideals of liberty—as slavery was still legal in the colonies—and existing British laws restricted many rights and privileges to land owners. There was even debate over whether the new country should be a monarchy or have an aristocracy of land-owning nobles. Beyond the ideals, the founding fathers had to consider the practicalities: what would the institutions of government be?

Regardless of an institutionalized aristocracy, however, people had to acknowledge the reality of social inequalities—even among non-enslaved whites, who often served in indenture. This environment led to the creation of a declaration that asserted the equality of all men, a notion echoed in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Different constituencies banded together based on their area of residence (as the colonies turned into states) as well as their socio-economic interests. Artisans and small farmers, for example, were likely to have very different goals than large landowners.

Given that there would be no nobles, the English model of parliament, with separate houses of lords and commons, would not make sense. Some states opted for one-house (unicameral) legislatures, while others, following John Adams’s preference, opted for two houses; the latter model was adopted at the national level. Voter eligibility was one area that varied widely by state, with some requiring property ownership and others only requiring tax-payer status.

A microcosm of national ideas and activities can be observed in Pennsylvania. Although the existing elites opposed independence, a new cadre of political leaders who favored liberty soon emerged. These men came together not only to support forming a new union of several existing colonies, but to create a state. Their activities included drafting a constitution for this new entity, which addressed authorizing a head of state (such as a governor), the formation of a legislature, organizing elections, determining voter eligibility, and establishing a system for levying and collecting taxes.

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