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Most colonists came to America to obtain land and political rights, although many had to first give up nearly all their freedoms as indentured servants to obtain passage overseas. When England began to oppress those rights promised to the colonists, Americans began to formulate an independent identity founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment. When England tightened their control over American rights, colonists began to actively protest British rule. Finally, the American colonists took the ideals of the Enlightenment and began to realize the necessity of a revolution to protect their rights. The ideals of the Enlightenment emphasized an individual’s rights which strengthened independent American identity and impelled American colonists to oppose the British monarchy.
Many colonists came to America as indentured servants seeking an opportunity to become landowners and gain political rights. Indentured servitude was a contract binding a man or woman to serve a family for a number of years, usually 3-7, in exchange for passage overseas Life as an indentured servant was filled with hardship and misery, this verse of a popular ballad, about a young woman describing her life as an indentured servant in America, depicts how many indentured servants felt, “A thousand woes beside, that I do here abide, In the land of Virginny, O; In misery I spend my time that hath no end” Despite the hardships and poor quality of life an indentured servant faced, many men and women came to America under this contract with the desire to exchange constraints in Europe for opportunity in America. These men and women were willing to risk death and years of hard labor to obtain land, which in turn would give them political rights. The chance to attain higher social and political status and the rights to self governance were very appealing to those in England who were stuck at the bottom of the social ladder. Therefore, after England’s Civil War, when the British tried to remove America’s freedoms, the colonists started searching for a new, independent identity.
The Enlightenment ideals provided a foundation for Americans to begin to formulate an independent identity away from Britain. In the 17th century, a movement began in France and Britain known as the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that emphasized reason and logic to discover universal truths. John Locke, an English philosopher, argued that governments must protect an individual’s right to pursue life, liberty, and property. Locke also claimed all men were created equal, therefore, “no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” Throughout the colonial period, American colonists viewed themselves as British, they were loyal to the British monarchy and believed it was the embodiment of liberty. The Enlightenment strengthened this view at first, however, Americans soon realized that England had begun strangling their freedoms and the ideals of the Enlightenment began to shape their views in a new way. American colonists began to consider the possibility of contesting the monarchy’s sovereignty. When England began tightening its grip on America, the colonists began to oppose British rule. During England’s Civil War, America began to develop a more diverse and independent economy, actually manufacturing products instead of simply exporting raw materials. After the war, England, in an attempt to increase their profit from the colonies, passed several laws limiting American productions. This upset the colonists, however, it was not until England imposed direct taxes on the colonies without the colonists’ consent, that Americans began to protest.
The first united protest was against the Stamp Act, a royal tax on all paper products. Colonists boycotted British products, hanged British tax collectors in effigy, and even destroyed royal colonial officials’ homes. Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts lieutenant governor, wrote to Great Britain, after a mob demolished his house, to inform them of the violent protests, he expressed his concern that, “Many of the common people have been in a frenzy, and talk’d of dying in defence of their liberties,” and the implications of such talk. The colonists’ protest was successful, the Stamp Act was repealed the same year it was passed. Despite their resistance to Imperial control, American colonists still viewed themselves as British citizens, they desired to be seen as equals, good British citizens, and to be represented in Parliament. However, England’s grip on the colonies only grew tighter when they passed the Declaratory Act, giving the crown complete sovereignty over America’s laws.
The American colonists began to implement ideals of the Enlightenment to move from simply protesting Imperial control to the necessity of a revolution. Instead of listening to the colonists’ protests, the British passed a series of laws called the Coercive Acts. The Coercive Acts closed the port in Boston and put more authority in the hands of royal appointees. The American colonists began to realize that England would not loosen its grip, they started to fear the British would deprive them of the liberties promised when they travelled to America. The thought of becoming “slaves” to England began to spur a new sense of necessity to oppose British oppression. Protest songs were written and sung to rouse public support, a line from John Dickinson’s song, “To die we can bear – but to serve we disdain. For Shame is to FREEDOM more dreadful than pain.” embodies the mindset many colonist were beginning to adopt. This mindset was strengthened by the ideals of the Enlightenment stating that it is necessary to oppose tyrannical and oppressive rule. Parliament ignored the protests, boycotts, riots, and destruction. The Americans tried one last tactic, they wrote letters to King George III petitioning him to approach the colonies peacefully, however, he responded by claiming they had brought the trouble upon themselves by resisting the authority of the Kingdom. The Americans had finally had enough, they began to unite and the path was paved for the Declaration of Independence to be written and the rebellion against the tyrannical oppression of the British government began.
In conclusion, Enlightenment ideology strengthened American identity and impelled the colonists to oppose the British monarchy to protect the rights of the individual. Although many of the early American colonists gave up freedom initially, they were promised higher social and political status. However, when England began to ignore this promised status, colonists began rethinking their identity and relationship with England based on Enlightenment ideology. As the British removed more and more of the colonies freedoms, the colonists began to resist Imperial control. Although America’s resistance started small, as England continued to take more political power from America, the colonists started moving toward a more drastic opposition, eventually leading to the revolution. Thus the Enlightenment played an important role in the developing of American identity and the justification of the Revolution.
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