Yet a clear definition of freedom - of political liberty - was by no means common. The definitions that were in circulation were not always compatible. While there may have been imprecision in the abstract definition of the word, there was unanimity about the concrete forms of freedom - and about the concrete forms of the oppressions which were harming that freedom.
The specific details of British tyranny were largely codified in a series of Parliament's resolutions: the Stamp Act of 1765, the Declaratory Act of 1766, the Townshend Acts of 1767, the Intolerable Acts (or 'Coercive Acts') of 1774, and others. These can be broadly summarized as taxation and regulation, the two defining characteristics of political oppression.
The task confronting the leaders of the American Revolution - the Founding Fathers - was to clarify the principles which made these taxes and regulations illegitimate. The various speeches and documents which they composed attempt to establish a theoretical framework by which citizens can understand the limits which the power of a legitimate government has.
The notion of limiting the government's power was nothing new. The Founding Fathers specify that they are merely asking for the rights which had long been recognized - in the Magna Carta and in the English Bill of Rights of 1689 - as the rights belonging to English citizens.
The novelty was not in the rights, but rather in the application. The fact that the English citizens seeking to assert their rights lived, not in England, but in North American colonies, had led King George III and Parliament to assume that those rights were somewhat diminished, as if by distance. Another innovation was the fact these principles were being applied to a situation on the frontiers of unexplored, uninhabited new land.
Every square inch of land in the British Isles had long been surveyed and owned; even where ownership was disputed, the disputes were well documented and understood. The social structures relating various groups to each other within towns were well and long established, as were the relations of civilians to soldiers and the relations of local governments to the Crown. The rights of citizens, and the representation of citizens in Parliament, were also established and understood.
By contrast, in North America, thousands of square miles of unexplored land meant that surveying and land ownership was a complex and developing matter. Social structures were also being designed and redesigned: although the colonies were British colonies, millions of Germans, Swiss, and Austrians also lived in them, and in some places, the English were a minority. British social structures could not simply be transplanted to North America. The presence of soldiers likewise created unclarity: were the soldiers there on behalf of the colonists, or to oversee the colonists?
Among the Founding Fathers who would undertake to clarify the theoretical framework which would explain what liberty would mean in North America was Patrick Henry. Henry's speeches and political leadership galvanized popular sentiment for the Revolution. Historian Harlow Giles Unger writes:
Henry was born on the frontier of western Virginia, and for him, as for most frontiersmen, liberty and license were all but indistinguishable; man was born free to acquire as much land, as many slaves, and as many other assets as he could - and keep all the profits from his enterprise without sharing a penny with church or state. Many rejected humanist ideals that bound individuals to alienate personal liberties for the good of the greater community and had nothing but disdain for and deep suspicions of pious planters and merchant-bankers who controlled state government from the opulent mansions of the Chesapeake Bay tidewater region. They resented interference in their affairs by the distant state government in Williamsburg and had no intention of submitting to a new, even more powerful federal government in Philadelphia. Few Americans on the thriving Atlantic coast understood that Henry's cry for liberty or death in 1775 had been aimed at not only the British government but any government - American as well as British - that threatened to tax profits of American farmers or curtail their liberties.
The line between liberty and license was, and is, the line between self-control and the freedom to act. There are things which my conscience, my belief system, tells me that I should not do. It is my task to refrain from those actions; it is not the task of the government to restrain me from them. Patrick Henry did not desire a society in which men ran amuck and did all manner of evil; he desired a society in which they had the freedom to do so, but did not.
Concerning slavery, as practiced in Virginia and the other southern colonies, Patrick Henry issued statements, according to historian Richard Beeman,
indicating moral disgust with the institution of slavery. There is no question but that he viewed with alarm the possibility that his country was becoming the "gloomy retreat of slaves."
The ideology of Patrick Henry and many of his fellow Virginians
certainly did point in a most explicit fashion to the dangers inherent in a society overloaded with unfree and unpropertied members.
His "concern about the effects of slavery on virtue was a highly moralistic one," by which Beeman means to say that Henry was concerned not only for the injury done to the black slaves, but to society as a whole. As JFK would say, two centuries later, "when one man is enslaved, all are not free," and as Herbert Spencer would say one century later, "No one can be perfectly free till all are free." Patrick Henry saw that even the "free" men in society are contaminated when the society tolerates slavery.
This is not to say that Henry was totally unconcerned with the morality of involuntary servitude in its own right. In a letter to Quaker leader Robert Pleasants acknowledging the receipt of an anti-slavery tract by the Quaker philanthropist Anthony Benezet, Henry could do nothing but "wonder ... that this abominable practice has been introduced in the most enlightened ages." He was particularly appalled by the fact that Virginians, at precisely the time at which they were fighting for liberty against the British, were embracing "a principle as repugnant to humanity, as it is inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive to liberty."
Further, in the same letter, he wrote that he wanted to "transmit to our descendants" compassion for the slaves, "a pity for their unhappy lot, and an abhorrence of slavery." Like many of the other Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry was already laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery. But also like a few of the other Founding Fathers, he recognized that the economic structures in place would make the abolition of slavery difficult. He knew that many men owned slaves reluctantly, and would have ended the practice if they had known a way to successfully do so. For many of them, however, to divest themselves of slaves would have been economic suicide. He "readily confessed to the barbarity and immorality of slavery."
Looking forward, Patrick Henry understood that the words of the Declaration of Independence made freedom for slave inevitable. The nation's progress toward the abolition of slavery was inexorable. He wrote that "I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil." He understood that the Christianity which he and most of the other inhabitants of North America practiced made abolition an unavoidable moral duty: "It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion, to show that it is at variance with that law which warrants slavery."
So also with charity - Patrick Henry was determined that citizens should not be forced to pay money to the church. Recall that in the English system, the Crown collected taxes, some of which went to support the Anglican church. Everyone who paid taxes, regardless of his personal religious faith, supported the Anglican faith, even if his own faith was different or even opposed to that faith. It was against this forced support that he rebelled.
Motivated both by his belief in God and his desire to help the poor, Patrick Henry contributed to churches, and encouraged others to do so. He understood the church's role in providing for those who needed help, but he was also adamant that support for the church be freely given, not under legal compulsion.
In sum, Patrick Henry defined a theoretical concept of freedom which meant not only freedom from taxation and regulation, but freedom to live according to an enlightened vision of what human life can and should be.