revolution, Religious freedom, liberty, American Colonies


According to historians of modern revolutions, the American Revolution was hardly revolutionary. Merely a constitutional quarrel, they say, pointing out that the split with Britain left existing social and economic structures largely undisturbed. Surely any revolution deserving the name would have, at minimum, eliminated chattel slavery, the very antithesis of liberty and independence. Yet slavery remained and even flourished in the new republic. There was one accomplishment, however, that even the harshest critics agree was truly revolutionary: America's constitutional ban on religious establishment and guarantee of free exercise to all. Throughout the Old World, state religions and political regimes acted in concert, exercising, in the words of John Adams, "encroaching, grasping, restless, and ungovernable power" that reduced their citizens to "servile dependencies" and "slavish subordinations." ' Ten of the thirteen colonies had had some sort of established church, granting varying degrees of toleration to dissenters. The American Revolution, however, recognized that religion was a natural right of individuals, not a privilege of the state to grant, withhold, or tolerate.