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A New and Free Country

The American Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not instantly create a free society, but it sowed the seeds. Political freedom, represented by the right to vote, was hardly widespread at the beginning. At first, only white, male property owners could vote. Even then, Catholics, Jews, and members of some other religious groups had no voting rights. Over a period of about sixty years, on a state-by-state basis, property ownership requirements for voting faded away. In 1869, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, specifically giving African-Americans the right to vote. Only in 1920 did the Nineteenth Amendment give women the right to vote.

The institution of slavery existed in much of the United States at independence, taking particular hold in the southern states. The rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and specified in the Constitution did not apply to black slaves, and frequently not even to freed blacks. Although technically free after the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the struggle for full civil rights among African Americans has been ongoing ever since that time.

From the beginning, however, with the important exception of slaves, most Americans have enjoyed a great deal of economic freedom as well as social and cultural flexibility (when compared to the countries from which they came). When immigrant populations of various nationalities came to the United States, they almost universally had to deal with discrimination, exclusion, and economic hardship. The Irish during the mid 19th century were a perfect example. For generations, the Chinese and Japanese suffered on a particularly harsh level. Eastern and Southern Europeans had their turn in the 20th century, as did Spanish-speaking peoples. The “internal migration” of African-Americans from rural areas in the south to northern cities saw its own social ripples. By sheer power of population, group after group established themselves and took a “piece of the American pie.” The story is ongoing, of course.

People have had to struggle for political freedom, economic freedom and social and cultural freedom throughout American history. These freedoms did not come without hardship, and yet they did eventually arrive, as freedom continues to expand. This is not coincidence. It relates back to the revolutionary mindset of America’s first days that has continued to be vital to the present day. Even though the nation’s founders envisioned a society run by white male Protestants of British extraction, they set standards that have allowed today’s complicated and extremely varied nation to flourish and grow.

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