America is characterized by diversity. In the United States, people with different heritage, religions and political concerns can come together in the common cause of being Americans. This is possible because rather than being founded on shared ethnic or religious background, America is founded on the shared ideals that almost all citizens have in common. American culture is marked by a commitment to self-government and equality in the name of its most revered value, liberty.
In the Gettysburg Address, President Abraham Lincoln called America a country that had been "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." He based this statement on the Declaration of Independence, which affirms that all men are endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and on the preamble to the Constitution, which expresses the desire to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." These documents establish the political philosophy and legal framework of the United States, declaring that from the beginning, America was a country whose foundation was grounded in freedom.
The Bill of Rights
In 1791, two years after the ratification of the United States Constitution, 10 amendments were ratified that became known as the Bill of Rights. These amendments protected the liberty of American citizens by guaranteeing freedom of religion and expression and the right to bear arms. They also established an individual's rights with regard to police searches and legal proceedings. The Bill of Rights has ensured the continuation of the democratic process through uncensored speech and preserved the rights of individuals to believe and say what they choose.
In the 17th century, slavery became legal in the British colonies, an institution that lasted until 1865 when the 13th amendment forbade slavery in the United States. Even during the centuries of institutionalized slavery, Americans known as abolitionists believed that slavery was morally wrong and irreconcilable with a society built on freedom. The abolition movement gained strength during the 1830s with men and women such as Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Lydia Maria Child creating national support for their cause. The Civil War was fought in large part over the legality of slavery, which was eliminated when the North emerged victorious.
In the early United States, women were denied many civil liberties that men had. Women could not vote, and married women had a legal status of "feme-covert," meaning that they were legally indistinct from their husbands and entitled to no property or legal rights. Women fought for their liberty, however. Property acts for married women began to pass in the 1830s and women earned the constitutional right to vote in 1920, ensuring that they were endowed with equal rights under the law.
- Indiana University School of Law: The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies
- Cornell University Law School: Legal Information Institute - U.S. Constitution
- Yale Law School: The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy - The Gettysburg Address
- University of Houston: Digital History - The Bill of Rights
- History.com: Abolitionist Movement
- Mount Holyoke College: Slavery Timeline
- University of Virginia: When a Woman’s Marital Status Determined Her Legal Status: A Research Guide on the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images