We the People

A greater measure of constitutional liberty might have been gained by independence from Great Britain, but neither the war nor the federal Constitution created a nation of peoples with a shared identity and equal access to the fruits of the revolutionary struggle. When it came to nationhood, continuity rather than change seems to have marked the period.

Although many states expanded the number of voters by amending property qualifications for voting (Pennsylvania led the way by giving voting rights to all adult white male taxpayers), in many cases those on the lower rung of the social ladder in 1776 found themselves on the same level in 1783. War veterans experienced this as well. Economic depression and high taxes gave rise to marked disaffection in places like western Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

For enslaved peoples, the results of independence proved ambiguous, at best. Of all the state constitutions, only that of Vermont prohibited slavery. Pennsylvania, however, did enact the first meaningful emancipation law in 1780, and a number of other states, including Maryland and Virginia, gradually followed suit to a degree. In May 1782, for example, Virginia's legislature, faced with vastly more slaves than there was work for them, liberalized manumission, resulting in the freedom of more than 10,000 slaves. Many more were transported out of the Old Dominion, to the new western states of Kentucky and Tennessee and to the Lower South, where slavery was following an entirely different trajectory. The war appears to have convinced leaders in the Lower South, as well as some in the Chesapeake, that controls on slaves and slavery needed to be strengthened to secure their own continued independence.

The return of men to homes and communities meant a return to traditional, pre-revolutionary female roles as mothers and wives, even if the constitutional crisis and the circumstances of war politicized many women to a surprising degree. In fact, women were critical contributors to success in the war. But only in New Jersey, because of something of an ambiguity in its 1776 constitution, could women vote, a condition that lasted until 1807 when women were expressly excluded.

It is in religion that the impacts of independence be seen most starkly, as toleration gave way entirely to freedom of religion. Established churches across the nation were abolished, along with the taxes that went to support them (of course, along with the established churches also went the only social welfare programs that most communities had). Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, passed on January 16, 1786, was the most notable step taken, as it explicitly protected the freedom of people to practice whatever faith they chose, protestant or otherwise, without any interference by the state.

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