Yes, I do believe the majority of European settlers in the seventeenth century had the intention of seeking freedom upon their emigration to the Americas. The freedom the immigrants were hoping to find was either the freedom to worship God as they chose, and even independence from the strains of European life and its restrictive social structure. Seventeenth century Europe witnessed the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which proved very destructive for much of Europe’s population, but also there was the need for national conformity in all aspects of life.
Of course, other Europeans at the time explored the Americas for individual wealth and prestige for one’s country: Alan Karras argues that, ‘no higher motive than capital accumulation motivated European monarchs to authorise colonisation’. 1 This was certainly true of the Spanish and the Portuguese but to a lesser extent the English and the French. However, with regards to true settlement involving men, women and children it is more likely that because of the situation in Europe their motivation was religious dominated, and some had even hoped to build a new and better society free from the impurities of the old European world.
Success in these aims varied. Rhode Island welcomed people of every shade of religious belief but Catholics and Quakers were stilled under pressure to conform to the Church of England. The Huguenots in the French colonies were expelled in New France because of the growing belief in absolutism by the French monarchy. In the South Americas, faced with the prospect of the Inquisition, Jews fled to North America and lived successful lives. Civil liberties were too not achieved by all Europeans.
Certainly, Spanish colonies preserved the hierarchical system of old Spain with the Spanish monarchy firmly in control of government and politics. In the French colonies Jesuits wanted greater freedom to develop a new society independent of administration from the mother country; this was achieved in Quebec but quickly submitted to the crown. English colonists, in contrast, enjoyed greater freedoms, such as America’s first representative assembly, which weakened the government in London, and at times colonists assumed no loyalty to any form of hierarchy of the old European world.
England was religiously diverse, home to Catholics, Protestants and Puritans, whose beliefs differed to the official faith of the Church of England. Puritans particularly wanted to purify the church. Leaders of the English Church grew increasingly unsympathetic to Puritanism and its persistence in teaching strict morality. 2 As early as 1617, exiled Puritans were seeking a permanent settlement abroad free from the English Church, but it was not until 1620 that New Plymouth (later became New England) was founded by 101 pilgrims.
These settlers were intent on creating a haven for Puritans, and what became of New England was a string of congregational churches with each its own independent entity. In 1629, Puritans in Salem received a royal charter and obtained rights to land. Between 1630 and 1642, almost 25,000 English people moved to New England. Thus, the Puritans had won their freedom from the oppressive Church of England. This is because as Anthony McFarlane believes that the settlers created ‘self- sustaining communities based on the family and religious congregation’ and so held together in a compact unit resistant to the monarchy. Quakers and Roman Catholics did not have the same success.
The Quakers, formed in 1652 by George Fox, persecuted for its extreme Puritan convictions were forced in thousands to immigrate to America but found little toleration: in Massachusetts and Virginia, Quakers risked capital punishment if found preaching. In 1681, however, Charles II allowed Quakers to settle in the province of Pennsylvania and practise their religion freely. By 1685, more than 8,000 had settled. For the Catholics the situation was worse.
Forced into emigrating by harsh laws passed by Parliament, Charles I in 1632 chartered Maryland for the Catholics to practised their religion freely, this was not to last long. Towards the end of the seventeenth century in 1689, the Church of England was legally established in the colony and the penal laws, which deprived Catholics of the right to vote and worship publicly, were enforced. Catholics, until the American Revolution a century later, were dissenters in their own lands. 4 In France religious diversity was again a problem.
Seventeenth century France introduced absolutist principles, which demanded unity, conformity and loyalty towards the French monarchy. These principles, formulated by Richelieu, prevailed throughout the century and resulted in the migration of the Huguenots, who were seen as no more than enemies of the state in their own country. Thus the persecuted French Protestants fled to the already established French colony, New France. However, the Huguenots found that they were again faced with the prospect of seeking settlement elsewhere.
William Eccles comments on the tension in the French colony: ‘Huge though the regions claimed by France were, they were not large enough to contain both religions. The Huguenots had shown no desire whatsoever to establish permanent settlement in New France. ‘5 Richelieu excluded the Huguenots from New France and back in France there was more religious intolerance. Thus the Huguenots failed to find freedom in America because they were not given a settlement in which to practise their religion.
In any case the French Catholic Church was responsible for the development and expansion of French colonies leaving intentionally no place for their enemies. 6 French Jesuits though were not persecuted or under attack like Huguenots, wanted greater religious freedom to lead their lives the way they believed to be true. The Jesuits had hoped to create a new and better society that would operate without the faults and impurities of the French Church and the old world. The Jesuits were not at all successful in achieving this goal, unlike the Puritans in the English colonies.
Continuity in religious practises prevailed the old French way. New religious orders were created, such as the Sulpicians, the Oratorians, and the Compagnie de Saint- Sacrement and sent to French colonies to keep the Catholic faith strong and a unifying factor for French colonialists. 7 The Spanish Inquisition in the seventeenth century became more of a threat to Jews than ever before. Though many Jews had lived in the Iberian Peninsula for many centuries, the Spanish wanted to purge their country of impurities.
Jewish communities were no longer faced with the ultimatum: convert to Christianity or leave the country. Instead, there was a witch hunt for all those with Jewish connections, the Spanish wanted ‘limpieza de sangre’: purity of blood; freedom from any taint of Semitic blood. Many chose to seek sanctuary in the Americas. In fact Henry Kamen points out that many of those who eventually settled in the Americas from Spain and Portugal were Jews, or conversos. 8 The migration to America had less to do with seeking wealth, and was more to do with finding freedom in a permanent settlement.
For many decades Jewish settlers flourished in Dutch- held areas of Brazil but the re- conquest of all Brazil under Portuguese rule in 1654 confronted the Jews with the prospect of the introduction of the Inquisition. Jews, however, did eventually find religious freedom upon their arrival in Newport, Rhode Island in 1658. Of all the British colonies Rhode Island was extremely tolerant to all religions. There, religious communities and thriving Synagogues were formed. Thus the Jews were successful in finding settlements where they could practise their religion in peace.
Europeans did not only seek religious asylum in America, many wanted political freedom too. Though this might not have been intended at first by settlers, historians, such as Thomas Wertenbaker believed that the three thousand mile gap between Europe and America meant it was only a matter of time before the English settlers would eventually turn into Americans and acquire full independence. 10 However, this was not so for many European settlers. For the Spanish settlers living in their colonies, life as it was in Spain continued in the Americas.
At first it would appear that the empire would attract opportunity and freedom from the European ideals of kingship and society, but in reality the Spanish conquerors had bought with them the inegalitarian structure of European society. The dream of an independent, self- sufficient nation in the new world ended in a failure. Firstly, James Lang observed that all administration, judicial business, and the economy in the Americas remained firmly under the control of the Hapsburgs’ monarchy. The empire and everything within it was won for the crown and acted just as an extension of the Spanish motherland. 1 Secondly, the monarchy asserted its royal dominion by displacing many of the leading conquistadores that had served loyally in campaigns from positions of political power.
The settlers and the conquistadores quickly learned self- government was futile and ‘never attempted to establish kingdoms in the new world. ’12 Finally, when war broke out in Europe, the diplomatic tensions in Europe travelled over the Atlantic and this meant colonial settlements became more dependent on their European masters to defend them from enemy attacks. The consequence was more European control and influence over their possessions.
In the end the colonials became too dependant on the old world organising armies to defend settlements from the indigenous populations and to the bitter resentment of small traders and merchants, who came in search of wealth, the restrictive social hierarchy of old Spain was rapidly instituted. 13 For the French migrants and settlers in New France there was only a brief period of political independence from the French monarch. This came in 1645 when colonials in Quebec were allowed to appoint their own administrative council, which in effect meant that government had been transferred from France to New France.
However, this period of self- government did not last long because of the lack experience in administration by the elected governors. Liberty was doomed before it was given a chance. 14 Soon after, Louis XIV treated New France as a royal province and accepted full responsibility for security, finance, administration, justice and economic development. This was not uncharacteristic move on Louis XIV’s part; seventeenth century France saw the revival of absolutism influenced, reintroduced by Cardinal Richelieu, who believed in the centralisation of power and government.
Whilst the principles of absolutism prevailed in French society civil liberties could not take shape. Like the Spanish, the French had brought with them to America elements that were familiar to life and society of old France. French colonies did not serve as a resettlement for persecuted minorities as in the English colonies, the French Catholic Church kept its authority throughout French occupied lands. This proved a problem for the Jesuits, who in particular had hoped to create a new society without ‘the grasping extortions of the law courts that were part and parcel of life in old France. 15 Again there is a contrast with the Spanish conquistadores, the desire to create a separate kingdom ended not entirely without results: the Jesuits in 1640 were allowed to personally administrate an area of land on the island of Montreal. Though remote the Jesuits successfully built a settlement independent from the main French colony. 16 This was the only success recorded but it is no wonder during a period that the France was ‘controlled by a hierarchy profoundly hostile to freedom of thought. ‘
The real success for civil liberty was for the English settlers in the English colonies. Though the declaration of independence would not be until 1783, rapid success was achieved in the seventeenth century, which eventually led to the event. Many explorers and pilgrims it would seem had intended, prior to their arrival to America, to create new societies and represent a form of separatism from the English monarch. Certainly, the Puritans did not believe in social hierarchy and Kamen believes that New England achieved a ‘one class society.
On Roanoke Island in Virginia, under the command of Ralph Lane, a settlement purely consisted of civilians such as farmers and tradesmen, but no land gentry. Whereas in French and Spanish colonies society were aristocratic biased, slow eradication of aspects of the old world led to independence of the English colonies. 19 As early as 1628, Salem in New England was granted to right to self- govern and handle its own taxes. However, at times there were setbacks: in 1624 the Virginia Company directors were sacked because of a growing dissociation forming with the monarchy.
James I then took control of government. However, because English settlements tended to be dispersed over large areas of land, over time colonials were able to alter their language, dialect, manners, interests that were not typically English. In short, Thomas Wertenbaker argues that through isolation English settlers became Americans. Having assumed a new identity the dream of self government was sorely desired.
Though no official freedom was achieved, local assemblies struggled with the monarchy in a variety of ways including the policy of delay making full use of the large size of the Atlantic Ocean. 0 The lack of discipline and the presence of royal authority gave the impression that the land the settlers were living in was theirs. 21 Colonials had freedom in societies where they had the opportunities to better themselves in terms of wealth and status, which was not open to them in the old world. Though there was wealth and glory which attracted many Europeans, taking into account the witch hunts, religious persecution, and the constant conflicts between European powers in the seventeenth century, the prospect of starting a new life thousands of miles away out of reach from despotic monarchies must have appeared favourable.
However, it is clear many struggled in finding freedom more so than others. Those that made the journey to Rhode Island, built on the principle of freedom of conscience, would have found religious freedom. English settlers were more successful in finding religious and political freedom than both the Spanish and the French. This was largely because the Church of England did not stake its claim in the colonies till late in the century. I believe this is an important factor when assessing whether Europeans found freedom in America.
The Roman Catholic Church was certainly a limiting factor. All bureaucracy in the French and Spanish colonies was controlled by the Catholic Church. Intent on spreading the Catholic faith, the colonies became just extensions of the Church and therefore, provinces of the ruling nation. With the very foundation of European society in place in the new world, all that it depended upon followed across the Atlantic, including the hierarchical system, which was one core reason why many Europeans went to America but only the English settlers managed to break free from.