Today, the United States celebrates its birthday: 246 years since the original 13 North American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain.
For much of that time, the North American continent, and later the United States, was seen as a land of opportunity, where people could start anew, make their fortunes and be beholden to no one. Some came to escape persecution for their religious or political beliefs, such as the Puritans that settled today’s Massachusetts in 1620. But the earliest settlers who in 1607 founded Jamestown, North America’s first permanent colony, as well as the majority of those who came to America over the next four centuries, did so in hopes of improving their financial situation and building a better life.
As far as the British government was concerned, colonies existed to enrich the British Crown and state. This was the age of mercantilism, an economic policy that sought to increase a nation's wealth through exports. British colonists were prohibited from any form of manufacturing, limited to selling raw materials and purchasing finished products exclusively from Britain. British imports, on the other hand, were increasingly more heavily taxed, until the colonists rebelled.
With the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the American colonies proclaimed their intention of separating from the British monarchy. When the seven-year war of American Independence ended with the colonists’ victory, so did mercantilism. This allowed for the development of manufacturing and opening of new markets for trade. In turn the economy grew, offering locals and newcomers an opportunity to improve their lives.
That said, not everyone benefitted equally from the changes brought by the Revolution. Most of the gains went to white men. Women and enslaved African Americans made great contributions to the Revolution. Without them, the fight may very well have been lost. Yet the Revolutionary war did not end slavery, as many of the enslaved expected, nor did it result in full legal rights for women. It took another 80 years for slavery to be abolished, and another 40 after that before women could vote.
Nonetheless, with the end of British rule and the birth of the United States, a pathway to freedom for all was laid, a window began to open. In the words of the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, “The equal rights of man, and the happiness of every individual, are now acknowledged.”