The Protestant English thus formed an image of themselves as a divinely chosen elite. This image gave to them, or, at least, to the relevant sections who found representation in the House of Commons, the conceptual resources as well as the motivation to embark, in the century after Henry, on a protracted struggle against their hereditary rulers. This struggle culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw an elected parliament achieve a decisive victory over a hereditary monarch who tried to lay claim to absolute sovereignty in his own person.
As part of the constitutional settlement in which the Crown passed, via parliamentary decision, from the Catholic Stuart line to the Protestant William and Mary of Orange, and subsequently to the Hanoverians, many of the values and practices which liberals hold dear became enshrined within the English Constitution—albeit, at first, in only a limited and qualified form. These liberties and practices include liberty of religious worship, equality before the law, freedom of the press, and parliamentary representation.
Well before the English had acquired even this highly qualified religious liberty, but after their desire for it had awakened during the sixteenth century, 60,000 English Puritans, impatient for such freedom, set sail for the new world to create there a New England where they would be able to enjoy the freedom of worship denied them at home. Those Englishmen and their descendants formed the nucleus of that second great liberal people who, when awakened to their own nationhood in the eighteenth century, achieved a still greater realisation of classical-liberal ideals on the far side of the Atlantic than the Glorious Revolution had accomplished in England. The Puritan settlers brought with them to America the same love of liberty which had become a distinctive part of the English national character. They made this love of liberty as equally a distinctive feature of the American nation as it had become of the English nation. As Greenfeld remarks, “it was through the Puritan mediation that love of liberty became the distinguishing characteristic of America.”16 Eventually, as in England, this love of liberty among the American settlers became secularised and generalised. Greenfeld writes:
As in England, godliness in the colonies gradually acquired a secular meaning, which by the eighteenth century became
dominant and, even more than in England, expressed itself in devotion to the triad—liberty, equality, and reason….
American society was exemplary in its devotion to the English ideals: it turned them into reality The sense of exemplary
devotion to and implementation of English values was shared by the colonists everywhere and became a central
element in the local American identity.17
Devotion to this same liberty led the American colonists in the eighteenth century to break away from their mother country. By establishing their own independent republic, they hoped to enjoy the self-governance which the English had long regarded as their birthright, but which their mother country had denied the colonists. Greenfeld claims that the most important factor leading to American independence was
the fact that Americans had a national identity from the very start and that was the English national identity. . . .
The English idea of the nation implied the symbolic elevation of the common people to the position of an elite, which in theory made every individual the sole legitimate representative of his own interests and an equal participant in the political life of the collective.18
In the course of defending the moral legitimacy of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine extended the right to liberty to all mankind, inviting lovers of liberty everywhere to join the American nation: