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Taking liberties: Kathryn Hadley describes two exhibitions on either side of the Atlantic that focus on themes of freedom.

In the opening speech of his trial in April 1964, Nelson Mandela stated his admiration for the parliamentary systems of western governments and for some of the landmark documents in the fight for British rights: 'The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, and the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world. I have great respect for British political institutions and for the country's system of justice.'


'Taking Liberties', which opens later this month at the British Library, tells the story of the nation's journey towards establishing freedoms and rights for various of its citizens. It unites some of the pivotal documents, such as Magna Carta (1215), the Death Warrant of Charles I (1649), the Bill of Rights (1689), the Articles of Union (1706) and the 1832 Reform Act, which made or changed the political history of the nation, often the subject of fierce debate along the way and the cause of civil unrest. The exhibition recalls the individual stories of those who fought for our political rights and attempts to understand what drove them to pursue change.


The desire for freedom, civil rights and liberties has been, and is, fought for by peoples across the world often one nation or group opposing another. Although the focus of the exhibition is primarily on the history of liberties in Britain, it also reveals the international dimension to freedom struggles around the world. Across the Atlantic, an entirely independent exhibition in Philadelphia, entitled 'Peace, Liberty, and Independence', commemorates the 225th anniversary of the Treaty of Paris, which marked officially the end of the American War of Independence.

The Treaty signed on September 3rd, 1783 granted sovereignty to the thirteen former American colonies. This exhibition, based on paintings, prints, documents and weapons at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, considers the role of visual art and language in winning the Revolution and in forging a national aesthetic in the early American Republic.

Works of art include Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre in March 1770, which became a catalyst for the Revolution, and Benjamin West's uncompleted painting of the American commissioners at the Treaty of Paris --uncompleted, because the British commissioners refused to pose!

The close ties between the fight for American independence and the struggle for freedom in Britain is explored and contextualized in 'Taking Liberties'. Here we can see one of the first ever published copies of the American Declaration of Independence, printed by John Dunlap during the night of July 4th, 1776. Dunlap originally printed approximately 200 copies of the great broadside, of which only twenty-five are known to survive.

Many advocates of American independence were inspired by the history of British liberties. The London exhibition explores the lives of British intellectuals, such as Thomas Paine and John Wilkes, who played key roles in the fight for American independence. Paine (1737-1809) emigrated to America in 1774. Here he published his famous treatise Common Sense (1776) as well as The American Crisis, a series of pamphlets distributed from December 1776 to 1783. Common Sense attacked George III and advocated American independence as the only rational option. Paine proposed for the American colonies that domestic political issues be discussed at annual assemblies subject to the authority of a continental congress, the role of which was to 'frame a Continental Charter of the United Colonies, answering to what is called the Magna Charta of England'.

He also was the first to air the notion of a Declaration of Independence in Common Sense: 'Were a manifesto to be published ... setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring at the same time that, not being able any longer to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we have been driven to the necessity of breaking oft the connection with her ... '

The first copies of the American Declaration of Independence followed six months later.

'Taking Liberties: The Struggle for British Freedom and Rights' October 31st--March 1st, 2009 at The British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NWI 2DB Telephone: 0870 444 1500

'Peace, Liberty, and Independence': '225 Years After the Treaty of Paris' until October 12th at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Telephone: (001) 215 972 7600
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Title Annotation:FRONTLINE
Author:Hadley, Kathryn
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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