A Rhetoric of Rights:
The Arguments Used in the "American Conversation" in the Era of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum



This page is intended to provide a guide to some of the key arguments used in the debates among American patriots, loyalists, and the English in the era of the American Revolution. Click here if you would prefer to read an abridged version of this material.

An Introduction to Selected Core Arguments
of the Rhetoric of the Revolution

The war of words between America and England began long before the actual outbreak of hostilities in the revolutionary era. Unfortunately, present-day readers may find it difficult to follow those battles because the language, ideas, and writing and speaking styles of the eighteenth century seem so foreign from our own.

There is, however, a key that can be used to "unlock" the meaning of the essays, broadsides, pamphlets, petitions, declarations, and other texts composed by Americans in their fight for expanded rights. Almost all of the texts employed the same set of key arguments, and learning to recognize and understand those arguments provides a foundation for analyzing both their rhetoric (methods of persuasion) and content.

As you might imagine, many of the same core arguments used by American patriot writers also turn up in the rhetoric of American loyalists and British tories, but turned upside down. So, for example, the idea that parents are responsible for taking good care of their children is used by patriot writers to demonstrate the need to break away from an abusive parent, while the related concept that children owe obedience to parents is used by English sympathizers to urge submission.

In general, tory and loyalist writing also urges the importance of order while warning against the dangers of disorder, while patriot writing emhasizes the primary importance of rights and liberty. Some have argued that these two different modes of thought can be used to characterize debates over the appropriate way of distributing power throughout history. British enlightenment philosopher David Hume pointed out in his essay "Of the People," that the

just balance between the republican and monarchical part of our constitution is really, in itself, so extremely delicate and uncertain, that . . . it is impossible but different opinions must arise concerning it, even among persons of the best understanding. Those of mild tempers, who love peace and order, and detest sedition and civil wars, will always entertain more favourable sentiments of monarchy, than men of bold and generous spirits, who are passionate lovers of liberty, and think no evil comparable to subjection and slavery.

Thomas Jefferson made a somewhat similar comment in a distinctively different tone of voice when he wrote in a letter to Lafayette in November of 1823: "In truth, the parties of Whig and Tory are those of nature. . . . The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong and bold, cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature." It is not hard to tell which side Jefferson was on.

During the era of the American revolution, sometimes a writer or orator would develop a number of what I cam calling "core arguments" at some length, devoting one or more paragraphs(or pages) to the development of each concept. At other times, the writer or speaker would use a kind of rhetorical "shorthand" to refer to a concept without bothering to develop an extended explanation or provide evidence of the point. The fact that these arguments were such a standard part of revolutionary-era thinking, writing, and speaking meant that the appearance of a particular word or phrase would automatically trigger in the minds of the audience a rich set of associations.

In fact, a great many of the same arguments that made up the repertoire of American revolutionary rhetoric in the 1760's and 1770's had already long been in use in England as the ongoing struggle between the monarchy, parliament, and people over the proper allocation of rights and power. While lthough concepts such as "the law of Nature" developed new meanings over the years, the familiarity of these principles meant that that when a person in late eighteenth century America or Britain heard a phrase like "natural law" or "unatural parent" s/he could draw upon a depth of understanding that is difficult to commprehend for a present-day reader.

In practical terms, this meant that writers and speakers on both sides of the debate could use a kind of short-hand by employing familiar phrases that instantly introduced arguments that had grown in meaning and emotional import over hundreds of years. This relieved authors of the necessity of fully developing the arguments unless they chose to do so. Short but dense clusters of code words or phrases can also often be found in the openings or closings of texts, where they function as a a preview, concluding summary, or even "vision statement" of the position of the author. You can see these tactics in operation in the Fast-Day Proclamation Governnor Jonathan Trumbull issued on December 19, 1775 to urge the people of Connecticut to resist those who:

    threaten us with general Destruction, for no other Reason known to us, than that we will not surrender our Liberties, Properties, and Privileges, which we believe God and Nature, the British Constitution, and our Sacred Charters give us a just right to enjoy.

(You may want to consider how many of the core arguments listed above appear in this statement.) The ability to make short-hand arguments was particularly useful to those making brief statements. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is quite short when you consider the broad extent of the historical, political, and philosophical territory to which it lays claim.

Even when a speech or piece of writing was designed to focus on a select number of specific arguments, this rhetorical shorthand also allowed the author to supercharge those arguments by including occasional code words or phrases that brought with them the intellectual and emotional power of other concepts that were not part of the main focus.

But why do we so often encounter such a large number of arguments crammed into a single text in the revolutionary era? Is it evidence of the use of a crude or sophisticated rhetorical style? One possibility is that people were trying to load their texts with as much amunition as possible. Sometimes a piece of persuasion that collects together a wide variety of points is referred to as making a "grapeshot" argument. "Grapeshot" was a kind of ammunition used in cannons. To put together a "grapeshot" charge, you would collect a large number of metal balls, scraps, or other projectiles and put them into a canvas bag or metal cannister. Sometimes the individual balls were clustered together and attached with metal rods. Although this kind of ammunition was not suitable for use if you wished to aim with accuracy at a specific target, it was very useful if you wanted to be able to point your cannon in the general direction of the enemy with the assurance that at least one of your projectiles would hit something. That could also explain the strategy behind these texts that offer assortments of arguments.

Something that seems to support the idea that collections of core arguments functioned essentially as grapeshot ammunition comes from the fact that so many of these points seem to contradict one another. For example, how could a person writing a brief text argue that Americans deserve "constitutional rights" because they were part of England and at the same time claim that the Puritan settlers split from England in order to find freedom? How could a speaker insist on the idea that all things can be explained by reason alone while also using references from the Bible as evidence?

Let's be honest about this. In some cases people were undoubtedly collecting every projectile available into whatever kind of canvas bag was available. Since this same method was use on both sides, it is likely that this method of combining arguments that represented an "assortment" of viewpoints was an accepted model of rhetoric. In other cases, those writing or speaking may have not seen the inconsistency that is so clear to us today. For example, it is sadly the case that many of those who protested in the loudest possible terms against what they called the attempt of "tyrants" to turn "freemen" into "slaves" failed to see that the same logic should have led them to emancipate the slaves they held in America. One of the inconsistencies we encounter most frequently in revolutionary-era documents is an insistence on the primacy of reason combined with arguments that draw upon Puritan or other God-centered thinking. It is possible to imagine that as new ways of thinking became popular, they did not immediately displace all previous modes of thinking but instead existed alongside them in the minds of the people. For example, even today the fact that science has demonstrated that colds are not caused by having wet feet or sitting in a draft, we routinely find ourselves taking almost primitive ritualistic precautions when we happen to get wet and cold. And as new modes of thought are introduced, people sometimes develop new interpretations of their previous beliefs and continue to incorporate them into their way of thinking about the world. Thus, the enlightenment emphasis on religion and science did not eliminate church-going but instead caused many people to change the way they thought about God and religion.

However, as you become acquainted with the core arguments of the debate that was going on in this period, you can sometimes begin to see how seemingly disparate arguments not only connect to one another but cohere. When Americans insisted that they were, in fact, "Englishmen" and entitled to English rights, they had to point to their colonial charters to back up that claim, and they needed to refer to the concepts of "natural law," "divine law," "classical republics," and the notion of governments having the responsibilities of parents in order to define just what those rights should be. Moreover, arguments about "natural law" and "divine law" often depend on one another, because natural law is so often described as God's plan for mankind. Even when Americans insisted that their forefathers had fled England in search of freedom, the very act of seeking independence marked them as part of the English tradition of working towards an expansion of popular rights. In fact, in a sense, the first Puritan settlement was designed to serve as a model for the rest of English culture. As Governor Winthrop proclaimed in "A Model of Christian Charity" while still onboard the ship Arabella before he and his fellow passengers had even set foot on American ground: ""We shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." While Bernard Bailyn has argued in The Ideological Origins of the Revolution that these "clusters of ideas . . . did not in themselves form a coherent intellectual pattern," he went on to suggest that "what brought these disparate strands of thought together . . . and shaped it into a coherent whole" was the long tradition of "radical" English writers "united in criticism of 'court' and ministerial power."

This mean that you can use the following list of core arguments to identify and interpret particular rhetorical points being raised by an author, but that you should also consider the wys in which these points are combined to formulate more complex arguments.

On the pages linked below, you will find a brief explanation of a select set of the central arguments that fueled the writing of Jefferson, John and Sam Adams, Franklin as well as the work of their confederates and opponents. Once you understand those claims, it becomes much easier to understand individual texts. It also becomes possible to see how the documents of the contending parties engage in a serious conversation on many of the most fundamental issues of life. John Adams claimed that "The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people . . . . This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution." As we continue today to debate the central issues of national and international life, we can continue to profit from the remarkable conversation that not only led to, but in a sense was, "the real American Revolution."

Included among the core arguments are the following:


Americans are "Englishmen" and Englishmen have Earned Constitutional Rights

According to this argument, although those who first settled America had left England many years before, the charters given to them by the King at that time guaranteed that the original colonists and their descendents would continue to be Englishmen. For example, accordig to the "Charter of Massachusetts Bay" issued by the king in 1629:

Wee doe hereby for Us, our Heires and Successors, ordeyne and declare, and graunte to the saide Governor and Company and their Successors, That all and every the Subjects of Us, our Heires or Successors, which shall goe to and inhabite within the saide Landes and Premisses hereby mentioned to be graunted, and every of their Children which shall happen to be borne there, or on the Seas in goeing thither, or retorning from thence, shall have and enjoy all liberties and Immunities of free and naturall Subjects within any of the Domynions of Us, our Heires or Successors, to all Intents, Constructions, and Purposes whatsoever, as if they and everie of them were borne within the Realme of England.

Thus, the colonists are "Englishmen" and deserve all the rights guaranteed by the English constitution.

Although George III held the throne of English during the era of the American revolution, his "subjects" in England and America did not necessarily think of themselves as living under a monarchical government. The series of events and agreements had gradually transformed the narrowly monarchical government of the middle ages into a system of power sharing between the monarchy, legislature, and courts. By the eighteenth century, the Englishwere generally able to regard themselves as a free people who enjoyed the benefits of a government with a balance of power designed to restrict the dangers of real tyranny. Rather than seeing monrachies and republics as two mutually exclusive forms of government, many people in eighteenth-century England and America regarded the British government as including elements of both models.

Yet the frequent allusions made by the patriots to the protections guaranteed by the English constitution may seem perplexing because England has never had a written constitution. However, the term is used to refer to the general set of rights and priviledges set forth in such documents as the Magna Carta (also known as "'The Great Charter of the Liberties of England") and the English Bill of Rights. In the final and most heated days of debate between the Americans and the British government, the committee appointed by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to recommend a design an official seal decided to emphasize the importance of the colony's original charter rights by resuming the use of a seal similar to that one used under the first charter. However, the record shows that when the full council met to vote on the recommendation, a change was made.

In Council, August 5, 1775.
Read and accepted with this Amendment, viz. Instead of an Indian holding a Tomahawk and Cap of Liberty, there be an English American, holding a Sword in the Right Hand, and Magna Charta in the Left Hand, with the words "Magna Charta," imprinted on it.

The seal at the top of the table above is the original seal of the colony of Massachussets. The image was revised in 1775 to substitute the American soldier holding a copy of the Magna Charta, as shown in second picture. The bottom image shows how the seal appeared on colonial currency in 1775.. For more information on the seals see The History of the Arms and Great Seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts provided by the Department of Public Records.

Another important protection of English rights was the common law. Unlike those laws written by a legislature and kept up to date in the legal codes, the "common law" is based on long agreed-upon understandings of right practice as interpreted by judges. In his 1713 History of the Common Law , Matthew Hale described it as:

Those parts of the law . . . not set down in Writing in that Manner, or with that
Authority that Acts of Parliament are, but [instead] are grown into
Use, and have acquired their binding Power and the Force of Laws
by a long and immemorial Usage, and by the Strength of Custom and
Reception in this Kingdom. The Matters indeed, and the Substance
of those Laws, are in Writing, but the formal and obliging Force
and Power of them grows by long Custom and Use.

Sir Coke, an English judge famous for his defense (and liberal interpretation) of the common law, wrote in The First Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England: "if it be the generall custome of the realme, it is part of the common law itself is nothing else but reason, gotten by long study, observation, and experience. . . " Jefferson and other revolutionary leaders would have studied Coke's legal commentaries as part of their education as lawyers. (When asked by a young friend for suggestions about books to read for his legal education, Jefferson included Coke in his recommendations.)

Americans often expressed their admiration for the English people who had struggled for centuries to expand their rights. This is why we sometimes find Americans representing their own resistance to "tyranny" as a continuation of the English tradition of pursuing the expansion of rights. However, even though the activities that led up to and continued through the American revolution can be seen as a continuation of or as a parallel to the historic English tradition of struggling for expanded rights, the pace of the struggle in America was accelerated by the fact that colonial charters and culture made many Americans familiar with participative democracy and resistant to top-down government as well as the idea of the separation of social classes.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: Englishmen, freemen, rights, Magna Carta (or Magna Charta), constitution, Sir Coke.

Natural Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

"Natural Law" is a name used to refer to one or more of the following beliefs:

  • All individuals are entitled at birth to certain "natural rights" that guarantee their personal safety and property.

  • All human beings are endowed with reason so they are able to distinguish right from wrong.

  • Human beings sometimes enter into a "social contract" to form an association/ government that will protect the life and property of the members and promote their welfare.

  • When a ruler or legislature acts against the welfare of the people, the government no longer deserves the submission of the people.

Long before the enlightenment, the existence of some form of "natural law" had been accepted through most of Anglo-American civilization.

In England:

As far back as 1598, we can see some of the arguments that were later appering in the pamphlet James I wrote in order to convince his subjects of the necessity of a strong monarchy. It is clear in "The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: or The Reciprock and Mutual Dutie Betwixt a Free King, and His Naturall Subiects that James I selected those arguments which expressed his own position while also simultaneously countering the typical arguments of his adversaries. In the prefatory remarks included in his"Advertisement to the Reader" clearly designed to charm it's audience, James wrote of the pamphlet:

if it be not sententious, at least it is short. It may be yee misse many things that yee looke for in it: But for excuse thereof; consider rightly that I onely lay downe herein the trew grounds, to teach you the right-way, without wasting time vpon refuting the adversaries. And yet I trust, if ye will take narrow tent, ye shall finde most of their great gunnes payed home againe, either with contrary conclusions, or tacite objection.'

(Even if you are in complete opposition to the positions James takes in the pamphlet, how can you resist being grateful for a document that is "not sententious" and "short"?) This statement makes it quite clear that the points raised in the text represented ideas in common use on both sides of the debate taking place in the late sixteenth century. And what arguments did James propose?

First then, I will set downe the trew grounds, whereupon I am to build, out of the Scriptures, since Monarchie is the trew paterne of Diuinitie, as I haue already said: next, from the fundamental Lawes of our owne Kingdome, which nearest must concerne vs: thirdly, from the law of Nature, by diuers similitudes drawne out of the same: and will conclude syne by answering the most weighty and appearing incommodities that can be obiected.

Here we encounter once again the concepts of divine law and natural law, although interpreted quite differently than they were by James's opponents and the American revolutionaries who came over a century and a half later. Notice that the subtitle -- "The Reciprock and Mutuall Dutie Betwixt a Free King, and His Naturall Subjects" -- it is the king who is "free" according to James, while it is only "natural" that the other people are "subjects."

In America, the Puritans regarded it as a part of nature that human beings should seek liberty, but this was was a source of concern rather than celebration. John Winthrop, who was put on trial for exceeding his authority as governor general of Massachusetts in 1645 and ultimately was acquitted. Unlike James, Winthrop believed that God's authority was awarded to those chosen by the people. He argued that "The great questions that have troubled the country are about the authority of the magistrates and the liberty of the people. It is yourselves who have called us to this office, and, being called by you, we have our authority from God " Upon his acquittal, Winthrop made a short speech in the courtroom (now sometimes published under the title "On Liberty") warning his fellows of the dangers of unchecked freedom:.

There is a twofold liberty, natural (I mean as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal. The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures. By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores. This is that great enemy of truth and peace, that wild beast, which all of the ordinances of God are bent against, to restrain and subdue it. The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the politic covenants and constitutions amongst men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest.

In other words, Puritans often distrusted "natural" impulses that they regarded as an expression of brutish impulses and believed in the importance of "civil" liberty to provide order. However, this way of thinking about nature saw God as putting his imprimatur not on a king (who would serve as God's representative) but instead on those chosen by the people.

With the rise of the enlightenment, the Calvinist view of human beings who needed to struggle against their animalistic tendencies towards an optimistic vision of human beings as creatures of reason and (For brief descriptions of the Enlightenment see the entries in The Encyclopedia of World History, The Columbia Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, "Enlightenment" at www.philosopher.org.uk and a Study Guide to the Enlightenment constructed by Professor Paul Brians of Washington State University.)

Algernon Sidney, in his 1698 Discourses Concerning Government, offers a standard definition of one of the first principles of natural law theory when he writes that "man is naturally free; that he cannot justly be deprived of that liberty without cause, and that he doth not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself." Similarly, Locke states clearly his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) :

every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

When people choose to join a society or form a government, the purpose of that organization is to protect and promote the good of the participants. As John Locke writes his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690): The great and chief end . . .of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property." Thus, according to this philosophy, any group has the right to withdraw from a government if it is failing to look after their best interests. As Locke explains in Section 222 of Chapter 19:

The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property [so] whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.

In section 233, Locke goes on to apply the same reasoning to monarchs, arguing that

If the king shall shew an hatred, not only to some particular persons, but sets himself against the body of the common-wealth, whereof he is the head, and shall, with intolerable ill usage, cruelly tyrannize over the whole, or a considerable part of the people, in this case the people have a right to resist and defend themselves from injury . . . .

This reasoning directly contradicts the belief in the absolute right of kings. Earlier, James I had taken the opposite position when he wrote in the "Trew Law of Free Monarchies": "although I have said a good king will frame all his actions to be according to the law, yet is he not bound thereto but of his good will." However, as a title page of one of John Milton's works shown below clearly illustrates, generations of English writers, politicians, and leaders had voiced the belief that there was a natural limit to the authority of kings.

(A version with notes is available at the Milton Reading Room Little wonder that American supporters of liberties referred so often to Milton in their writing!

The works of Locke, Sidney, and other proponents of natural law were familiar to many of the founders. In fact, James Otis, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, John Adams and other revolutionaries who attended Harvard College would have studied the work of Locke and J.J. Burlamaqui's 1748, The Principles of Natural Law as part of the required curriculum. In addition, many of the founders would have been familiar with John Trenchard's and Thomas Gordon's: "Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects" most often referred to as "Cato's Letters." Certainly, the frequency with which patriot writers referred to natural rights philosophies and philosophers suggested that these ideas shaped the way the founders thought about the world. (Anyone who doubts that natural rights thinkers had an effect on American thinking may find it intersting to see this example from one reader who thinks Jefferson was a little too indebted to Locke.)

We know from the records that survive of town meetings and other gatherings in the 1770s that the principles of natural law were widely understood and accepted. So how did "ordinary" Americans who did not have the benefit of advanced education become familiar with this Enlightenment political philosophy? Interestingly, they may have first become acquainted with these principles as they listened to sermons in their churches that warned of the threat to religious liberty represented by too powerful legislatures and kings. Underlying the series of conflicts and agreements that had gradually expanded English rights beginning with the Magna Carta was a serious debate over religious rights. Thus, it is not surprising that ministers played a role in the discussion of natural rights theory.

Jonathan Mayhew in a 1776 etching. The original is in the collection of The American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, MA. The image is here courtesy of the exhibit, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic at the
Library of Congress.

The pastor of Boston's West Church, Jonathan Mayhew, for example, preached a sermon in 1750 entitled “A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers (or see the "Discourse" at the Founders Library) in which he proclaimed:

if the end of all civil government, be the good of society . . . and if the motive and argument for submission to government, be taken from the apparent usefulness of civil authority; it follows, that when no such good end can be answered by submission, there remains no argument or motive to enforce it.. . . And therefore, in such cases, a regard to the public welfare, ought to make us withhold from our rulers, that obedience and subjection which it would, otherwise, be our duty to render to them.

Another example of this kind of argument can be found in Samuel West's 1776 sermon, “On the Right to Rebel against Governors." (For a fuller discussion of the role played by religious leaders in the revolution, see "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: III. Religion and the American Revolution.")

When you encounter the names of those who played a major role in the development of natural law theory, you can be sure that the text is building an argument based on those principles. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is sometimes described as the founder of the modern theory of natural law; another major contributor to the development of modern natural law concepts is Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694). Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, natural law theory gained respect among Englightenment thinkers and was often used to defend religious freedom in England as well as American civic and religious liberties. When we try to understand the role of natural law philosophy in the debate between England and America in the revolutionary era, it is probably most useful to consider the theories of Algernon Sidney, J.J. Burlamaqui, Thomas Hobbes, and especially John Locke.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: natural law, law of nature, nature's law, reason, rational, sense or common sense, Grotius, John Locke, Algernon Sidney.
Proponents of natural law often use the following words when characterizing the opposition: bias, prejudice, unreasonable, superstition.

Divine Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

Although some seventeenth and eighteenth century continued to believe in the older idea of "the divine right of kings," supporters of natural law believed that according to "Divine Law" power rested in the hands of the people rather than their monarchs. Since Enlightenment thinkers believed in a God who was the embodiment of reason and goodness, they assumed that as the "author of nature" he created an order designed to promote the welfare of his creatures. Locke writes in chapter five of his Second Treatise:

Whether we consider natural reason, which tells us, that men, being
once born, have a right to their preservation, and consequently to meat and drink, and such other things as nature affords for their subsistence: or
revelation, which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world to Adam, and to Noah, and his sons, it is very clear, that God, as king David says, Psal. cxv. 16. has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.

God, who hath given the world to men in common, hath also given
them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and
convenience. The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the
support and comfort of their being.

In other words, both reason and Biblical revelation makes it clear that God has given people the gift of life, the reason to make use of it, and the right to enjoy their possession of the earth. When a ruling power usurps these rights, human beings have not only the right but perhaps even the responsibility to refuse to submit to his/her/its authority. The committee appointed to design Ameica's first Great Seal -- Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams -- seem to have shared that way of thinking. They proposed that the seal should bear the motto: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God."

For further discussion of the role played in the revolution by religion and religious leaders , see "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: III. Religion and the American Revolution," which is part of an excellent exhibition at the Library of Congress web site.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: God, divine, divine rights, revelation, Bible, author of nature, God of nature, nature's God.

Parents Have a Natural Authority Over their Children, but England Has Not Behaved as a "Natural" Parent

Understanding the principles of natural law theory can help us to understand the significance of a metaphor that comes up repeatedly in revolutionary rhetoric: the image of a mother who has neglected or abused her child. Proponents of natural law agreed that some forms of authority were inherently natural, and the most frequently cited example is the "natural" power that a parent exercises over a child. Many British and Americans would have been familar with this concept not only through the works of Englightenment thinkers but also because it was one of the central tenets of the Puritan belief.

The same metaphor had also been used for generations of monarchists to defend the absolute authority of the king, for, as James I put it in a 1610 speech to parliament, "Kings are also compared to fathers of families: for a king is truly parens patriae [parent of the country], the politic father of his people." James, recognized then and now as a strong defender of the rights of kings, developed the family metaphor at greater length in his "Trew Laws of Free Monarchies" when he wrote:

By the Law of Nature the King becomes a naturall Father to all his Lieges at his Coronation: And as the Father of his fatherly duty is bound to care for the nourishing, education, and vertuous gouernment of his children; euen so is the king bound to care for all his subiects. As all the toile and paine that the father can take for his children, will be thought light and well bestowed by him, so that the effect thereof redound to their profite and weale; so ought the Prince to doe towards his people. As the kindly father ought to foresee all inconuenients and dangers that may arise towards his children, and though with the hazard of his owne person presse to preuent the same; so ought the King towards his people. As the fathers wrath and correction vpon any of his children that offendeth, ought to be by a fatherly chastisement seasoned with pitie, as long as there is any hope of amendment in them; so ought the King towards any of his Lieges that offend in that measure. And shortly, as the Fathers chiefe ioy ought to be in procuring his childrens welfare, reioycing at their weale, sorrowing and pitying at their euill, to hazard for their safetie, trauellfor their rest, wake for their sleepe; and in a word, to thinke that his earthly felicitie and life standeth and liueth more in them, nor in himselfe; so ought a good Prince thinke of his people.

As to the other branch of this mutuall and reciprock band, is the duety and alleageance that the Lieges owe to their King: the ground whereof, I take out of the words of Samuel, cited by Gods Spirit, when God had giuen him commandement to heare the peoples voice in choosing and annointing them a King.

This very familiar concept was put into use by the English and by loyalist Americans to defend the right of the mother-country to demand obedience from its "child." Those on the other side of the debate used the same metaphor to suggest that if England was the mother country, then it had behaved in an unnatural fashion and the child needed to be protected from it's savagery. In "Common Sense," Tom Paine directly addresses the issue:

But Britain is the parent country, say some. Then the more shame upon her conduct. Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families; wherefore the assertion, if true, turns to her reproach; but it happens not to be true, or only partly so, and the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites, with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.

This argument would not have made any difference to an earlier believer in the absolute right of Kings such as James I, who insisted:

I pray you what duetie his children owe to [their king/father], & whether vpon any pretext whatsoeuer, it wil not be thought monstrous and vnnaturall to his sons, to rise vp against him, to control him at their appetite, and when they thinke good to sley him, or cut him off, and adopt to themselues any other they please in his roome: Or can any presence of wickednes or rigor on his part be a iust excuse for his children to put hand into him? And although wee see by the course of nature, that loue vseth to descend more then to ascend, in case it were trew, that the father hated and wronged the children neuer so much, will any man, endued with the least sponke of reason, thinke it lawfull for them to meet him with the line? Yea, suppose the father were furiously following his sonnes with a drawen sword, is it lawfull for them to turne and strike againe, or make any resistance but by flight? I thinke surely, if there were no more but the example of bruit beasts & unreasonable creatures, it may serue well enough to qualifie and proue this my argument. We reade often the pietie that the Storkes haue to their olde and decayed parents: And generally wee know, that there are many sorts of beasts and fowles, that with violence and many bloody strokes will beat and banish their yong ones from them, how soone they perceive them to be able to fend themselves; but wee neuer read or heard of any resistance on their part, except among the vipers; which prooues such persons, as ought to be reasonable creatures, and yet unnaturally follow this example, to be endued with their viperous nature.

But times and conditions had changed, and of course Paine and his fellow patriots are on a different side of the argument, so that they go on to turn the parent-child metaphor against the English, arguing that "savage" or "unnatural" behavior of Britain towards America obliges American parents to protect the lives and futures of their own children by eliminating the source of the danger. Thus Paine argues:

The authority of Great-Britain over this continent, is a form of government, which sooner or later must have an end: And a serious mind can draw no true pleasure by looking forward, under the painful and positive conviction, that what he calls "the present constitution" is merely temporary. As parents, we can have no joy, knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity: And by a plain method of argument, as we are running the next generation into debt, we ought to do the work of it, otherwise we use them meanly and pitifully. In order to discover the line of our duty rightly, we should take our children in our hand, and fix our station a few years farther into life; that eminence will present a prospect, which a few present fears and prejudices conceal from our sight.

He presents a similar case in "The Crisis," where he writes:

I once felt all that kind of anger, which a man ought to feel, against the mean principles that are held by the Tories: a noted one, who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with as pretty a child in his hand, about eight or nine years old, as I ever saw, and after speaking his mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, "Well! give me peace in my day." Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time or other finally take place, and a generous parent should have said, "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace;" and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty. Not a place upon earth might be so happy as America. Her situation is remote from all the wrangling world, and she has nothing to do but to trade with them. A man can distinguish himself between temper and principle, and I am as confident, as I am that God governs the world, that America will never be happy till she gets clear of foreign dominion. Wars, without ceasing, will break out till that period arrives, and the continent must in the end be conqueror; for though the flame of liberty may sometimes cease to shine, the coal can never expire.

The duty of parents to protect and care for their children forms the basis for particularly powerful -- and emotional -- arguments when writers call upon mothers and fathers (and husbands and wives) to mourn the children and spouses who have been slain by the British. Consider the force of Paine's appeal to peace-minded Americans when he cries out in "Common Sense":

But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath you property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

Understandably, this kind of appeal to the sentiments and responsibilities of parents and family members is a particularly strong feature of speeches and writing commemorating events such as the Boston Massacre.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: mother, mother country, parent, child, unnatural, savage, brutes, brutish.

The Model of Ancient Republics and of English Constitutional Government Show that Freemen Should Not Submit to Slavery

Often when a writer or speaker wanted to use an argument based in republican principles, he would quote Cicero, cite an example from Roman history, or make some other reference to the classical world. In the ancient republics, and particularly Rome, the English found a model of society that celebrated the importance of the individual of good character who fully contributed to the development of the civic community. And classical literature, a fundamental part of the reading of all educated Europeans and Americans in that period, did more than just provide a way of thinking about the importance of republican values. As Gordon Woods suggests in his chapter on "The Republicanization of Monarchy" in his classic work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution: "Classical Republican Rome . . . became the means by which enlightened eighteenth-century Englishmen could distance themselves from their own society and achieve the perspective from which to criticize it." (p101) Many Americans, of course, found that distance and distinctive treatment provided another kind of perspective that prompted critical thoughts. However, in their case classical authors and examples provided a means of voicing their criticism in terms that others might regard as socially acceptable or more difficult to ridicule.

The eighteenth-century interest in Enlightenment ideals brought with it a renewed interest in the literature, politics, philosophies, and morals of the classical world, particularly as they were expressed in Rome. As Gordon Wood explains in "The Radicalism of the American Revolution:


In 1765, John Adams wrote in "A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law":

Have not some generals from England treated us like servants, nay, more like slaves than like Britons? Have we not been under the most ignominious contribution, the most abject submission, the most supercilious insults, of some custom-house officers? Have we not been trifled with, brow-beaten, and trampled on, by former governors, in a manner which no king of England since James the Second has dared to indulge towards his subjects?

It was common for writers and speakers to warn their audiences of the threat of slavery posed by England, and it may have been even more common to celebrate American freedom in illustrations by including an image of the "liberty cap" on top of a rod. In ancient Rome, a formal ceremony was held when a slave was to be given freedom. Part of the ritual involved granting "freedom by the rod," which involved the master or official tapping the slave with a long pole, sometimes topped by the "liberty cap" which was to be worn by the freed man when attending the funeral of his former master. For more information on this subject, see :The Cultural Significance of Roman Manumission, by Bonnie Palmer.

Classical influences are evident in the work of American artists and architects. (See, for example, a brief abstract entitled, "Benjamin West and the Use of Antiquity")

Colonists are Entitled to Charter Rights Given to Forefathers

During the period in which America was first settled by English colonists, it was customary for each corporation or group of people intending to take possession of particular lands to seek a charter from the king. Colonial charters typically included both specifically defined land grants and sets of rules under which the colony would operate. In recognition of the fact that distance made it impossible for the king or parliament to rule the colonies directly, most charters specified the responsibilities and privileges of specific officers who would be appointed by the crown while also providing the colonists with some freedom to set up civic structures and rules suited to their situation as long as those systems were not in conflict with English law. In practice, this led some colonies to develop practices such as conducting town meetings and holding elections for a wide variety of officials. The 1629 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony signed by Charles I, for example, made it possible for its people to develop the habits of a democratic society. Henry William Elson noted in his History of the United States of America (1910),

This charter was very similar to the third charter of Virginia of 1612. But there was one remarkable point of difference; it did not provide, as did the Virginia charter, that the seat of government must remain in England. This omission led to the most important results in the building of New England.The experience of democracy based on direct representation undoubtedly made Americans impatietn with the more indirect mode of representation by which the members of Parliament claimed to "represent" Americans even though colonists had no opportunity to vote in Parliamentary elections.

This situation was further inflamed in 1774 when Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by passing the set of regulations known as or "The Coercive Acts" in Britain and labeled "The Intolerable Acts" in America. Some elements of these acts directly rescinded rights that had previously been articulated in colonial charters. For example, the original charter of Massachusetts had already been revised (and limited) several times before the Massachussetts Government Act further restricted the terms of its charter by increasing the British government's power over the colonial governor while also increasing the governor's power over the colonists. The same act took away the charter-guaranteed right of freemen to elect many of their local officials.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument: charter, compact, contract, ancient, forefathers, ancestors.

"Forefathers" Earned Freedom for All Americans

Although it would seem to contradict both the claim that Americans are Englishmen, and that the rights of the colonists were founded on government charters, American patriots often argued that their "forefathers" had left England in order to find freedom in a new world.. All Americans are thus entitled to liberty because their ancestors had braved the challenges involved in taming the wilderness.

This argument can be found in many of the documents of the revolutionary era, but it was also given a different kind of expression in the celebration of Forefather's Day. Once a small private celebration held by a small group of friends to commemorate the landing of their own ancestors at Plymouth, Forefather's Day was transformed into a major holiday in Massachusetts with a serious political message in the years before the revolution. Not surprisingly, as the split with Britain grew closer, the speeches delivered on Forefather's Day placed a strong emphasis on the idea that the Puritan settlers had sought and earned freedom in this new land. (See "Tradition as a Cultural Tool" at the University of Virginia's Crossroad Project for a good discussion of how "forefathers," Forefathers' Day, and the idea of charters were used to promote revolutionary ideas in the late eighteenth century.)

The idea that the first settler were given charter rights is often combined with the argument that they earned independence from England. Jamees Lowell, in "An Oration Delivered April 2d, 1771: At the Request of the Inhabitants of the Town of Boston; To Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the FIfty of March, 1770" (the Boston Massacre), explains:

. . . our English Ancestors disgusted in their native country at a Legislation, which they saw was sacrificing all their rights, left its Jurisdiction and sought, like wandering birds of passage, some happier climate. Here at length they settled down. The King of England was said to be the royal landlord of this territory; with Him they entered into mutual sacred compact, by which the price of tenure and the rules of management were fairly stated. It is in this compact that we find OUR ONLY TRUE LEGISLATIVE AUTHORITY.

The use of italics and capital letters to emphasize certain key terms leads us to question whether Lowell is emphasizing the English inheritance of the settlers, or the fact that it was only this original general that was English and that the king merely had dominion over England. Perhaps it is both. Like most revolutionary-era rhetoricians, Lowell seems willing to combine arguments even when they seem to contradict one another, so that he insists throughout the speech both that Americans are English and entitled to all the guarantees of the British constitution and that Americans are a separate people whose freedom was one by their ancestors.

If you see any of the following references or terms in a text from the revolutionary era, consider whether the author is using this argument:

forefathers, ancestors, settlers, Puritan, brave, wilderness.

America is Entitled to Rights and Respect Because
It Is Destined to Be Mighty

Even in the eighteenth century it was clear that the size of America and the scale of its resources suggested that it was likely to develop a large population, a prosperous economy, and perhaps even political power. Therefore, many of those seeking greater independence from England argued that the "mother country" should be courting Americans rather than restricting them. Some writers, in fact, went so far as to suggest that some day the capital of England would be relocated from London to some more important city in America. Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament who supported the colonists in their pleas, argued in his Speech on Conciliation with America, (March 22, 1775):
our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire, and have made the most extensive and the only honorable conquests, not by destroying, but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. . . . English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.

Even Adam Smith, who believed that Americans were wrong to protest the taxes and other measures that required them to contribute to the support of England, admitted:

    The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been veryb great: but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen.

    What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can foresee. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another's wants, to increase one another's enjoyments, and to encourage one another's industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial.

    In the mean time, one of the principal effects of those discoveries has been to raise the mercantile system to a degree of splendour and glory which it could never otherwise have attained to. (From the Chapter "Of Colonies" in The Wealth of Nations)

British awareness of the enormous power America might some day wield probably contributed to the government's interest in clamping down on the colonies in the 1760's and 1770's. In the period immediately following the French and Indian wars, England began a series of attempts to benefit from America's resources while restricting its growth.

You may find the following links useful:

Reread the excerpt from Connecticut GovernorJonathan Trumbull's Fast-Day Proclamation of 1775 in order to see how many of the core arguments it contains.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Constructing Quick Analyses of Revolutionary-Era Texts

An Illustration of Arguments Used by American Patriots in the Rhetoric of the Revolution. You can use this page to help you understand how core arguments function in texts or to exercise your ability to identify core arguments in texts.



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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.