An Illustration of Arguments Used by American Patriots in the Rhetoric of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum



On this page you will find a series of excerpts from "A Dissertation on the Canon Feudal Law," which was written by John Adams but originally published anonymously in an issue of The Boston Gazette.

Many of the arguments used by John Adams in this piece were frequently used by other patriot writers and speakers. All shared a common arsenal of ideas and arguments that probably only gained greater force through repeated use. When contemporary audiences heard Adams indicting England as a cruel and unnatural mother, their response might have been triggered not only by the emotional images he presented but also by all of the other similar stories and sentiments they remembered reading or hearing on other occasions.

Use the passages below to see if you can identify the types of arguments Adams used. Remember that you may sometimes find several arguments combined in a single passage or even a single sentence. As you're reading, you will probably find it useful to pay attention not only to the ideas being developed, but also to the key terms and phrases that seem central to the issue. You may also find it interesting to think about which of these arguments you find most persuasive, and to consider which might have been most appealing to Americans in the 1770's.

You can find an outline of some of the core arguments that were part of the rhetorical reportoire of Amerian patriots in the revolutionary era as well as lists of the key words that sometimes signal their use at: A Rhetoric of Rights:
The Arguments Used to Defend American Freedoms

  1. I say RIGHTS, for such [common people] have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly government, — Rights, that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws — Rights, derived from the great Legislator of the universe.

  2. It was not religion alone, as is commonly supposed; but it was a love of universal liberty, and a hatred, a dread, a horror, of the infernal confederacy before described, that projected, conducted, and accomplished the settlement of America.

  3. [The first settlers] knew that government was a plain, simple, intelligible thing, founded in nature and reason, and quite comprehensible by common sense. They detested all the base services and servile dependencies of the feudal system. They knew that no such unworthy dependencies took place in the ancient seats of liberty, the republics of Greece and Rome; and they thought all such slavish subordinations were equally inconsistent with the constitution of human nature and that religious liberty with which Jesus had made them free.

  4. Rulers are no more than attorneys, agents, and trustees for the people; and if the cause, the interest and trust, is insidiously betrayed, or wantonly trifled away, the people have a right to revoke the authority that they themselves have deputed, and to constitute abler and better agents, attorneys, and trustees.

  5. 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?

  6. Be it remembered, however, that liberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.

  7. We have been told that "the word rights is an offensive expression;" "that the king, his ministry, and parliament, will not endure to hear Americans talk of their rights;" "that Britain is the mother and we the children, that a filial duty and submission is due from us to her," and that "we ought to doubt our own judgment, and presume that she is right, even when she seems to us to shake the foundations of government;" that "Britain is immensely rich and great and powerful, has fleets and armies at her command which have been the dread and terror of the universe, and that she will force her own judgment into execution, right or wrong." . . . Is not this representing your most gracious sovereign as endeavoring to destroy the foundations of his own throne? Are you not representing every member of parliament as renouncing the transactions at Running Mede, (the meadow, near Windsor, where Magna Charta was signed;) and as repealing in effect the bill of rights, when the Lords and Commons asserted and vindicated the rights of the people and their own rights, and insisted on the king's assent to that assertion and vindication? Do you not represent them as forgetting that the prince of Orange was created King William, by the people, on purpose that their rights might be eternal and inviolable?

  8. Is there not something extremely fallacious in the common-place images of mother country and children colonies? Are we the children of Great Britain any more than the cities of London, Exeter, and Bath? Are we not brethren and fellow subjects with those in Britain, only under a somewhat different method of legislation, and a totally different method of taxation? But admitting we are children, have not children a right to complain when their parents are attempting to break their limbs, to administer poison, or to sell them to enemies for slaves? Let me entreat you to consider, will the mother be pleased when you represent her as deaf to the cries of her children, — when you compare her to the infamous miscreant who lately stood on the gallows for starving her child, — when you resemble her to Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare, (I cannot think of it without horror,) who "Had given suck, and knew How tender 't was to love the babe that milked her,"
    but yet, who could "Even while 't was smiling in her face, Have plucked her nipple from the boneless gums, And dashed the brains out."

  9. Let us banish for ever from our minds, my countrymen, all such unworthy ideas of the king, his ministry, and parliament. Let us not suppose that all are become luxurious, effeminate, and unreasonable, on the other side the water, as many designing persons would insinuate. Let us presume, what is in fact true, that the spirit of liberty is as ardent as ever among the body of the nation, though a few individuals may be corrupted. Let us take it for granted, that the same great spirit which once gave Cesar so warm a reception, which denounced hostilities against John till Magna Charta was signed, which severed the head of Charles the First from his body, and drove James the Second from his kingdom, the same great spirit (may heaven preserve it till the earth shall be no more) which first seated the great grandfather of his present most gracious majesty on the throne of Britain, — is still alive and active and warm in England; and that the same spirit in America, instead of provoking the inhabitants of that country, will endear us to them for ever, and secure their good-will.

  10. Let . . . all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government, ecclesiastical and civil. Let us study the law of nature; search into the spirit of the British constitution; read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome; set before us the conduct of our own British ancestors, who have defended for us the inherent rights of mankind against foreign and domestic tyrants and usurpers, against arbitrary kings and cruel priests, in short, against the gates of earth and hell. Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views and ends of our own more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native country for a dreary, inhospitable wilderness. Let us examine into the nature of that power, and the cruelty of that oppression, which drove them from their homes. Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings, — the hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured, — the severe labors of clearing their grounds, building their houses, raising their provisions, amidst dangers from wild beasts and savage men, before they had time or money or materials for commerce. Recollect the civil and religious principles and hopes and expectations which constantly supported and carried them through all hardships with patience and resignation. Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers, and trials. In such researches as these, let us all in our several departments cheerfully engage, — but especially the proper patrons and supporters of law, learning, and religion!

  11. Let the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear the danger of thralldom to our consciences from ignorance, extreme poverty, and dependence, in short, from civil and political slavery. Let us see delineated before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God, — that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest or happiness, — and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and good-will to man!

  12. Let the bar proclaim, "the laws, the rights, the generous plan of power" delivered down from remote antiquity, — inform the world of the mighty struggles and numberless sacrifices made by our ancestors in defense of freedom. Let it be known, that British liberties are not the grants of princes or parliaments, but original rights, conditions of original contracts, coequal with prerogative, and coeval with government; that many of our rights are inherent and essential, agreed on as maxims, and established as preliminaries, even before a parliament existed. Let them search for the foundations of British laws and government in the frame of human nature, in the constitution of the intellectual and moral world.

  13. There seems to be a direct and formal design on foot, to enslave all America.

  14. — These are not the vapors of a melancholy mind, nor the effusions of envy, disappointed ambition, nor of a spirit of opposition to government, but the emanations of a heart that burns for its country's welfare. No one of any feeling, born and educated in this once happy country, can consider the numerous distresses, the gross indignities, the barbarous ignorance, the haughty usurpations, that we have reason to fear are meditating for ourselves, our children, our neighbors, in short, for all our countrymen and all their posterity, without the utmost agonies of heart and many tears.

Recommended Resources on Other Sites:

A Footnote to the Political Theory of John Adams Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, by Prof. Stanley Bamberg. -- This essay provides a thoughtful analysis of the sources that influenced John Adams' rhetoric, and the way that rhetoric changed over time.

Related Resources on This Site:

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

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

A particularly interesting example of the way one group of Americans used these core arguments to petition for freedom can be found in Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774: The Petition of a Grate Number of Blackes of this Province who by divine permission are held in a state of Slavery within the bowels of a free and christian Country at The Founders Constitution by permission of the Massachussets Historical Society. Here you will find a case in which the debate is going on not between the colonists and the English but between a group of African-Americans and a ruling group of white Americans. To delve more deeply into the question of how the American conversation on race and slavery related to the conversation on rights, see Expanding the Revolution: If All Men are Created Equal, What About African-Americans?

And if you have not already done so, you may want to view the materials available on The American Conversation and the 1770's Communication Circuit. See particularly: What is Rhetoric? Conversation and Debate in the Era of the Revolution.






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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.