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)
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 emphasizes the primary importance of rights and
liberty. (For a good example of an argument based on the importance
of order, see the points raised in 1776 by Loyalist Charles Inglis
True Interest of America Impartially Stated.") 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. David Hume, an important figure in the
British Enlightenment, pointed out in his essay "Of the People,"
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 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 "unnatural parent"
s/he could draw upon a depth of understanding that is difficult
for a present-day reader to comprehend.
By employing familiar phrases that instantly introduced arguments
that had grown in meaning and emotional import over hundreds of
years, authors were able to relieve themselves of the necessity
of fully developing the arguments unless they chose to do so.
Short but dense clusters of code words or phrases can 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 Governor Jonathan
Trumbull issued on December 19, 1775, urging 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. At the same time,
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
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 ammunition
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 canister.
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.
Probably central inconsistency we encounter in revolutionary-era
texts was caused by the apparent clash between the Enlightenment
ideals that had begun to gain serious attention in the late seventeenth
and early eighteenth centuries and earlier modes of thinking.
Enlightenment thinkers emphasized the importance of individualism,
reason, science, and a generally optimistic view of human nature.
But even though those ideas had won wide acceptance by the era
of the revolution (particularly among American radicals), they
did not wholly and immediately displace older, more God-centered
visions of the world, more authority-based visions of society,
and darker, more cynical visions of human nature. While the philosophically-inclined
certainly used the new concepts to construct a wholesale revision
of their ways of thinking, other people no doubt accepted some
of the new ideas and placed them alongside the older ones. 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 some people to change the way they thought
about God and religion.
And there are at least some cases in which we see evidence that
a writer or speaker is intentionally introducing an argument inconsistent
with others in the text in order to be persuasive. Not all readers
or listeners are scrutinizing words carefully to see if they offer
a systematic philosophical or political vision. Instead, they
are often looking for something that connects with their own interests.
If you wish to appeal to a broad audience, in other words,, you
may find it necessary to incorporate a similarly broad collection
of appeals. Be sure to remember this simple fact of life before
you build an interpretation of a text (or person) by focusing
on a single argument without placing it in the context of the
larger body of ideas represented in the writing.
However, as you become acquainted with the core arguments of
the debate that was going on in the revolutionary era, 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 means 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 ways in which
these points are combined to formulate more complex arguments.
You can use the links below to read explanations a select set
of the central arguments that fueled the writing and speeches
of patriots and their 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
Click on the links for explanations of the following core arguments:
- Americans are "Englishmen,"
and Englishmen Have Earned Constitutional Rights
- Natural Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental
- Divine Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental
- Parents Have a Natural Authority Over their Children,
but England has Not Behaved as a "Natural" Mother
- The Model of Ancient Republics Show that Freemen Should
Not Submit to Slavery
- "Forefathers" Earned Freedom for All Americans
- Colonists are Entitled to Charter Rights Given to
- America is Entitled to Rights and Respect Because
It Is Destined to Be Mighty