Introduction to a
Rhetoric of Rights:
Selected Core Arguments
of the American Conversation
in the Era of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

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 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 in "The 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," 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 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 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 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 Revolution."


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 Rights
  • Divine Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights
  • 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 Forefathers
  • America is Entitled to Rights and Respect Because It Is Destined to Be Mighty

You may find the following links useful:

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.

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?

 
 

 
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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.