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

 E Pluribus Unum



Once you are familiar with the catalog of core arguments, you can use them as a way of quickly developing a preliminary understanding of a revolutionary era text, even if the language, syntax, concepts, and length of the piece seem daunting at first. Use the structure of the text as a way to find the author's specific arguments and overall position. In other words, go beneath the hundreds of words to find the skeleton of ideas embedded in the organization.

Skimming can be useful, not as a substitute for slow, close reading but as a supplement to it. In fact, using the steps below to develop a quick preliminary analysis of a complex and/or lengthy text can take a lot of the pain out of the thorough reading of the work. Once you have been able to sketch out a kind of map of the arguments of the text and the way they are arranged, you can use that map to guide your reading. Instead of finding yourself lost in a vast wilderness of words, you know you have a trail to follow. You can feel confidence as you move from one argument to the next, knowing that you have already mastered some of its basic elements.


  1. Look at the title.

    You can often tell something about the rhetorical tactics of the author and the kind of argument s/he intends to make simply by reading the title. Paine was definitely signaling that he would make a particular kind of argument when he called one of his pamphlets "Common Sense." Of course, some informal titles are assigned to documents by historians or other people long after they have been written. Those titles, too, can provide useful clues. Wouldn't you expect a different message in "The Olive Branch Declaration," for example, than in "The Declaration of Arms"?

  2. Look at the opening and closing of the text.

    Does the opening include language or ideas that connect to any of the core arguments? There were fairly formal rules for most types of writing in the eighteenth century, and many kinds of texts were intended to offer a preliminary summary of what is to come after. If the author has provided you with an outline of the arguments of the text, be grateful for the gift and use it as a map to find your way through the text. Each time you encounter a new paragraph, see if you can determine which argument the author is presenting. After paying close attention to the opening, consider moving straight ahead to the closing to see what, if any arguments, you find summarized there.

  3. Look at the opening statement of each section.

    If the document is relatively short, quickly read through the opening sentence of each paragraph to see if any of the key arguments appear. If you are dealing with a lengthier document, look for clues that suggest that the author is leaving one argument and moving on to another. The presence of a larger than usual amount of white space can indicate such a move. However, if there are no clear markers, scanning through the first phrases or sentences of each new paragraph will help you identify new arguments as you encounter them.

  4. Look for key words and phrases that signal the presence of familiar arguments.

    Before (and after) reading through the text carefully, you may find it useful to skim the work in order to get a preliminary sense of its main arguments. As you cast your eyes over the text, see if you notice the appearance or even recurrence of words such as "slavery" or "natural law" or "Enlightenment," for example. If you are viewing a text using a web browser or a piece of word processing software such as Word or WordPerfect, you can use the "Find" function (sometimes listed under the "Edit" button) to look for particular words in the text. Using "Find" to search for a number of different phrases in a text might lead you to discover that the terms "natural" or "divine" or "slavery" never appear, but that "Englishmen" comes up sixteen times and "constitution" makes twenty-three appearances. That would send you well on your way to developing an understanding of the text.

  5. Look at the evidence used to support the arguments.

    Are there a great many references to natural law philosophers, to the Bible, or to classical authors such as Cicero and Seneca? Each type of evidence is specifically tailored to illustrate a particular argument. Texts that offer quotes as opening epigraphs signal the nature of their main argument(s) at the outset. It can also be particularly easy to track the sources used in documents that include footnotes. But even when the references are not designed to stand out from the text in this way, it is not difficult to skim for names and quotations, or even to use the "Find" tool to search for quotation marks

  6. Consider the voice of the speaker.

    As you go through a slower and more thorough reading of the text, be sure to be listen carefully to the voice of the speaker. Does s/he sound patient or impatient, logical or impassioned, casual or formal, "common" or highly educated? Or does the voice fluctuate from time to time? If so, can you determine whether the voice changes as certain arguments are introduced, and which voice seems to be most powerful or believable. An effective rhetorician will choose a "voice" that will allow him or her to persuade a particular audience about a particular point or body of material. For an excellent example of a voice that fluctuates in order to convey different kinds of messages within a single text, see Paine's "Common Sense." While the title and opening reassure the reader that Paine will present a very reasonable and orderly -- yet down to earth -- set of comments, Paine never hesitates to become passionate in order to inflame his readers when "emotional" issues arise.

Related Resources on This Site:

What is Rhetoric? Dialogue and Debate in the Writing of the Revolution

A Rhetoric of Rights:

The Arguments Used in the "American Conversation" in the Era of the Revolution
A Step-by-Step Guide to Constructing Quick Analyses of Revolutionary-Era Texts

Investigating the History of Slavery in Early America:

A Guide to Critical Reading
Evaluate the Reasoning
Evaluate the Reliability of Evidence
Finding Your Own Answers

Texts that Illustrate Typical Arguments and Techniques:

Excerpts from John Adams' "A Dissertation on the Canon Feudal Law": An Illustration of Arguments Used by American Patriots in the Rhetoric of the Revolution

Excerpt from Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull's Fast-Day Proclamation of 1775

A Debate on Natural Rights from Hutchinson's “A Dialogue between an American and a European Englishman”

Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774 at The Founders Constitution

Orations on the Boston Massacre

The Rights of the Colonists: The Report of the Committee of Correspondence to the Boston Town Meeting, by Samuel Adams, November 20, 1772




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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.