The Rhetoric of Rights:
Parents Have Authority Over Children, but England Has Not Behaved as a "Natural" Parent

 E Pluribus Unum




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.

You may find the following links useful:

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

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?

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.