A Rhetoric of Rights:
The Arguments Used in 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 below 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.

Below, you will find a brief explanation of a select set of the central arguments that fueled the writing of Jefferson, John and Sam Adams, Franklin, and their confederates. Once you understand those claims, it becomes much easier to understand individual texts. It also becomes possible to see how the documents of the two contending parties engage in a kind of conversation with one another. But what may be most interesting of all is the fact that a great many of the same arguments that made up the repertoire of American revolutionary rhetoric can also be found in the works of British writers who engaged in an ongoing struggle against the centralized powers of government for the gradual expansion of the rights of English freemen.


A Selected List of "Core Arguments" Used in the Debate Over Revolution

Americans are "Englishmen" and Englishmen have Earned Constitutional Rights

According to this argument, although those who first settled America had left England many years before, the charters given to them by the King at that time guaranteed that the original colonists and their descendents would continue to be Englishmen.

One factor that may make this argument perplexing is the fact that there has never been a written English constitution. However, the term is used to refer to the general set of rights and privileges set forth in such documents as the Magna Carta (also known as "'The Great Charter of the Liberties of England") and the English Bill of Rights, as well as those protected by Common Law. Unlike laws created by a legislature, the "common law" is based on long agreed-upon understandings of right practice as interpreted by judges.

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: Englishmen, freemen, rights, Magna Carta (or Magna Charta), constitution, Sir Coke.

Click here for a fuller discussion of this topic.

Natural Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

"Natural Law" is a name used to refer to one or more of the following beliefs:

  • All individuals are entitled at birth to certain "natural rights" that guarantee their personal safety and property.
  • All human beings are endowed with reason so they are able to distinguish right from wrong.
  • Human beings sometimes enter into a "social contract" to form an association/ government that will protect the life and property of the members and promote their welfare.
  • When a ruler or legislature acts against the welfare of the people, the government no longer deserves the submission of the people.

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: natural law, law of nature, nature's law, reason, rational, sense or common sense, Grotius, John Locke, Algernon Sidney. Proponents of natural law often use the following words when characterizing the opposition: bias, prejudice, unreasonable, superstition.

Click here for a fuller discussion of this topic.

Divine Law Guarantees All Human Beings Fundamental Rights

Supporters of natural law believed that according to "Divine Law" power rested in the hands of the people rather than their monarchs. This went directly counter to the earlier theory of the "divine right of kings," which was explained in the following terms in a 1610 speech to parliament by James I of England (1603-1625):

... The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth: for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself they are called gods. There be three principal [comparisons] that illustrate the state of monarchy: one taken out of the word of God, and the two other out of the grounds of policy and philosophy. In the Scriptures kings are called gods, and so their power after a certain relation compared to the Divine power.

On the other hand, since Enlightenment thinkers believed in a God who was the embodiment of reason and goodness, they assumed that as the "author of nature" he created an order designed to promote the welfare of his creatures.

In other words, both reason and Biblical revelation makes it clear that God has given people the gift of life, the reason to make use of it, and the right to enjoy their possession of the earth. When a ruling power usurps these rights, human beings have not only the right but perhaps even the responsibility to refuse to submit to his/her/its authority.

You may be seeing this argument when the author includes prominent and/or frequent references to the Bible or other religious resources. 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: God, divine, divine rights, revelation, Bible, author of nature, God of nature, nature's God.

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Parents Have a Natural Authority Over their Children, but England has Not Behaved as a "Natural" Mother

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 familiar with this concept not only through the works of Enlightenment 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."

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 fact, Paine and others 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.

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.

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The Model of Ancient Republics Show that Freemen Should Not Submit to Slavery

The eighteenth-century interest in Enlightenment ideals brought with it a renewed interest in the literature, politics, philosophies, and morals of the classical world, particularly as they were expressed in Rome. (For example, the Library of Congress exhibition on Jefferson's Library describes his deep interest in the writings and ideals of Cicero.)

Thus, when a writer or speaker wanted to use an argument based in republican principles, he would often quote Cicero, cite an example from Roman history, or make some other reference to the classical world. In the ancient republics, and particularly Rome, the English found a model of society that celebrated the importance of the individual of good character who fully contributed to the development of the civic community.

Classical literature, a fundamental part of the reading of all educated Europeans and Americans in that period, did more than just provide a way of thinking about the importance of republican values. As Gordon Woods suggests in his chapter on "The Republicanization of Monarchy" in his classic work, The Radicalism of the American Revolution: "Classical Republican Rome . . . became the means by which enlightened eighteenth-century Englishmen could distance themselves from their own society and achieve the perspective from which to criticize it." (p101) Many Americans, of course, found that distance and distinctive treatment provided another kind of perspective that prompted critical thoughts. However, in their case classical authors and examples provided a means of voicing their criticism in terms that others might regard as socially acceptable or more difficult to ridicule.

The contrasting nature of "slavery" and "freedom" was a common topic of contemplating and argument among classical authors, and American rhetoricians used this same formula to protest British claims of authority over their lands and lives. For example, in 1765, John Adams wrote in "A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law":

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?

Frequently, writers and orators would incorporate classical denunciations of slavery into their own texts.

Although present-day Americans associate the word "slavery" with the captivity of African-Americans in the period before Emancipation, eighteenth century Americans who encountered that term in writing or oratory about politics would have been likely to think of its classical associations. Admittedly, this is hard to imagine, given the fact that slavery did exist in the colonies in that period. Yet, the founders raged against their own "enslavement" by England even while most of them supported slavery of a more gruesome type in their own land. In part, Americans were following ancient precedents in seeing a distinction between what constituted just treatment of those of one's own race and culture and what was reasonable when dealing with "other" peoples. Even many of the founders themselves, however, admitted there was a fundamental contradiction in this approach. For more on this topic, see Revolutionizing the Revolution: If "All Men are Created Equal," What About African-Americans?

In 1765, John Adams wrote in "A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law":

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?

While it was common for writers and speakers to warn their audiences of the threat of slavery posed by England, may have been even more common to celebrate American freedom in illustrations by including an image of the "liberty cap" on top of a rod. In ancient Rome, a formal ceremony was held when a slave was to be given freedom. Part of the ritual involved granting "freedom by the rod," which involved the master or official tapping the slave with a long pole, sometimes topped by the "liberty cap" which was to be worn by the freed man when attending the funeral of his former master. Here is just one example of the way the liberty cap image was incorporated into American iconography.


For more information on this subject, see :The Cultural Significance of Roman Manumission, by Bonnie Palmer.

Colonists are Entitled to Charter Rights

During the period in which America was first settled by English colonists, it was customary for each corporation or group of people intending to take possession of particular lands to seek a charter from the king. Colonial charters typically included both specifically defined land grants and sets of rules under which the colony would operate. In recognition of the fact that distance made it impossible for the king or parliament to rule the colonies directly, most charters specified the responsibilities and privileges of specific officers who would be appointed by the crown while also providing the colonists with some freedom to set up civic structures and rules suited to their situation as long as those systems were not in conflict with English law. In practice, this led some colonies to develop practices such as conducting town meetings and holding elections for a wide variety of officials. The 1629 charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony signed by Charles I, for example, made it possible for its people to develop the habits of a democratic society. Henry William El son noted in his History of the United States of America (1910),

This charter was very similar to the third charter of Virginia of 1612. But there was one remarkable point of difference; it did not provide, as did the Virginia charter, that the seat of government must remain in England. This omission led to the most important results in the building of New England.The experience of democracy based on direct representation undoubtedly made Americans impatient with the more indirect mode of representation by which the members of Parliament claimed to "represent" Americans even though colonists had no opportunity to vote in Parliamentary elections.

This situation was further inflamed in 1774 when Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by passing the set of regulations known as or "The Coercive Acts" in Britain and labeled "The Intolerable Acts" in America. Some elements of these acts directly rescinded rights that had previously been articulated in colonial charters. For example, the original charter of Massachusetts had already been revised (and limited) several times before the Massachusetts Government Act further restricted the terms of its charter by increasing the British government's power over the colonial governor while also increasing the governor's power over the colonists. The same act took away the charter-guaranteed right of freemen to elect many of their local officials.

For a large collection of charters and contracts, see the 18th Century Documents at the Avalon Project of Yale Law School.

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:

charter, compact, contract, ancient, forefathers, ancestors.

"Forefathers" Earned Freedom for All Americans

Although it would seem to contradict both the claim that Americans are Englishmen, and that the rights of the colonists were founded on government charters, American patriots often argued that their "forefathers" had left England in order to find freedom in a new world. All Americans are thus entitled to liberty because their ancestors had braved the challenges involved in taming the wilderness.

This argument can be found in many of the documents of the revolutionary era, but it was also given a different kind of expression in the celebration of Forefather's Day. Once a small private celebration held by a small group of friends to commemorate the landing of their own ancestors at Plymouth, Forefather's Day was transformed into a major holiday in Massachusetts with a serious political message in the years before the revolution. Not surprisingly, as the split with Britain grew closer, the speeches delivered on Forefather's Day placed a strong emphasis on the idea that the Puritan settlers had sought and earned freedom in this new land.

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:

forefathers, ancestors, settlers, Puritan, brave, wilderness.

America is Entitled to Rights (and Respect) Because It Is Destined to Be Mighty

Even in the eighteenth century it was clear that the size of America and the scale of its resources suggested that it was likely to develop a large population, a prosperous economy, and perhaps even political power. Therefore, many of those seeking greater independence from England argued that the "mother country" should be courting Americans rather than restricting them. Some writers, in fact, went so far as to suggest that some day the capital of England would be relocated from London to some more important city in America. Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament who supported the colonists in their pleas, argued in his Speech on Conciliation with America, (March 22, 1775):

our ancestors have turned a savage wilderness into a glorious empire, and have made the most extensive and the only honorable conquests, not by destroying, but by promoting the wealth, the number, the happiness of the human race. . . . English privileges have made it all that it is; English privileges alone will make it all it can be.

Even Adam Smith, who believed that Americans were wrong to protest the taxes and other measures that required them to contribute to the support of England, admitted:

    The discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind. Their consequences have already been very great: but, in the short period of between two and three centuries which has elapsed since these discoveries were made, it is impossible that the whole extent of their consequences can have been seen. What benefits, or what misfortunes to mankind may hereafter result from those great events, no human wisdom can foresee. By uniting, in some measure, the most distant parts of the world, by enabling them to relieve one another's wants, to increase one another's enjoyments, and to encourage one another's industry, their general tendency would seem to be beneficial.

    In the mean time, one of the principal effects of those discoveries has been to raise the mercantile system to a degree of splendour and glory which it could never otherwise have attained to. (From the Chapter "Of Colonies" in The Wealth of Nations)

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.