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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Common Sense and the American Revolutionhomesitemap
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Workshop 2:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Thomas Paine and American Independence

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Still, the colonies didn't want independence. What they were trying to do was to simply keep the British from forcing them into subjection. They thought they needed to do that in order to come to an agreement by which they could be reconciled in a more enduring way, a way that would recognize American rights. One great expression of that desire for reconciliation is the Olive Branch Petition, which is a petition that the Second Continental Congress sent to the king in July 1775. But it wasn't answered. Emissaries from the Americans presented [it] to the king's secretary of state, Lord Dartmouth, who informed them that there would be no answers, since the king had not deigned to receive it on the throne.

But in a way the king did answer it. On August 23, 1775, he issued a proclamation that said the Americans "were engaged in an open and avowed rebellion." Later, on October 26, 1775, the king told Parliament in a message that would be powerfully important among the colonies that the American rebellion was "manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire. The authors and supporters of that desperate conspiracy," he said, "meant only to amuse by vague expressions of attachment to the parent state, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they were preparing for a general revolt." Some American defenders in Parliament said to him, "What are you trying to do, put the word 'independence' in their mouths? They're denying it; you're proclaiming it."

Other events at home also wore away at people's loyalty. In October, the king's navy, after warning the inhabitants of Falmouth, Maine, now Portland, to leave—first within two hours, and then they gave them a little bit more time—turned its guns on the town and bombarded it from 9:30 in the morning until sunset. That's October 17, 1775. It left hundreds of people, including helpless women and children, as the account said, homeless.

In November, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, issued his famous proclamation offering slaves their freedom if they would join the king's forces and fight against their masters. Needless to say, that pushed many of the masters who were hesitant into the arms of the radicals. News of the king's message of the previous October arrived in the colonies almost simultaneously with the appearance of Common Sense, so all of these events clearly added to its power. "When Common Sense appeared," Ashbel Green said, "it struck a string which required but a touch to make it vibrate. The country was ripe for independence and only needed somebody to tell the people so, with decision, boldness, and plausibility."

Of course later in the year, independence came. Critical events occurred in May of 1776, several months, actually, after Common Sense appeared. On May 15, a couple of very interesting things happened. The Continental Congress, for one thing, passed a set of resolutions with a very radical preface, that called on the colonies to suppress all royal authority and to found governments founded on the authority of the people. John Adams, who was the author of the preamble to that radical resolution, said it was independence in everything but name. However, he admitted, you still needed a formal declaration.

But almost simultaneously, the Virginia Convention, which is its revolutionary government, passes a series of resolutions, including one which calls on Virginia's representatives in the Second Continental Congress to move that the Congress approve and adopt independence. That is the background for a set of resolutions which the Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee, moved on June 7, 1776. The critical resolution for our purposes is the following: that "these united colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The resolutions were debated by the Congress as a committee of the whole, on the eighth and on the 10th of June. Those are the fullest debates on independence that the Congress held. We don't have any official minutes of them. We do have our reports of the debates that were taken by another delegate from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson. Clearly they divided; the Congress divided. Some people said, "Yes, we should do it right away." Others said, "We understand by now it's inevitable, but we're not ready yet. We can't get too far ahead of the people." Several states, in fact, had given their delegates instructions that precluded them from voting for independence, so the Congress in the end decided to delay its vote until early July.

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