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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Common Sense and the American Revolutionhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link

Workshop 2:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Thomas Paine and American Independence

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In the meantime, a serious grass roots political effort took place to try to get towns and counties and other communities to pass resolutions like some that you are reading; to try to get their state assemblies, if you will, to change their instructions so that they positively endorsed independence. In the meantime, however, the Congress appointed a committee on June 11 to draft the Declaration of Independence, just in case they needed it in July. The committee was at work. It presented its report. On the 28th, it was promptly tabled.

All of these events were critical to the events of early July. Without these grass roots efforts that allowed delegates to get new instructions that would allow them to vote to independence, there is no way that Richard Henry Lee's resolution would have been adopted on July 2, 1776, with a vote of 12 out of 13 colonies. They were much more divided a month earlier. A week later, New York added its approval, and it became the unanimous decision of the American colonies. On July 2, 1776, after adopting the resolution favoring independence, the Congress sat down, and as a committee of whole edited that draft declaration for two days in the midst of one of the greatest military crises of the war. They started changing words, moving phrases, taking text out. The net result is the Declaration of Independence, and it was issued, of course, on July 4, 1776.

Now, it's easy to conclude that since independence was not a widely discussed issue before Common Sense appeared, and that independence happened after it appeared, that it is the critical element in this story. And there is no doubt, let it be said, that he got people talking about it. Public debate began with the appearance of Common Sense, and that was critically important. One Rhode Island delegate to the Congress said it was so important, it was such a service, that the pamphlet should have been distributed at public expense.

That, however, doesn't—it doesn't necessarily follow that independence was Paine's work alone. The question is this: When the Americans started debating independence, were they convinced by Paine's argument, or were they convinced of the importance of independence by other considerations? You have here these, a set of local resolutions from James City County and Buckingham County.

Obviously, when the Virginia Convention instructed its delegates to vote for independence, it was pushed in that direction by those counties and by a series of other resolutions. Malden, Massachusetts, responded to a question submitted to the towns of Massachusetts by their general assembly, which basically said, "If the Congress decides to vote for independence, are you, the inhabitants to the towns of Massachusetts, prepared to defend that decision with your lives and fortunes?" And that question was debated seriously in towns of Massachusetts, throughout the Common—what quickly became the Commonwealth.

So here you have a kind of public expression of the reasons for independence that are independent, really, of Common Sense. And then you get the Declaration of Independence itself, which Thomas Jefferson said was meant to be an expression of the American mind.

What I want you to do today is a twofold exercise. First of all, look hard at Common Sense. How does Paine argue for independence? What's his most important argument? What are his subsidiary arguments?

Second, I want you to look at those local declarations of independence. You have just a handful of them, but particularly Buckingham County is pretty representative of the way towns and counties argued for independence. What's their argument? Is it the same as Paine's? Do you see any echoes of Common Sense in those resolutions? And then ask those same questions of the official congressional Declaration of Independence. Finally, maybe we can engage with the question of whether this exercise will help us gauge more accurately what the extent was of the pamphlet's impact.

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