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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 Two:
Summarizing Paine's Argument

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Professor Maier: Well, of course they want their independence from Britain, because the king is starting to muck around with slavery. And you know, the only way they're going to have their control over those slaves is by being independent. But of course it's a Catch 22, because when they start talking about the fundamental equality of mankind, all men are created equal, which means, in the context of these documents, that God put nobody over another. Nobody has authority over another person by force of nature or God's decisions. All authority comes from consent. If you take those as basic principles, the whole slave system comes into question, because slave status is inherited, and consent has nothing to do with it. And in fact, right away, slavery comes to the front of the stage. Previous to this period, the only people who were criticizing slavery in any systematic manner within the American colonies were Quakers.

Ron Morrison: Right.

Professor Maier: But the inconsistency of slavery, with the principles that are being stated in these documents, immediately puts it on the front of the agenda. And you get your first great emancipation movement with the American Revolution for just that reason.

Ed Morrison: I see the declaration by Jefferson as a next step in the necessary transition of this evolutionary process from Paine's Common Sense. I see Paine in Common Sense just as the word itself says, common, and it's an appeal to the ordinary person in America. I see in Jefferson's declaration, it starts out with the same argument against the government and theories of natural rights and the right to revolt and so forth, and the relationship of government to people...

Professor Maier: But not really Paine's argument. It isn't an explicit attack on monarchy.

Ed Morrison: But it's a government, you know, comparison.

Professor Maier: It's theory.

Ed Morrison: But then what Jefferson does is he takes it to the next level, and he makes it as an appeal before the supreme god of the world, the supreme being of the world. I think he then takes the accusations addressed towards the king—he's forbidden, obstructed, et cetera—as a justification to build up support before the world with the understanding that they haven't got a very good chance here. They've engaged in a desperate act. You know, they are going to be regarded as traitors; they are going to need outside help. And they have a natural ally in France. So I see Jefferson's declaration as taking it from America to before the altars of mankind.

Professor Maier: Right. And you could certainly hypothesize that from the beginning of the paragraph where he says "A decent respect for the opinions of mankind" means that we have to explain why we are doing this. But my sense, however, is this document is much more meant for the American people. If you look at the way the Congress dealt with it, they were very anxious to have it distributed to the American people. I think it was meant mainly for an American audience to justify and to explain and to announce. Here we get the communications again. You couldn't get five minutes on prime time news. They wouldn't break into programs to announce this. In order to get it to people on the frontier, for example, where they didn't even get newspapers, you had to send it out and find somebody in town who would, you know, after church in Massachusetts or on court days in Virginia, read it to the assembled people.

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