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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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Carol Siriani: One of the things that strikes me is that there is always this combination between addressing the big philosophical issues, because even Paine says the cause of America is the cause of mankind, and then goes on to do the British theory. And then it seems to me in the state ones you get much more the picky stuff, the "This is what you've done to me." And then you come back to Jefferson, and he does the combination again, whereas he starts off with a big theory about why, and then he does the picky stuff. So he's sort of like trying to combine everything—hitting the intellectual in terms of "This is your philosophical basis," but at the same time getting the common people in terms of "Remember when he did this to you? Remember when he did that to you?" So it seems to me that it's interesting to see how all of them seem to come—or both of them, Paine and the state, come together in the declaration.

Professor Maier: Aren't the local declarations almost autobiographical? One after another starts out saying, "Before all this happened, we profoundly loved the king and the royal family, but our sentiments, our feelings have now changed." And then they go about explaining it. It isn't at all this sort of political science-y argument that Paine gives. They say, you know, "Our feelings have changed," and they explain why.

"It's," Malden says, "unprovoked injuries." And they refer of course to Lexington and Concord in this wonderful passage, you know. "We remember the plan was brought to a crisis upon the ever memorable 19th of April. We remember the fatal day. The expiring groans of our countrymen yet vibrate on our ears. And we now behold the flames of their peaceful dwellings ascended to heaven." Well, Malden, as Ed's reminded me, is north of Boston. Those militiamen no doubt engaged in that operation. This was an experience that they're remembering and reflecting on. Their injuries are almost personal. And then they relate it to a large number of other things the British have been doing over time. But it's what they've done to us that forces us into doing this, that we don't any longer have the recourse of staying here. The affections have dissolved. And this is their argument, and it ultimately says, "We're at the point, we can't go back anymore. And we're going to be destroyed if they keep on like this. We need help." Yeah, Steve.

Steven Seto: At this point, have events begun to drag them along uncontrollably? For example, if, I guess, if George III had died of consumption, and we have a new king, would everybody have said, "Just let's put on the brakes and let's see what this king would have done"? I mean, is it really the king, or are events that far along that now it's the system?

Professor Maier: It's a wonderful question. And if you look at these documents, I think that you would come to the conclusion that they would have put everything on hold. They aren't convinced that there is absolutely no hope under the British system. But what's very interesting, I think, that although they make a rather different argument than Common Sense, they do pick up echoes of his language.

And here, let me confess, I didn't give you an unbiased set of documents. I gave you a stacked deck. Of the three local documents I gave you, there are the only two that I located out of some 90 that I had found that clearly echo Paine's language. And I wonder if you picked it up. Look at James City County. "Reason drawn from justice, policy, and necessity are everywhere at hand for a radical separation from Great Britain. From justice, for the blood of those who have fallen in our cause cries aloud, it is time to part."

Now you may remember the line from Common Sense. It's a little different. Paine said, "The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'tis time to part." It's close but not exact. It's as if they had read Common Sense; they'd absorbed it. They didn't have the text in front of them, but they give echoes of the language. The closer echo, however, is in Malden. The passage I read you has very clear connections with Paine's Common Sense. "No man," Paine wrote, "was ever a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself before the fatal 19th of April, 1775. But the moment the event of the day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England forever and disdained the wretch that can, with pretended title of father of his people, unfeelingly hear of their slaughter and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul."

And after that little autobiographical sort of interlude, the people of Malden really echo that line. "We can have no further connection with the king who can unfeelingly hear of the slaughter of his subjects and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul." But look: They use parts of Common Sense that tie in with their argument, in a sense. Their experience, the ways in which their affection you know, had melted. They're not using his central argument, which is attack on the system of monarchy. It's rather different. It's much more personal. And I think we can make a kind of a conclusion from this. I would propose to you we can. The people read Common Sense; it opened the debate on independence. But when they came to their own conclusion, they didn't come at it just like Paine did. They had their own arguments, their own experience that they brought into it. They made their own arguments.

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