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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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Now, on that basis, all of these are clearly prior to the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson drafted, as we all know, with a little help from the committee and a lot of subsequent editing for the Second Continental Congress. Is it helpful to know that Jefferson said this document was not supposed to be work of original political theory or original anything? He wasn't supposed to write down thoughts that nobody had ever thought about. It was supposed to be an expression of the American mind.

And he does the same thing, doesn't he? He goes through injuries. I think you're quite correct. There is a statement of basic philosophy in the beginning that we all remember, but it leads in that famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident." It leads up to a statement of the right of revolution. If governments don't protect people's rights, the people have a right to dissolve them, to reject them, to reform them, and to form another. It doesn't say anything about the character of that new government. He doesn't load the dice. He's clearing the deck. So it's much more rhetorical, is it not? It's less autobiographical? Which do you prefer, the formal declaration or the local ones?

Steven Seto: I think you need both. The formal declaration is a wonderful document, but the individual locals, I'd like to see more of the local ones, because it actually gives you the thought of the townspeople. I'd like to see what they were thinking of out in the Western part of the state. I'd like to see what they were thinking about in Connecticut. Those are very, very important.

Professor Maier: And they indicate how much independence was not simply the work of a handful of men, how much it was indeed a decision on the part of the people of the British colonies who had suffered through all these injuries, who drew their own conclusions in the end. It's a different way of thinking about the revolution. It allows you to get as close, I think, as you can get to the voice of the people, and it shows what a broad-based movement this was, how much popular participation it is, and it gets you away from the idea that any one person could have done it. It wasn't Paine; it wasn't Jefferson.

And the best authority on this, so far as my mind goes, is John Adams. You may know that, as Thomas Jefferson's stock declines in our lifetime, that of John Adams is rapidly going up. And among the charms of John Adams is that whatever he said, he really meant. And he was certainly very straightforward. And he really bristled at the tendency by the 1820s to make great heroes out of some members of the revolutionary generation, you know; that Washington became this great hero. And he—of course what really got him annoyed is the pretense that Thomas Paine had caused independence.

I mean, Adams was in the Congress day after day, I say like a baseball player. You know, he knew this wasn't a one-time glory thing; that he had to be in there working the political ropes. It was he who was starting to coordinate the movement of these local meetings so that the voice of the people could be expressed and that it would bring pressure on their delegates and that the instructions would be changed. It was the hard work of independence. Then Paine gets all the glory. And then Jefferson gets all the glory. And you know, he just—he was just, you know, upset about this. He said Jefferson particularly ran off with all the glory and that Paine really didn't deserve all of this credit. But interestingly, he didn't say, "I should get it." What a wonderful passage. He said, "Don't call me the founder of the country; don't call me the perpetrator of American independence. That was the role of the many. It was the role of the American people." And in a very concrete sense, he was right. Thank you.

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