Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776

Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature and Criticism, Columbia University, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2014

How did Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense convince reluctant Americans to abandon the goal of reconciliation with Britain and accept that separation from Britain — independence — was the only option for preserving their liberty?


By January 1776, the American colonies were in open rebellion against Britain. Their soldiers had captured Fort Ticonderoga, besieged Boston, fortified New York City, and invaded Canada. Yet few dared voice what most knew was true — they were no longer fighting for their rights as British subjects. They weren’t fighting for self-defense, or protection of their property, or to force Britain to the negotiating table. They were fighting for independence. It took a hard jolt to move Americans from professed loyalty to declared rebellion, and it came in large part from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Not a dumbed-down rant for the masses, as often described, Common Sense is a masterful piece of argument and rhetoric that proved the power of words.

Common Sense


Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
[Find more primary sources related to Common Sense in Making the Revolution from the National Humanities Center.]

Text Type

Literary nonfiction; persuasive essay. In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 9-10 complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.6 (Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • 3.2 (IB) (Republican forms of government found expression in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.)

Advanced Placement English Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction
  • Analyzing and identifying and author’s use of rhetorical strategies

Teacher’s Note

This lesson focuses on the sections central to Paine’s argument in Common Sense — Section III and the Appendix to the Third Edition, published a month after the first edition. We do not recommend assigning the full essay (Sections I, II, and IV require advanced background in British history that Paine’s readers would have known well). However, students should be led through an overview of the essay to understand how Paine built his arguments to a “self-evident” conclusion (See Background: Message, below.)

Activity: From Resistance to RevolutionActivity: From Resistance to Revolution
Compare Paine’s message and rhetoric in 1776 with that of a moderate Patriot in 1768.

We recommend the first interactive exercise, From Resistance to Revolution, to lead students into the revolutionary mindset of 1776. Comparing Paine’s radical call for independence with a Patriot’s moderate plea for resistance in 1768 illuminates the dramatic transition that occurred in the eight years preceding the Declaration of Independence.

Lead students through an initial overview of the essay (see Background). To begin, they could skim the full text and read the pull-quotes (separated quotes in large bold text). What impression of Common Sense do the quotes provide? What questions do they prompt? Then guide students as they read (perhaps aloud) Section III of Common Sense and the Appendix to the Third Edition (pp. 10-19 and 25-29 in the full text provided with this lesson).

Proceed to the close reading of three excerpts in the Text Analysis below. (Note that part of Excerpt #3 is a Common Core exemplar text.)

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive worksheet that can be e-mailed, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Common Sense

The man at right does not look angry. To us, he projects the typical figure of a “Founding Father” — composed, elite, and empowered. And to us his famous essays are awash in powdered-wig prose. But the portrait and the prose belie the reality. Thomas Paine was a firebrand, and his most influential essay — Common Sense — was a fevered no-holds-barred call for independence. He is credited with turning the tide of public opinion at a crucial juncture, convincing many Americans that war for independence was the only option to take, and they had to take it now, or else.

Common Sense appeared as a pamphlet for sale in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, and, as we say today, it went viral. The first printing sold out in two weeks and over 150,000 copies were sold throughout America and Europe. It is estimated that one fifth of Americans read the pamphlet or heard it read aloud in public. General Washington ordered it read to his troops. Within weeks, it seemed, reconciliation with Britain had gone from an honorable goal to a cowardly betrayal, while independence became the rallying cry of united Patriots. How did Paine achieve this?

1. Timing.

Timeline to the Declaration of Independence
Over a year elapsed between the outbreak of armed conflict and the Declaration of Independence. During these fifteen months, many bemoaned the reluctance of Americans to renounce their ties with Britain despite the escalating warfare around them. “When we are no longer fascinated with the Idea of a speedy Reconciliation,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in mid-1775, “we shall exert ourselves to some purpose. Till then Things will be done by Halves.”1 In addition, there remained much discord among the colonies about their shared future. “Some timid minds are terrified at the word independence,” wrote Elbridge Gerry in March 1776, referring to the colonial legislatures. “America has gone such lengths she cannot recede, and I am convinced a few weeks or months at furthest will convince her of the fact, but the fruit must have time to ripen in some of the other Colonies.”2 In this environment, Common Sense appeared like a “meteor,” wrote John Adams,3 and propelled many to support independence. Many noted it at the time with amazement.

“Sometime past the idea [of independence] would have struck me with horror. I now see no alternative;… Can any virtuous and brave American hesitate one moment in the choice?”

The Pennsylvania Evening Post, 13 February 1776

“We were blind, but on reading these enlightening works the scales have fallen from our eyes…. The doctrine of Independence hath been in times past greatly disgustful; we abhorred the principle. It is now become our delightful theme and commands our purest affections. We revere the author and highly prize and admire his works.”

The New-London [Connecticut] Gazette, 22 March 1776

2. Message.

What made Common Sense so esteemed and “enlightening”? Some argue that Common Sense said nothing new, that it simply put the call-to-war in fiery street language that rallied the common people. But this trivializes Paine’s accomplishment. He did have a new message in Common Sense — an ultimatum. Give up reconciliation now, or forever lose the chance for independence. If we fail to act, we’re self-deceiving cowards condemning our children to tyranny and cheating the world of a beacon of liberty. It is our calling to model self-actualized nationhood for the world. “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”

Common Sense

Paine divided Common Sense into four sections with deceptively mundane titles, mimicking the erudite political pamphlets of the day. But his essay did not offer the same-old-same-old treatise on British heritage and American rights. Here’s what he says in Common Sense:

Introduction: The ideas I present here are so new that many people will reject them. Readers must clear their minds of long-held notions, apply common sense, and adopt the cause of America as the “cause of all mankind.” How we respond to tyranny today will matter for all time.

Section One: The English government you worship? It’s a sham. Man may need government to protect him from his flawed nature, but that doesn’t mean he must suffocate under brute tyranny. Just as you would cut ties with abusive parents, you must break from Britain.

Section Two: The monarchy you revere? It’s not our protector; it’s our enemy. It doesn’t care about us; it cares about Britain’s wealth. It has brought misery to people all over the world. And the very idea of monarchy is absurd. Why should someone rule over us simply because he (or she) is someone’s child? So evil is monarchy by its very nature that God condemns it in the Bible.

Section Three: Our crisis today? It’s folly to think we should maintain loyalty to a distant tyrant. It’s self-sabotage to pursue reconciliation. For us, right here, right now, reconciliation means ruin. America must separate from Britain. We can’t go back to the cozy days before the Stamp Act. You know that’s true; it’s time to admit it. For heaven’s sake, we’re already at war!

Section Four: Can we win this war? Absolutely! Ignore the naysayers who tremble at the thought of British might. Let’s build a Continental Navy as we have built our Continental Army. Let us declare independence. If we delay, it will be that much harder to win. I know the prospect is daunting, but the prospect of inaction is terrifying.

A month later, in his appendix to the third edition, Paine escalated his appeal to a utopian fervor. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he insisted. “The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

3. Rhetoric.

“It is necessary to be bold,” wrote Paine years later on his rhetorical power. “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.”4 Keep this idea front and center as you study Common Sense.

As an experienced essayist and a recent English immigrant with his own deep resentments against Britain, Paine was the right man at the right time to galvanize public opinion. He “understood better than anyone else in America,” explains literary scholar Robert Ferguson, “that ‘style and manner of thinking’ might dictate the difficult shift from loyalty to rebellion.”5 Before Paine, the language of political essays had been moderate. Educated men wrote civilly for publication and kept their fury for private letters and diaries. Then came Paine, cursing Britain as an “open enemy,” denouncing George III as the “Royal Brute of England,” and damning reconciliation as “truly farcical” and “a fallacious dream.” To think otherwise, he charged, was “absurd,” “unmanly,” and “repugnant to reason.” As Virginian Landon Carter wrote in dismay, Paine implied that anyone who disagreed with him “is nothing short of a coward and a sycophant [stooge/lackey], which in plain meaning must be a damned rascal.”6 Paine knew what he was doing: the pen was his weapon, and words his ammunition. He argued with ideas while convincing with raw emotion. “The point to remember,” writes Ferguson, “is that Paine’s natural and intended audience is the American mob…. He uses anger, the natural emotion of the mob, to let the most active groups find themselves in the general will of a republican citizenry.”7 What if Paine had written the Declaration of Independence with the same hard-driving rhetoric?


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


NO man can deny, without abandoning his God-given ability to reason, that all men enter into existence as equals. No matter how lowly or majestic their origins, they enter life with three God-given RIGHTS — the right to live, to right to live free, and the right to live happily (or, at the least, to pursue Happiness on earth). Who would choose existence on any other terms? So treasured are these rights that man created government to protect them. So treasured are they that man is duty-bound to destroy any government that crushes them — and start anew as men worthy of the title of FREE MEN. This is the plain truth, impossible to refute.

Text Analysis

Excerpt #1

Close Reading Questions

Imagine yourself sitting down to read Common Sense in January 1776. How does Paine introduce his reasoning to you?
He announces that his logic will be direct and down to earth, using only “simple facts” and “plain arguments” to explain his position, unlike (he implies) the complex political pamphlets addressed to the educated elite. His audience would understand “common sense” to suggest the moral sense of the yeoman farmer, whose independence and clear-headedness made him a more reliable guardian of national virtue (similar to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal).

Why does he write “I offer nothing more” instead of “I offer you many reasons” or “I offer a detailed argument”?
“Nothing more” implies that Common Sense will be easy to follow, presenting only what is necessary to make his argument. (Paine considered titling his essay Plain Truth.)

How does Paine ask you to prepare yourself for his “common sense” arguments?
Be willing to put aside pre-conceived notions, he says, and judge his arguments on their own merits.

What does he imply by saying a fair reader “will put on, or rather than he will not put off, the true character of a man”?
He implies that any reader who would refuse to consider his arguments is narrow-minded. With the “on”–”off” contrast, he suggests that you, the individual reader, are open-minded and thus a fellow man of honor willing to consider a new point of view.

Activity: The Common Sense of 'Common Sense'Activity: The Common Sense of Common Sense
Examine Paine’s “common sense” reasoning in his arguments for complete independence.
In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense: and have no other preliminaries to settle with the reader than that he will divest [rid] himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer [permit] his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves: that he will put on, or rather that he will not put off, the true character of a man, and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.



This paragraph begins with one of the most famous hyperboles in American writing. A hyperbole is an overstatement or exaggeration to emphasize a point. What are the two examples of hyperbole in this paragraph?
1. “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth
2. “posterity… will be more or less affected, even to the end of time

With the hyperboles, how does Paine lead you to view the “cause” of American independence?
View it, he says, from an overarching global perspective, not the narrow perspective of American colonists in the late 1700s. The hyperboles are ultimates — the most worthy of worthy causes, affecting the future now and forever. The American cause can lead mankind toward enlightened self-determination, driving forward the progress of civilization. Paine says this directly in his introduction: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” We’re not just talking taxes and representation, people.

What tone does Paine add with the phrases “The sun never shined” and “even to the end of time”?
A biblical and prophetic tone. The sun shining down on human endeavors suggests divine endorsement of the American cause — a cause that will bring light and freedom (“salvation”) to the world. Resisting the cause, Paine implies, would be resisting divine will.

Let’s consider Paine as a wordsmith. How does he use repetition to add impact to the first part of the paragraph?
He includes two repetitive sets:
1. “’Tis not” to begin sentences 2 and 3 [anaphora]
2. the phrases “of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom” and “of a day, a year, or an age” [prepositions with multiple objects].
Read the section aloud to hear the insistent rhythm that elevates Paine’s prose to a rousing call to action (his goal in writing Common Sense).

Paine ends this paragraph with an analogy: What we do now is like carving initials into the bark of a young oak tree. What does he mean with the analogy?
A. This is the time to create a new nation. Our smallest efforts now will lead to enormous benefits in the future.
B. This is the time to unite for independence. Discord among us now will escalate into future crises that could ruin the young nation.
Answer: B.

The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest and will be more or less affected, even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental [colonies’] union, faith and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.



Paine includes multiple repetitions in this paragraph. What word repetition do you find?
The adjective “new” in a “new area” and a “new method.” [anaphora]

What sound repetitions do you find?
Alliteration: argument/arms/area/arisen
Consonance: politics/struck

Read the sentences aloud. What impact does the repetition add to Paine’s delivery?
A stirring oratorical rhythm is achieved, like that of a solemn speech or sermon meant to convey the truth and gravity of an argument.

Paine compares the attempts to reconcile with Britain after the Battle of Lexington and Concord to an old almanac. What does he mean?
He means the idea of reconciliation is now preposterous and that no rational person could support it. No one would use last year’s almanac to make plans for the current year! Also, as an almanac ceases to be useful at a specific moment (midnight of December 31), Paine implies that reconciliation ceased to be a valid goal at the moment of the first shot on April 19, 1775. (Paine often alludes to aspects of colonial life, like almanacs, that would resonate with all readers. They include references to farming, tree cutting, hunting, land ownership, slavery, biblical scripture, family and neighbor bonds, maturation, and the parent-child relationship; see “The Metaphor of Youth” below.)

By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new area for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen. All plans, proposals, etc., prior to the nineteenth of April, i.e., to the commencement of hostilities [Lexington and Concord], are like the almanacs of the last year which, though proper [accurate] then, are superseded and useless now. Whatever was advanced by the advocates on either side of the question then, terminated in one and the same point, viz. [that is], a union with Great Britain. The only difference between the parties was the method of effecting it — the one proposing force, the other friendship; but it hath so far happened that the first hath failed and the second hath withdrawn her influence.



Paine compares the goal of reconciliation to an “agreeable dream [that has] passed away and left us as we were.” Why doesn’t he aim harsher criticism here at the goal of reconciling with Britain?
With this paragraph, Paine begins his argument against reconciliation and does not want to insult or alienate his readers at the outset. Everyone can hope, he implies: there’s nothing wrong with that, but we have to move on if a hope proves fruitless.

With this in mind, what tone does he lead the reader to expect: cynical, impatient, hopeful, reasonable, impassioned, angry?
Reasonable. The two sentences resemble the opening of a legal argument that promises a balanced appraisal of two options on the basis of known evidence (“principles of nature”) and honest ordinary reasoning (“common sense”).

How does his tone prepare the resistant reader?
Paine means to deflect challenges of bias or extremism by inviting readers to give him a hearing. “If I’m being fair in my writing, you can try to be fair in your listening.”

While Paine promises a fair appraisal, look how he describes the two options in the last sentence.
Option 1: “if separated” from Britain
Option 2: “if dependent on Britain”

Why didn’t he use the usual terms for the two options — “independence” and “reconciliation”?
First, INDEPENDENCE and RECONCILIATION sound like equally plausible options, but Paine wants to convince you that independence is the only acceptable option. If so, then why did he choose SEPARATION instead of INDEPENDENCE? By January 1776, INDEPENDENCE carried the drastic connotations of war and treason. It was an irrevocable decision with unknown consequences. In contrast, SEPARATION seems less drastic, and even positive. In human development, separation from one’s parents is the natural and long-sought step to full adulthood. That’s the self-image Paine wants to foster in his readers. Are we adults or children? [See the activity below, “The Metaphor of Youth”.]

In this vein, Paine chose DEPENDENCE instead of RECONCILIATION for Option 2 (staying with Britain). RECONCILIATION suggests the calm and rational agreement of two grownups, but Paine wants you to view reconciliation as the defeatist choice of spineless subjects who could never take care of themselves. In other words, DEPENDENCE.

[Note: Paine does call the two options “independence” and “reconciliation” elsewhere in Common Sense, but he meant to avoid them here.]

As much hath been said of the advantages of reconciliation, which, like an agreeable dream, hath passed away and left us as we were, it is but right that we should examine the contrary [opposing] side of the argument and inquire into some of the many material injuries which these colonies sustain, and always will sustain, by being connected with and dependent on Great Britain. To examine that connection and dependence, on the principles of nature and common sense, to see what we have to trust to [expect] if separated, and what we are to expect if dependent.



Activity: The Metaphor of YouthActivity: The Metaphor of Youth
Study Paine’s metaphors that compare the colonies’ readiness for independence to a child’s maturation into adulthood.

Here Paine rebuts the first argument for reconciliation—that America has thrived as a British colony and would fail on her own. How does he dismiss this argument?
He slams it down hard. “NOTHING can be more FALLACIOUS,” he yells. The argument is beyond misdirected or short-sighted, he insists; it’s a fatal error in reasoning. So much for calm and reasoned debate. But Paine is not having a temper tantrum in print. His technique was to argue with ideas while convincing with emotion.

Paine follows his utter rejection of the argument with an analogy. Complete the analogy: America staying with Britain would be like a child _______.
“America staying with Britain would be like a child remaining dependent on its parents forever and never growing up.” And who would want that, Paine implies? By writing “first twenty years of our lives” instead of, say, “first five years,” Paine alludes to the general consensus that a twenty-year-old is an adult.

Paine goes one step further in the last sentence. What does he say about America’s “childhood” as a British colony?
He “answers roundly” (with conviction) that the colonies’ growth was actually hampered by being part of a European empire. They would have been more healthy and successful “adults,” he insists, if they had not been the “children” of the British empire. This was a radical premise in 1776, but one that buttressed Paine’s argument for independence

I have heard it asserted by some that as America hath flourished under her former connection with Great Britain, that the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness, and will always have the same effect. Nothing can be more fallacious than this kind of argument. We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat, or that the first twenty years of our lives is to become a precedent for the next twenty. But even this is admitting more than is true; for I answer roundly that America would have flourished as much, and probably much more, had no European power had anything to do with her.


Excerpt #2

Close Reading Questions

Here Paine challenges his opponents to bring “reconciliation to the touchstone of nature.” What does he mean? (A “touchstone” is a test of the quality or genuineness of something. From ancient times the purity of gold or silver was tested with a “touchstone” of basalt stone.)
Test the chances of reconciliation against what you know about people’s reactions in similar crises throughout history, not against your own hopes and fears during this particular crisis. In other words, use common sense.

At the start of this paragraph Paine mildly faults the supporters of reconciliation as unrealistic optimists “still hoping for the best.” By the end of the paragraph, however, they are cowards willing to “shake hands with the murderers.” How did he construct the paragraph to accomplish this transition?
He poses two challenges to the supporters of reconciliation. If they can honestly answer each challenge, he asserts, and still support reconciliation, then they are selfish cowards bringing ruin to America.

Paraphrase the first challenge (sentences 2–5).
“Ask yourself if you can remain loyal to a nation that has brought war and suffering to you. If you say you can, you’re fooling yourself and condemning us to a worse life under Britain than we suffer now.”

Paraphrase the second challenge (sentences 6–11).
“Have you been the victim of British violence? If you haven’t, then you still owe compassion to those who have. And if you have, yet still support reconciliation, then you have abandoned your conscience.”

With what phrase does Paine condemn those who would still hope for reconciliation even if they were victims of British violence?
They are men who “can still shake hands with the murderers,” i.e., men who have betrayed their fellow Americans and thus become as evil as the British invaders. There is no nuance in this condemnation, and thus no way for the reader to avoid its implications.

Note how Paine weaves impassioned questions through the paragraph: “Are you only deceiving yourselves?” “Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands?” How do these questions intensify his challenges?
Addressed to “you” directly and not a faceless “he or they,” the questions deliver an in-your-face challenge that allows no escape. Here’s my question to you: Answer it! or your silence will reveal your cowardice.

Rewrite sentences #4 and #11 to change the second-person “you” to the third-person “he/she/they.” How does the change weaken Paine’s challenges?
The reader is off the hook. Since the challenges are deflected from “you,” the reader, to the third-person “other,” no immediate personal reply is demanded. The reader can blithely read on and avoid the aim of Paine’s questions.

Worksheet: The Question as a Rhetorical DeviceWorksheet: The Question as a Rhetorical Device
Use this worksheet to examine Paine’s use of questions as persuasive devices throughout Common Sense, specifically the rhetorical question and the hypophora (questions with implied or stated answers, used for rhetorical impact).
Men of passive tempers [temperaments] look somewhat lightly over the offenses of Britain and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, “Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.” But examine the passions and feelings of mankind. Bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honor, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? If you cannot do all these, then are you only deceiving yourselves and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity? Your future connection with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honor, will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say you can still pass the violations over [ignore or underrate them], then I ask, Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of [without] a bed to lie on or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and, whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward and the spirit of a sycophant.


Excerpt #3

Close Reading Questions

At this point, Paine pleads with his readers to write the constitution for their independent nation without delay. What danger do they risk, he warns, if they leave this crucial task to a later day?
A colonial leader could grasp dictatorial power by taking advantage of the postwar disorder likely to result if the colonies have no constitution ready to implement. Even if Britain tried to regain control of the colonies, it could be too late to wrest control back from a powerful dictator. “Ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny,” Paine warns, “by keeping vacant the seat of government.”

What historical evidence does Paine offer to illustrate the danger?
He states that “some Massanello may hereafter arise” and grasp power, alluding to the short-lived people’s revolt led by the commoner Thomas Aniello (Masaniello) in 1647 against Spanish control of Naples (Italy). The Spanish ruler granted a few rights, but Masaniello was soon murdered, ending the uprising and its short-lived gains for the people.

As his plea escalates in intensity, Paine exclaims “Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do.” To what climactic moment in the New Testament does he allude?
While suffering on the cross before his death, Jesus calls out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34); that is, his crucifiers do not know they are killing the Son of God. With this compelling allusion (which most readers would instantly recognize), Paine warns that opposing independence is as calamitous a decision for Americans as killing Jesus was for his executioners and for mankind.

Paine heightens his apocalyptic tone as he appeals to “ye that love mankind” to accept a mission of salvation (alluding to Christ’s mission of salvation). What must the lovers of mankind achieve in order to save mankind?
They must establish the “free and independent States of America” as the sole preserve of human freedom in the world. A desperate fugitive, “freedom” has been “hunted” and “expelled” throughout the world, and it is America’s mission to protect and nurture her. America’s victory will be mankind’s victory, not just the feat of thirteen small colonies in a distant corner of the world.

NOTE: “A government of our own is our natural right” asserts Paine at the beginning of this excerpt. Six months later Thomas Jefferson asserted the same right in the opening of the Declaration of Independence. This Enlightenment ideal anchored revolutionary initiatives in America and Europe for decades.

A government of our own is our natural right, and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massanello* may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes [grievances], may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, finally sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge. Should the government of America return again into the hands of Britain, the tottering situation of things will be a temptation for some desperate adventurer to try his fortune; and in such a case, what relief can Britain give? Ere [before] she could hear the news, the fatal business might be done, and ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror [William the Conqueror in 1066]. Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do. Ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny by keeping vacant the seat of government….

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her.—Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.

* Thomas Anello, otherwise Massanello, a fisherman of Naples, who after spiriting up his countrymen in the public marketplace against the oppression of the Spaniards, to whom the place was then subject, prompted them to revolt, and in the space of a day become King. [footnote in Paine]


Follow-Up Assignment

  1. Write a how-to essay on persuasive writing using Common Sense as the focus text and this statement by Thomas Paine as the core idea: “Some people can be reasoned into sense, and others must be shocked into it. Say a bold thing that will stagger them, and they will begin to think.” –Letter to Elihu Palmer, 21 February 1802.
  2. Write an essay to summarize and evaluate Common Sense using one of the quotations below as the organizing concept. Use the metaphor in the quotation as a rhetorical device throughout the essay. (Paragraph numbers refer to the full text of Common Sense with this lesson.)
    Quotation Para. Metaphor
    “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” 58 light, newness, glory
    “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries
    73massacre, suffering
    “Reconciliation is now a fallacious dream.”79illusion, vain hope
    “It is now in the interest of America to provide for herself.”144adulthood, self-reliance
    “Independence is the only BOND that can tie and keep us together.”163tying cord, unity for survival

  3. See colonists’ and newspapers’ responses to Common Sense in the primary source collection Making the Revolution (Section: Common Sense?) to examine how Paine turned public opinion in 1776. Note the critical pieces by John Adams, Hannah Griffitts, and others. What can be learned about Paine’s effectiveness by studying his critics?

Vocabulary Pop-ups

[including 18th-c. connotations]

  • posterity: all future generations of mankind
  • superseded: replaced something old or no longer useful
  • precedent: an action or policy that serves as an example or rule for the future
  • touchstone: as a metaphor, a test of the quality or genuineness of something. (in the past, the purity of gold or silver was tested with a “toughstone” of basalt stone.)
  • relapse: a return to a previous worse condition after a period of improvement
  • sycophant: someone who acts submissively to another in power in order to gain advantage; yes-man, flatterer, bootlicker
  • precariousness: uncertainty, instability; dependence on chance circumstances or unknown conditions
  • deluge: a cataclysmic flood

1. Benjamin Franklin, letter to Silas Deane, 27 August 1775. Full text in Founders Online (National Archives).
2. Elbridge Gerry, letter to James Warren, 26 March 1776.
3. John Adams, autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” through 1776, sheet 23 of 53 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.
4. Thomas Paine, letter to Elihu Palmer, 21 February 1802; cited in Henry Hayden Clark, “Thomas Paine’s Theories of Rhetoric,” Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters, 28 (1933), 317.
5. Robert A. Ferguson, “The Commonalities of Common Sense,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d. Series, 57:3 (July 2000), 483.
6. Landon Carter, diary entry, 20 February 1776, recounting content of letter written that day to George Washington. Full entry in Founders Online (National Archives).
7. Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment, 1750-1820 (Harvard University Press, 1994; paper ed., 1997), 113.

*For a helpful discussion of Paine’s response to the “horrid cruelties” of the British in India, see J.M. Opal, “Common Sense and Imperial Atrocity: How Thomas Paine Saw South Asia in North America,Common-Place, July 2009.

Images courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Library.

  • Portrait of Thomas Paine by John Henry Bufford (1810-1870), engraving by Bufford’s Lithography, ca. 1850. Record ID 268504.
  • Title page (cover) of Common Sense, 1776. Record ID 2052092.

Lexington and Concord: Tipping Point of the Revolution

Advisor: Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2011

How did the Battles of Lexington and Concord change the character of American resistance to British rule?


From the early 1760s to 1775 American colonists complained bitterly about British policies that taxed them without representation. Nonetheless, they did not advocate taking up arms against king and parliament. The Battles of Lexington and Concord changed that. The killing of Americans by British troops altered popular perceptions of imperial rule and transformed a largely peaceful resistance into an armed rebellion.

A View of the South Part of Lexington, 1775


Selections for classroom use

  1. Diary entries of Matthew Patten, 1775.
  2. Announcement of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, 1775.
  3. Resolution to resist “force by force,” 1775.
  4. Rev. Jonas Clark, The Fate of Blood-Thirsty Oppressors, 1776 (excerpts).

[For more primary sources on the American Revolution, see Making the Revolution: America, 1763-1791.]

Text Type

Informational texts, each with a clearly stated purpose, moderately complex text structure and knowledge demands, and very complex language features. Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (Cite strong and through text evidence to support analysis…)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4 (Determine the meaning of words and phrases…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • 3.1 (IIC) (American Independence was energized by… popular movements…)

Teacher’s Note

The first text is from the private diary of a New England farmer. When news of the battles reached the small farming village of Bedford, New Hampshire, only one day after they took place, the townspeople had to respond to an unprecedented situation in neighboring Massachusetts. Matthew Patten, the head of a struggling Bedford family, recorded his response in his diary. Along with serving as a probate judge, Patten made shoes, tended cattle, and surveyed property. As you teach the diary, have your students focus on the “everydayness” of Patten’s life. Ask them to speculate on what it would take to move a man like him to anger and violence. Remind your students that Patten’s diary is a private document. Presumably, he wrote it for his eyes only. Ask them how Patten’s diary might differ from contemporary notions of what a diary is for. Ask your students if they keep diaries, and if they do, ask what sort of things they record in them. For Patten the diary was not a place to work out his thinking on the issues of the day or record his emotional ups and downs. It was simply a bare-bones documentation of his daily activities. Thus the drama of the moment is muted; in the passage we offer for discussion, the word “melancholy” is the only emotionally laden adjective he uses to describe what must have been a tense time. We can get at the passion of those April days in Bedford only through our imaginations. What was said at the town meeting? What emotions would lead a band of farmers to confront a professional army? What must it have been like to see your son and those of your neighbors march off to confront the British? The people of Bedford could have treated the Lexington militiamen as hotheads who deserved what happened to them, or they could have waited for more information. Patten and his neighbors did neither. They instinctively sensed that they had to go to the aid of those who were fighting for a cause that now included Bedford as well as Lexington, Concord, and Boston.

The next three documents are far more public than Patten’s diary. They illustrate how the speed of communication through newsprint enflamed Patriot zeal and turned a local incident into an American crisis.

The second text is one of many hastily printed broadsides spreading word of Lexington and Concord throughout the colonies. Nine days after the battles, the news reached Williamsburg, Virginia, which printed its own “news bulletin” the next morning. Its handbill traces the path of the news from the first dispatch in Worcester, Massachusetts, on the morning of the battles, to the announcement the same day in Watertown, Connecticut, to the bulletin printed five days later in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — which arrived in Williamsburg four days later. “The sword is now drawn,” exclaims the Philadelphia committee of correspondence in its dispatches (expresses) to the southern colonies, “and God knows when it will be sheathed.” What Matthew Patten described with deadpan calm the expresses relate with breathless urgency.

The third text is the resolution of a small North Carolina community, signed one month after Lexington and Concord, in which the citizens vow to “go forth and be ready to sacrifice our lives and fortunes to secure [the] freedom and safety” of the colonies. Like the Williamsburg express, the North Carolina resolution was copied from an earlier document that was passed from town to town, in this case from a resolution adopted three weeks earlier by the Charleston, South Carolina committee of correspondence. It is apparent from these resolutions that by mid-June, reports of the killings at Lexington and Concord forced people in the southern colonies to consider as they had never done before obligations to other Americans who lived hundreds of miles away. Whatever course they chose, they knew instantly that the events in Massachusetts had radically changed the character of the imperial confrontation.

The fourth text is from a sermon delivered in Lexington on the first anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord. It illustrates how the battles “sunk in,” how the Patriots interpreted them over the course of a tumultuous year. Delivered by Rev. Jonas Clark, the sermon reveals how he and others gave meaning to revolutionary violence now that the British had become, in their eyes, “bloodthirsty oppressors.”


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of texts are we dealing with?
  2. When were they written?
  3. Who wrote them?
  4. For what audience were they intended?
  5. For what purpose were they written?

Early on the morning of April 19, 1775, General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in America, dispatched regular troops to Concord, Massachusetts, where spies informed him the Americans had stored weapons. The movement of so many soldiers out of Boston came as no surprise to the American insurgents. Paul Revere and others had warned the inland communities of the impending threat. About seventy members of the local militia gathered on the Lexington Green, intending to watch as the British marched past them on the road to Concord.

But after a British officer ordered the Americans to lay down their guns, someone fired, and after a few minutes, eight colonists were dead. The news spread quickly throughout the region. Within hours hundreds of Americans confronted the British at Concord. The death of the Lexington militiamen and the pitched battle that developed as British troops retreated to Boston electrified the communities from New Hampshire to Georgia. People who had assumed that resistance to taxation without representation involved peaceful strategies such as boycotts and petitions dramatically discovered that the imperial crisis had taken a violent turn. Ordinary men and women suddenly and decisively came forward and transformed protest into a massive insurgency.

During the 1760s and early 1770s Americans spoke eloquently about abstract principles such as liberty and rights. After 1775 the political landscape changed radically. Unhappy colonists discovered that successful revolutions—the mobilization of sufficient numbers of ordinary people to sustain resistance against a powerful empire—required an emotional component. American historians seldom mention anger and hate as aspects of revolutionary ferment, preferring to concentrate on reasoned academic texts written by men such as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and John Dickinson. These pamphlets undoubtedly served to instruct the colonists about their rights as citizens and British subjects. What goes missing from this perspective is the sense of outrage that propelled the revolution forward.

Text Analysis

Diary entries of Matthew Patten, April 18-21, 1775

Close Reading Questions

1. How would you describe Matthew Patten’s diary? How does it differ from 21st-century ideas of what a diary is for?
Patten’s diary is simply a listing of daily activities. It is different in that it does not list any emotional responses, personal reflections, or questions.

2. Can we trust Patten’s diary? Why or why not?
The diary can be trusted to reflect the activities of a farmer in New England. Since Patten wrote for presumably himself, he had no reason to alter his activities. And he does not seem to have a political agenda, if he did he would probably use more emotionally charged words.

3. How does Patten’s matter-of-fact presentation affect our perception of Bedford’s preparation for war?
A matter-of-fact presentation presumes that Bedford had prepared for this possibility, as they did not spend much time discussing or determining who was at fault or waiting for more information. They responded immediately.

4. What impact did the news from Lexington and Concord have upon Bedford?
The men met that evening and 20 or more men left to “assist them.” Patten reminds us that notwithstanding the events of Lexington and Concord farm life goes on, as he continues to describe his daily activities.

5. What does it suggest that men from surrounding towns joined Bedford men on the march to Concord?
It suggests a common identity and cause with men from different towns. Men would see themselves identified as more than simply men from a particular town but also as men from the area.

6. What does the speed with which the region’s men organized themselves suggest?
It suggests that they saw a common threat in the actions of the British. It also suggests that there was a system by which men would look after their neighbors so that if a man was away from his home there would be someone who would look in on his family.

7. Would it not have been wiser for Matthew’s son and his friends to have waited a few days before rushing off to join the American army?
It would have been surprising if the young men had waited. The men reacted immediately to the British threat, assuming that if they did not do so a reaction might not be possible and further British restrictions would follow. In addition their swift reaction to join suggests the emotional patriotism of the young men to help defend those seen as their “countrymen.”

8. What does Patten’s use of the term “our Countrymen” suggest?
It suggests a common identity with the men of Concord. With a common identity it makes it natural that the men of the area would come to the aid of the town. It also suggests a common defense is the rational response to British aggression.

9. From this passage what can you infer about the role women played in the mobilization?
The women kitted out the men before they left, “bakeing bread and fitting things for him and john Dobbin.”

18th — I made a new handle to our Spade and made a pole to fish at the ponds
19th — I got james Orr to make two hoops for our great Kittle one of them was my iron the other was Sheds and he made part of a chain for my Cannoe of my iron and writ a deed from Alexander McCalley to his son Alexander and I took the acknowledgement unpaid.
20th — I Recd [received] the ,Melancholy news in the morning that General Gages troops had fired on our Contrymen at Concord yesterday and had killed a large number of them our town was notified last night We Generay met at the meeting house about 9 of the Clock and the Number of twenty or more went Directly off from the Meeting house to assist them And I came to Sheds and james Orr made me a great wheel Spindle of my Steel and he mended the Ear of a little kittle and finished the chain for my cannoe he found iron for near a quarter of the chain the rest was mine And our john came home from being down to Pentuckett and intended to Sett off for our army to morrow morning and our Girls sit up all night bakeing bread and fitting things for him and john Dobbin
21st — our john and john Dobbin and my bror [brother] Samuell two oldest sons sett off and joyned Derryfield men and about six from Goffestown and two or 3 more from this town under the comand of Capt john Moor of Derryfield they amounted to the No of 45 in all Sunkook men and two or three others that joined them marched in about an hour after they to 35 there was nine more went along after them belonging to Pennykook or thereabouts and I went to McGregores and I got a pound of Coffie on Credit

Excerpts from the Williamsburg Committee of Correspondence

Close Reading Questions

10. How would you imagine the readers of this report would react?
Readers of this report would be horrified that the British had killed American colonists. They would be angry and confused as to what may come next. They would be fearful of the report that another British brigade is marching from Boston. They would wish to help the rider and provide him with horses as requested.

11. What details would evoke the strongest response?
The detail that would evoke the strongest response would include the fact that the British “fired, without any provocation, and killed six men, and wounded four others.” Accompanied with the fact that another British brigade is on the march, this would be frightening.

12. How do the presumed author, J. Palmer, and the distributors of this dispatch seek to assure readers of its credibility?
Palmer states, “I have spoken with several, who have seen the dead and wounded…” The chain of correspondence contributes to the credibility of the information.

13. Why was it important to list the Committees that forwarded the dispatch?
This establishes the chain of correspondence and lends credibility to the report. The purpose of the Committees of Correspondence were to keep colonies updated on news and events, and by tracking the path of the report it lets the reader be assured of the veracity of the report. It also lets the reader know that the information is being spread far and wide.

14. Who are the “Friends of American Liberty”?
That would be anyone who supported the American cause and opposed British tyranny.

15. What does this bulletin suggest about the colonists’ readiness for a British attack?
The bulletin states that they were attacked “without any provocation.” The colonists were not prepared militarily for attack-colonial militia was no match for a British brigade.

WILLIAMSBURG [Virginia], SATURDAY, April 29, 1775.

LATE last night an express [news bulletin sent by stagecoach or person on horseback] arrived from Philadelphia, with the following melancholy advices [news] from the province of Connecticut, forwarded to the committee of correspondence in this city. . . .

PHILADELPHIA [Pennsylvania], April 24, 1775.

An express arrived at five o’clock this evening, by which we have the following advices, viz. [namely]:

WATERTOWN [Connecticut], Wednesday morning, near 10 o’clock.

Be it known, that this morning, before the break of day, a brigade, consisting of about 1000 or 1200 men, landed at Phipps farm, at Cambridge [Massachusetts], and marched to Lexington, where they found a company of our colony militia in arms, upon whom they fired, without any provocation, and killed six men, and wounded four others. By an express from Boston, we find another brigade is now on its march from Boston, supposed to consist of 1000 men. The bearer, Trial Bisset, is charged [ordered to] to alarm [warn] the country, quite [all the way] to Connecticut; and all persons are desired [requested] to furnish him with fresh horses, as they may be needed. I have spoken with several, who have seen the dead and wounded. . . .

J. PALMER, one of the committee.

A true copy from the original, by order of the committee of correspondence of Worcester [Massachusetts], April 1775.
Attested and forwarded by the committees of Brookline [Massachusetts], Norwich, New London, Lyme, Saybrook, Killingsworth, E. Guilford, Brandford, Newhaven [Connecticut towns].

Excerpt from the Resolution signed by citizens of Cross Creek,
Cumberland County, North Carolina, 1775

Close Reading Questions

16. Judging from this resolution, what impact did the news from Lexington and Concord have on the inhabitants of Cumberland County, North Carolina?
It served as a call to prepare for action. They were immediately bound together and determined to resist force “by force” against “every foe.”

17. Do you think everyone in Cumberland County agreed with the sentiments expressed in the resolution?
It is improbable that everyone agreed. These are strong words, a call to military action, and it would have been rare for everyone in the community to agree.

18. What does the author mean by “instigated insurrections”?
These are uprisings created on purpose. This could directly refer to the fact that the British marched upon Concord in order to seize the munitions gathered there. [NOTE: Colonists also accused the British of inciting the Native Americans to rise up against the colonies, and this could be an allusion to that as well.]

19. Why should people in North Carolina care about the rights and liberty of Massachusetts farmers? What reasons does the resolution provide?
The NC citizens cite that they are bound “by that most sacred of all obligations, the duty of good citizens towards an injured country.”

20. Since the Continental Congress had not declared independence at this point, what is the meaning of an “injured country”?
In this context it means a country whose citizens have been denied their rights by their own government. This has injured the fabric that ties a citizen to his government.

21. Why did the inhabitants of this community appeal to “religion and honor”?
Religion and honor were basic and powerful motivators and ones that everyone could understand and to which they could respond.

22. To what extent is this resolution a response to the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and to what extent is it designed to provoke a response to the battles?
It is for the most part designed to provoke a response to the battles. While the resolution begins with a reference to the battles it quickly shifts to a statement of resolve to associate and when called resist by force.

23. What does this resolution commit the men of Cumberland County to do?
These men will “associate as a band in her defense against every foe” and “will go forth and be ready to sacrifice our lives and fortunes to secure her freedom and safety.” They will organize and be ready to fight “whenever our Continental or Provincial Councils shall decree it necessary.”

The actual commencement of hostilities against this Continent by the British Troops, in the bloody scene on the nineteenth of April last, near Boston; the increase of arbitrary impositions, from a wicked and despotick Ministry [Parliament]; and the dread of instigated insurrections in the Colonies, are causes sufficient to drive an oppressed People to the use of arms: We, therefore, the subscribers [signers], of Cumberland County, holding ourselves bound by that most sacred of all obligations, the duty of good citizens towards an injured country, and thoroughly convinced that under our distressed circumstances we shall be justified before you in resisting force by force; do unite ourselves under every tie of religion and honour, and associate as a band in her defence against every foe; hereby solemnly engaging, that whenever our Continental or Provincial Councils shall decree it necessary, we will go forth and be ready to sacrifice our lives and fortunes to secure her freedom and safety.

Excerpt from Reverend Jonas Clark’s sermon, “The Fate of Blood-Thirsty
Oppressors”, preached in Lexington, Massachusetts, April 19, 1776, on the
first anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord

Close Reading Questions

24. Why does Reverend Clark urge his congregation to acknowledge God’s hand in the battles of April 19th, 1775?
By acknowledging the hand of God he reminds his church that God calls on them to avenge the blood of the slain. This appeals to their sense of ethical responsibility to God.

25. Identify the specific elements that Reverend Clark uses to rouse the emotions of his congregation.
His diction is emotionally charged—world like murder, war, murderers, cut-throats, cruelty, and barbarity appeal to the emotions of his audience. Through imagery he personifies the blood of the slain in the phrase, “from thence does they blood cry until God for vengeance from the ground.”

26. Was it fair for Reverend Clark to call the British troops “murderers” and “cut-throats”?
It was not accurate from an historical sense, but it contributed to his objective in the sermon.

27. What did Reverend Clark mean when he said that April 19th, 1775, was the beginning of a new AMERICAN WORLD?
He reminded his audience that from that point forth America was different. That event changed the relationship between America and Britain in a basic way and regardless of how the war ended, that relationship would never return to what it had been before.

28. According to Reverend Clark, what would a colonist have to do to avenge the killing of local militiamen?
They would join the army and fight the British.

29. Could the people who listened to Clark’s sermon turn back and restore the old imperial order?
They could not. He clearly states that April, 1775, will be dated “in future history, THE LIBERTY or SLAVERY of the AMERICAN WORLD.” There was no going back. The future would be either liberty or slavery.

… [One great purpose of this sermon] is to rouse and excite us to a religious acknowledgment of the hand of God, in those distressing scenes of MURDER, BLOODSHED and WAR, we are met to commemorate, upon this solemn occasion…. And this is the place where the fatal scene begins! — They [British troops] approach with the morning’s light; and more like murderers and cut-throats, than the troops of a christian king, without provocation, without warning, when no war was proclaimed, they draw the sword of violence, upon the inhabitants of this town [Lexington], and with a cruelty and barbarity, which would have made the most hardened savage blush, they shed INNOCENT BLOOD! — But, O my GOD! How shall I speak! — or how describe the distress, the horror of that awful morn, that gloomy day! — Yonder field can witness the innocent blood of our brethren slain! — And from thence does their blood cry unto God for vengeance from the ground!… From this remarkable day will an important era begin for both America and Britain. And from the nineteenth of April, 1775, we may venture to predict, will be dated, in future history, THE LIBERTY or SLAVERY of the AMERICAN WORLD, according as a sovereign God shall see fit to smile, or frown upon the interesting cause, in which we are engaged.

Follow-Up Assignment

Ask your students to analyze Matthew Patten’s diary entries from April 1775 to May 1776  and identify ways in which his life changed after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Write an essay citing specific examples of new activities and concerns in his diary entries and explain why he focuses on them.


  • melancholy: sad, mournful
  • commencement: start, beginning
  • arbitrary: made by personal whim, not based on any reason or system
  • imposition: unfair or unwelcome demand or burden
  • instigated: started or brought about on purpose
  • insurrection: revolt, uprising
  • foe: enemy, opponent
  • provocation: incitement, something that causes a strong response in another person or persons
  • yonder: over there [“that field over there”]
  • brethren: brothers, i.e., fellow men [humans, Patriots, etc.]

– Ralph Earl (artist), A View of the South Part of Lexington, hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle, 1775 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 54390.
– Broadside announcing the Battle of Lexington and Concord, published by the Williamsburg, Virginia, Committee of Correspondence, April 29, 1775. Digital image from online collection Early American Imprints, American Antiquarian Society with Readex/Newsbank, Doc. 14602, from the original in the Library of Congress. Reproduced courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Antiquarian Society.

Patrick Henry and “Give Me Liberty!”

Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature and Criticism, Columbia University, National Humanities Center Fellow
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2015

What arguments, appeals, and rhetorical strategies did Patrick Henry use in 1775 to persuade reluctant members of the Second Virginia Convention to develop a military response to British aggression?


In 1775 American independence was not a foregone conclusion. While there had been unrest and resistance in Massachusetts with scattered acts of support from other areas, no organized movement toward revolution existed across the Colonies. Virginia ranked among the largest, wealthiest, and most populous colonies in 1775, and her political and military support for independence would be crucial for success. In this speech Patrick Henry (1736–1799) uses powerful rhetoric to convince influential, affluent, landed men of Virginia with much to lose to move past their current diplomatic posture opposing British aggression to the more treasonous one of open military preparedness.

portrait of Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry, 1736–1799


Patrick Henry, speech to the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775.

Text Type

Speech, non-fiction.

Text Complexity

Grade 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

In the Text Analysis section, Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups, and Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.1 (cite evidence to analyze specifically and by inference)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.4 (determine the meaning of words and phrases)
  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.6 (determine author’s point of view)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 3.1 (IIB) (arguments about rights of British subjects, the rights of the individual,…)

Teacher’s Note

In this lesson students will deconstruct Patrick Henry’s famous speech to explore the tools of effective persuasion, including appeals, rhetorical strategies, and classical argument. This is a persuasive speech, one intended not only to present an argument but also to persuade the audience to act. While the speech can be used to investigate issues of freedom, power, and rights of the governed, this lesson focuses upon effective rhetoric. The speech includes several Biblical allusions — revolutionary rhetoricians often used Biblical references because it allowed them to speak more strongly against Britain without using overtly treasonous speech.

The text of this speech is well known; less well known is the fact that there was no actual transcript created of Henry’s speech — after all, these discussions smacked of treason, and keeping a written record would have been dangerous. In an environment of digital media and world-wide instant communication, students may wonder how Henry’s words were preserved. This speech was recreated in 1817 by William Wirt of Maryland, who published the first biography of Patrick Henry. Wirt drew upon materials collected beginning in 1808, including interviews with those who knew Henry and those who were present when the speech was delivered. For an electronic version of Wirt’s book, visit this link: Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

The provenance of the speech notwithstanding, Henry’s words provide a rich source to study rhetorical strategies and classical argument, and that study is the focus of this lesson. This text divides into four sections aligned to the arrangement of classical argument.

  1. The first two paragraphs form the introduction (Exordium). The Exordium attempts to engage the audience, to prepare them for the message to come, and to explain the purpose (thesis) of the speech.
  2. The third paragraph provides the statement of fact (Narratio) and argument (Confirmatio). The Narratio contextualizes the argument, presenting any background information necessary, while the Confirmatio explains the evidence that supports the thesis.
  3. The fourth paragraph presents and refutes counter arguments (Refutatio).
  4. The final paragraph forms the conclusion (Peroratio). The Peroratio serves several purposes: to restate an argument, to amplify reasoning, to inspire an audience, and to rouse emotional responses.

Each paragraph is accompanied by a number of close reading questions designed to invite student analysis in four major areas: classical argument structure, diction and syntax, rhetorical strategies, and argumentative appeals (logos, ethos, and pathos).

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, access to the interactive exercises, and a follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive PDF, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Interactive exercises
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions
  • Interactive exercises

Teacher’s Guide


Background Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

In 1775 unrest bubbled through the American Colonies. Britain had severely restricted Massachusetts through the Intolerable Acts; towns were voting to boycott British goods, and British soldiers were becoming a common sight in the American Colonies. In this lesson you will explore a famous speech by Patrick Henry (1736–1799), member of the Second Virginia Convention. Patrick Henry is not speaking in the Virginia House of Burgesses [the state legislature] in Williamsburg because it had been dissolved the year before by Royal Governor Dunmore. Resenting this British interference with local government, the members of the House of Burgesses regrouped as a state convention. In order to avoid any interference from British troops, the Second Convention of approximately 120 delegates met in Richmond, Virginia, from March 20 through March 27.

The American Colonies were attempting to negotiate with British in 1775, and many of Henry’s fellow delegates wanted to wait until these negotiations were completed before taking action. But Henry felt that delay would be a major mistake. On March 23, 1775, he asked the Virginia Convention to take a defensive stance immediately against Great Britain by raising an armed company in every Virginia county — an action considered by many to be open treason. His speech reflected language and actions far more radical that his fellow delegates were willing to go in public, but Henry based his request upon the assumption that even more aggressive military actions by the British would soon follow. Twenty-seven days after this speech was delivered the Battles of Lexington and Concord proved Henry correct.

In this lesson you will look at Patrick Henry’s speech and analyze his methods for convincing his fellow members of the Virginia Convention to take a military stance against the British. These delegates were wealthy and powerful and they had much to lose; Henry’s request was a big decision that many of them were reluctant to make. Henry used not only rhetorical devices but also the strategies of classical argument, making a potentially confusing situation simple and straightforward as he attempted to move all his fellow delegates toward the same result. His recommendations were accepted by the Convention.

The speech divides into the four parts of a classical argument, defined below. As you analyze the individual parts of the speech, look also for how these parts of the argument work together.

  1. The first two paragraphs form the introduction (Exordium). The Exordium attempts to engage the audience, preparing them for the message to come, and to explain the purpose (thesis) of the speech.
  2. The third paragraph provides the statement of fact (Narratio) and argument (Confirmatio). The Narratio contextualizes the argument, presenting any background information necessary, while the Confirmatio lays out in order the evidence to support the thesis.
  3. The fourth paragraph presents and refutes counter arguments (Refutatio).
  4. The final paragraph forms the conclusion (Peroratio). The Peroratio may perform several purposes: to restate an argument, to amplify reasoning, to inspire an audience, and to rouse emotional responses.

Text Analysis

Paragraph 1: Exordium

Close Reading Questions

Activity: VocabularyActivity: Vocabulary
Learn definitions by exploring how words are used in context.

1. The first paragraph of classical argument, the exordium, seeks to engage the audience and prepare them to hear the speaker’s message. Give an example in this paragraph of an attempt to engage the audience and an example of an attempt to prepare the audience.
Henry seeks to engage his audience by showing his respect for them. He recognizes and compliments the patriotism and abilities of the other members of the Convention in his first sentence (note that Henry continues to address the body as the House). He prepares his audience by expresses the hope that they will show him the same respect when he states in sentence 2, “I hope it will not be thought disrespectful…” Even though he will be speaking contrary to what has been previously presented, he reminds his audience that they are all colleagues by referring to the entire group, as in sentence 6, “we can hope to arrive at the truth.”

2. Another function of the exordium is to explain the purpose of the speech. What purpose does Henry establish, and to what is he appealing in order to emphasize this purpose?
The purpose of the debate, of which this speech is a part, is to “arrive at truth” and fulfill the “great responsibility which we hold to God and our country” (sentence 6). He is appealing to the ethical integrity of his audience by articulating their earthly and heavenly responsibilities.

3. Why does Henry use the term “gentlemen” twice in the first two sentences?
In order for others to accept a different idea, they must first believe they are being respected. Henry seeks to establish his respect for those who do not agree with him by referring to them as gentlemen. In addition, Henry is hoping to imply that since he is also a member of the Convention that they will give him and his ideas the same respect.

4. Why does Henry begin the second sentence with “but”?
This is a rhetorical shift in perspective that helps to prepare his audience. Even though he is a fellow member of the Convention, he uses a rhetorical shift to explain that what he will say from that point on will be different than that heard before.

5. In sentence 3 what does Henry mean when he says, “this is no time for ceremony”? Why does he use the term “ceremony”?
He means this is no time to simply say things because they might sound conciliatory, since ceremonies are often for visual display rather than actual action. He is emphasizing the time-sensitive nature of this debate and establishing the importance of immediate, serious discussion rather than a postponement of the issue (recall that some members of the Convention wished to wait until negotiations had run their course before beginning military preparedness).

6. What does Henry mean by “awful moment” in sentence 4? Why does he use this phrase?
He means that the question under discussion is extremely important with potentially life-changing consequences. He is recognizing the treasonable nature of this discussion, displaying not only his own courage but asking his fellow delegates to show courage as well.

7. In sentence 5, when Henry states, “I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery,” he commits a logical fallacy. The false dichotomy (either-or) fallacy gives only two options with no choices in between, and Henry uses this intentionally. Why?
By eliminating other options he is focusing his argument. He wants the listeners to understand that there are only two options; freedom, which he is advocating, or slavery, which he knows these proud, wealthy men, many of whom are slaveholders, will not tolerate.

8. In sentence 7 Henry argues on the basis of “ethos,” which is Greek for “character.” Such an argument is called an “ethical appeal.” It attempts to win over listeners on the basis of the trustworthiness of the speaker. How, in this sentence, does Henry suggest that his listeners can trust him?
By appealing to religion as he calls upon the “majesty of heaven,” Henry makes an ethical (ethos) appeal that his audience will understand intellectually and emotionally. The Convention members consider themselves to be men of integrity and ethics, as Henry acknowledged in sentence 1. In sentence 7 Henry is asking them to understand that he likewise is compelled to speak based on his own sense of integrity (if he holds back, he would consider himself “guilty of treason”). He reminds his audience that he, like them, is a believer and is trustworthy.

9. How does the ethical appeal in sentence 7 relate to the ethical appeal in sentence 1?
In sentence 1 Henry acknowledges the patriotism of the members of the House who have just spoken. In sentence 7 he enumerates his own ethics, stating that he must speak now or be guilty of both treason to his country and disloyalty to the “majesty of heaven.” This reaffirms his trustworthiness with his audience.

MR. PRESIDENT: (1) No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. (2) But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve. (3) This is no time for ceremony. (4) The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. (5) For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. (6) It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfill the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. (7) Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.

Statue of Patrick Henry, Richmond, Virginia

Statue of Patrick Henry, Richmond, Virginia.

Paragraph 2: Exoridum, continued

Close Reading Questions

10. In this second paragraph of the exordium, Henry works to explain the importance and timeliness of his argument by setting up a contrast between illusions and truth in sentences 8 and 12. According to Henry, which will his argument contain and which will it NOT contain?
He states that it is “natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope” but in the last sentence of the paragraph he clearly says he will not do that — he will know the “whole truth.” His argument will contain truth but will not contain illusions.

11. Henry uses the word “hope” several times in this speech. Give an example of an “illusion of hope” that Henry suggests in this second paragraph.
One illusion would be the idea that the Colonies and Great Britain could negotiate an acceptable peace without war.

12. Allusions, unexplained references to other sources, are commonly based upon the Bible or mythology. What allusion does Henry use in sentence 9 when he says “listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts?” How does this allusion contribute to his argument?
He is alluding to the sirens found in the epic The Odyssey. Siren calls are alluring and hard to resist even if expected, but they can be deadly. Henry is saying that to listen to this call, this “illusion of hope”, even though it is tempting, will prove fatal and transform the Convention into something unable to reason and act (beasts).

13. Henry uses multiple biblical allusions with which his educated audience would be familiar. In sentence 11 he says “Are we disposed of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not.” This is from Ezekiel 12:2, when god describes how those who hear Ezekiel’s words and do not listen will be destroyed. How does this allusion contribute to Henry’s argument?
Henry is implying that not seeing or listening to his argument will lead to destruction.

14. Juxtaposition means to put two elements side by side, often for comparison. Henry does this in sentences 11 and 12. What is his purpose in first asking if they are “disposed to… see not, and… hear not” and then stating, “…I am willing to know the whole truth: to know the worst, and to provide for it”?
He again sets up a choice for his audience. Would they rather ignore the situation and have dangerous outcomes (this choice is defined by the previous allusions to the sirens and Ezekiel) or instead know the truth and prepare? He clearly indicates that he chooses the second option.

(8) Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. (9) We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. (10) Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? (11) Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? (12) For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.

St Johns Church

Henry delivered his 1775 speech at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia.

Paragraph 3: Narratio and Confirmatio

Close Reading Questions

The Narratio contextualizes the argument, including presenting any background information necessary, while the Confirmatio lays out in order the evidence to support the thesis. Henry lists several negotiation attempts by colonists and British responses. He uses rhetorical strategies and appeals to further develop his argument, making sure that each item is contextualized from the Colonial perspective.

15. Henry begins this paragraph with another Biblical allusion, “one lamp by which my feet are guided” (Psalms 119:105). Rather than the word of God, which is the lamp found in the Biblical verse, what is the lamp that Henry uses to guide his feet in sentence 13? Why does he make this connection?
The lamp is experience. Henry recounts past experiences and events that “guide his feet” and make fighting a necessity.

16. Henry continues to use “gentlemen” in this paragraph. Why?
He wants to maintain his respect for his audience and remind them that he is one of them. As his argument builds he wants to take them along with him — reiterating the fact that they are esteemed colleagues.

17. What does “solace” mean? Why does Henry use this term?
“Solace” means comfort in distress. Henry cautions his audience that the “hopes” of the past may have been used to comfort the Convention, but such comfort is an illusion and will not last.

18. Henry uses parallelism (structuring phrases in similar fashion) several times in this paragraph. Consider sentence 40, especially the verbs. How does Henry use both parallelism and verb choice (diction) to explain that the Colonies have tried many steps to maintain peace?
“We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated; [we] have implored…” He uses the parallel structure to indicate the process by which the Colonies have taken multiple steps to resolve differences. He chooses verbs that are increasingly dramatic to remind his audience that the Colonies have tried everything without result. Consider “petition” (to bring written grievances) versus “remonstrate” (to forcefully protest) versus “supplicate” (to beg earnestly or humbly) versus “prostrate” (to totally submit) versus “implore” (to beg desperately).

19. In the second paragraph Henry spoke of the “illusions of hope.” In sentence 43 he says, “There is no longer any room for hope.” Why did he use this term again?
He is linking this part of his argument to the exordium and explaining that any chance of hope no longer exists. He is moving his audience away from the position of illusive hope that they may have held at the beginning of his speech toward another position.

20. Henry again makes a Biblical allusion in sentence 18, “Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss.” Christ was betrayed by his disciple Judas through the kiss of brotherhood, which led to Christ’s arrest and crucifixion (Luke 22:47). Who does Henry believe represents Judas and how does this allusion as a metaphor contribute to Henry’s argument?
He believes the British represent Judas and that while they will appear brotherly to the Colonies they will betray, leading to Colonial downfall.

21. Antithesis means to put two ideas together in order to contrast them, pointing out their differences. In sentence 20, what does Henry contrast with “love and reconciliation”? What is the effect?
He contrasts them with “fleets and armies.” The effect is to highlight the fact that Great Britain does not consider “love and reconciliation” a viable strategy, since they have responded with “fleets and armies,” and these should be “the last arguments to which kings resort.” Henry emphasizes that Great Britain has already taken the matter past the diplomatic phase to the military level.

22. Hypophora is a special type of rhetorical question whereby a question is asked and then answered by the speaker (as opposed to a typical rhetorical question, which is either not answered or has a yes/no answer). A hypophora is useful to present to an audience issues they may not have considered in depth. Find at least one example of hypophora in this paragraph and explain its contribution to Henry’s argument.

Some possibilities follow:

  • “Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation?” “These are the implements of war; the last arguments to which kings resort.” (sentences 20 and 23). Henry emphasizes the seriousness of the military response that Great Britain has already displayed.
  • “Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies?” “No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other.” (sentences 26 and 27). Henry points out that the British military response cannot be interpreted as anything other than a direct challenge to the Colonies.
  • “And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument?” “Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years.” (sentences 30, 31, and 32). Henry reminds his audience that the Colonies have been trying to negotiate for ten years without results.

23. Henry first mentions slavery in paragraph one when he contrasts it with freedom. Find an example of slave imagery in this paragraph. What is Henry’s purpose in using this image in paragraph 3?
In sentence 29 Henry states, “They [the armies and fleets] are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging.” He wishes to continue the image of slavery to explain that the Colonies have used argument to combat the attempts of the British to enslave them, but these efforts have failed. Convention delegates included slaveholders who would recognize and recoil from this imagery.

24. Rhetorical parenthesis is the insertion into a sentence of an explanatory word or phrase. Consider sentence 42, “In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation.” Identify the parenthesis and Henry’s purpose for including it.
The parenthesis is “after these things,” and Henry is referring to the Colonies’ attempts at reconciliation. By using the parenthesis he connects those failed attempts to the end of the “hope of peace and reconciliation.”

25. Metonomy and synecdoche are special types of metaphors. In a metonomy, something strongly associated with an element is substituted for it (for instance, “The White House” is substituted for “the President”). In a synecdoche, part of an element substitutes for the whole (for instance, “farm hands” means “farm laborers”). Find an example of metonomy and synecdoche in this paragraph and identify what each represents.
“The foot of the throne” (sentence 41) is metonomy, representing the King. “Tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament” (sentence 40) is synecdoche, representing the British government.

26. Henry finishes this paragraph with an appeal to logic in the form of an “if… then” statement. What is the “if… then” statement in this paragraph?
He states in sentence 44, “If we wish to be free… [then] we must fight”!

27. Henry builds to a syllogistic argument, an appeal to logic, at the end of this paragraph. Identify the three parts of his syllogism (Major premise [A], Minor premise [B], and Conclusion), citing evidence from the text.

  • Major premise [A]: We must either talk or fight to achieve results.
  • Minor premise [B]: Talking does not achieve results.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, we must fight to achieve results.

For more information about syllogisms, see Understanding Syllogisms

28. In this paragraph Henry uses emotional appeals, language intended to create an emotional response from the audience. Choose three examples of emotional language from excerpt 3. You may choose words, phrases, imagery, or other language elements. For each of your examples explain how they are intended to arouse Henry’s audience.
Answers will vary.

(13) I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. (14) I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. (15) And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? (16) Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? (17) Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. (18) Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. (19) Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. (20) Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? (21) Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? (22) Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. (23) These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. (24) I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? (25) Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? (26) Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? (27) No, sir, she has none. (28) They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. (29) They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry has been so long forging. (30) And what have we to oppose to them? (31) Shall we try argument? (32) Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. (33) Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? (34) Nothing. (35) We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain. (36) Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? (37) What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? (38) Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. (39) Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. (40) We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. (41) Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. (42) In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. (43) There is no longer any room for hope. (44) If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! (45) I repeat it, sir, we must fight! (46) An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!

Patrick Henry's 'Treason' speech before the House of Burgesses

Patrick Henry’s “Treason” speech before the House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765.

Paragraph 4: Refutatio

Close Reading Questions

29. The refutatio presents and refutes counter arguments. In paragraph 4 Henry uses procatalepsis, an argumentative strategy that anticipates an objection and then answers it. What argument does he anticipate and what two rhetorical strategies does he use to refute it?
He anticipates the argument that the Colonies are too weak to fight. He answers it through tonal shifts and appeals.

30. Henry shifts tone in the beginning of this paragraph to irony, the use of language that conveys the opposite of the intended meaning. How does he convey a ironic tone? Cite evidence from the text.
He uses ironic rhetorical questions — questions that convey the opposite of what he attempts to argue. Examples include “Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house” and the two questions that follow it (sentences 50, 51, and 52).

31. How does Henry shift from a ironic tone back to his urgent argument? Cite evidence from the text.
He inserts appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos. He appeals to ethos in sentence 53 by saying “we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power.” In sentence 54 he appeals to Logos and pathos by citing “three millions of people (logos) armed in the holy cause of liberty (pathos), and in such a country as that which we possess (pathos, patriotism).”

32. In sentence 58, what does Henry mean by “we have no election”?
He means there is no choice but to fight.

33. Most of the British military action to this point had occurred in and around Boston. How does Henry attempt to connect the fate of Virginia to that of Boston, and why would he wish to make this connection?
He uses the possessive pronoun “our” when discussing the chains, even though the clanking is heard is Boston. This addresses one of the objections made by southern colonies to taking up arms against the British — that the “trouble” was centered in Massachusetts, not Virginia.

34. Asyndeton is a series of phrases or words with conjunctions deleted. Find an example of asyndeton in this paragraph. What is its purpose?
An example is in sentence 57, “the vigilant, the active, the brave.” Henry uses this to emphasize the positive qualities of those who will take up the battle.

35. Find an example of Henry’s return to an image of slavery at the end of this paragraph. What is the purpose of returning to this metaphor yet again?
In sentences 61 and 62 he states, “Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston!” He challenges his audience with the fact that they are already enslaved and implies that they must themselves remove the chains. His use of pronouns reinforces the idea that the chains heard in Boston are also the chains of Virginians. (The mention of Boston most probably refers to the Intolerable Acts and their enforcement.)

(47) They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. (48) But when shall we be stronger? (49) Will it be the next week, or the next year? (50) Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? (51) Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? (52) Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? (53) Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. (54) Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. (55) Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. (56) There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us. (57) The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. (58) Besides, sir, we have no election. (59) If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. (60) There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! (61) Our chains are forged! (62) Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! (63) The war is inevitable and let it come! (64) I repeat it, sir, let it come.

Paragraph 5: Peroratio

Close Reading Questions

36. The Peroratio, or conclusion, has several purposes, including: to restate an argument, to amplify reasoning, to inspire an audience, and to rouse emotional responses. Cite an example from the text of each of these four purposes.

  • To restate: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace.” (sentence 66)
  • To amplify: “the war is actually begun” (sentence 67)
  • To rouse: “Why stand we here idle?” (sentence 70)
  • To inspire: “Give me liberty or give me death” (sentence 75)

37. What image does Henry use to convey that the battle has already begun?
He states in sentence 68, “the next gale… will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms.”

38. In sentences 70 through 73, Henry uses a series of questions which directly challenge his fellow delegates. What is his purpose in asking these questions?
He wishes to inspire his colleagues to arms, in order to avoid the “chains and slavery.”

39. In sentence 75, probably the most famous sentence from this speech, Henry uses antithesis to set up a clear contrast. What does he contrast? What is the effect of this contrast?
He contrasts liberty and death, concluding that without liberty death is preferable.

40. Sententia, especially useful in speeches, is an argumentative device that uses sound to sum up an argument. What is the sententia in this speech?
“Give me liberty or give me death!”

41. How does Henry’s final statement, “Give me liberty or give me death” represent the courage of both Henry and his audience?
Henry states that he is willing to suffer a traitor’s death rather than be denied liberty. This was an either/or choice with nothing in between, and a traitor’s death was quite likely if the patriot efforts failed. This indicates the courage that Henry displays by making the speech and by implication he recognizes the courage that will be necessary for his fellow delegates to take action.

ActivityActivity: Review Henry’s Arguments
Review the statements Henry makes as he develops his arguments.

(65) It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. (66) Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. (67) The war is actually begun! (68) The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! (69) Our brethren are already in the field! (70) Why stand we here idle? (71) What is it that gentlemen wish? (72) What would they have? (73) Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? (74) Forbid it, Almighty God! (75) I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!



Follow-Up Assignment

How might the format of the Henry speech apply to current events, especially in countries and regions of political unrest? If there had been social media in 1775 would this speech have been interpreted differently? Investigate the role of social media in the Arab Spring (2012) or other current events as directed by your teacher and then rewrite this speech for a social media platform. Share your results with your class.

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • entertaining: thinking
  • moment: importance
  • magnitude: greatness
  • revere: highly respect
  • indulge: yield to desire
  • arduous: very difficult
  • temporal: worldly
  • anguish: great distress
  • solace: comfort
  • insidious: deceitful
  • snare: trap
  • petition: formal request
  • comports: agrees with
  • implements: tools
  • subjugation: enslavement
  • martial array: warlike display
  • rivet: fasten firmly
  • entreaty: earnest request
  • supplication: meek request
  • beseech: to appeal urgently
  • avert: prevent
  • remonstrated: forcefully protested
  • prostrated: totally submitted
  • implored: begged desperately
  • interposition: influence
  • tyrannical: unjustly cruel
  • slighted: ignored
  • spurned: rejected
  • in vain: without result
  • inviolate: undisturbed
  • inestimable: priceless
  • contending: competing
  • basely: dishonorably
  • formidable: powerful
  • adversary: enemy
  • irresolution: indecision
  • effectual: effective
  • supinely: passively
  • delusive: misleading
  • phantom: ghost
  • invincible: cannot be defeated
  • vigilant: always alert
  • election: choice
  • forged: made
  • extenuate: stretch out
  • gale: strong wind
  • resounding: echoing loudly
  • brethren: brothers



The American Revolution as Civil War

Advisor: Timothy H. Breen, William Smith Mason Professor of American History, Northwestern University
, National Humanities Center Fellow.
Copyright National Humanities Center, 2011

How was the American Revolution a civil war that turned neighbors into enemies?


Before becoming a war against the British, the American war for independence was a civil war, a street-level conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

Tarring and Feathering, 1774.


Janet Schaw, account of Patriot–Loyalist conflict in North Carolina, 1775 (excerpts).

[For more primary sources on the American Revolution, see Making the Revolution: America, 1763-1791.]

Text Type

Literary nonfiction (travel letters) with moderately complex purpose, structure, language features, and knowledge demands.

Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.2 (Determine two or central ideas of a text and analyze their development.)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 3.1 (IIB) (arguments about rights of British subjects, the rights of the individual,…)

Teacher’s Note

In this lesson students will explore excerpts from two letters by an educated young woman from Edinburgh, Scotland, named Janet Schaw, in which she describes a 1775 visit she made to her brother, a plantation owner, in southeastern North Carolina. A Loyalist, Schaw reports on the deep anti-British sentiment in the region. Her letters vividly illustrate ways in which the American Revolution caused people who knew each other well to resort to violence and intimidation against each other.

In the first passage Schaw describes how a group of Patriots turn on a “poor English groom” because he has, in her words, “smiled on” a Patriot regiment as they drilled. When you discuss this passage, set the scene. It is a hot day. The Patriots are probably drunk; they’ve been drinking grog, watered down rum, throughout their maneuvers. They are a rag-tag but potentially deadly bunch of ill-disciplined men. They believe the groom — an Englishman, not a local — insults them, and they decide to inflict a punishment that could kill him. Eventually, cooler heads, friends of the groom’s boss, prevail, and the crowd decides merely to banish the groom from town. This is a non-lethal punishment, but because it exiles the groom from his livelihood and sets him adrift in the unforgiving backcountry, it is still severe.

In the second passage Schaw encounters a group of her friends, Loyalists, some of “the first people in the town,” corralled in the middle of a street by a detail of armed Patriots. The soldiers are holding them because they have refused to sign an anti-British pledge. Like the display of military force in the first passage, the imprisonment in this one is an act of public intimidation. Note the powerful message it sends. Everyone in town knows the prisoners, and everyone can see that even the “first people” will not escape the Patriots’ wrath. Everyone knows the soldiers, too; in fact, Schaw just dined with one of the officers. When one of the prisoners asks by what authority the Patriots are holding them, the chilling reply indicates the brute force of arms. And it is that same force, or at least the threat of it, wielded by the Patriots’ Loyalist neighbors, that sets the prisoners free. At this stage the Revolution is a civil war that has turned friends into enemies. At the conclusion of the lesson, ask your students if these passages have changed their image of the American Revolution and the people who waged it.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. Two excerpts with accompanying close reading questions provide an analytical study of the texts. An optional follow-up assignment enhances the lesson. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, and the optional follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive PDF, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions

Teacher’s Guide


Contextualizing Questions

  1. What kind of text are we dealing with?
  2. When was it written?
  3. Who wrote it?
  4. For what audience was it intended?
  5. For what purpose was it written?

Janet Schaw was a young, well-educated Scottish woman who, in March of 1775, traveled to North Carolina to visit her older brother Robert, the owner of a plantation on the Cape Fear River near the town of Wilmington. While there she witnessed, among other things, land clearing through controlled burning and the killing of an alligator. More important, she observed a society that was splitting asunder under the stress of revolutionary politics.

Resistance to the British crown was strong in the region. In 1765 Wilmington residents launched the first successful armed resistance to the Stamp Act. By 1775 anti-British sentiment had intensified. Wilmington had established a vigorous Committees of Safety that demanded allegiance to the Continental Congress and enforced the Congress’s call to boycott British goods. Decisions of the Wilmington Committee forced men and women along the Cape Fear to take sides. Patriots employed violence and intimidation and, Schaw suggests, even faked a slave revolt to unite their countrymen in opposition to the British.

Schaw recorded her experiences and observations in a series of travel letters, which were published in 1921. As the editor of Schaw’s journal reminds us, “such contemporary evidence makes us realize that our forefathers, however worthy their object, were engaged in real rebellion and revolution, characterized by the extremes of thought and action that always accompany such movements, and not in the kind of parlour warfare, described in many of our text books.” [Journal of a Lady of Quality, eds. E.W. Andres and C.M. Andrews, 1921]

Text Analysis

Excerpts from Janet Schaw’s travel journal: North Carolina, 1775

Close Reading Questions

1. Where are the maneuvers held? Why might the Patriots have chosen this space?
Apparently, the maneuvers are held on two fields, one “covered with… scrubby oak,” the other a “plain” field, which seems to have been an open field for marching. What matters, however, is that both are quite public, visible from balconies. The Patriots mean for these maneuvers to be seen; with them they are sending a message.

2. What messages do the Patriots intend to send with the maneuvers?
To their fellow Patriots the maneuvers are a show of strength. To Loyalists they are a warning and an act of intimidation.

3. How does Schaw’s account reveal the militia’s strength? Cite specific language.
She notes that “heated with rum,” the militia is “capable of committing the most shocking outrages.” She further points out that it is a force of 2,000 men, a large contingent, and that while those men are “unmartial” in many ways, they can still “shoot from behind a bush” and kill even the highest British officers.

4. What did the groom do to anger the Patriots? How does Schaw characterize his offense?
He apparently indicated in some way that he did not take the militia seriously. Schaw characterizes this as a minor, trivial act: he merely “smiled at the regiment.”

5. What does it suggest about the Patriots that they found the groom’s behavior offensive?
Allowing for the fact that many of the militiamen may be drunk and incapable of exercising the soundest judgment, their reaction to what appears to have been a minor insult suggests their hair-trigger sensitivity to any slight offered by someone of British sympathies or even presumed British sympathies. The severity of their ultimate response, banishment, also suggests the tension that has seized the Wilmington community.

6. Is Mr. Neilson, the groom’s master, a Loyalist of a Patriot?
We cannot be sure either way, but there are suggestions that he is a Loyalist. He employs an English groom, something that the Patriots would not look upon kindly, and Schaw expresses his friendship with the officers who rescue the groom in the past tense, they “had been Neilson’s friends,” suggesting that his British sympathies may have ended those friendships.

7. What does the action of the officers suggest about relations in the town?
The officers’ rescue of the groom may illustrate the conflicting lines of friendship and allegiance that run throughout the community. As noted above, Mr. Neilson may be a Loyalist. Thus for the officers, rescuing the groom from tarring and feathering may have pitted their friendship with Neilson, however weakened, against their patriotic sentiment, however strong.

8. What makes the groom an especially likely and vulnerable target?
He is English and of “humble station,” that is, working class.

9. What message does the groom’s punishment send to the community, and how do the Patriots make sure the message is widely heard?
The Patriots signal their intolerance for any behavior that suggests disloyalty to the cause of the Revolution. They emphasize that message with the groom’s public humiliation — they force him to mount a table and beg for pardon — and his very public and presumably very noisy banishment from town.

1. We came down in the morning in time for the review [of the local Patriot militia] which the heat made as terrible to the spectators as to the soldiers, or what you please to call them. They had certainly fainted under it, had not the constant draughts of grog [watered-down rum] supported them. Their exercise was that of bush-fighting, but it appeared so confused and so perfectly different from anything I ever saw, I cannot say whether they performed it well or not; but this I know, that they were heated with rum till capable of committing the most shocking outrages. We stood in the balcony of Doctor Cobham’s house and they were reviewed on a field mostly covered with what are called here scrubby oaks, which are only a little better than brushwood. They at last however assembled on the plain field, and I must really laugh while I recollect their figures: 2000 men in their shirts and trousers, preceded by a very ill beat-drum and a fiddler, who was also in his shirt with a long sword and a cue at his hair, who played with all his might. They made indeed a most unmartial appearance. But the worst figure there can shoot from behind a bush and kill even a General Wolfe [British general killed in the French and Indian War].

Before the review was over, I heard a cry of tar and feather. I was ready to faint at the idea of this dreadful operation. I would have gladly quitted the balcony, but was so much afraid the Victim was one of my friends that I was not able to move, and he indeed proved to be one, tho’ in a humble station [lower social class]. For it was Mr. Neilson’s poor English groom [stable man; caretaker of horses]. You can hardly conceive what I felt when I saw him dragged forward, poor devil, frighted out of his wits. However, at the request of some of the officers, who had been Neilson’s friends, his punishment was changed into that of mounting on a table and begging pardon for having smiled at the regiment. He was then drummed and fiddled out of the town, with a strict prohibition of ever being seen in it again.

10. Why have the Patriots decided to hold their prisoners in the middle of a street?
Just as the Patriots sent a message by holding the militia maneuvers in a public place and publicly shaming the English groom, here, too, they want to send a message by putting prisoners on public display in the middle of a street.

11. What message does this public punishment send to the town?
It indicates that everyone in town, even “the first people,” will be subject to the Patriots’ wrath if they sympathize with the British.

12. Why do the Patriots not punish these Loyalists as they did the English groom?
They may have considered the groom a foreigner. Moreover, he was of a “humble station,” not one of the “first people,” and thus he was far more vulnerable than these better known and better connected townspeople. So well known and connected are they that some residents along the Cape Fear River are ready to take up arms to rescue them. Apparently, no one was ready to defend the groom.

13. How does this passage illustrate how tight-knit the community of Wilmington is? Cite specific evidence from the text.
Schaw’s relationships illustrate how close friends and foes are. Not only does she know “most” of the prisoners, she recently had dinner with one of the officers guarding them.

14. How does Schaw indicate that the rebellion is sustained only through violence and intimidation? Cite specific language.
When one of the prisoners asks by what “authority” the Patriots are imposing the loyalty “Test” upon them, an officer simply points to the armed soldiers with him and asserts “There is my Authority… dispute it, if you can.”

15. Compare the image of the militiamen in this excerpt with the description of them Schaw offers in the first.
In the first excerpt Schaw presents them as rag-tag backcountry men, dangerous but undisciplined. Here the danger only mentioned in the first excerpt is illustrated concretely. In the first excerpt the Patriot soldiers were largely comic; here they are threatening. The seriousness and intensity of the rebellion are made plain.

16. Compare Schaw’s response to the Patriots in the first excerpt with her response to them in the second. Cite specific language.
In the first excerpt Schaw was patronizing and contemptuous of the Patriots, but she was wary of them, too. In the second she still looks down on the Patriots, calling them “ragamuffins” and noting that “not five men of property and credit are infected” by the “unfortunate disease” of revolutionary fervor. However, now that she sees what they are willing to do, she is “petrified with horror” at the threat they represent.

17. How does these two passages illustrate the way in which the American Revolution was a civil war?
They show how the Patriot–Loyalist divide split communities and turned people who presumably had been getting along for years against each other. Neighbors who had once dined together now face off in the streets and confront each other with guns. The passages indicate that local Patriots and Loyalists battled each other well before the Continental Army squared off against British troops.

2. I went into the town, the entry of which I found closed up by a detachment of the soldiers; but as the officer immediately made way for me, I took no further notice of it but advanced to the middle of the street where I found a number of the first people [elite, highest class] in town standing together, who… seemed much impassioned. As most of them were my acquaintances, I stopped to speak to them, but they with one voice begged me for heaven’s sake to get off the street, making me observe they were prisoners, adding that every avenue of the town was shut up, and that in all human probability some scene would be acted very unfit for me to witness. I could not take the friendly advice, for I became unable to move and absolutely petrified with horror. Observing however an officer with whom I had just dined, I beckoned him to me. He came, but with no very agreeable look, and on my asking him what was the matter, he presented a paper he had folded in his hand. If you will persuade them to sign this [a pledge to support anti-British actions] they are at liberty, said he, but till then must remain under this guard, as they must suffer the penalties they have justly incurred. “And we will suffer everything,” replied one of them, “before we abjure [reject] our king, our country and our principles.” “This, Ladies,” said he turning to me, who was now joined by several Ladies, “is what they call their Test, but by what authority this Gentleman forces it on us, we are yet to learn.” “There is my Authority,” pointing to the Soldiers with the most insolent air, “dispute it, if you can.”…

The prisoners stood firm to their resolution of not signing the Test, till past two in the morning, tho’ every threatening was used to make them comply; at which time a Message from the [Patriot’s] committee compromised [ended] the affair, and they were suffered [allowed] to retire on their parole [responsible for themselves] to appear next morning before them. This was not a step of mercy or out of regard to the Gentlemen; but they understood that a number of their friends were arming in their defense, and tho’ they had kept about 150 ragamuffins still in town, they were not sure even of them; for to the credit of that town be it spoke there are not five men of property and credit [men of wealth] in it that are infected by this unfortunate disease [support for anti-British action and independence].

Follow-Up Assignment

From the perspective of a Patriot, retell the groom incident. Be precise. Schaw describes him as a “poor English groom” [caretaker of horses]. How would a Patriot describe him? Schaw says he “smiled at” the regiment. How would a Patriot describe his behavior? Schaw was horrified at his treatment. How would a Patriot have felt? Justify the original intended punishment of tarring and feathering. Describe why you and your comrades decided on the alternative punishment. Describe and justify it.

Describe the second incident from the point of view of the officer in charge of the prisoners. Again, be precise. Schaw describes the Loyalists as “much impassioned.” How would the officer describe them? Remember, the officer had dinner with Schaw just recently. In light of that, how might he respond to her questions? Justify holding the Loyalists in the street. Imagine how you felt when one of the Loyalists challenged your authority to hold them. Describe why you let them go.


  • unmartial: unmilitary, unprepared for war
  • tar and feather: an attack in which a crowd strips the victim, pours hot tar over his/her body, and then rolls the victim in feathers that adhere to the tar, after which the victim might be paraded around in a cart; done to intimidate and threaten the victim and others like him/her
  • prohibition: ban

Text: Journal of a Lady of Quality: Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the Years 1774 to 1776, eds. Evangeline Walker Andrews & Charles McLean Andrews (Yale University Press, 1921), 189-194. Full text online in Documenting the American South, Internet Archive, and Google Books.

Image: A New Method of Macarony Making, as practised at Boston, colored aquatint, British print, 1774. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, PAF3919. Reproduced by permission.