Engraving of Jonathan Mayhew, an outspoken Boston preacher who argued that civil and religious liberty for the American colonies was ordained by God.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
In the years preceding the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, many American colonists expressed opposition to Great Britain's policies toward the colonies, but few thought seriously about establishing an independent nation until late in the imperial crisis. Throughout the years of controversy beginning in the 1760s, Americans expressed a variety of opinions about the legitimacy of open acts of resistance and rebellion, which intensified as armed resistance began in April 1775. On both sides of the issue, perspectives and motivations were diverse. Among those who favored resistance, for example, not all would go so far as to advocate full-scale rebellion against Great Britain or national independence for the United States. The debate, moreover, was not a static one, and its terms shifted over time; by 1776 many colonists found themselves advocating positions undreamed of a decade earlier.
In this lesson, students are taught how to make informed analyses of primary documents illustrating the diversity of religious, political, social, and economic motives behind competing perspectives on questions of independence and rebellion. Making use of a variety of primary texts, the activities below help students to "hear" some of the colonial voices that, in the course of time and under the pressure of novel ideas and events, contributed to the American Revolution.
A. Religious motivationsRead the essay by Christine Leigh Heyrman, "Religion and the American Revolution," available from the EDSITEment reviewed TeacherServe. Linked to this website is an exhibit produced by the Library of Congress entitled Religion and the American Revolution, which contains links to several documents showing religious motivations both loyalist and rebel. Of special relevance to this lesson is the webpage Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Below are just a few of a number of relevant documents and artifacts to be found on this webpage:
- Jonathan Mayhew's "A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Powers," which argues from Scripture that God does not forbid resistance to rulers who do not govern wisely.)
- Once a speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and friend to Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Galloway was a loyalist who fled to England in 1778. In this excerpt from his book, Historical and Political Reflections on the Rise and Progress of the American Rebellion, he asserts that the cause of the rebellion was essentially religious, a result of the animosity of Congregational and Presbyterian interests in America towards the Anglican Church (for more, see Religion and the Founding of the American Republic).
- An allegory done in needlework, "The Hanging of Absalom", illustrates the tendency of American colonists to view the conflict with Britain in biblical terms. The following interpretation of this allegory is provided: "The creator of the work saw Absalom as a patriot, rebelling against and suffering from the arbitrary rule of his father King David (symbolizing George III) …" (for more, see Religion and the Founding of the American Republic).
- Other possibilities from Religion and the Founding of the American Republic include a sermon arguing that rebellion is justified by God, a revolutionary battle flag containing religious symbolism, arguments among Quakers about whether to join the battle, and documents that illustrate divided loyalties within the Anglican Church in America.
B. Loyalist perspectives
Plain Truth, a response written by loyalist James Chalmers to Thomas Paine's Common Sense (the text of Chalmer's response comes from Archiving Early America, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library).
Charles Inglis, an Anglican clergyman and loyalist, responded to Thomas Paine with an anonymous pamphlet, "The True Interest of America Impartially Stated," which argues for a reconciliation between Britain and the American Colonies (the text comes from Revolution to Reconstruction, a link on the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library).
C. Rebel perspectivesAvailable from the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, the famous speech by Patrick Henry in which he proclaimed, "Give me Liberty or Give Me Death." Another example, from The Papers of George Washington, is George Washington's letter of May 31, 1775 to a close friend in which he suggests his resolve to rebel: "But can a virtuous man hesitate in his choice?"
D. African American voicesA number of documents related to the position and perspective of African Americans during the Revolution are available from the EDSITEment resource, Africans in America. The following are just a few of the possibilities available on this website:
- African American petition in 1773 to Governor Hutchinson, written by Felix on behalf of "many Slaves, living in the Town of Boston, and other Towns in the Province."
- "Free Black Patriots," an essay on free black men from the North who fought on the American side.
- "Runaways," an essay about black slaves who fought on either the British or American side during the Revolution in order to escape slavery.
- In "Of the Natural Rights of Colonists," Bostonian James Otis wrote that "the colonists are by the law of nature freeborn, as indeed all men are, white or black," making him one of only a few American writers of the time who combined an argument for succession with an argument against slavery.
E. Official and legal documents
- From the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School, two documents written on the eve of the Declaration of Independence: George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776), and Richard Henry Lee's Resolution, which proposed to the Continental Congress a declaration of independence (June 7, 1776).
- Also, available on From Revolution to Reconstruction (a link from the Internet Public Library) is Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of taking up Arms (July 6, 1775).
- The text of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a wealth of supporting resources, from the Digital Classroom (National Archives and Records Administration).
Prior to assigning option #1 or option #2, below, provide your students with a general introduction to interpreting primary documents. Here are some possibilities for questions that students can ask themselves of each document (the questions below are also available as a downloadable PDF, Voices of the Revolution: Document Analysis):
To model the process of analyzing primary documents, you may wish to provide the class with copies of the letter of George Washington to George Mason in 1769. Although a little long, it provides a strong document of which to ask all of the preceding questions. Its readability is also aided by annotation provided following the document. The letter provides natural interest since it was written by the future commander of the armed forces and first president of the United States.
Option #1—Point-Counterpoint Debate: Assign students to individual historical persons or viewpoints based upon particular primary documents. After students have had time to examine their assigned documents and to fill out a Document Analysis Worksheet, they are ready to prepare for an in-class debate. Use the Rubric for Point-Counterpoint Debate, available here as a downloadable PDF document, to present students with instructions for preparing for the classroom debate. Direct students to the Internet resources described in Preparing to Teach to research the additional information they will need to clarify their position in the debate. As outlined in the Rubric, students then do a "point counterpoint" debate during class time.
Option #2—Group Research and Class Discussion: Students are put into groups where they will form an answer to the following question: "Before 1779, the reasons for an individual's support for or opposition to independence were primarily economic." Assess the validity of this statement.
Each of 4-5 student groups will be given a cluster of primary documents (see examples in Preparing to Teach) that supports a viewpoint being driven by a certain reason (i.e., religious, economic, philosophical). Each group must frame their answer based upon the documents that they are given. There will be an overall class discussion with opportunities for each group to present their views.
Assign students an essay based on their work for one of the two options described above. Student essays should develop a focused thesis statement supported by the evidence from both primary and secondary sources. Specific instructions for the essay, as well as an assessment tool, can be developed from the downloadable PDF, Rubric for Student Essay.
4-5 class periods