Revolutionary Propaganda: Persuasion and Colonial Support

by Lydia Loureiro

Background

Many students misconstrue the American Revolution as a period of unanimous support for independence from Great Britain. However, colonists generally considered themselves loyal British citizens, asserting rightful constitutional claims that had been previously established through their colonial charters or contracts. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, many colonies saw their right of self-rule stripped away by Parliament as it exerted greater authority over its empire. In reaction to this attempt to centralize parliamentary control, the independence movement gained momentum within the colonies.

Prior to declaring independence there were several attempts by the colonists to mediate their growing troubles with Great Britain. By advocating for their rights and the precedent of self-rule, colonists increasingly distinguished their unique American political culture from their British counterparts’. Many colonists (and eventually foreign nations) had to be persuaded to join in this revolution. In order to encourage support, speeches and letters were published outlining the colonial grievances in pamphlets or broadsides. Through these documents, colonists attempted to create democratic change within their political structure. However, as time passed and tensions rose, these complaints formed the basis for the Declaration of Independence.

Objectives

  • Students will use SOAPStone to analyze primary sources by colonists arguing for independence.
  • Students will study the Declaration of Independence as a base argument for colonial independence.
  • Students will use this information to answer the essay question.

Materials

SOAPStone Graphic Organizer, Facing History and Ourselves

Document A, “We Lay Our Grievances Before the Throne” (PDF)

Document B, “Olive Branch Petition” by John Dickinson

Document C, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, USHistory.org

Document D, “All Europe is Interested in Our Fate” by Mercy Warren Otis (PDF)

Document E, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” by Patrick Henry, Archiving Early America

Class Set, Declaration of Independence, Our Documents

Liberty! The American Revolution, Episode Descriptions, PBS

Procedure

Day One

  1. Think-Pair-Share Activity: Name one way in which the American Revolution might have changed world history. Students should respond based on prior knowledge or textbook work.
  2. After students share their responses, discuss briefly the implications of the American Revolution or if you have an Honors or an AP class show the three-minute clip by Gordon Wood on the “Meaning of the American Revolution.” Discuss student responses to his assertion that this is the most important event in our history.
  3. In order to garner support for independence, what events might have played crucial roles? Review briefly the influence of the French and Indian War, King Philip’s War, parliamentary acts affecting the colonies, the Boston Massacre, Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill.
  4. Homework: Have students create an illustrated timeline of these events with brief descriptions.
  5. Extension: Students can play “The Road to Revolution” game at PBS’s Liberty! The American Revolution website for review.

Days Two–Three

  1. Bellringer: Teachers should pull up a blog, Twitter, or section of the Daily Show or other satire to illustrate how people call attention to an issue that they would like to change. What was the tone of the example? Does tone matter? Explain.
  2. Explain to students that prior to the Revolution many arguments were made by the colonists to support either the British or the colonists. Explain that in this activity they will read a series of persuasive documents that express an opinion regarding independence. They will work in teams to SOAPstone these documents.
  3. Divide the students into heterogeneous groups of three.
  4. Prior to class label each of the documents listed above A–E and put them into large manila envelopes. Make at least two sets of each document envelope.
  5. Within their groups students will take one envelope and return to their seats.
  6. Each group will read through the document and SOAPstone the document together.
  7. When they have completed their SOAPstone they will return the envelope and repeat the process with the next envelope.
  8. By the end of the class the students will have SOAPstoned all of the documents.
  9. Homework: Which article was the most conciliatory in tone? Which article was the most aggressive in tone? What might have occurred to change the tone of these documents?

Day Four

  1. Discuss the different types of tone the documents presented and why the tone grew increasingly aggressive. (Note: I focus this on the king’s reaction to the Olive Branch Petition. I then tend to spend more time discussing Common Sense as a pivotal document that engages more of the population and influences subsequent arguments. PBS’s series Liberty!, episode two, does a great job summarizing these arguments.)
  2. Briefly lecture on the importance of the colonial autonomy that had been established through their contracts and charters. The colonists considered these to be “constitutional” rights that should be protected as they were British citizens. The treatment as colonial subjects rather than equal citizens by the king and parliament increased anger within the colonies.
  3. Refer students to the Declaration of Independence. Individually SOAPstone the document and share with a partner.
  4. Go over the answers as a class.
  5. Essay: In the years 1774–1776 a growing sense of constitutional rights provided momentum for declaring independence from Great Britain. Compare and contrast how Thomas Jefferson built on previous arguments in order to justify independence.

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