Colonists Divided: A Revolution and a Civil War


The Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Declaratory Act, the Sugar Act, and the Tea Act were just a few of the many policies Great Britain enacted in the British North American colonies in the eighteenth century. To many colonists these policies were oppressive and unjust since the colonists had no direct representation in Parliament. The British government felt that the colonists were protected by the British army and navy, and there was stability under a constitutional monarchy, which was more than other, longer-established countries could boast. As more and more skirmishes, demonstrations, and massacres broke out, the colonists and the king knew that something had to be done about the state of their relationship.

Not all colonists agreed on what should be done. A line started to be drawn between those who wanted to work with King George III and Parliament to mend the relationship and those who wanted to sever all ties with Great Britain. Both sides fought fervently for their positions through speeches, pamphlets, and even songs. Those who wanted to support the king were known as Tories or loyalists. Those who supported separation were called rebels or patriots. In the end, an agreement could not be reached between the two sides, and in 1776 the Continental Congress officially declared the thirteen colonies free from Britain and her rule. Not only was the ensuing war a revolution, but it was also a civil war between colonists.


In this two-day lesson, students will draw on two speeches that preceded the American Revolution and will examine two distinct sides of the debate over independence. The first speech was given by a patriot, or rebel, Patrick Henry of Virginia, to the Second Virginia Convention. He passionately implored the delegates to vote for independence in his famous line, "Give me liberty or give me death." The second speech comes from a loyalist or Tory orator, Joseph Galloway. He explained Britain’s behavior and illustrated what Britain had done for the colonies. He entreated the Continental Congress to seek other means to liberty besides war. Students will debate the two sides in class. Students will also look at the lyrics of popular loyalist and patriot songs from the war. Lastly, a PowerPoint presentation accompanying this lesson contains key people and terms from this period. The PowerPoint also provides many historical engravings and pictures as well as flags from this time period.


Students should be able to

  • identify the characteristics of loyalists/Tories and patriots/rebels.
  • explain why the American Revolution can also be considered a civil war.
  • effectively debate using arguments from both a Tory’s perspective and a patriot’s perspective.


Additional Resource


Day One (45–60 minute class)

  1. Using the Think, Pair, Share method or a journal prompt, ask students to imagine that they are colonists living in America before the American Revolution. Someone comes to their door and asks them if they would fight England in order to gain independence. How would they respond? (3–5 minutes)
  2. Use "The War for Independence: A Revolution and a Civil War," a PowerPoint to introduce the time period and key terms and people for this lesson. This should be an interactive lecture. To extend this lesson, use the engravings and art found in the PowerPoint as primary sources that the class can analyze to better evaluate Tories and rebels. (7–15 minutes)
  3. Hand out the analytical worksheet for the speeches and debate. Go over the questions so that the students can look for the answers as they read, though they do not need to fill in the worksheet as they read. Read the two speeches, Patrick Henry’s "Give me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech to the Second Virginia Convention (1775) and Joseph Galloway’s Speech to the Continental Congress (September 28, 1774), using one of the following methods. Encourage students to read with fervor. (15–20 minutes)
  1. Popcorn Reading Method: The class reads the selection together aloud, but the teacher does not call on a specific student. Students are instructed that one student is to read a few sentences and stop. Then another student, without being called on, picks up and continues to read a few sentences. Encourage students to let everyone have an opportunity to read and to refrain from fighting over who will read next.
  2. Directed Reading-Thinking Activity: 1. Ask students what they already know about the readings. 2. Ask students to predict what the reading or paragraph will say. 3. After reading a section, ask students if they need to modify their prediction or are they on the mark? 4. After reading the entire speech ask students if they can prove their predictions or modified predictions using textual evidence.
  3. Partner/Small Group Method: Pair students or put them into groups of no more than four. Ask them to take turns reading. Additionally, you can ask that after each student has read, another group member summarize what the other read.
  1. Pair or put students into groups of no more than four and have them complete the worksheet, including the pros and cons section. (10–15 minutes)
  2. Divide the class in half and assign them roles. One half will be Tories and the other half will be rebels. For homework, tell them that tomorrow they are all going to be delegates at the Continental Congress. They need to prepare to debate the other side and convince the other delegates of their stance. They should prepare their key arguments for their positions as well as prepare responses for their opponents’ arguments. (5 minutes)

Day Two (45–60 minutes)

  1. Most of this class period will be spent on the debate the students have prepared for with their homework. Lay down the ground rules for the debate. There are a number of different ways to hold a class debate. (5 minutes)
    Here are some suggestions for a class debate: 1. Assign a student to be a moderator or the teacher can be the moderator. 2. Only one person may speak at a time. 3. While a delegate is speaking others should take notes to further support their position or to attack. 4. Provide a time limit for one person to speak (1–2 minutes). 5. Make sure each side has an equal amount of time to speak. 6. At the end of the debate one student from each side gets one minute to provide closing arguments. 7. Remind them that they are not students, but gentlemen or ladies who have been chosen to represent their colony, and they can feel free to fully take on these roles.
  2. Allow students to meet with their sides for a few minutes. They should pick who will give the closing argument and perhaps who should speak first, second, third, etc. (5 minutes)
  3. Proceed with the debate. (15–25 minutes)
  4. Explain to students that while great orators gave speeches to persuade people to join their sides, there were also other means of persuasion. Some of the engravings they viewed in the PowerPoint were used to sway the masses. (To extend this lesson, you can find more pictures on the National Archives’ website found under Additional Resource.) Another medium used before and during the war was music. Hand out the two songs found under Materials. Read and analyze them as a class. (10–15 minutes)
  5. On your classroom board, analyze the songs by listing how each song represented a loyalist perspective or a patriot perspective. Then list the words each song uses to describe the other side. Finally ask students to think about the impact that songs, speeches, and pictures might have had on people in the Revolutionary era. To which medium are they more drawn? (5–10 minutes)


Ask students to reflect on the debate and the position they held. Now ask them to write a letter, a speech, a newspaper article, or a journal entry about the good points the other side made. Finally, they must choose which side they would be on as a colonist and why.

  • Ask students to pretend they are fighting in the war and they must write a letter home about how the war is transpiring. What side are they on? How do they feel about the other side? How do they feel about the toils of war?
  • Ask students to create their own song from either a loyalist’s or a patriot’s perspective. Use the songs in class as a guide. Often these songs were set to already well-established tunes.