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Reflections on Historical Significance of ‘Common Sense’, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, 'The Stamp Act' and ‘The Bill of Rights’

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Thomas Paine marked a seminal moment in 1776 for America’s inevitable departure from Britain, throughout his pamphlet, ‘Common Sense’, which consequently acted as a “clarion call for unity, against the corrupt British court”, despite its print form distribution. The pamphleteer published his work in Philadelphia, signifying his political motivations, as the formation of the Continental Congress in 1774 had encouraged a political movement to sweep across America. Paine’s denouncement of the “decaying despotisms of Europe” were largely reflective of the beliefs held in Colonial America, emanating from the resentment towards the British, after Congress made their final attempt to appease Britain through the Olive Branch Petition. Although, this was dismissed by George III and Parliament, who imposed The Prohibitory Act in response – catalysing a trade and commerce collapse in the colonies.

‘Common Sense’ establishes the central theme of America’s struggle for liberty, shaping Paine’s argument, to unite America – asserting that Paine intended to attract the readership of the colonies, as he viewed his pamphlet as a binding force for revolution. Immediately, Paine employs an assertive tone, “society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness…” demonstrates Paine’s belief that governments are inherently corrupt, as his deconstruction of government and society as two separate entities reveals his belief that governments lessen the true purpose of society. Furthermore, Paine continues to mock the naivety of the colonists with regards to Britain, claiming “her motive was interest not attachment”, as Britain had blatantly taken advantage of America continuously, yet some colonists continued to be foolish enough to hesitate in declaring America’s inevitable independence. Although, Paine shifts his focus back to the British Monarch, as opposed to continuing to blame the colonists, as the wish for liberty was predominantly universal among the Americans. Paine stated that the “I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England”, revealing his attack on King George III through creating a direct parallel of him with Pharaoh Exodus in the bible who prevented the people of Israel leave slavery in Egypt. Paine’s denouncement of the King throughout biblical references caused a stir with some American’s, as they didn’t want to revolt against a divinely appointed Monarchy. Although, Paine seems to omit America’s slow steps towards ‘diffused sovereignty’ during 1774, despite Virginia’s initiative to call for a Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Therefore, Paine’s pamphlet enabled us to understand the issues in America, despite his dismissal of their small efforts to move towards independence.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet is historically significant, due to being intrinsically associated with the final push for American independence, the Declaration of Independence, issued on the 4th of July 1776. The Declaration of Independence established America’s sovereignty, for instance, all political allegiance with Britain was denied; trade with Britain was curtailed; and there was no end to slavery, despite discussion about it. Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ was “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”. Conclusively, ‘Common Sense reveals’ the radical movement that America was forced to undergo for its independence, due to Britain’s unwillingness to withdraw from the colonies.

Thomas Jefferson’s book, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, published in 1781, ultimately expressed his belief that the perfect society had been incarnated by Virginia. However, it is vital to acknowledge that Jefferson’s book was never intended to be published under his name, or come to light in North America, due to its limited publication in Europe. Throughout the book, topics such as economics, religion and liberty surface – however, it could be argued that the most extensive issue that Jefferson discusses is slavery, despite its controversial nature. Jefferson seemed to possess a certain duality with regards to slavery, as he believed that “slavery was contrary to the laws of nature”, which asserted that all men were equal – yet, in 1778, he drafted a Virginia Law to prohibit the importation of enslaved African’s, despite his ‘sympathies’ for them.

Throughout ‘Notes of the State of Virginia’, Jefferson employs defensible language to justify his beliefs regarding the miscegenation of white Americans and enslaved blacks. “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by whites… will divide us into parties and convulsions” Portrays how Jefferson’s book focused upon an audience of white Americans, to spread awareness of their ingrained prejudice towards blacks, due to his belief that their enslavement was anti-democratic – affirmed by his belief that humans are governed by the natural law. On the contrary, despite his progressive attitude, he seems to revel in his own irony, as he continues by justifying white supremacy. “This unfortunate difference of colour… is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people”. Establishes Jefferson’s belief that the two separate communities weren’t able to co-exist due to their inherent differences, as asserted by his belief that blacks were “rendered as incapable as children”. ‘The Notes of the State of Virginia’ encapsulates Jefferson’s ambivalent attitude towards slaves, as his Furthermore, it is significant that Jefferson presents himself as an opponent of slavery throughout his book, considering he “enslaved more than 600 people… and was a lifelong protector of the institution of slavery”. ‘The Notes of the State Virginia’ has acquired substantial historical significance, as it reflects a period of division in America, which could only lead to “a civil war that would destroy the union” – as some Americans were “in favour of abolition”, whilst others were “in favour of perpetuating slavery”. Nevertheless, by 1861, the issues discussed by Jefferson had ruminated, and his predictions regarding slavery became reality, sparking the civil war – thus making Jefferson’s book integral to understanding historical sources regarding the events that unfolded before 1861.

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Jefferson’s ‘Notes of the State of Virginia’ essentially anticipated the omnipresent threat of slavery, as its continuation led to tensions among the American’s – due to the irony of America being the land of liberty, whilst endorsing slavery.

In 1791, James Madison appended ‘The Bill of Rights’ in Philadelphia, as America wanted to maintain an egalitarian government. Madison was inspired to draft and adopt The First Ten Amendments by Thomas Jefferson, who believed that “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse, of rest on inference”. Further to this, Madison was also inspired by the Magna Carta, which had granted protection against the abuse of power from royals in the past. Although, on a pragmatic level, the Constitution had catalysed a period of chaos, due to enabling an excess of democracy. For instance, the emergence of the Shay’s Rebellion, in 1786, demonstrated Americas opposition towards “high taxes and stringent economic conditions”, which led to an attempt to overthrow the government, and the realisation that the Articles of Confederation needed to be reformed – although, by 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia presented opposition towards the Bill, due to the fear of tyranny. However, ‘the Bill of Rights’ had been ratified by nine states –Virginia’s ratification, on December 15th in 1791, successfully enunciating a sense of law and order, alongside notions of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Immediately, Madison employs assertive and righteous language, to establish a social and political infrastructure for America to abide by – whilst promoting freedom, to deviate from the “despotic English monarchy”. ‘The Bill of Rights’ was intended to be read by the States that refused to ratify the Constitution without one; alongside Americans, as it directly laid out the rights given to them. Madison immediately draws upon “Freedom of speech, Press, Religion and Petition”, highlighting that American’s wouldn’t be controlled by the government, or have their individual rights infringed upon. In terms of pragmatics, Madison was solely concerned with limiting the powers of the United States, to protect individual rights, beliefs and values. However, upon closer inspection of the Bill, it is significant that issue of slavery is overlooked, considering the majority of Congress had opposed its continuation, due to the encouragement of freedom. Albeit, the Bill highlights the mistreatment of slaves and ethnic communities in America, as they were deprived of the same societal structures as white citizens, due to the pressures faced by Congress if the South departed from the United States. Furthermore, Madison omits his fears concerning the salience of ‘the Bill of Rights’, which he considered to be a “parchment barrier”, averred by his belief that American’s liberties would be sucked into the “impetuous vortex” of the government without boundaries, such as checks and balances.

‘The Bill of Rights’ holds a great amount of historical significance, as it was emblematic of America’s quest for liberty, contended by its inextricable ties with the Declaration of Independence. The Amendments essentially gave “the rights of man a full and fair discussion”, which Washington further claimed could not “fail to make a lasting impression”. Although, the significance of ‘the Bill of Rights’ has arguably decayed, as it is now viewed as a piece of irony, due to its advocation of civil rights, alongside its alienation of minority groups; and Madison later challenging the “efficacy of the provision”, which dismissed the effectiveness of his own creation. It may be concluded that ‘The Bill of Rights’ is reflective of the fight for civil rights during its time, although its lack of inclusivity and salience no longer resonates in our present society.

In 1765, the British Parliament imposed “the first internal tax levied directly on American colonists”, as opposed to the continuation of raising money through the regulation of trade, catalysing the publication of The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress by delegates from nine of the colonies, who had convened at the Stamp Act Congress. Britain’s introduction of the Stamp Act had forged social and economic strain; the latent resentment towards the mother country began to surface, presented by the emergence of political groups, such as the Sons of Liberty, who were a driving force behind Congress. Although, the source of tension had been rooted in Britain’s determination to charge the colonists for their upkeep and protection since 1764, with the implementation of a Sugar Tax, which was heightened by Lord Grenville’s pursuit for more vigorous measures. As encapsulated by Washington, “The Stamp Act Imposed on the Colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain engrosses… this unconstitutional method of Taxation as a direful attack upon… Liberties”. The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress was solely directed towards the British government, and utilised hopeful language to affirm its loyalty to Britain, despite its rejection of the crown’s actions. “Inseperately Essential to the Freedom of a People… that no Taxes be imposed… but with their Consent” Portrays the colonist’s belief that the Stamp Act was unconstitutional, as it exploited the colonies, who began to view themselves as a source of revenue to the British. The inter-colonial movement began to gain momentum with the emergence of the Sons of Liberty, who brought widespread boycotts and violence to Boston and Rhode Island, threatening to thwart the Act – as Parliament had “caused the blood of… Sons of Liberty to recoil within them”. Congress drew upon the British Constitution, which “accorded Englishmen the right of being taxed only by representatives of their own choosing”, and since the colonists had no representation in Parliament, the British had overstepped their constitutional authority – as presented by their right to “no taxation without representation”. By contrast, although the British government weren’t able to impose taxes upon the colonists, Congress failed to reaffirm that Britain’s power to pass laws over the colonists presided – as presented by the Declaratory Act of 1776, which dismissed America’s effort to claim diffused sovereignty over itself. Further to this, The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress pretermitted its knowledge of the Stamp Act, which had been discussed for over a year and rejected by most colonies – “but not vehemently enough to prevent Westminister from eventually passing the bill”.

The Stamp Act Congress holds great historical significance, as it was the first example of intercolonial action against the British Parliament, as the “issues raised by the Stamp Act festered for 10 years”, catalysing America’s inevitable separation from the crown – as the colonists recognised that the power they held could be revolutionary. In essence, the Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress revealed America’s slow steps to gaining sovereignty over itself, through its rejection of the crown.

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Reflections on Historical Significance of ‘Common Sense’, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, ‘The Stamp Act’ and ‘The Bill of Rights’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-historical-significance-of-common-sense-notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-the-stamp-act-and-the-bill-of-rights/
“Reflections on Historical Significance of ‘Common Sense’, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, ‘The Stamp Act’ and ‘The Bill of Rights’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-historical-significance-of-common-sense-notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-the-stamp-act-and-the-bill-of-rights/
Reflections on Historical Significance of ‘Common Sense’, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, ‘The Stamp Act’ and ‘The Bill of Rights’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-historical-significance-of-common-sense-notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-the-stamp-act-and-the-bill-of-rights/> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
Reflections on Historical Significance of ‘Common Sense’, ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, ‘The Stamp Act’ and ‘The Bill of Rights’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2023 Feb 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/reflections-on-historical-significance-of-common-sense-notes-on-the-state-of-virginia-the-stamp-act-and-the-bill-of-rights/
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