Early American History Seminar: Betsy Erkkila, Northwestern University

Early American History and Culture Seminar
Thursday, February 16, 2006

5:30 pm to 7:00 pm

“Paine, Jefferson, and the Grammar of Revolution
Betsy Erkkila, Northwestern University
This is the first chapter of a longer study entitled Writing the Cultural Revolution: Literature and Politics in Revolutionary America. I focus on Revolutionary writing as a rhetorical battlefield in which a multiplicity of voices and forms struggled for cultural authority in writing and naming America. In the section of this chapter, I argue that Tom Paine’s Common Sense played a foundational role in transforming the American Revolution from a primarily political to a social revolution. By retelling the origins of government from a republican point of view, Common Sense invested such key terms in the American founding as liberty, equality, rights, independence, natural law, representation, consent, constitution, and common sense with a more radical because more popular valence. It rescued the terms republic, republican, and republicanism from their previously negative associations with anarchy and excess and in effect, killed the King rhetorically as a meaningful term in American and arguably, Western history.