The American Revolution: A History in Documents

By Steven C. Bullock | Go to book overview

How to Read a Document

This book presents documents, or primary sources, about the American Revolution. Many of them describe people's experiences (often their own) or attempts to convince others of the moral rightness or the practical benefits of taking a particular action. In trying to make sense of these pieces, it is important to recognize that they were shaped, molded to fit different purposes. Think about describing an exciting day to a sympathetic friend. Now imagine explaining the same events to a suspicious police officer. Both descriptions could be true, but each would probably highlight different events, use different language, and describe feelings differently.

The writers, speakers, and even artists represented in this book also made a similar set of choices. Asking questions about the author's view of their intended audience is an important way of understanding a document's significance. We can ask questions like: How do the authors shape their ideas and stories? What do they emphasize? What do they leave out? What moral values do they take for granted? What do they expect their readers to agree or disagree with?

Even words themselves can mean different things. For example, [liberty] is a key idea during these years. It could suggest what many of us often mean today when we use the word, the freedom to do what we want. But it could also mean not having to pay a tax, being able to vote for leaders, and even being allowed to keep other people in slavery—or all of these things at once.

Asking these sorts of questions about the documents is only a start, of course. But paying attention to ways that people use words and shape their presentations can help us understand more fully why the American Revolution is one of the most exciting and important periods in American history.


Title

The title page of Revolutionary-era books such as Thomas Paine's 1776 Common Sense conveyed a good deal of information. Even the titles themselves tended to be longer and more descriptive than most titles today. The lengthy subtitle here notes the work's main sections. The author's name, however, often did not appear. A great deal of political writing in this period was anonymous.


Motto

Quotations from other authors played an important part in eighteenthcentury political argument. Although the popular British poet James Thompson was not opposed to the British monarchy, Paine employs his lines here to underline the argument that hereditary monarchy was a foolish idea that Americans should reject. The letter [s] in the beginning or middle of a word was printed in a way that looks like present-day [f.]


Imprint

The imprint indicates the location, printer, and date of a work. As the imprint here notes, Common Sense was originally published in Philadelphia. This edition was printed in New York shortly afterwards to meet the expected demand for the popular piece in that area. Although the publication date is not noted here, it was probably soon after the January 1776 appearance of the original edition.


Images

The images in this book are not simply illustrations. They are also primary source documents that can be as revealing as the written word. Paul Revere's popular print of the Boston Massacre appeared only a few days after it occurred in March 1770. The image and variations on it by Revere and others were the only pictures of the event that people saw.


Engravings

Although they could not be as large or as visually rich as a good painting, engravings were cheaper and could be reproduced easily. Made by printing from a metal plate from which an image had been scraped away, they were then printed as part of magazines, newspapers, or books. Or they could, as with this example, be sold separately. Copies of this print were colored by hand before they were sold.


Messages

Many of the images in this period sought to make a statement about a controversial issue. Paul Revere's print of the Boston Massacre appeared only a few days after the incident. It was titled [The Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in King Street Boston.] The clothing, facial expressions, and gestures of the soldiers and civilians reinforce this interpretation. The testimonies of witnesses suggest a more chaotic scene in which the crowd was larger and much more aggressive than is shown here.

-8-

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