Only with the benefit of hindsight is it obvious that declaring independence from Great Britain would secure the future of the American experiment.
In the spring of 1776, when Thomas Paine’s incendiary pamphlet Common Sense first laid out the arguments for independence and republican self-government, ordinary Americans had no such confidence. To many colonists, independence was nothing more than a dangerous, short-sighted, and foolish dream. Those included James Chalmers, author of Plain Truth, a stirring point-by-point rebuttal to Paine, who held that independence was a fantasy that could harm the struggling colonies by breaking ties with their most valuable trading partner and leaving them exposed to invasion by France or Spain.
A Smithsonian Debate brings these two men and their conflicting political philosophies to life in a lively, interactive event in which the audience plays a key role. Two members of the University of Maryland’s history faculty, Whitman Ridgway and Richard Bell, portray Paine and Chalmers.
The impassioned exchange between Paine and Chalmers highlights key disputes about the nature of empire and the prospect for democratic political participation—arguments that echo through our modern debates about neo-imperialism and soft power, voting rights and representation, and America’s place in the 21st-century world.
Enjoy a glass of wine while developing questions to pose to the debaters. A show-of-hands vote selects the winner. The moderator is Rosemarie Zagarri, a professor at George Mason University whose specialty is Early American history.
To learn more about the Revolutionary War, listen to clips from Smithsonian Folkways>>