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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 8: America Secedes from the Empire, 1775 - 1783


Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)

Paines Revolutionary propaganda in Common Sense and the Crisis played a critical role in arousing American patriotism. Because of his later role in the French Revolution, and especially his attacks on Christianity in The Age of Reason, Paine has long been the most controversial of the Revolutionary heroes. Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, once called him a dirty little atheist.

After the American Revolution Paine traveled to Britain and France to promote his iron-bridge invention. He became a French citizen and was elected to the Revolutionary Convention. His stirring work, The Rights of Man, a reply to Edmund Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made him a wanted man in Britain.

Following his return to America in 1801, even his influential friends, like Jefferson, avoided him, and he ended his life in poverty. After his death a British admirer dug up his bones and shipped them to Britain, where they were lost.

Quote: One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an Ass for a Lion.But where, some say, is the King of America? Ill tell you, friend, He reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Great Britain. (Common Sense, 1776)

REFERENCE: Eric Foner, Tom Paine and Revolutionary America (1976).


Richard Henry Lee (1732 - 1794)

Richard Henry Lee, the most eloquent Revolutionary orator besides Patrick Henry, was the author of the resolution declaring independence in June of 1776.

Lee came from the wealthy and influential Virginia Lee clan. Along with Henry, he gained political influence with his speeches attacking the Stamp Act and British economic domination of the colonies. He was a commanding presence at the Philadelphia Congress; John Adams was awed by him and called him a masterly man. His brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, also signed the Declaration of Independence.

His career declined after the Revolution, and like Henry, he was an Anti-Federalist in the fight over the Constitution. Tall and slender, Lee had receding red hair and a musical voice.

Quote: Why then do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this most happy day give birth to the American republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and conquer, but to re-establish the reign of peace and law. (Speech to Second Continental Congress, 1776)

REFERENCE: Oliver Perry Chitwood, Richard Henry Lee: Statesman of the Revolution (1967).


John Paul Jones (1742 - 1792)

A naval hero of the American Revolution, Jones is known as the founder of the United States Navy. Although he professed deep commitment to America, he was a Scottish immigrant who actually spent little time in the United States, preferring to live abroad after the Revolution.

His original name was John Paul. He added the Jones in 1773, evidently to conceal his identity after being accused of killing a mutineer aboard a British merchant ship he was commanding. He then came to Virginia, made influential friends like Robert Morris, and received authorization to begin a navy. The heroic fight when he lashed the Serapis to his Bonhomme Richard made him an international hero, although in Britain he was considered a pirate because of his raids on coastal towns.

An extremely complex personality, Jones has puzzled historians and has often been the subject of novels, plays, and poems. Despite his service to Americas republican cause, he was devoted to King Louis XIV of France and near the end of his life became an officer in the navy of the despotic czarina of Russia, Catherine II.

Quote: America has been the country of my fond election, from the age of thirteen, when I first saw it. I had the honor to hoist, with my hands, the flag of freedom, the first time it was displayed on the River Delaware; and I have attended it, with veneration, ever since on the ocean. (1779)

REFERENCE: Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones (1959).


George Rogers Clark (1752 - 1818)

Clark was the American frontiersman whose daring exploits won the trans-Appalachian west for the new United States.

Born in Virginia, Clark went west at age nineteen to work as a surveyor along the Ohio River. Clark became a leader of the frontier settlers, who deeply resented the British authorities connections with Indians. Clark returned to Virginia in 1776 to receive a militia commission to attack British forts. He hoped to raise at least 500 men, but only 175 joined him.

After his great successes in the Illinois campaign and the capture of Vincennes, he attempted to capture the British fort at Detroit in 1779 but failed. Besides his skill at frontier warfare, he proved especially adept at persuading many Indians to abandon the British and support the French and Americans, or at least to remain neutral.

He had little success after the war. Jefferson initially offered him command of the expedition to explore Louisiana, but the position went instead to his brother William.

Quote: (Speech to Indians) The Great Spirit has caused your old Father the French King and other nations to join the big Knife (Washington) and fight with them, so that the English have become like a deer in the woods.

REFERENCE: Lowell H. Harrison, George Rogers Clark and the War in the West (1969).



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