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Patriots or Traitors: A Revolutionary Debate

Created by:
Michelle McDonald
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

Revolutionary Decision

Grade Level:
9 to 12


Most accounts of debates during the 1760s and 1770s between Britain and North America that students encounter were written from the patriot perspective. As a result, they often portray those who chose to back the crown as timid or misguided at best and traitors at worst.

In reality, however, the number of colonists that sided with the king increased as tempers flared. For these colonists, the radicalism of Americans' protest--the dumping of tea in Boston harbor, harassment of government officials, and destruction of property--was far worse than the taxes Britain proposed. Moreover, while British governance was not perfect, no viable replacement had been suggested.

Historical Context

This activity asks students to reconstruct some of the arguments circulating on both sides of the debate. What reasons did loyalists use to defend staying within the British Empire? What benefits did they think such membership afforded? By contrast, what aspects of independence--political, economic, or social--did revolutionaries offer to persuade others to join their cause? The end result of this exercise is not to decide who was right or wrong, but to encourage students to think about the range of ideas expressed at the time and be able to explain why these arguments might or might not have been persuasive.


political protest, mass demonstration, popular culture, patriotism, and loyalism

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1)Describe what various groups thought about the role of government in the North American colonies.

2)Recognize and define the terms rights and citizenship.

3) Practice reconstructing historical arguments and presenting findings orally.


Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

For the Patriot perspective:

1) Resolutions of the Stamp Act Crisis, October, 19, 1765; 2) Letter Reprinted by the Printers of the Pennsylvania Gazette, May 15, 1766; 3) Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

For the Loyalist perspective:

1)Letter from Americanus, September 25, 1766; 2)Plan of Union, written by Joseph Galloway, September 28, 1774; 3)A Proclamation by the King for Repressing Rebellion and Sedition, August 23, 1775

Index cards labeled MOTION #1 and MOTION #2

Details of Activity

Part I: Defining Sides (20-25 minutes)

Divide the class into five (5) groups: 2 groups of loyalists; 2 groups of patriots, and 1 group of judges (or arbitrators).

Give the 3 loyalist documents to the 2 loyalist groups and the 3 patriot documents to the 2 patriot groups. Copies of all 6 documents should be given to the judges.

Have students read through all of documents in their set and compile a list of reasons why people might have supported or argued against independence from Britain. To help think through their reasons, they might wish to rank their arguments from strongest to weakest,with a brief analysis of why they think some arguments are more persuasive than others.

Let them know that the second part of this activity is a class debate, so they should be prepared to articulate their arguments as comprehensively and concisely as they can. The debate will be timed!

Part 2: The Debate (35-40 minutes)

All four groups take turns presenting their arguments to the class, which should be based on information from their primary document sets, as well as from their textbooks, other readings, and class discussions. To make these presentations more interactive you may opt to allow the groups not presenting to raise an objection, or a motion (for example, during the first Loyalist presentation, members from either Patriot group can interrupt the presentation).

It helps to limit both the number of motions and the time each motion can take. Limiting the number of motions,for example, no more than two from both opposing groups,encourages debaters to be active listeners, but careful in choosing when to exercise their right to interject.

Motions themselves should be limited as well to no more than 2 minutes (no long-winded filibustering allowed!), as motions should--either as objections or questions--serve to engage the current group of presenters, rather than overwhelm them.

To raise a motion, a member from the opposing side should raise the card stating either MOTION #1 or MOTION #2, and wait to be acknowledged by the judging panel, who moderates both the time of the group presentations and the motions to make sure the activity stays on schedule.

The timetable for the debates is as follows:

5 minutes: The first Loyalist group presents their case against a war for independence, using the documents provided to back-up their arguments (2 motions allowed from Patriot teams).

5 minutes: The first Patriot group presents their case for independence, also based on documents provided (2 motions allowed from Loyalist teams).

5 minutes: Both Loyalist groups meet together compare notes. Were any arguments left out of the first Loyalist presentation? How can Loyalists respond to the questions and concerns the first group of Patriots raised?

5 minutes: The second Loyalist group presents any additional arguments against independence not raised by the first group, and responds to the first set of Patriot arguments (2 motions allowed from Patriot teams).

5 minutes: Both Patriot groups meet together to compare notes. Where any arguments left out of the first Patriot presentation? How can Patriots respond to the questions and concerns the two groups of Loyalists raised (2 motions allowed from opposing teams)?

5-10 minutes: Judges confer and vote on which arguments--both for and against a revolution--they found most convincing (and why!)

Practice and Reinforcement


This activity is based on the educational materials of Cliveden, a historic property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. More information about Cliveden can be found at: http://www.cliveden.org.

Supplementary Materials


For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here