Have You Ever?

Have you ever heard an impassioned speech that motivated you to action? Did you ever read an article that completely changed your perspective? Or maybe you listened to a story that inspired you to do your best? 

The Reason

Words have power. They can inspire, uplift, and instigate everything from social change to revolution. History is made by speakers and writers who can communicate ideas effectively and persuasively. Concerning the history of the American Revolution, one such instrumental communicator was Thomas Paine. His pamphlet Common Sense rallied colonists around the idea that they could and should govern themselves instead of relying on Great Britain.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine is well-known for his incendiary literature, so it’s no surprise that his pamphlet Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the Following Interesting Subjects calls for a total break from England. First released at the onset of the revolution, Common Sense was an instant success. In proportion to population, it’s believed to have had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.

The History

The pamphlet was first published anonymously in early January of 1776 with the help of Robert Bell. The original release was timed to coincide with one of King George III’s royal proclamations, providing a stark contrast between the harsh order for obedience and the plainly stated call to full rebellion. Bell and Paine split due to financial arguments, and both produced subsequent editions of Common Sense. Paine granted reprinting rights to nearly everyone who asked. Most historians believe at least 150,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold, though conservative estimates place the number at around 75,000 – still, most other pamphlets of the time sold a few hundred or at best, a few thousand copies.

Common Sense incited bold action, as is typical of Thomas Paine’s works. He paints England as an abusive monster that has been killing the colonists. However, keep in mind the context in which Paine is writing. The conflict with England is still new, and a majority of people view themselves as Englishmen, not colonists. People are hoping to reconcile with the Crown and be kept under English rule. Paine insists, however, that reconciliation is no longer an option. England has ransacked the colonists’ homes, killed their families, and treated them unjustly. “If you,” writes Thomas Paine, “…can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.” He further unites listeners not under the title of Englishmen but as European exiles. They will never be treated fairly by Britain – they need to stop looking for foreign rulers and start governing themselves.

The popularity and effectiveness of Paine’s work can be attributed to the manner in which the ideas are presented. Rather than employing lengthy philosophical prose or writing in Latin, Paine used language familiar to most literate colonists. It’s written similarly to a sermon and makes use of biblical quotes to contradict the English crown’s divine right to rule.

So What?

Historians have argued over how much, if any, influence Paine’s work had on the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Common Sense proposed democracy, but the system provided was deemed much too radical by most of the founders. He not only stated that each colony should have equal representation, but that the presidency should be decided through a combination of rotated lottery and delegate voting. Critics have also pointed to the unoriginality of Paine’s ideas. 

Thomas Paine died forgotten, and the role Common Sense played in stirring up support was left out of history’s pages for a long time. However, that doesn’t diminish the fact that it played a pivotal role. To get his point across to his audience, Paine used easy-to-understand comparisons, such as equating the colonies to a child who has come of age. He flipped the narrative script to further emphasize the colonies’ need to take up the new role of self-governors. Thomas Paine convinced the general public that overthrowing British rule was not only possible but necessary. Though the pamphlet Common Sense was forgotten, its core messages weren’t: America is home to self-starting refugees who refuse to be subjugated ever again.

    Learn More

    1. Di Lorenzo, Anthony J. “Dissenting Protestantism as a Language of Revolution in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.” Eighteenth-Century Thought, vol 4,  2009. ISSN: 1545-0449. 
    2. Foner, Philip S. “Thomas Paine: British-American Author.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 Mar 2020. www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Paine.
    3. History.com Editors, “Thomas Paine.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 23 Oct 2019. www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/thomas-paine.
    4. Paine, Thomas. Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, on the Following Interesting Subjects.1776.
    5. Wood, Gordon S. “Introduction.” Common Sense and Other Writings. The Modern Library, 2003. ISBN: 978-0-375-76011-2.

    Think Further

    1. Why do you think Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is never mentioned on the same scale as other defining moments and works of the American Revolution?
    2. Keeping in mind his audience, why was it important that Thomas Paine used biblical citations and an overall sermon style in Common Sense?
    3. Do you agree with historian Gordon S. Wood’s assessment that Common Sense was “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era”? Why or not?

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