Path to the Revolution: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was one of the organizations, events, or pieces of legislation in the aftermath of the French and Indian War that would lead us to the American Revolution. These include:
- Committees of Correspondence
- Pontiac’s War
- Sugar Act
- Quartering Act
- Stamp Act
- Declaratory Act
- Townshend Acts
- Boston Massacre
- Tea Act
- Boston Tea Party
- Intolerable Acts
- Continental Congress
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine
- Declaration of Independence
Thomas Paine (c. 1736-37 – June 8, 1809) was an English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. He authored Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776–1783), the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, and helped inspire colonists in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights.
Born in Thetford in the English county of Norfolk, Paine migrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the Virtually every rebel read (or listened to a reading of) his powerful 47-page pamphlet Common Sense, proportionally the all-time best-selling American title, which catalyzed the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said: “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain”. The American Crisis was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series.
Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on Anglo-Irish conservative writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in England in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel.
The British government of William Pitt the Younger, worried by the possibility that the French Revolution might spread to England, had begun suppressing works that espoused radical philosophies. Paine’s work, which advocated the right of the people to overthrow their government, was duly targeted, with a writ for his arrest issued in early 1792. Paine fled to France in September where, despite not being able to speak French, he was quickly elected to the French National Convention. The Girondins regarded him as an ally; consequently, the Montagnards, especially Maximilien Robespierre, regarded him as an enemy.
In December 1793, he was arrested and was taken to Luxembourg Prison in Paris. While in prison, he continued to work on The Age of Reason (1793–1794). James Monroe, a future President of the United States, used his diplomatic connections to get Paine released in November 1794.
Paine became notorious because of his pamphlets. In The Age of Reason he advocated deism, promoted reason and free thought and argued against institutionalized religion in general and Christian doctrine in particular. He published the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), discussing the origins of property and introduced the concept of a guaranteed minimum income through a one-time inheritance tax on landowners. In 1802, he returned to the U.S. When he died on June 8, 1809, only six people attended his funeral as he had been ostracized for his ridicule of Christianity.
Common Sense is a 47-page pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–1776 advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Writing in clear and persuasive prose, Paine marshaled moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and became an immediate sensation.
It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. As of 2006, it remained the all-time best-selling American title and is still in print today.
Common Sense made public a persuasive and impassioned case for independence, which had not yet been given serious intellectual consideration. Paine connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity and structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon.
Paine arrived in the American colonies in November 1774, shortly before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Though the colonies and Great Britain had commenced hostilities against one another, the thought of independence was not initially entertained. Writing of his early experiences in the colonies in 1778, Paine:
…found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was, at that time, a kind of treason to speak against it. Their ideas of grievance operated without resentment, and their single object was reconciliation.”
Paine quickly engrained himself in the Philadelphia newspaper business, and began writing Common Sense in late 1775 under the working title of Plain Truth. Though it began as a series of letters to be published in various Philadelphia papers, it grew too long and unwieldy to publish as letters, leading Paine to select the pamphlet form.
Benjamin Rush recommended the publisher Robert Bell, promising Paine that although other printers might balk at the content of the pamphlet, Bell would not hesitate or delay its printing. Bell zealously promoted the pamphlet in Philadelphia’s papers, and demand grew so high as to require a second printing. Paine, overjoyed with its success, endeavored to collect his share of the profits and donate them to purchase mittens for General Montgomery’s troops, then encamped in frigid Quebec. However, when Paine’s chosen intermediaries audited Bell’s accounts, they found that the pamphlet actually had made zero profits. Incensed, Paine ordered Bell not to proceed on a second edition, as he had planned several appendices to add to Common Sense. Bell ignored that and began advertising a “new edition”.
While Bell believed that the advertisement would convince Paine to retain his services, it had the opposite effect. Paine secured the assistance of the Bradford brothers, publishers of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, and released his new edition, featuring several appendices and additional writings. Bell began working on a second edition. This set off a month-long public debate between Bell and the still-anonymous Paine, conducted within the pages and advertisements of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, with each party charging the other with duplicity and fraud. Paine and Bell published several more editions through the end of their public squabble.
The publicity generated by the initial success and compounded by the publishing disagreements propelled the pamphlet to incredible sales and circulation. Following Paine’s own estimate of the pamphlet’s sales, some historians claim that Common Sense sold almost 100,000 copies in 1776, and according to Paine, 120,000 copies were sold in the first three months. One biographer estimates that 500,000 copies sold in the first year (in both America and Europe, predominantly France and Britain), and another writes that Paine’s pamphlet went through 25 published editions in the first year alone. However, some historians dispute these figures as implausible because of the literate population at the time and estimated the far upper limit as 75,000 copies.
Aside from the printed pamphlet itself, there were many handwritten summaries and whole copies circulated. Paine also granted publishing rights to nearly every imprint which requested them, including several international editions. It was immensely popular in France, where it was published without its diatribes against monarchy. At least one newspaper printed the entire pamphlet: the Connecticut Courant in its issue of February 19, 1776. Writing in 1956, Richard Gimbel estimated, in terms of circulation and impact, that an “equivalent sale today, based on the present population of the United States, would be more than six-and-one-half million copies within the short space of three months”.
For nearly three months, Paine managed to maintain his anonymity, even during Bell’s potent newspaper polemics. His name did not become officially connected with the independence controversy until March 30, 1776. Paine never recouped the profits that he felt were due to him from Bell’s first edition. Ultimately, he lost money on the Bradford printing as well, and because he decided to repudiate his copyright, he never profited from Common Sense.
Heavy advertisement by both Bell and Paine and the immense publicity created by their publishing quarrel made Common Sense an immediate sensation not only in Philadelphia but also across the Thirteen Colonies. Early “reviewers” (mainly letter excerpts published anonymously in colonial newspapers) touted the clear and rational case for independence put forth by Paine.
One Marylander wrote to the Pennsylvania Evening Post on February 6, 1776, that “if you know the author of COMMON SENSE, tell him he has done wonders and worked miracles. His stile is plain and nervous; his facts are true; his reasoning, just and conclusive”. The author went on to claim that the pamphlet was highly persuasive in swaying people towards independence.
The mass appeal, one later reviewer noted, was caused by Paine’s dramatic calls for popular support of revolution, “giv[ing] liberty to every individual to contribute materials for that great building, the grand charter of American Liberty”. Paine’s vision of a radical democracy, unlike the checked and balanced nation later favored by conservatives like John Adams, was highly attractive to the popular audience which read and reread Common Sense. In the months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, many more reviewers noted that the two main themes (direct and passionate style and calls for individual empowerment) were decisive in swaying the Colonists from reconciliation to rebellion. The pamphlet was also highly successful because of a brilliant marketing tactic planned by Paine. He and Bell timed the first edition to be published at around the same time as a proclamation on the colonies by King George III, hoping to contrast the strong, monarchical message with the heavily anti-monarchical Common Sense. Luckily, the speech and the first advertisement of the pamphlet appeared on the same day within the pages of the Pennsylvania Evening Post.
While Paine focused his style and address towards the common people, the arguments he made touched on prescient debates of morals, government, and the mechanisms of democracy. That gave Common Sense a “second life” in the very public call-and-response nature of newspaper debates made by intellectual men of letters throughout Philadelphia. Paine’s formulation of “war for an idea” led to, as Eric Foner describes it, “a torrent of letters, pamphlets, and broadsides on independence and the meaning of republican government… attacking or defending, or extending and refining Paine’s ideas”.
John Adams, who would succeed George Washington to become the new nation’s second president, in his Thoughts on Government wrote that Paine’s ideal sketched in Common Sense was “so democratical, without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.” Others, such as the writer calling himself “Cato,” denounced Paine as dangerous and his ideas as violent. Paine was also an active and willing participant in what would become essentially a six-month publicity tour for independence. Writing as “The Forester,” he responded to Cato and other critics in the pages of Philadelphian papers with passion and declared again in sweeping language that their conflict was not only with Great Britain but also with the tyranny inevitably resulting from monarchical rule.
Later scholars have assessed the influence of Common Sense in several ways. Some, like A. Owen Aldridge, emphasize that Common Sense could hardly be said to embody a particular ideology, and that “even Paine himself may not have been cognizant of the ultimate source of many of his concepts.” They make the point that much of the pamphlet’s value came as a result of the context in which it was published. Eric Foner wrote that the pamphlet touched a radical populace at the height of their radicalism, which culminated in Pennsylvania with a new constitution aligned along Paine’s principles. Many have noted that Paine’s skills were chiefly in persuasion and propaganda and that no matter the content of his ideas, the fervor of his conviction and the various tools he employed on his readers (such as asserting his Christianity when he really was a Deist), Common Sense was bound for success. Still others emphasized the uniqueness of Paine’s vision, with Craig Nelson calling him a “pragmatic utopian” who de-emphasized economic arguments in favor of moralistic ones, thus giving credence to the argument that Common Sense was propaganda.
Each argument is in some way true, and together, they portray Common Sense as an impressive piece of propaganda advocating a distinct and timely action and set of principles. Coupling them with the immense publicity and readership created by both the publishing dispute and the newspaper debates, Common Sense was an important stepping stone towards independence.
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