In 1776 an obscure immigrant published a small pamphlet that ignited independence in America and shifted the political landscape of the patriot movement from reform within the British imperial system to independence from it. One hundred twenty thousand copies sold in the first three months in a nation of three million people, making Common Sense the best-selling printed work by a single author in American history up to that time. Never before had a personally written work (unlike the divine Bible) appealed to all classes of colonists. Never before had a pamphlet been written in an inspiring style so accessible to the “common” folk of America. This lesson looks at Thomas Paine and at some of the ideas presented in Common Sense, such as national unity, natural rights, the illegitimacy of the monarchy and of hereditary aristocracy, and the necessity for independence and the revolutionary struggle.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense played no small part in convincing large numbers of Americans to relinquish an English identity and risk their lives for the cause of freedom, revolution and a new nation. In his modest pamphlet of 46 pages, Common Sense, Paine put forth the first comprehensive, public call for independence, advancing arguments that far exceeded previous critiques of English rule in their radicalism and scope. It quickly reached a broad, mass audience, extending beyond the literate public as colonists read it aloud in a wide variety of settings. George Washington, for example, was so affected by Common Sense that he relinquished all personal hope of mending fences with England and ordered the pamphlet to be distributed to his troops.
Common Sense made a clear case for independence and directly attacked the political, economic, and ideological obstacles to achieving it. Paine relentlessly insisted that British rule was responsible for nearly every problem in colonial society and that the 1770s crisis could only be resolved by colonial independence. That goal, he maintained, could only be achieved through unified action. Hardnosed political logic demanded the creation of an American nation. Implicitly acknowledging the hold that tradition and deference had on the colonial mind, Paine also launched an assault on both the premises behind the British government and on the legitimacy of monarchy and hereditary power in general. Challenging the King’s paternal authority in the harshest terms, he mocked royal actions in America and declared that “even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their own families.” Finally, Paine detailed in the most graphic, compelling and recognizable terms the suffering that the colonies had endured, reminding his readers of the torment and trauma that British policy had inflicted upon them.
In addition to the audacity and timeliness of its ideas, Common Sense compelled the American people because it resonated with their firm belief in liberty and determined opposition to injustice. The message was powerful because it was written in relatively blunt language that colonists of different backgrounds could understand. Paine, despite his immigrant status, was on familiar terms with the popular classes in America and the taverns, workshops, and street corners they frequented. His writing was replete with the kind of popular and religious references they readily grasped and appreciated. His strident indignation reflected the anger that was rising among the American body politic. His words united elite and popular strands of revolt, welding the Congress and the street into a common purpose. As historian Scott Liell argues in Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence: “[B]y including all of the colonists in the discussion that would determine their future, Common Sense became not just a critical step in the journey toward American independence but also an important artifact in the foundation of American democracy” (20).
Primary and secondary sources relating to Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the political events surrounding its publication can be found online:
- Common Sense, a link on EDSITEment reviewed Digital History.
- The Olive Branch Petition (Founder’s Library—go to the July 5,1775 entry of the timeline—linked from Digital History) represents the highly critical but loyal colonial attitude towards England that Common Sense would challenge. It also reflects the language and manner of colonial elites, thereby providing an important stylistic contrast to Paine’s work.
- Review this one page biography of Thomas Paine and the importance of Common Sense from the EDSITEment reviewed National Park Service: Links to the Past website.
- This is a brief historical timeline of the years 1760-1791 in the American Revolution through the passage of the bill of rights on the EDSITEment reviewed website, Liberty! The American Revolution.
- A longer, more comprehensive listing of important events that led to the Declaration of Independence, such as the Declaration of the Causes of Taking Up Arms, the Olive Branch Petition, and various skirmishes, all from the perspective of George Washington’s involvement, is available at American Memory Project (The Library of Congress). Click on 1774, 1775, 1776, and be sure to look at December 31, 1776.
- Scott Liell’s Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Running Press Book Publishers, 2003) is an outstanding short book that explains in just forty-six pages the forces that shaped Paine’s thinking, why Common Sense had such a broad, profound impact and how its message spread throughout the American colonies.
More information and educational activities can be found online at EDSITEment’s Thomas Paine Lesson Plan.