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How One Man Launched a Revolution

May 2024
7min read

Thomas Paine's Common Sense helped Americans "decide upon the propriety of separation,” as George Washington said.

In May 1775 the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, rowing across the Potomac, met George Washington rowing in the other direction on his way to the Continental Congress. The two conversed briefly on the fate of the colonies, and Boucher asked Washington if he supported independence. “Independence, sir?” Washington replied. “If you ever hear of my joining in any such measure you have my leave to set me down for everything wicked.” Even when he took command of the army in July, Washington later admitted, he “abhorred the idea of independence.” So what changed his mind? By his own admission, it was more than anything else the 47-page pamphlet Common Sense, written by a little-known Englishman named Thomas Paine and published January 10, 1776.

Until that day most colonists, like Washington, hoped to regain the rights afforded to all other British subjects. But as Washington wrote, “the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of separation.” Paine convinced an America already at war with Britain that it was fighting not merely for lower tariffs or the right to elect representatives to Parliament but for its own inevitable independence.

Born into poverty in Thetford, England, in 1737, Paine failed at marriage and a string of jobs before he was 37. His lower-class status and debts shut him out of politics; this sharpened his sense of injustice and left him suspicious of government. He labored to educate himself, reading the leading political thinkers of the time. In London in the early fall of 1774 he met Benjamin Franklin, who persuaded him to emigrate to America. And so, Franklin’s letters in hand, Paine left to start over his life in the New World—little realizing he would help start over the New World’s life as well.

He caught typhus during the nine-week, 3,500-mile sea voyage and had to be carried ashore in Philadelphia, on November 30, 1774. During his month-long recuperation he began to seek out the city’s intelligentsia, aided by Franklin’s letters of introduction, and by January he had landed a job at Pennsylvania Magazine. Apart from the typhus, he flourished in his new home. No longer an outcast because of his income or his political views, he fit right in at the center of American political foment. While working at the magazine and attending meetings of many debating, literary, and scientific clubs, he began to develop new, radical opinions.

In America he saw a perfect reverse image of England. Where England was rotten and corrupt, America was pristine and egalitarian. His thinking expanded to fill the borders of his new country, and as he became convinced of the colonies’ virtue and destiny, the abstract theories of independence and representative government he had debated over pints crystallized into realities worth dying for.

But despite all the bloody events that had begun in April 1775, most colonists shied away from advocating complete separation from England. Shots had already been fired at Lexington and Concord, but the colonists continued to think of their fight as one for the rights accorded to all other Englishmen, not for independence. Some in the elite, alarmed at growing popular participation in politics, feared that a political revolution might lead to a social revolution as well, or perhaps even anarchy, opening the door for military dictatorship. Some could not break from the loyalty to the crown they had learned in the nursery—and furthermore enjoyed being protected by the king. Mightn’t throwing off British oversight make them vulnerable to invasion from a worse power, like the tyrannical Bourbons? Some simply feared charges of treason if they failed to defeat the most powerful military in the world. Independence, like sedition or unwed pregnancy, remained a topic discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors.

But after King George III issued a proclamation in August 1775 declaring that “the New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent,” some Philadelphians began to squirm behind their closed doors. As Paine and his friend the Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush discussed their mutual hope for independence, Rush confided that he wanted to write a treatise explaining why the colonies should rebel. However, Rush later remembered, “I shuddered at the prospect of the consequence of its not being well received. I suggested to [Paine] that he had nothing to fear from the popular odium to which such a publication might expose him, for he could live anywhere, but that my profession and connections, which tied me to Philadelphia, where a great majority of the citizens and some of my friends were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain, forbade me to come forward as a pioneer in that important controversy.” Paine responded to the idea “with avidity.” Rush’s most forceful counsel was that “there were two words which he should avoid by every means as necessary to his own safety and that of the public—independence and republicanism.”

So Paine immediately set to writing the tract he would end with the line “let none other be heard among us, than those of . . . the FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES OF AMERICA.” Writing was always torturous for him, and he toiled over the details now as much as ever. But by December he had a finished manuscript to show Franklin, Samuel Adams, and the prominent scientist David Rittenhouse, who each made a few, tiny edits (although one of Rush’s changes was destined for the history books: Paine had titled the manuscript Plain Truth, and Rush suggested Common Sense). Paine originally planned to serialize the work in a newspaper, but releasing it as a pamphlet would allow for larger distribution and protect its bolder sentiments from the blue pen of a nervous editor.

All that remained was to find a publisher brave enough to print it. Rush contacted the forward-thinking printer Robert Bell, who quickly agreed to do so for half the profits. Paine stipulated that his half should go to clothing the troops. So nine days into the momentous year of 1776, the two-shilling pamphlet “burst,” in Rush’s words, “from the press with an effect that has rarely been produced by type and paper in any age or country.”

The hundreds of thousands of members of the British empire who would read Common Sense in the coming months were in for a shock. Paine immediately tore into the monarchy, calling it not only rotten and despotic at bottom but also downright silly: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of the 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.” William the Conqueror, the founder of the English royal line, was “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives.”

Having argued that monarchy as a system was fundamentally tyrannical and led to constant bloodshed, he answered every common argument against American independence. To those who hesitated to break from the “mother country,” he wrote, “Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their own families.” To those who doubted that the colonies could best Britain at war, he wrote, “there is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” besides which, “’tis not in numbers but in unity that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world.” He pleaded with his readers to recognize their country’s destiny: “Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

He then sketched in broad strokes a blueprint for an American utopia. He envisioned a strong but limited, unicameral, republican government. He counted this the most important section of Common Sense, although many modern historians deem it the weakest. He was at his best stirring up rebellious fervor, not spinning out the intricate compromises of constitution writing. He may have realized that. He left much of the government plan vague, recommending that a continental conference meet to hash over the details. Above all, he stressed the urgency that his readers act immediately.

The first edition sold out in two weeks, and at a time when the average pamphlet sold a few thousand copies, Common Sense sold 120,000 by April 1776. By then printers in nearly every colony were running their own editions; seven came out in Philadelphia alone. Colonists bought some 500,000 copies in all, in what Paine proudly called “the greatest sale that any performance has ever had since the use of letters.” By July everyone in America was familiar with the work’s content. One Connecticut clergyman even read the text verbatim from the pulpit on a Sunday in lieu of a sermon.

Many of those who read Common Sense never saw the world quite the same way again. As one Philadelphian wrote, “Common Sense . . . is read to all ranks, and as many as read, so many become converted, though perhaps the hour before were most violent against the idea of independence.” Paine’s words put the spark to the revolutionary fire latent in many colonists, defining as well as articulating their beliefs. As the idea of independence grew from heresy to political necessity, politicians sought to help their reputations by vociferously supporting the idea, and in the debates that followed, the shape of the future government began to evolve.

What made the little pamphlet so effective? It came exactly when the colonies were ready for it. Unlike previous pamphleteers who were excoriated for their support of independence, Paine was a few steps, not a few miles, ahead of popular opinion. In the words of a Philadelphia minister, Common Sense “struck a string which required but a touch to make it vibrate. The country was ripe for independence, and only needed somebody to tell the people so, with decision, boldness, and plausibility.”

Indeed, Paine’s direct, clear style was accessible but forceful. He, unlike his upper-class colleagues, came from the audience he was trying to reach, and he knew he must avoid the usual leaden prose and precious flourishes of political writing to appeal to that audience. His examples were taken directly from the common experience of a colonist, but the rage that underlay the work could belong only to someone who had experienced the injustices of British society firsthand. In short, he was the right man at the right time, in the right place, and with the right style to ignite a revolution.

Some, of course, disagreed with Paine’s ideas. He waged editorial-page battle with loyalists, while a mob of angry, independence-supporting New Yorkers burned 1,500 copies of an anti-Common Sense pamphlet. John Adams wrote heatedly and often against Paine’s unicameral government, arguing in favor of a system of checks and balances. But the majority of would-be Americans agreed with Paine, and that summer they took Common Sense’s advice to draft an independence “manifesto” listing “the miseries we have endured, and the peaceful methods which we have ineffectually used for redress,” and explaining that “not being able any longer to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we have been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her.”

Paine’s reputation would suffer in the coming years, as his Deist work The Age of Reason, arguing against traditional Christianity, made him an outcast again on two continents. But today we rightly remember him as one of the fathers of the country. “It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; but those events do no more than bring them forward,” he once wrote. In his case, the reverse was equally true.

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