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Pamphlet's original cover
|January 10, 1776|
Pamphlet's original cover
|January 10, 1776|
Common Sense is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 that inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. In clear, simple language it explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence. 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. Washington had it read to all his troops, which at the time had surrounded the British army in Boston. 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.
Common Sense presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of whether or not to seek independence was the central issue of the day. Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood. Forgoing the philosophical and Latin references used by Enlightenment era writers, he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, and relied on Biblical references to make his case to the people. He connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity. Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era".
Thomas Paine began writing Common Sense in late 1775 under the working title of Plain Truth. With Benjamin Rush, who helped him edit and publish it and suggested changing the title, Paine developed his ideas into a forty-eight page pamphlet. He published Common Sense anonymously because of its treasonable content. Rush recommended the printer Robert Bell and promised Paine that, where other printers might say no because of the content of the pamphlet, Bell would not hesitate nor delay its printing. Paine and Bell had a falling out, but Bell still felt strongly about printing a second edition. Bell added the phrase "Written by an Englishman" to his second edition without Paine's permission. Paine had stressed that it was "the Doctrine, not the man" that was important. Paine wanted to remain anonymous for as long as possible and felt that even such a general phrase as Bell's addition would take attention away from the ideas in his pamphlet.
That didn't seem to matter, though, because printed by Bell, 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 twenty-five published editions in the first year alone. Aside from the printed pamphlet itself, there were many handwritten summaries and whole copies circulated. At least one newspaper, the Connecticutt Courant, printed the entire pamphlet in its February 19, 1776, issue and there may have been others that did the same. While it is difficult to achieve a fixed figure for the number of circulated copies, what is certain is that Paine's words reached far and wide out to most of America's 2.5 million colonists. His pamphlet was read at countless town meetings and gatherings even to those who could not read.
Paine managed to carefully maintain his anonymity, even during potent newspaper polemics generated by Robert Bell, for nearly three months. His name did not become officially connected with the independence controversy until March 30, 1776. He donated his royalties from Common Sense to George Washington's Continental Army, saying:
As my wish was to serve an oppressed people, and assist in a just and good cause, I conceived that the honor of it would be promoted by my declining to make even the usual profits of an author.—Thomas Paine
As the controversy with Bell, which only served to fuel the pamphlet's sale and distribution, wore on, Paine publicly repudiated his copyright to give all colonial printers the legal right to issue their own edition.
Four sections are noted on the title page, which quotes James Thomson's poem, "Liberty" (1735–36):
Man knows no master save creating Heaven,
Or those whom choice and common good ordain.—James Thomson, "Liberty"
Paine begins this section by making a distinction between society and government, and then goes on to consider the relationship between government and society in a state of "natural liberty". He next tells a story of a few isolated people living in nature without government, and explains that the people find it easier to live together rather than apart; thus, they create a society. As the society grows, problems arise, and the people meet to make regulations in order to mitigate the problems. As the society continues to grow, a government becomes necessary to enforce these regulations, which over time, turn into laws. Soon, there are so many people within the society that they cannot all gather in one place to make the laws, so they begin holding elections. This, Paine argues, is the best balance between government and society. Having created this model of what the balance should be, Paine goes on to consider the Constitution of the United Kingdom.
Paine finds two tyrannies in the English constitution; monarchical and aristocratic tyranny, in the king and peers, who rule by heredity and contribute nothing to the people. Paine goes on to criticize the English constitution by examining the relationship between the king, the peers, and the commons.
In the second section Paine considers monarchy first from a biblical perspective, then from a historical perspective. He begins by arguing that all men are equal at creation and, therefore, the distinction between kings and subjects is a false one. Several Bible verses are posed to support this claim. Paine then examines some of the problems that kings and monarchies have caused in the past and concludes:
In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.—Thomas Paine
In this section, Paine also attacks one type of "mixed state" – the constitutional monarchy promoted by John Locke in which the powers of government are separated between a Parliament or Congress that makes the laws, and a monarch who executes them. The constitutional monarchy, according to Locke, would limit the powers of the king sufficiently to ensure that the realm would remain lawful rather than easily becoming tyrannical. According to Paine, however, such limits are insufficient. In the mixed state, power will tend to concentrate into the hands of the monarch, permitting him eventually to transcend any limitations placed upon him. Paine questions why the supporters of the mixed state, since they concede that the power of the monarch is dangerous, wish to include a monarch in their scheme of government in the first place.
In the third section Paine examines the hostilities between England and the American colonies and argues that the best course of action is independence. Paine proposes a Continental Charter (or Charter of the United Colonies) that would be an American Magna Carta. Paine writes that a Continental Charter "should come from some intermediate body between the Congress and the people" and outlines a Continental Conference that could draft a Continental Charter. Each colony would hold elections for five representatives. These five would be accompanied by two members of the assembly of colonies, for a total of seven representatives from each colony in the Continental Conference. The Continental Conference would then meet and draft a Continental Charter that would secure “freedom and property to all men, and… the free exercise of religion.” The Continental Charter would also outline a new national government, which Paine thought would take the form of a Congress.
Thomas Paine suggested that a congress may be created in the following way: each colony should be divided in districts; each district would "send a proper number of delegates to Congress". Paine thought that each colony should send at least 30 delegates to Congress, and that the total number of delegates in Congress should be at least 390. The Congress would meet annually, and elect a president. Each colony would be put into a lottery; the president would be elected, by the whole congress, from the delegation of the colony that was selected in the lottery. After a colony was selected, it would be removed from subsequent lotteries until all of the colonies had been selected, at which point the lottery would start anew. Electing a president or passing a law would require three-fifths of the congress.
The fourth section of the pamphlet includes Paine's optimistic view of America's military potential at the time of the revolution. For example, he spends pages describing how colonial shipyards, by using the large amounts of lumber available in the country, could quickly create a navy that could rival the Royal Navy.
There were at least two reasons why Paine's brief pamphlet is believed to be "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era". First, while the average colonist was more educated than their European counterpart, European and colonial elites agreed that common people had no place in government or political debates. Common Sense targeted a popular audience and was written in a straightforward and simple way, so Paine's political ideas were made tangible and available to a common audience. This brought average colonists into political debate, which created a whole new political language. Illiterate colonists could hear Common Sense read at public gatherings; thusly, even the uneducated colonist was brought into this new political world. Paine's fresh style of political writing avoided use of complex Latin phrases and instead opted for a more direct, concise style that helped make the information accessible to all. Thus, Paine's "incendiary" words were heard even by those common folk who had never learned to read. The second reason involves the way the vast majority of colonists felt about the idea of independence from British rule. Before Common Sense was published, except for a few radical thinkers the people of the American colonies were "on the fence" about independence. Individuals were in conflict with themselves, and there were those who leaned toward reconciliation with the British crown. George Trevelyan in his History of the American Revolution had this to say about Paine's pamphlet:
It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended and so lasting [...] It was pirated, parodied and imitated, and translated into the language of every country where the new republic had well-wishers. It worked nothing short of miracles and turned Tories into Whigs.
There were those in high places who, while in agreement with Paine's sentiments, voiced criticism of his method. 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". In spite of Adams' formidable influence most people praised Paine's brief booklet. The editors of The Thomas Paine Reader, Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, in their introduction to Common Sense wrote:
Published anonymously, Common Sense appeared on Philadelphia streets in January 1776. It was an instant success, and copies of the pamphlet were soon available in all the thirteen colonies. Paine's was an unequivocal call for independence, and many Americans wavering between reconciliation with and independence from Britain were won over to separation by Paine's powerful polemic against monarchy, in general, and the British [monarchy], in particular.
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