• Exploring American History

Expounding on Common Sense

Thought of by many as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, Thomas Paine was born on February 9, 1737, in Thetford, England. During his teens, he was an apprentice for his father and then became a sailor. Afterward, he developed the dual career of a schoolteacher and well-known pamphleteer.

Wearing a variety of hats, among them philosopher, political activist and revolutionary, Paine left England and arrived in Philadelphia, courtesy of Benjamin Franklin, in1774 with a desire to support the cause of American independence.

On January 9, 1776, his pamphlet, Common Sense, was released. In the pamphlet, Paine stated his arguments in favor of the country becoming independent. He not only objected to British tyranny, but the very foundation of the monarchy itself as well and believed an American republic should be formed.

The 47-page pamphlet sold upwards of 500,000 copies and achieved a powerful influence on the American psyche. Once released, Common Sense outsold all other publications, with the exception of the Bible. To better understand how vast the pamphlet’s readership was, Common Sense engaged a larger percentage of people in Paine’s day than the Super Bowl does today.

When Common Sense was originally released, Paine did not reveal his name. This was due to the fact the publication encouraged the colonists to seek independence from England. Considered one of the most significant documents of its time, Common Sense accomplished the task of bringing together political leaders and average citizens under the same umbrella of independence.

At the time the pamphlet was published, the majority of colonists labeled themselves as “aggrieved Britons”. In Common Sense, Paine described the country and her citizens by saying:

Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster, and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendants still.

Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, Paine argued the need for colonists not just to revolt against taxation, but to go the full monty and demand independence. This was one of the ideas he put within the text of Common Sense. Paine’s writing played a crucial role in literally transforming the colonies from squabbling about life under the thumb of King George III and led them into the American Revolution. In his publication, The American Crisis, Paine stated, These are the times that try men’s souls, as he described the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.

The majority of Paine’s writings inspired passion in the hearts of his readers, yet they also ladled him with an enormous quantity of criticism. He shared his thoughts and ideas regarding the Revolution with learned intellectuals and common farmers alike, using a form of prose capable of stirring hearts throughout the infant country’s population.

Though Paine's grand vision of American society was awe-inspiring, the radical views he held regarding religion were detrimental to his success. In the end, this once highly esteemed author was honored by a mere handful of people at his funeral.

Despite this, Thomas Paine is considered to be among the greatest enlightenment intellectuals to reside on either side of the Atlantic. Common Sense remains an incredible publication that is still widely available and continues to be read by students and history buffs alike as they study the colonial era of American history.

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“Society is produced by our wants, and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions.”

Thomas Paine, Common Sense

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