On this date in 1776 one of the most influential pamphlets every written was published, a pamphlet that convinced the American colonists to fight for their independence from Britain. The pamphlet was Common Sense, and although it was originally published anonymously, today we know its author was Thomas Paine (1737-1809).
Born in England, Paine spent his early years struggling to make ends meet in a number of jobs: corset maker, sailor, English teacher and tax collector. Paine’s fortunes changed, however, when he met Benjamin Franklin in London in 1774. With a letter of recommendation from Franklin, Paine travelled to Philadelphia where he began work as editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine.
Even though the colonists fired in anger at the British at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, full fledged rebellion was not inevitable. Many favored reconciliation with mother England. Paine, however, called for full on rebellion. Paine’s pamphlet published on January 9, 1776 presented his argument for independence, not in the legal or philosophical language of previous treatises, but in the plain, forceful language of the common man:
For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is (1).
Paine ends his argument by asking his readers to stand up to tyranny and to fight for freedom:
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. 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 (1).
Common Sense was a publishing sensation, going through 25 printings in just its first year of publication. It sold at least 75,000 copies, making it America’s first best seller (2).
Today’s Challenge: No Paine, No Pamphlet
What are some examples of revolutionary ideas from the past or present, ideas that either have changed the world or possibly may change the world in the future? In the era in which Thomas Paine was writing — the 18th century — challenging the divine right of kings was a revolutionary idea. Research other revolutionary ideas from the past or present, and create a pamphlet making your argument for or against one of these ideas. Like Paine, make your argument in clear, forceful language. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: No pamphlet, no book, ever kindled such a sudden conflagration, a purifying flame, in which the prejudices and fears of millions were consumed. To read it now, after the lapse of more than a hundred years, hastens the blood. It is but the meagre truth to say that Thomas Paine did more for the cause of separation, to sow the seeds of independence, than any other man of his time. –Robert Ingersoll on Paine’s Common Sense in 1892
2- Prothero, Stephen. The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.