OTD in History… January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense argues for American independence
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) publishes anonymously his pamphlet Common Sense arguing for American independence from Great Britain. The popular pamphlet written as a sermon delineated the colonies “grievances” against the British Parliament and the monarchy. The pamphlet’s philosophy “united the colonies” behind the idea of independence, and its publication is considered a major turning point in the road towards American independence, which the Second Continental Congress declared barely six months later. Historian Peter D. G. Thomas indicated, “The crisis of 1774 became the war of 1775 and the revolution of 1776.” (Thackeray, 297) While historian Gordon Wood in his book The American Revolution: A History notes “Common Sense was the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era; it went through twenty-five editions in 1776 alone,” and sold 500,000 copies. (Wood, 55)
Paine arrived from Britain in November 1774 with a “letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin,” before the outbreak of the fighting between the colonists and Britain with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Colonists were aggrieved with Britain for their taxation without representation, and then the Coercive Acts of 1774 in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Paine believed the problem the colonists had against moving forward towards independence was their ties with Britain and belief that reconciliation was still a possibility. The situation only exacerbated in 1775 with the Battles of Lexington, Concord and then in June with the Battle of Bunker Hill. On July 5, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition the thirteen colonies’ last appeal to avoid a full war with Great Britain, while almost simultaneously on July 6, adopted a Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. King George III refused to read the petition, and instead, on August 23, 1775, issued “A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition” saying the colonies were in an “open and avowed rebellion” after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Then to force conciliation Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act at the end of 1775, prohibiting trade or else American ships would be seized.
In the fall of 1775, Paine began writing Common Sense under the working title Plain Truth, which he originally intended to be a series letters published in Philadelphia newspapers, however, it soon grew too long and he decided to publish it as a pamphlet upon the recommendation of Benjamin Rush. Robert Bell published the first edition, Bell publicized it so much that it began a best seller and there were demands for a second printing, however, Paine discovered Bell made no money from the sales. Incensed, Paine decided that the Bradford Brothers, who published the Pennsylvania Evening Post would publish his expanded second edition with additional appendices. Bell, however, refused to cease publishing a second edition. The war between the two and the rivaling publications drummed up interest with the public and contributed to sales.
According to historians Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling in their book Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century explain, in Common Sense Thomas Paine “argued the advantages of a separate national existence.” Paine claimed America could have free trade with any nation, be free from being involved with European wars, and live without “the small island” of Britain ruling a “continent” from “3,000 miles away.” Paine argued that Americans should “immediately declare independence “For God’s sake let us come to a final separation… the birthday of the new world is at hand.” Paine concluded, “To know whether it be the interest of this continent to be Independent, we need only ask this simple question: Is it the interest of a man to be a boy all his life?” (Thackeray, 97–98)
For the first time Paine argued that King George III or as he referred to him a “royal brute” was responsible for the policies imposed on the colonies and Prime Minister Lord Frederick North was doing the king’s bidding. Part of Paine’s revolutionary argument was, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” when at that point colonists saw themselves as British subjects. Paine argued, “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.” Colonists and even the Continental Congress distinguished the policies of the prime minister and parliament from the monarchy, for the first time Paine linked the two as equally as bad for the colonies.
Thackeray and Findling believe “Common Sense was an important piece of propaganda… it helped prepare the public for the final break.” (Thackeray, 97–98) Founding Father John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Paine also reached out to a new audience the “common people” with Common Sense, the “artisans” and those frequenting the taverns by not using Latin and referencing literature replacing it references to the “Bible and Book of Common Prayer.” Paine declared, “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” As Wood explains, “Although Paine was criticized for using ungrammatical language and coarse imagery, he showed the common people, who in the past had not been very involved in politics, that fancy words and Latin quotations no longer mattered as much as honesty and sincerity and the natural revelation of feelings.” (Wood, 55)
Paine would go on to fight in the American Revolution until 1777, when he worked for the Second Continental Congress in the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Upon returning to Britain in 1787, Paine continued writing pamphlets championing the French Revolution with “The Rights of Man.” In the pamphlet, he attacked Member of Parliament Edmund Burke, which forced him to flee from Britain to France. In 1792, Britain issued a writ for Paine’s arrest because he advocated overthrowing governments, he was found guilty of seditious libel against Burke “in absentia.” Paine fled to France and he was elected to the French National Convention but by December 1793, he was arrested and in a French prison. In November 1794, Paine was released after James Monroe intervened. The same year Paine published The Age of Reason arguing against Christianity and in favor of deism. In 1802, Paine returned to America but his influence waned after he criticized President George Washington and because of his views on Christianity. Common Sense, however, remains the best-selling book published in the United States.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Thackeray, Frank W. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
“Common Sense (pamphlet).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet)
“Thomas Paine.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine
Wood, Gordon S. American Revolution: A History. New York: Random House, 2003.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism.