In January 1776, the pamphlet Common Sense was published in Philadelphia. The document caused an immediate sensation. In powerful language, the writer Thomas Paine made a compelling case for separation from Great Britain. Paine had not been in the colonies for long. But his call for an end to British rule would help pave the way for American independence.
On November 30, 1774, the ship London Packet arrived in the port of Philadelphia. On board was a 37-year-old Englishman named Thomas Paine. He was burning up with fever and was barely conscious. He had caught the deadly disease typhus, which had already killed several people on board. A local doctor agreed to nurse him back to health.
It was not a promising start to life in America. But then, not very much in Paine’s life had gone well. He had held—and lost—a number of different jobs. He had been a craftsman, a teacher, a tax collector, and a shopkeeper. In the end, though, he had little to show for his efforts. He had no money and few prospects. But he did have one important asset for his new life: letters of introduction from Benjamin Franklin.
Paine had met Franklin in London and had impressed him with his sharp mind and his interest in science and politics. Franklin encouraged Paine to move to Pennsylvania and gave him letters of reference, calling him “an ingenious, worthy young man.” These letters would help Paine start a new life.
Paine Finds His Calling
With the help of Franklin’s introduction, Paine soon landed a job as the editor of a new magazine. He had already done some writing in England. But it was here that he discovered his true calling as a writer. Paine soon made his publication, Pennsylvania Magazine, the most widely read magazine in the colonies.
Magazines were fairly new at the time. But along with pamphlets, they were becoming increasingly popular. They were quicker and cheaper to publish than books, and that kept their price low. They also offered the space to cover issues in greater detail than newspapers could. This made them appealing to a public that had a growing appetite for information.
At first, Paine wrote articles mainly about cultural and scientific subjects. But he soon moved on to political topics. Paine’s years as a tax collector had left him with no love for the British government. His articles criticized British officials and colonial rule. These stories did not please the Loyalist citizens of Philadelphia, who favored strong ties to Great Britain. On the other hand, they did appeal to readers with Patriot sympathies. The idea of independence made many colonists uneasy. They might complain about British rule, but the prospect of separating from Great Britain scared them. It did not scare Paine, though. In October 1775, he began working on the essay he would call Common Sense.
An Appeal to Common Sense
By December, Paine had finished his essay. But he had trouble getting it published. The subject of independence was just too hot for many publishers to handle. As Paine noted at the time, colonists were so attached to Great Britain that it was “a kind of treason to speak against it.”
Eventually, however, Paine found a publisher who agreed to print a thousand copies as a pamphlet. It was 46 pages long. The pamphlet did not have Paine’s name on the cover, but simply said, “written by an Englishman.” On January 10, 1776, Common Sense appeared in bookstores.
What happened next was astonishing. The first edition sold out in days. Paine had more copies printed, and those sold out, too. Within a few months, readers had bought more than 120,000 copies of Common Sense. Hundreds of thousands of copies were in circulation throughout the colonies. It is estimated that as many as half of all colonial citizens had either read the pamphlet or had it read to them. Common Sense was a runaway success. Thomas Paine was America’s first bestselling author.
What explains this stunning result? Evidently, Paine had touched a nerve. The public was not as resistant to the idea of independence as he and others had feared. Paine’s success lay in his ability to present separation as logical and reasonable, as a matter of common sense. He used language that was direct, clear, and powerful. Drawing on the shared experience of colonists, he built a persuasive case for independence. “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” he wrote.
’Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, But
One reader in Connecticut wrote, “You have declared the sentiments of millions . . . We were blind, but on reading these enlightening words the scales have fallen from our eyes.”
Paine recognized that the main obstacle to independence among colonists was their continued loyalty to the king and crown. So he set out to demolish that loyalty. As one Paine biographer wrote, “Common Sense could be considered the first American self-help book, the help being for those who could never imagine life without a monarch.” Paine began by ridiculing the notion that kings had some special, God-given right to rule over their subjects. He called the king the “royal brute of England” and said, “Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.” He linked the problems of life in the colonies to the evils of British rule and argued that Americans would be much better off on their own. “Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation,” he declared. “The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ’tis time to part.”
Paine argued that the colonists should unite around a common goal, to create a self-governing nation based on principles of liberty. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote. “The birthday of a new world is at hand.” And in one stirring passage, he called on America to make itself the refuge of freedom:
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.
Although Paine’s words were powerful, his ideas were not new. Many other colonial leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, had expressed similar thoughts. But Paine was able to put those ideas together in a single, compelling argument that spoke to a mass audience. As Benjamin Rush noted, the ideas that Paine put forth in Common Sense had previously lain “like stones in a field, useless ’til collected and arranged in a building.”
Common Sense did not start the movement for independence. That movement had been building for some time. Nor did it cause colonial leaders to declare independence. Another six months would pass before the Declaration of Independence was issued. But Paine’s work opened up the debate on separation from Great Britain. It helped many colonists see independence as a real possibility.
Pamphlet Cover Rubric due: Sept 22
Preparing to Write: Identifying a Theme Common Sense was a best seller from the minute it was published. Historians say that half of all colonists read it or had it read to them. (If a book were published today and half the U.S. population read it, that would be more than 150 million people!)
Suppose you had a chance to publish Common Sense today. What would you put on the cover of your pamphlet to entice people to buy it? (60 points)
1. Design a front cover for the pamphlet. Include these elements:
• the title
• the author’s name
• the date of first publication
• a simple drawing that reflects the pamphlet’s theme
The front cover copy clearly gives all the information. The information is accurate. The drawing shows effort and clearly reflects the pamphlet’s theme. There are no spelling or grammar errors.
The front cover copy gives most of the information. The information is accurate. The drawing shows some effort and relates to the theme. There are few spelling or grammar errors.
The front cover copy does not give all the information. The drawing shows little effort or does not clearly relate to the theme. There are many spelling and grammar errors.
2. Then write the text for the pamphlet’s back cover. Include these elements in your copy:
• a two-sentence description of the author
• a paragraph (book review) explaining why Paine’s ideas seem to be “common sense”
The back cover copy clearly gives all the information. The description is accurate. The paragraph is well written with a topic sentence. There are no spelling or grammar errors.
The back cover copy gives most of the information. The description is accurate. The paragraph lacks a topic sentence. There are few spelling or grammar errors.
The back cover copy does not give all the information. The description and paragraph are inaccurate. There are many spelling and grammar errors.