Thomas Paine

Page Smith

[Chapter 10, "Common Sense" from Volume One, A New Age Now Begins, A People's History of the American Revolution, published by McGraw-Hill, 1976, pp. 675-684]

Through all the vicissitudes of colonial resistance to the enactments of Parliament, Americans had clung, in a stubborn and touching spirit, to the conviction that the king himself was a wise and benevolent figure who would eventually prevail upon his wicked ministers to cease their persecution of the colonists. Bit by bit this image of the king was eroded by events. The illusion became increasingly difficult to preserve. In November, Jefferson wrote to his friend John Randolph, "It is an immense misfortune to the whole Empire, to have a King of such a disposition at such a time. We are told, and everything proves it true, that he is the bitterest enemy we have.... To undo his Empire, he has but one more truth to learn: that, after Colonies have drawn the sword, there is but one more step they can take. That step is now pressed upon us, by the measures adopted, as if they were afraid we would not take it."

Jefferson assured Randolph there was not "in the British Empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do." But he would rather die than accept "a connection on such terms as the British propose, and in this I think I speak the sentiments of America. We want neither inducement nor power, to declare and assert a separation. It is will alone which is wanting, and that is growing apace under the fostering hand of our king..."

The time was ripe for a squint-eyed English stay-maker with a large, pockmarked nose to occupy the center of the stage -- Thomas Paine. Paine's radical views had recently brought him to America and to Philadelphia with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Paine found a congenial hangout at Aitken's bookstore, where patriot literature was sold and where the works of authors like the Scots political thinkers James Burgh and Adam Ferguson could be found, along with other writers favorable to the cause of liberty. It was here that Paine met Dr. Benjamin Rush, who, like many other young professional men-doctors, lawyers, and college professors-was a staunch radical. They found themselves instantly congenial. Rush, who was Philadelphia's most progressive physician, was struck by the boldness and eloquence of the Englishman. "His conversation," he wrote later, "became at once interesting. I asked him to visit me, which he did a few days afterwards. Our subjects of conversation were political." In Paine, Rush found a strong advocate of American independence, who considered "the measure as necessary as bringing the war to a speedy and successful issue.

Rush had been preparing an essay on the necessity of independence, but he was not sure the time was yet ripe for such a revolutionary statement It might cause a reaction in favor of Crown and Parliament, and beyond that seriously impair the practice of a young doctor who numbered among his patients many of the more conservative burghers of the city. Rush mentioned the project; perhaps Paine would be the man to undertake it. He had no roots in America, as Rush did. If things got too hot for Paine in conservative Philadelphia, he could easily depart for the more congenial soil of New England. As Rush put it, "My profession and connections ... tied me to Philadelphia where a great majority of the citizens and some of my friends were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain." He had his wife and children to think of' as well as himself.

Paine was delighted with the proposal and set to work at once. As each chapter was finished he brought it by to read to Rush, who was charmed by the force and vigor of the language and the boldness of the sentiments. One sentence in particular, which did not survive in the final version, stuck in his mind: "Nothing can be conceived of more absurd than three millions of people flocking to the American shore every time a vessel arrives from England, to know what portion of liberty they shall enjoy."

That Rush should have encouraged Paine to write the pamphlet that Paine entitled Common Sense was one of the happiest accidents in American history. Paine was a largely self-educated, working-class Englishman, a Quaker by birth and a freethinker by instinct, who had had an impoverished and unhappy childhood and been apprenticed as a corset-maker at the age of thirteen. He had served on a British warship at the end of the Seven Years' War and had been, successively, a stay-maker, tax collector, schoolteacher, tobacconist, and grocer. He had failed in each vocation or had abandoned it, as he abandoned his wife, but all the time he had read history and political theory with the avidity of a starving man. Things had seemed desperately wrong to him in England, and he had searched the books to try to find out why, and what might be' done to change things for the better. He could not believe that God had intended that the rich should grind down the poor; or, as Sir Algernon Sidney had put it, that some were born with saddles on their backs and others were born booted and spurred to ride them.

Paine's angry eloquence had impressed his fellows in the tax-collector's office, and they had chosen him as their agent in an effort to get higher salaries from Parliament. All Paine had gotten for his trouble was dismissal from his position as tax collector and bankruptcy. But he had attracted the attention of Benjamin Franklin, who had abetted his plan to start his life anew in America by providing letters of introduction that commended him as an "ingenious worthy young man." So, at the age of thirty-seven, Paine had set out for the province of Pennsylvania to try his fortune in the New World.

Common Sense was written for the common man. It came out of Thomas Paine's own guts -- out of the bitter years of poverty, the soured dreams, and the dreams that persisted in spite of disappointment and failure. It flowed from Paine's' anger and frustration with a complacent and self-congratulatory society that turned its back on misery and injustice, while complaining of the insolence and radicalism of the lower classes. It is passion that gives power to language, and Paine's passion flowed into the sentences he wrote. Government and society were often confused, he told his readers. Actually they were quite different things. "Society is promoted by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. ... The first is a patron, the last a punisher." That was the way, in any event, in which Thomas Paine had experienced government, as the punisher, as that aspect of society that preserved for the few their privileges against the needs of the many.

"Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the powers of paradise." If men were willing simply to obey the promptings of their consciences there would be no need for government. But that was not the case. Paine accepted the Lockean argument that man, in order to have greater security for his property, surrenders part of it along with part of his freedom. "Wherefore, Security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others..."

But there was another distinction, Paine wrote, "for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into kings and subjects. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind." In early times "there were no kings; in consequences of which there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion."

Moreover, the "evil of monarchy" brought with it hereditary succession, "and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second ... is an insult and imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others forever. . . . One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion."

The fact was that England was closer to a republic than to a monarchy, for what it most prided itself on-its constitution and its elected Parliament-were the very things least compatible with kingship in its classic form. Indeed, it could be said that "in England a king hath little more to do than to make more and give away places, which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it altogether 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. . .

The opening of Common Sense, with its attack on the institution of kingship, was certainly one of the most radical statements Americans had ever heard. In Freudian terms, it was the supreme act of patricide, the ultimate destruction of the notion of the father-king. These Opening passages were full of Utopian enthusiasm, of brilliant rhetoric-as well of as bad politics and social theory. It is untrue, for example, that only kings cause wars. But these passages in Common Sense touched the deepest chords in many of those who read it, whatever their nationality, because it reawakened one of the most beguiling dreams of the race, the dream of primal innocence. Was not government, like dress, simply the mark of lost innocence?

There was much of Paine's Quaker hostility to authority, and of his belief in the voice of conscience, in the opening pages of his tract. There was also much of the new spirit of romanticism, whose most eloquent expositor had been the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. And there was much old English radicalism that went back to the Civil War of the seventeenth century. There were elements of Locke and of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Above all, there was Paine's own anguish and suffering. What Paine said so compellingly-what overrode the demagogic tone, the flawed logic, the shaky politics-was that nothing in nature or in Scripture indicated that some people were destined to be kings and others subjects, or that some people were, by birth, superior to their fellows, intended by God himself to enjoy greater privileges, indeed all the privileges, while others, "subjects," were to endure lives of perpetual deprivation.

To have begun with this dramatic attack on the institution of kingship was a stroke of genius. On the surface, it might have seemed to have little to do with the conflict over the authority of Parliament. And yet it had everything to do with it, because the king was the agency in which the colonists had placed all their hopes. It was the king who symbolized the power, the majesty, the inviolability of Great Britain and its empire. The Crown was the umbilical cord that still bound the colonies to the mother country. The king must, therefore, be destroyed, with all his majesty stripped from him in a few deadly phrases, the vanity of his pretensions laid bare with a surgeon's scalpel. And once the king had been ritually killed, the colonies might at last become independent and fatherless. The first part of Common Sense proclaimed an end to subordination and dependence based on birth or rank and, of course, an end to dependence of Americans on Great Britain, Parliament, ministers, or king, without distinction.

Having cleared the ground, Paine went on to speak in more conventional terms (but in no less striking language) of the nature of the conflict. "The sun," he wrote, "never shined on a cause of greater worth. 'Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent -- of at least one-eighth part of the habitable globe. 'Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time by the proceedings now. Now is the seed time of continental union, faith, and honor. . . . By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new era for politics is struck-a new method of thinking has arisen. All plans, proposals, etc. prior to the nineteenth of April, i.e., to the commencement of hostilities, are like the almanacks of the last year; which though proper then, are superseded and useless now.

Paine then reviewed and rebutted those arguments designed to prove that America reaped substantial commercial and economic benefits as part of the British Empire. This was hard going, and perhaps the least convincing portion of the pamphlet, but Paine was bound at least to attempt it. As part of Great Britain, America had been -- and could expect in the future to be -- drawn into all the military ventures of the mother country. Europe, ruled by kings and sunk deep in iniquity, was in a constant turmoil that was fed by pride and ambition. An America dependent on Great Britain must be embroiled in bloody and expensive conflicts that would curtail its trade and leach its resources. "Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, 'Tis time to part.' Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other was never the design of heaven. ...It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can long remain subject to any external power. ...The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan, short of separation, which can promise the continent even a year's security. Reconciliation is now a fallacious dress. Nature has deserted the connection, and art cannot supply her place."

The fact was that the colonies had grown too large and their affairs too complicated to make it practical any longer to preserve the connection with Great Britain. "To be always running three or four thousand miles with a tale or a petition," Paine wrote, "waiting four or five months for an answer, which, when obtained, requires five or six more to explain it in, will in a few years be looked upon as folly and childishness. There was a time when it was proper, and there is a proper time for it to cease."

The tract closed with a final blast at the idea that things might still be patched up. "Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord is broken. ... There are injuries which nature cannot forgive. ... As well the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgive the murderers of Britain."

"0 ye that love mankind!" Paine continued. "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. 0 receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!"

Thomas Paine was not a wise or learned man. His enemies said that he was often dirty, that he drank too much, and that he was not scrupulous about financial matters. He was no match as a political theorist for an Edmund Burke or, in America, for John Adams and a dozen others. But all the passion of a flawed and damaged life cried from the lower depths with a power beyond learning, beyond discreet and logical analysis and argument, and that passion touched hundreds of thousands of hearts. A newly articulated vision gains much of its power from the fact that it is in time. It is a response, not to abstract formulations, but to the particular agonies and confusions of the historical moment. It is like the voice of a medium through whom pour all the resentments and all the aspirations of the voiceless. No scholar, no graduate of Harvard, or Yale, or the College of New Jersey at Princeton, however radical his politics, could have written Common Sense. Their class, their backgrounds, their education had made them too conventional in their language, too academic, too logical, to speak with such power or touch such common chords.

To say that it was the most successful political pamphlet in history is to do it insufficient credit. Common Sense belongs in a category all its own. Published in Philadelphia on January 9, 1776, it was republished everywhere; all through the colonies from Charles Town, South Carolina, to Salem, Massachusetts. It crossed the ocean and was translated into German, French, and Dutch. It was even published in London, with most of the treasonable strictures against the Crown omitted. Paine himself estimated that within three months it had sold more that 120,000 copies; and copies were passed from hand to hand until they became stained and ragged. A conservative estimate would be that a million Americans read it, or almost half the population of the colonies. Moses Coit Tyler, the great literary historian, wrote, "It brushes away the tangles and cobwebs of technical debate, and flashes common sense upon the situation." One could agree with the first part of Tyler's assessment, while rejecting the second. Paine's essay had little to do with the practical, the factual, the common sensical, as that term is generally used; it spoke first to common feeling, common emotions, common dreams, and only secondarily to "common sense."

"I beg leave to let you know that I have read Common Sense, " Joseph Hawley, one of the senior radicals from Massachusetts, wrote to Elbridge Gerry, "and that every Sentiment has sunk into my well-prepared heart." Washington himself noted that "Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men." He stopped toasting the king at official meals. While John Adams deplored Paine's superficial and naive political theorizing, he recognized the power of the tract and welcomed its effect in solidifying sentiment for independence. When it appeared in Philadelphia, he immediately sent a copy to his wife, Abigail, and to a number of friends and relatives. Deacon Palmer, thanking him, wrote, "I believe no pages was ever more rapturously read, nor more generally approved. People speak of it in rapturous praise." To Joseph Ward it was "a glorious performance," and Abigail Adams, charmed at the writer's sentiments, wondered how "an honest heart, one who wishes the welfare of his country and the happiness of posterity, can hesitate one moment at adopting them." William Tudor, Abigail's cousin, observed that the "doctrine it holds up is calculated for the climate of N. England, and though some timid piddling souls shrink at the idea," a hundred times more "wish for a declaration of independence from the Crown."

Paine was not known in the colonies, and, in fact, his name was not put on the pamphlet's title page. For months rumors circulated about the authorship. The unsigned pamphlet was attributed by some to John Adams, but Adams was well aware that he could not have equaled the strength and brevity of the author's style, "nor his elegant simplicity, nor his piercing pathos." "Poor and despicable" as was some of the thinking on political matters beyond the author's competence, it was, on the whole, "a very meritorious production." The author, if but "very ignorant of the science of government," was "a keen writer." Common Sense was credited not only to John Adams, but also to half a dozen other likely candidates, including John's cousin, Sam. Franklin was mentioned as the author, and so was Richard Henry Lee.

Not all readers, of course, were as enthusiastic as Joseph Ward and William Tudor. The Tories were indignant or furious, according to their natures, and many moderate patriots, especially those who interested themselves in political theory, thought it a mischievous work that would encourage false notions of government, as indeed it did. Colonel Landon Carter, a member of the Virginia aristocracy and a strong patriot, was one. In his view Common Sense "is quite scandalous and disgraces the American cause much. . . ." When a friend praised it, Carter replied testily that "it was as rascally and nonsensical as possible," Carter recognized the true radicalism of Paine's pamphlet. It was "a sophisticated attempt to throw all men out of principles," a leveling, egalitarian document, fitter for the radicals of New England than the sober republican principles of Virginia. The author, in Carter's view, "advances new and dangerous doctrines to the peace and happiness of every society."

Common Sense was especially welcome in New England, where, indeed, it provoked a flood of letters, petitions, and addresses to Congress urging the delegates to declare independence. "This is the time for declaring independence," one such correspondent wrote, "we never have had such a favorable moment before, and 'tis not likely We shall have such another if we neglect this." The ordinary people of Massachusetts, James Warren wrote John Adams, "can't account for the hesitancy they observe in Congress. They wonder why "the dictates of common sense have not had the same influence upon the enlarged minds of their superiors that they feel on their own." The answer in part, of course, was that the radicalism of Common Sense, which seemed to hint at the abolition of all government, made the more conservative delegates unwilling to cast off the last mooring that bound them all to certainty and security. Warren, on the other hand, believed that "people are as they should be, the harvest is mature. I can't describe the sighing after independence," he added. "It is universal. Nothing remains of that prudence, moderation or timidity with which we have so long been plagued and embarrassed."

The authorship of Common Sense was uniformly attributed by the British to Samuel Adams. Ambrose Sane, a British officer stationed in New York, found it "a most flagitious Performance, replete with Sophistry, Impudence & Falsehood; but unhappily calculated to work upon the Fury of the Times, and induce the full avowal of the Spirit of Independence in the warm and inconsiderate. His attempt to justify Rebellion by the Bible is infamous beyond Expression. That Religion, which Renders Men bad Subjects and bad Citizens, can never be of GOD, who instituted Civil Government that all things might be done decently, and in order. He is not the author of Confusion, but of Peace."