Common Sense: Thomas Paine

Portrait of Thomas Paine by Auguste Milliere | 1876 | National Portrait Gallery

There are moments in history that stand out and are remembered more than others. Moments like these are crucial because they tend to change the lives of many populations throughout our world. How could a pamphlet with a simple message make such a drastic change in the lives of the American population? There was such a pamphlet, and its writer was Thomas Paine, an American immigrant, who strove to make his American dream come true. Paine pursued his career as a writer, and joined the movement for creating a new nation. He immigrated to America in 1774, and shortly thereafter became involved in revolutionary circles in Philadelphia. In early 1776, he published an anonymous pamphlet, titled Common Sense. The pamphlet called for the end of British tyranny in the American colonies and a break with a country ruled by kings. Common Sense made its appearance at a crucial moment as the debate for American independence reached a tipping point.

Americans during this time were changing their minds about fighting the British for a few reasons. Many Americans were still undecided on the question of independence, and these Americans were the audience that Paine targeted in his pamphlet. Paine laid down several reasons for fighting for independence from the Crown. First, the casualties from the war were too large to justify anything less than independence. Second, the Patriots had a lingering affection for England that fell apart when the British began recruiting Indians, slaves, and Hessians, all of which were not Americans. Third, the colonies were closed to all overseas trade due to the British enforcing the Prohibitory Act with a blockade of colonial ports.1 Paine wanted the American people to be free from all these imperfections that he was subjected to endure while living in England. To keep the reader’s attention, he did not bring the idea of independence into the writing until his conclusion. This pamphlet, Common Sense, fought for the idea of independence with logical reasoning and fiery passion. Like its title, the denotation to having common sense is to possess simple and practical reasoning that gives a clear and wise course of action for a situation; this is what Thomas Paine worked to provide. He wrote that wanting independence for the country is not a hard decision to make due to the numerous wrongs that had been done to Americans at the hands of the British.

Title page from Common Sense, 1776
Title page from Common Sense, 1776 | Library of Congress

With the publication of this pamphlet, Paine not only galvanized Americans, but gave them a voice. His pamphlet changed the American outlook on the war. Although Paine denounced the many British injustices in the pamphlet, the English constitution was the issue that he primarily wrote about in Common Sense. This was not enough on its own to bring about the radical thoughts to the people, so he continued to argue that the people ought to blame the King. Paine stated, “it is simple common sense to break away from such a corrupt and brutal government,” which gives support to his claims that the only solution left is that of independence.2 Paine provides multiple reasons in the pamphlet for independence, especially when he writes about the promotion of the best possible government for the people.3

Common Sense contained a total of four sections, taking up the body of the pamphlet. The sections were as follows: On the Origin and Design of the Government in General, with Concise Remarks on the English Constitution; On Heredity and Hereditary Succession; Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs; and Of the Present solely Ability of America with Some Miscellaneous Reflections. The first of these four sections states that society is a blessing, but the government is a necessary evil. Paine gives an example of this by saying that society can rally together; however, if the rally causes disruption and makes a mess of society, government will undoubtedly behave unjustly. Paine attacks the English government with this and claims it to be bloated. The second section attacks the monarchy itself. Paine attacks the Crown by saying that it came to possess power, and therefore the monarchy was born.4 Paine uses the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, to constitute his argument. He writes of how the old Hebrews were ruled by elders and judges instead of a king. He targets American Protestant followers, providing reasons to view independence in the same light as he.5 The third section that Paine covers is in regards to colonists and the growth of America. He claims that America could have grown the same way it did under the rule of England, without their support. He strongly believed America needed to be divided from England in its entirety. He did not want people to think about the ideas of independence alone, but also to take action in fighting against the tyrannical hand of the British, particularly linking tyranny and monarchy. The final section was his argument for independence. He speaks of freedoms that encompass religion, military, and living. He makes the claim that since America has no debt, the country can afford to create its own army and not rely on the English military.6

Because of the controversy that may be stirred up due to the pamphlet, Paine remained anonymous. In addition, the ability for him to be anonymous made a stronger impact because the ideas and arguments were less personal and more interchangeable within the population of Americans; these individuals were better able to identify and relate to the issues he discussed. He published his work on January 9, 1776, anonymously; the following day in Philadelphia, it appeared for a moment in the genesis of the American Revolution.7

Thomas Paine used what he believed to be his own common sense to construct the message and reality of the British tyranny, and make it stick in the minds of the audience he was addressing. He was a strong writer with beliefs that he had accumulated from his own life experiences. The pamphlet was the best form of writing at the time to reach the majority of the American people due to its low cost and wide availability. He wrote with a style that enabled him to make phrases memorable. Paine’s influence in politics also gave him the status of a great political writer. He gave the people of America the chance to make a change during this time of uncertainty and fear.

  1. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2015), 184.
  2. Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2015), 184.
  3.  Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine : Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (Penguin Books, 2006), 75.
  4.  Robert Lamb, Thomas Paine and the Idea of Human Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 181.
  5.  Sophia A. Rosenfeld, Common Sense (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011), 138.
  6.  Edward Larkin, Thomas Paine and the Literature of Revolution (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 48.
  7.  Martha A. Sherwood, “Common Sense,” (Masterplots, Fourth Edition 2010, 1–3), 45.
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