Sunday, January 27, 2019

Episode 081: Common Sense

In January 1776 a new political pamphlet swept across the colonies.  Common Sense first appeared in Philadelphia as an anonymous pamphlet.  The first run of 1000 copies quickly sold out and numerous reprints began to pop up all over the continent.  Later editions named the author as Thomas Paine.  Many men at the time, as well as future historians, credit the publication of Common Sense as the catalyst that finally convinced the vast majority of Americans that they had to fight for complete independence from Britain.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine had been born in Thetford, England in 1737.  His father was a Quaker who made a living making stays.  There is a popular myth that Paine’s father was a corset maker. This is based on a misunderstanding. In the late 1700s and 1800s stays were solid reinforcements, usually made from whalebone, that were part of a corset. Some people thought they were talking about those kinds of stays. They were not.  The stays that the Paine family made were thick ropes that were used on ships.

Paine’s mother came from a fairly well off Anglican family. It appears that the family may have distanced itself from her after she married a Quaker.

Thomas received a good education, but left school at age 13 to begin work as an apprentice stay-maker.  That was more education than most working class children received.  It would have been extremely unusual for a working class student to attend school beyond the age of 13 or 14.  Many students left school at even younger ages to begin earning money for their families.

Thomas Paine (from Wikimedia)
Paine seemed impatient with the life of a simple working class craftsman.  At age 12, about the time he realized he would soon have to leave school and start work, he tried to run away and join a privateer, only to have his father drag him off the ship and back home.  At age 17, during Seven Years War, he took a job on another ship where he served for several months, though he did not seem to much like the life of a sailor either.  He spent a few more years making stays like his father, but clearly felt trapped in that life.

Later, Paine began work as an excise officer.  There, he collected taxes primarily on alcohol and tobacco, as well as the highly unpopular cider tax.  He had to investigate possible smugglers and ensure that merchants paid all appropriate taxes to the crown.  That was an ok job as a low level civil servant.  An excise officer made about £50 per year, though after paying taxes and upkeep on a horse, required for the job, substantially less was left over.  The life of a tax collector was also a lonely one, requiring regular travel and not one that lent itself to making friends.

Nevertheless, Paine settled into his working-class wife.  He got married in 1759, and his wife quickly became pregnant.  Sadly both wife and child died in childbirth the following year.  Paine was devastated.  He would remain single for the next decade.  When he married again, it would be to the daughter of a widow that he knew.  There is good evidence that the couple never lived together as husband and wife.

Paine took up an interest in politics, gravitating to the radical Whig politics led by men like John Wilkes.  Without money or family though, there was no way Paine would ever have a career in politics.  He continued working as an excise officer, growing increasingly frustrated with his life.

He turned his attention to a labor movement to improve pay for excise officers.  In 1772 he wrote a pamphlet entitled Case of the Excise Officers, calling for better wages for excise officers which he had printed and distributed all over London, mostly targeting members of Parliament.  The pamphlet pointed out that excise officers often had to take second jobs to support their families, meaning they ended up neglecting their tax duties.  Their impoverished state left a strong temptation toward neglect and corruption.

Paine spoke from personal experience, years earlier, he had lost his job for stamping goods that he had not bothered to inspect, though he got the job back a short time later.  He held a variety of other jobs while working as an excise officer.  For a time, he worked as a school teacher.

In April 1774, though, his superiors fired him again.  This time, they accused him of smuggling untaxed tobacco which he sold in a tobacco shop that he ran on the side.  Speculation though, is that his superiors wanted him gone because of his continuing labor agitation for more pay and better working conditions.  Whatever the reason, Paine was out of work for good this time. He was in his late thirties and looking to start his life over again.

To avoid being thrown into debtor’s prison, Paine sold his house to pay off his debts, separated from his wife, and moved to London.  A short time later he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, still working as an American agent in London.  Franklin recommended he move to America and start a new life there.

Pennsylvania Magazine
(from Princeton Library)
Paine moved to Philadelphia, in November, 1774.  A few months later, he began work as editor of Pennsylvania Magazine in January 1775.  The magazine covered a little of everything, politics, science, business, and poetry.  He quickly gravitated to the radical politics of the patriots.  In his first months he possibly co-wrote an article entitled African Slavery in America, condemning american slavery (exact authorship of the article is disputed).  A month later, he became one of the founding members of Philadelphia’s Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, the first abolition organization in America.

Later that same month, word arrived in Philadelphia of the fighting at Lexington and Concord.  Paine almost immediately put aside his focus on abolition and turned to the cause of independence.  Most Americans, including most leaders still did not believe the colonies should be independent.  If they did, they kept such treasonous and unpopular ideas to themselves.  Even after shots fired in Lexington, most patriots still hoped for reform that would bring the colonies back to an acceptable place within the British Empire.  Paine, however, became an early outspoken proponent of breaking all political ties with England.

He also took positions radical for the time, including support for women’s rights and attacking the concept of aristocracy itself.  In the weeks after Lexington, he wrote several articles for his magazine that advocated for independence.  Although his radical views had their critics, the magazine grew in popularity and along with it, Paine’s reputation among patriots.  Paine, however, was never one to allow his personal success to last very long.  He started to fight with his publisher and, by the summer of 1775, quit after requesting a raise that he did not get.

Common Sense

In the fall of 1775, he began writing a pamphlet on independence which hit the streets of Philadelphia on January 9, 1776.  Although the first edition left the author anonymous, Paine’s authorship quickly became common knowledge.  Part of the appeal of Common Sense was that it did not simply repeat all the arguments over English encroachments on traditional rights.  It went much farther, attacking fundamental assumptions of monarchy and colonialism.

The work began with the common social contract notion that all government is, at best, a necessary evil to allow people to live together in a society.  But then he went on to attack directly the idea of a monarchical government run by a man who had no legitimacy to rule over others, other than being the son of the previous ruler.  Similarly, aristocracy was based not on merit but on inheritance of power.  He pointed to the biblical story of how the Jews first demanded a king and the fact that while God did not see a king as necessary, allowed his people to have one.  Paine used this as evidence that a state of equality is God’s plan, and that kings are simply the result of people’s rejection of God’s plan.

Common Sense, first edition (from America in Class)
Next, Paine attacked the absurdity of a small island ruling an entire continent.  America completely dwarfed England in size.  The idea that Americans would allow themselves to be ruled by a tiny island made no sense.  America had already developed to the point that it does not need Britain anymore. To the notion that Americans owed some debt to England for developing the colonies, he pointed out that England had always operated the colonies from self interest, and had benefited greatly from the trade for centuries.  America owed Britain nothing.
Not content with those benefits, Britain now wanted to take even more from the colonies through taxation.  When America resisted this, Britain attacked America with military force, therefore destroying any loyalty which Americans might have been inclined to give.

Because America had evolved to the point where it could operate independently, Britain had become an impediment to Americans.  He argued that an independent America could conduct much more profitable trade directly with Europe if it could get out from under British trade laws and restrictions.  Even if Britain did back down on the current crisis, these same issues would return over and over.  The only way to stop that was to become an independent nation.

Going beyond a call for independence, Paine next turned to an explanation of what sort of government should rule America.  He presented a detailed plan for a convention to create the new government, with each colony electing five representatives and each colonial legislature sending two representatives to meet and create a new continental charter, essentially a constitution, which would define the government.

Continuing on, Paine lays out details that the charter should include.  It should protect basic freedoms and property including freedom of religion.  In the new government, each State would elect a delegation of thirty representatives.  Congress would then elect a President from a particular State, selected by lottery.  Each State would hold the presidency once until all State got a chance to have a President.  Then the lottery would start over.  Congress would pass all laws by a ⅗ majority.

Finally, Paine directly attacked the idea that Britain’s military was too powerful.  He noted that America’s resources would allow it to build a larger navy than Britain’s if only Americans would step up and get it done.

He also noted that while the colonies were united at the moment, over time divisions would arise. Therefore, now was the best time to seek independence.  Otherwise, the feeling of unity might fade and prevent America from becoming a continental power.  He also noted that America’s untapped wealth from western lands could help pay for the costs of the fight for independence.   Declaring independence was also the only way to get help from Europe.  At the time, Europe viewed the rebellion as an internal British matter.  By declaring independence, America could seek help from Europe in its fight for liberty.  In other words, America should seek independence and seek it right away.


Common Sense quickly became the most popular reading material in America, and quickly spread to England and Europe as well.  The first 1000 copies sold out right away.

Paine immediately got into a fight with his publisher.  Paine had hoped to use the profits of the first printing to buy supplies for the soldiers fighting in Quebec.  But the publisher told him there were no profits.  Paine then fired his publisher and found another.  Meanwhile the original publisher continued to print more copies for sale.  Publishers all over the continent also began reprinting the pamphlet, there were at least 25 printings in the first year.  Estimates of first year sales range from 100,000 to 500,000 copies, not bad at a time when few American newspapers had circulations over 1000.  Even if these estimates are inflated, there is no doubt the pamphlet quickly became known to just about everyone in the colonies.

Pamphlets like these were commonly read aloud to groups at taverns or other public places.  George Washington had Common Sense read aloud to the army around Boston and commented that it worked wonders convincing the men of the army to remain in support of the cause.  Washington also noted that the pamphlet had persuaded him to support independence. John Adams celebrated the publication as finally moving the American public to favoring independence.  Almost all patriot correspondents in early 1776 reference Common Sense and its impact on moving the public mind in favor of independence.

Certainly, the writing, in both style and substance had a big impact on its popularity.  But the timing of its publication probably also contributed to its success.  Paine’s attack on the monarchy came around the same time that Americans were learning that King George had declared the colonies in a state of rebellion and for them to be crushed militarily.  His notions of American military power came just months before Washington successfully drove the entire British Army out of Boston.  Paine’s ideas hit at just the right time to convince people in light of other events that America could and should be independent.


Of course, such a controversial work was not without critics.  One of the most famous criticisms was entitled The deceiver unmasked; or, Loyalty and interest united: in answer to a pamphlet entitled Common sense.  Charles Inglis, the author, was an Irish born Anglican rector of Trinity Church in New York.

Inglis points out that government is what makes society, with all its benefits, possible.  Without government men would be reduced to a state of nature where they would constantly be at war with one another.  While conceding that no government created by men can be perfect, the British government was the best on earth, leading to the quality of life that all colonists enjoyed at the time.  Monarchy was the best form of government for a large empire, and with proper checks, was the best protection against anarchy.

Charles Inglis (from Wikimedia)
He goes on to argue that the quality of life under the Britain’s hereditary monarchy was measurably better in almost every way than governments with elected leaders. He uses Poland as an example of the misery in countries with elected leaders, not mentioning that the Polish King was elected by only a small number of aristocrats.  As a preacher, Inglis also seems to have taken deep offense at Paine’s use of the Bible to criticize monarchy, and spends several pages attacking the point.  For example, Paine noted that the first monarchical governments were run by heathens.  Inglis properly points out that early democracies were also developed by heathens.

Inglis also attacks Paine for saying that Lexington was a turning point, one that requires Americans to reject the King.  He points out that the King had not approved of the events that resulted in battle, nor did he even know about it until months afterwards.  In fact, he notes that the colonies would not exist but for British protection.  There is little doubt that some other European power would have taken control of North America absent the protection of Great Britain.  Even though the colonies had matured, removal of that protection would only invite war and invasion from powers much more tyrannical that Britain had ever been.

The suffering of the time was not the result of British tyranny, it was the result of colonial resistance, leading to the state of war that existed at the time.  The cost of such a war would be far more than any taxes the colonies ever paid.  Taxes were also far lower than the cost of maintaining an independent military to protect the continent in the future.  He then goes into great detail about the costs of building and maintaining an independent military, not only to fight Britain, but other powers should Britain decide to walk away.  Colonial taxes, he says, would be nothing compared to those costs.  Britain and her colonies had a mutually beneficial relationship.  This move toward war and independence would only destroy all that.

Instead, Inglis pleads with the people of America to come to their senses and negotiate a compromise with Britain to return to the harmonious era they had long enjoyed.

Common Sense Prevails

The attacks on Common Sense by Inglis and others seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Paine’s pamphlet clearly won the debate in the court of public opinion.  His popularity grew along with it.  Paine refused all royalties on the publication, asking that any profits be sent to support the Continental Army.  This act only increased his public image, though most publishers simply sold the pamphlet and kept the money.

Paine continued to write articles and letters through much of 1776. Some time after the Declaration of Independence, he enlisted in the Continental Army and became an aide to Gen. Nathaniel Greene.  He would continue to write inspiring propaganda for the army, including his famous 13 part series of articles entitled The Crisis which I will discuss in future episodes.

While I won’t get into all the details now, Paine continued to seek controversy.  Several of his future works, called on government to adopt socialism and provide aid to the poor.  He also directly attacked religion generally.  He eventually moved to Paris to participate in the French Revolution.  There, he served in France’s revolutionary legislature then spent some time in prison for not being sufficiently revolutionary.  He almost died during the reign of terror, but was eventually rescued and returned to America.  He found his views on most things rejected and reviled by Americans and died in relative obscurity.

But despite his future troubles, in 1776, Paine noticeably moved public opinion in favor of independence.  Common Sense is probably one of the most well known revolutionary pamphlets from the era.

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Next Episode 82: Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge

Previous Episode 80: The Knox Expedition

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Further Reading
Resources to learn more about today’s topic.


Paine, Thomas Common Sense (full text)

'Common Sense' and the American Revolution, by Harvey Kaye:

Reactions to Common Sense:

Lepore, Jill "The Sharpened Quill: Was Thomas Paine too much of a freethinker for the country he helped free?" The New Yorker, Oct 16, 2006:

Paine, Thomas The Case of the Excise Officers, 1772:

Paine, Thomas African Slavery in America, 1775:

Raphael, Ray "Thomas Paine's Inflated Numbers" Journal of the American Revolution, March 20, 2013:

Inglis, Charles, The Deceiver Unmasked; or, Loyalty and interest united: in answer to a pamphlet entitled Common sense:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress, Vol 1, (contains minutes of First Continental Congress and first year of the Second Continental Congress.

The Pennsylvania Magazine, Vol. 1, Philadelphia: 1775.

Conway, Moncure The Life of Thomas Paine, Vol 1 and Vol. 2, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1908.

Conway, Moncure (ed) The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol. 1 1774-1779,  New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1906.

Audiobook: Paine, Thomas Common Sense, 1776:

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.

Foner, Eric Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976 (Book Recommendation of the Week).

Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine and the Promise of America: A History & Biography, New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Kean, John Tom Paine: A Political Life, London: Bloomsbury, 1995

Nelson, Craig Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations, New York: Viking, 2006.

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