Thomas Paine: ‘Common Sense’ and the American Revolution

Portrait of Thomas Paine by Auguste Millière, 1880 / National Portrait Gallery, Washington

A focus on the best-selling pamphlet of the American Revolution: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, discussing Paine’s life and the events that led him to write his pamphlet. Published in January of 1776, it condemned monarchy as a bad form of government, and urged the colonies to declare independence and establish their own form of republican government. Its incendiary language and simple format made it popular throughout the colonies, helping to radicalize many Americans and pushing them to seriously consider the idea of declaring independence from Britain.

Lecture by Dr. Joanne Freeman / 02.11.2010
Professor of History and American Studies
Yale University

On Paine’s Burial


Thomas Paine’s country cottage and what was thought to be the location of his original burial site on the farm / Wikimedia Commons

On to Common Sense, which really, truly unquestionably was a bestseller. It actually sold over 120,000 copies in its first few months in print, and a little bit later in the lecture I’m going to give you a sense of how that compares with how some other things might have sold in this time period. You’ll really get a sense of what kind of a bestseller this was. And certainly many scholars consider it to be the most brilliant political pamphlet of the Revolution, not necessarily for the subtlety of its argument but certainly for the way in which it’s argued, and I’ll talk more about that in the course of the lecture.

So what we’re going to be looking at is the pamphlet itself and what specifically made it so remarkable. And then we’re also going to look some at its author, Thomas Paine, who he was and how he came to produce this influential pamphlet.  But I actually want to begin with something that I just — in my head when I think about Thomas Paine I think about this, so I feel like I can’t start this lecture without discussing it. And that has to do with the death of Thomas Paine or actually, to be more accurate, the body of Thomas Paine.

Okay. It’s one of the sad ironies of history that this person who — all through this lecture I’m going to be talking about the great influence of his pamphlet, had this great influence throughout the Revolution — and he actually died pretty much poor and not very much liked by Americans of all political stripes, more having to do with his politics later in his life than what he was doing during the Revolution, but he was not a happy camper in the years of his death.

But the most horrifying thing about Paine’s death has to do with the question of his body. Okay. So Paine first asked about being buried in a Quaker cemetery, and the Quakers weren’t very excited about that because they were not really hoping to have that cemetery become a tourist attraction so that didn’t work. So he basically ended up at first being buried on his small farm in upstate New York.

A few years later a newspaper editor named William Cobbett decided that what he was going to do was disinter the body and take it back to England, and then in England they would set up a memorial to Thomas Paine. This was his plan. So he did. He disinterred the body; he went on a boat; he and dead-body Paine went sailing back to England. Got back to England, raised the issue and apparently did not get very much support for the idea of a memorial of some kind.

At this point it gets a little sad. Okay. So not knowing what else to do — and why at this point he didn’t think to bury him someplace else, I don’t know — but apparently he had the bones put in a trunk and kept them on his farm for a while. Okay. So, body of Paine sitting on his farm in England. Then he died — Mr. Cobbett died and the trunk and Paine was passed on to his son, and then his son I guess went into debt in some way and his belongings began to get auctioned off and the person doing the auctioning didn’t want to have anything to do with auctioning off a body. Like, I’ve never auctioned off a body before, I don’t want anything to do with this — and basically Paine’s corpse disappeared.

We really do not know where Thomas Paine is. Truly, there was a trunk and it had Paine in it and then it vanished. And I went searching today before I gave this lecture, trying to figure out like — okay, maybe there’s been a recent development in the search for Thomas Paine, the corpse, and no actually. Although I did discover that in 2001 there was a society that wanted to create some kind of memorial here in America and they decided that they were going to try to trace the body so they set out trying to trace the body. What they found was, all over the world are people who claim to have a piece of Thomas Paine, right?  Well, his skull might be in Australia but his leg — that might be in England. So the sort of — the horrifying end to Thomas Paine is his body disappeared and perhaps little pieces of Thomas Paine are floating around as little relics all over the world. So that’s Paine’s sort of weird ending, certainly not the kind of ending that you would wish for the person who has written the pamphlet we’re going to be talking about today.

Colonial Mindset during the Second Continental Congress

A depiction of the Second Continental Congress voting on the United States Declaration of Independence, by Robert Edge Pine, 1784 / Historical Society of Pennsylvania

And we are given that — what he ended up writing was so influential and so different from much of what was being written at this time. Now as I said at the outset, it’s not the great subtleties of its argument that made it stand out. And in fact its popularity was due to the very things that were its greatest strengths: the fact that it was passionate, the fact that it had a really simple style, that it spoke to the common man, that it captured and completely overturned prevailing colonial ideas about the relationship between the mother country and the American colonies. As someone wrote at the time, Paine spoke a language which the colonists had felt, but not thought.

One of the remarkable things about the pamphlet is that it was written by a somewhat bankrupt English corset-maker a mere fourteen months after he had arrived in America from England. Basically speaking, Paine knew relatively little about colonial affairs when he decided to write it. He wasn’t really an established writer. He had done writing before. I’ll talk a little bit about this today, but he wasn’t this sort of well-known and established writer. He wrote some for newspapers. And actually the idea for the pamphlet initially wasn’t really his. He wrote it at the encouragement of Dr. Benjamin Rush. I mentioned that in the first lecture, and I’m going to come back to that too.

So Paine is relatively new to the colonies, not really an established writer, so how is it that he ends up writing this pamphlet?  Well, more than anything else it actually was Paine’s experience of events in the colonies between 1775 and 1776 that inspired what he wrote. Now let’s look for a moment at — to see here what Paine is experiencing in that year before he wrote the pamphlet.  What is happening around him.

I’m going to talk about this really briefly here, but one thing I will mention here very briefly is, part of what happens between 1775 and 1776 is the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. And that actually begins meeting in the spring of 1775. I’ll talk about the details of the Congress Tuesday. For now, I’ll just talk about the general mindset.

For one thing, no colony instructed its delegates to this Second Continental Congress to work for independence. That was not the agenda. Delegates were pretty much still acting under the assumption that they were trying to force Parliament or the King or someone to acknowledge their liberties and redress their grievances, and the overall assumption still was that balance had been thrown off within the British constitution and it needed to be rebalanced. So they’re talking about trying to figure out a way of balancing things, maybe a new balance, but they’re not talking about throwing the entire system aside.

Actually, in the minds of many at the time they probably were thinking, why destroy what had for a very long time been one of the most successful political empires in the world. John Adams noted in his diary at the opening of the Second Continental Congress that at what he called an “elegant supper” at the opening of the Congress, many representatives and their friends toasted, quote, “the Union of Britain and the Colonies on a constitutional foundation.”  Okay. So that’s what they’re hoping for as this Congress opens.

As an example of this initial mindset of the Congress, moderates attempted one last stab at some kind of basic reconciliation with the Crown, and they issued what came to be known as the Olive Branch Petition. It failed for a number of reasons, one of the most basic reasons being the King refused to read the Olive Branch Petition, which pretty much is the way to guarantee the failure of a petition. By doing that, the King basically gave some credence to the views of the more radical members of the Continental Congress, and radicals got even more credence on August 23, 1775, when the King issued a proclamation that declared the colonies to be in rebellion, and then made plans to send 20,000 British troops to the colonies, including Prussian mercenaries. Okay, a big change in things, but this is important to the setting of Common Sense.

So the King ignores the Olive Branch Petition. He’s sending troops, not just any troops but literally hired guns, right? — foreign hired guns to go to the colonies. So the colonies have now been declared in rebellion. An army is coming. At this point the colonists realize that they need to maybe take some form of action and make some kind of military preparation, not in an aggressive way but certainly in a defensive way.

Even as they began to do this and try to stock up on military supplies and engage in militia training, still a lot of colonists considered it pretty unlikely that a string of relatively weak — prosperous as they were — colonies could hope to defeat England, the most powerful nation on earth. And even if they did miraculously somehow manage to do that, certainly also most people in the colonies would have assumed that instantly, foreign powers would have come zipping over to North America and would have swallowed up these helpless little colonies, and so now instead of belonging to England they would have belonged to France or maybe Spain.

So certainly things weren’t really feeling really optimistic at this moment in which things seemed to be dramatically shifting, and this is the setting in which Paine wrote Common Sense. In his mind, the time was right for some kind of a drastic change for the better in the American colonies and, as we’ll see, instead of just tinkering with the English constitution Paine basically turns his back on it, rejects King George III, rejects Parliament, and ultimately rejects even the idea of monarchy. So instead of centering on the British constitution, Paine based his ideas about colonial society and government on natural rights logic, arguing that the colonies should join in a new government grounded on equality.

Serendipity and Passion: The Early Life of Thomas Paine

“Old School” at Thetford Grammar School in Thetford, Norfolk, England. This was the entire School at the time Thomas Paine was a pupil. / Wikimedia Commons

Now obviously ideas about natural rights, natural rights talk, isn’t new. Paine’s achievement was to take those kinds of ideas and in a sense give them to ordinary people. Part of what he argues in his pamphlet is: this isn’t some great high constitutional argument. This is about you and me and life in the colonies. And, as we’ll see, in method and in audience and in argument — for all of these reasons, Paine’s pamphlet had a big impact.

So let’s look for a moment at who this man was who wrote this early American bestseller. Well, he was relatively poor. He was never really well off. Obviously, he was an intelligent — strikingly intelligent person. He was someone who loved to assert his own importance. He loved to brag about his great accomplishments. He loved to dominate a conversation. It’s possible towards the end of his life he may have had a drinking problem.

So, maybe drunk, maybe not, a slight drinking problem. Historians disagree. Either way, he was born in England in 1737. Supposedly the cottage that he was born in was literally in the shadow of a place of execution, so the dark hand of the State was looming over the cottage of Thomas Paine. He was born poor. His father was a stay-maker. Paine did go to grammar school and he liked learning, but at the age of 12 he was pulled out to be apprenticed to his father. As a young man, he had a number of different trades. None of them were enormously successful. I think for a little while he might have been a sailor. I think he was a minor officeholder. I think he was an excise man in England for a little while.

In his spare time he liked to go to public lectures in London, and that’s where he met men like Benjamin Franklin. And Franklin ultimately proved important to Paine, because Paine ended up doing what a lot of sort of vaguely rootless people in England might have decided to do. He decided to try his luck in the American colonies where there seemed to be some opportunity for self-promotion, for sort of making something of yourself. But before setting off, Paine did an intelligent thing, and that is, he made an appointment with Franklin. And Franklin did an important thing. He wrote a letter of recommendation for Paine.

And a letter of recommendation in this period was kind of a magical thing because, if you think about it, unlike now where there are five million ways in which we all can check on each other, there really weren’t ways in which one person knew anything about a stranger or could verify or check on who some complete stranger was. There’s a reason why the early nineteenth century is the age of the con man. Right? It’s really easy for someone to drift into town, claim to be somebody, no one has a way of checking, and then the person can drift out, taking various amounts of money and belongings with him.

So letters of recommendation were kind of magical because basically they represented one person vouching their reputation for another. The person who wrote it said, ‘I’m writing this letter for Mr. Paine. I, Mr. Franklin, am writing for Mr. Paine and I’m introducing him to your attention and wish that you will introduce yourself to him and show him around Philadelphia’ — seemingly a basic statement, but Franklin was basically saying, ‘I’m — Here’s my reputation. I’m vouching for this guy so you could — you can get to know him. You can trust him because I’m recommending him.’  So it was a smart move on Paine’s part. It was a nice thing for Franklin to do, and in the letter that Franklin wrote he referred Paine to his son-in-law, Richard Bache, in Philadelphia.

So Paine arrived in America in late 1774, but apparently the whole overseas passage was pretty horrible so he was pretty much out of commission until January 1775, and at that point when he was up and about, Bache offered to introduce him into the local literary and political scene. Now what happened next is a really good case for the importance of serendipity and the importance of bookstores. Okay. So Paine liked to hang out in this one local bookstore. Apparently he went there every day. Okay. That’s the local literary scene — [laughs] the bookstore — and he befriended the owner of the bookstore and the owner eventually invited Paine to be the editor of a new journal that he wanted to start, that he was calling the Pennsylvania Magazine.

So Paine wrote for the Pennsylvania Magazine for a while and he wrote a bunch of different kinds of things. He wrote fiction. He wrote essays. He wrote social commentary. As an example, he wrote a piece on British cruelty in the East Indies and Africa and against native Americans, writing, quote, “When I reflect on these [examples of cruelty] I hesitate not for a moment to believe that the Almighty will finally separate America from Britain. Call it Independence or what you will, if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go on.” Now considering — I’m going to talk a little bit more about the fact that people aren’t really talking about independence at this point, so that’s a pretty bold statement before Common Sense.

Now one thing was noticeable about Paine’s writings. And that is that when they seemed to strike at issues of American liberty, even indirectly, even seemingly through metaphor — as in one essay that talked about British domination of India but everybody assumed India must really be the North American colonies — whenever he was referencing any of that sort of thing, sales jumped. Everyone wanted to read those essays. And ultimately it was some of those essays that brought Paine to the attention of Benjamin Rush.

Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, c.1818 / Library of Congress

Rush went to that same bookstore, the magical bookstore, the center of Paine’s life. He happened to meet Paine at that same bookstore — so the moral is it’s a good thing to hang out in bookstores. And through their conversations Rush later wrote that at the time he observed that, quote, “Paine had realized the independance [sic] of the American colonies upon Great Britain” even at that time and that “he considered the measure as necessary to bring the war to a speedy and successful issue.”

So he meets Paine and one of the things he notices is well, this guy’s already kind of thinking about independence. Paine himself later wrote about his opinion of the colonies upon his arrival, and he said that the thing that most struck him was how loyal the colonists were to Great Britain, and this is, Paine’s words here.

“I found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their suspicion was quick and penetrating, but their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was at that time a kind of treason to speak against it. They disliked the ministry, but they esteemed the nation.”

I think that’s a really important point:  “They disliked the ministry but they esteemed the nation.”

“Their idea of grievance operated without resentment, and their single object was reconciliation . . . . I viewed the dispute as a kind of law-suit. I supposed the parties would find a way either to decide or settle it. I had no thoughts of independence or of arms. The world could not then have persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an author.”

Ultimately, it was the battle of Lexington that changed Paine’s view, and his life, as it changed that of many others. As Paine put it, “when the country, into which I had just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears, it was time to stir.” And so it’s at this point that Paine begins to tinker with the idea of writing a pamphlet.

And apparently he spoke with Benjamin Rush about it, and Rush later recalled in a letter to a friend that he offered Paine one overall piece of advice at the outset of the project. He said to Paine, “there were two words which he should avoid by every means as necessary to his own safety and that of the public,” and the two words were “independence” and “republicanism.” Okay, and if you think about Common Sense, he didn’t listen to that advice at all.

And as a matter of fact it’s impossible to know what went through Paine’s mind at that moment. He certainly — He knew the colonies were, as he put it, on fire, he knew that popular sentiment was building even against the King, but knowing his personality it’s entirely possible that if Rush said to him, ‘Whatever you do, don’t mention independence,’ that Paine’s reaction might have been well, that’s at the center of it, isn’t it? So that’s it; that’s going to be what I write about, isn’t it, and it’s going to be independence. And he might have deliberately done the precise thing he was asked not to do, and focus on the most controversial issue that seemed to be at the very heart of the controversy that seemed to be, certainly to Paine, lurking right underneath the surface of this prevailing constitutional argument.

So Paine wrote the pamphlet, he read parts of it to Rush as he did, and Common Sense is published in January 1776. And I did state correctly earlier that he wanted to call it Plain Truth and Benjamin Rush thought Common Sense was a better title, and I agree with Benjamin Rush. I like Common Sense better.

Major Arguments and Rhetorical Styles in Common Sense

Title page of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published 1776 / Library of Congress

The pamphlet — The main argument of the pamphlet did three things. So number one, it basically refuted the prevailing ideas against independence. It went one step further and demonstrated the necessity of independence and how possible it was.  And it demonstrated the stupidity and utter uselessness not only of the English monarchy but just of monarchies generally. This is a radical message, and it was written in a radically simple style aimed at being accessible to a broad audience. This was all the more radical given that American independence had not really been seriously discussed by the great majority of colonists with the exception of some extreme radicals who I’ve been mentioning now and again in lectures.

So let’s look for just a minute at how Paine went through the three parts of his argument — and in a sense, there’s three parts of his argument, and the pamphlet itself has three sections. And the first section of the pamphlet centers on getting people past this ongoing constitutional argument about the proper relationship between the colonies and the mother country.  And to accomplish this, Paine did something amazingly bold. He just tossed aside the entire idea of focusing on the English constitution as the context for determining the fate of America, and rather than going on and on and on with the same constitutional debate, he began his pamphlet with an attack not only against King George but also against the entire idea of monarchy.

And he had a couple strategic reasons for choosing to do this. First, the Crown was the last remaining emotional and political link that was really tying the colonies to the mother country. By this point, the colonists had lost faith in Parliament, so Paine certainly knew that if he could strike at this last linchpin of colonial sentiment, he could advance the cause of independence. Second, if Paine could destroy the legitimacy not only of King George but also of the idea of monarchy overall, then the English constitution’s legitimacy would suffer as well, once again hopefully opening the way for independence.

And then third, I think equally important, rhetorically Paine had a really good writer’s sense of pacing, and he knew that if he opened this pamphlet with this really dramatic challenge to all of the prevailing assumptions about government, and if he turned all of these assumptions on their head, he would pull readers in to his pamphlet and in to his argument immediately and hold them there for the center of his argument, which was the second section of the pamphlet, and that is really the part that focuses on independence.

Independence at this point was a topic that people didn’t discuss openly. They didn’t talk about it in public. If discussed at all, it was discussed privately among friends because basically it amounted to treason. Paine’s dramatic introduction opened the way for him to introduce this really controversial topic. If the English constitution lacked legitimacy, well, what next?  And his answer obviously is: well, independence, the obvious solution.  Which then brings us to the third section of the pamphlet — and that is the future. Paine concludes the pamphlet by discussing just what Americans could institute to replace the English constitution, what kind of government they might be able to construct to replace what they were stripping away.

Now throughout his work Paine hammered away at old ideas and propounded new ones. He argued that America was distinct from England, that it was multicultural, that it actually was more the child of Europe than the child of England. He promoted American commerce. He promoted social mobility. He praised the innocence of the New World as compared with the corruption and decadence of the Old World. He struck at the trappings of monarchy, things like hereditary privilege and court intrigue. He was an individualist arguing that society was made of individuals who should all be able to strive for their own good. He wasn’t arguing that families or patron-client relationships should define society any longer. He depicted government as a kind of necessary evil that was prone to create bureaucracies and privilege. As he put it, “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence,” so it’s the price we pay for being flawed beings.

And he seemed to speak of an American millennium, speaking of America as God’s chosen people. Paine argued that America’s success was linked to the success of all humankind, that the American colonists could launch a worldwide democratic revolution. And, as he put it — I’ll quote it again, but I think maybe it was the first lecture that I quoted this as my sort of random inspirational sentences from random guy from the eighteenth century. This is where this comes from. It’s the statement about beginning the world anew:  “[W]e have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again….The birthday of a new world is at hand.”  That’s millennial talk there.

The power of the pamphlet wasn’t just in its argument or in specific points of argument, but rather, it was in the way that it reversed prevailing assumptions. Paine forced readers to consider a whole new way of looking at the impending crisis — and actually at the entire imperial system. He laid bare assumptions that had led colonists to resist independence, and then by exposing these biases and holding them up to scorn, he forced people to think beyond what they had thought before. So basically the old paradigm had been: liberty can survive among brutal and self-interested men only through a balance of institutionalized forces so no one can monopolize the power of the state and rule without opposition. So monarchy, nobility, and the people have an equal right to share in the struggle for power; complexity in government in this sense is a good thing; simplicity allows for monopolization.

Coronation portrait of George III by Allan Ramsay, 1762 / Art Gallery of South Australia

Well, Paine argues, complexity is not a virtue in government. It simply makes it impossible to tell who is at fault. Paine charged that the complexity of the British government was designed to serve the monarchy and the nobility, that the King did nothing but wage war and hand out gifts to his followers, and that this entire idea of British constitutional-institutional balance was a fraud.

Now the boldness of this message becomes clearer when you compare it with some other pamphlets of the time, many of which were aimed at exploring difficult questions — right? — constitutional issues, and then coming up with recommendations. Common Sense isn’t about exploring difficult constitutional questions. It aimed to, quote, “tear the world apart.”  This pamphlet did not have the kind of rational tone and lawyerly, precise logic and high scholarship that you see floating through a lot of the other pamphlets of this period.

And the tone was part of why the pamphlet ended up being so effective. Paine didn’t use legal arguments. He didn’t invoke legal authorities. He assumed that his readers would have some kind of limited knowledge of the Bible. He didn’t use a lot of Latin, and if he did use Latin he tended to follow it up with an English translation. He used really straightforward syntax, a really simple vocabulary. As he himself explained it: “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament, and put it in language as plain as the alphabet.”  So what he wanted to write he said was, quote, “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.”

Sometimes it was Paine’s irreverence in comparison with other pamphlet writers that made his writing seem so effective. So for example, writing about the origins of the English monarchy and William the Conqueror, Paine wrote, “no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”  Okay. It’s not your typical pamphlet.

Sometimes he used really straightforward language just for shock value, trying to make his point by — trying to upset prevailing ideas — by saying something in a shockingly straightforward and irreverent manner. And that’s obviously going to be really effective if he was talking about the King — to use sort of shockingly irreverent language. So for example, he really tried hard to dehumanize King George III, writing for example, he has “sunk himself beneath the rank of animals, and contemptibly crawls through the world like a worm.” Okay. [laughs] That’s pretty irreverent language. “Even brutes do not devour their young.”  Okay. That would have been really shocking [laughs] to someone to read at the time, that that’s a description of the King.

Or he used sarcasm, as in this sentence. Now I mentioned this sentence — I don’t know — in the first — one of the early lectures. I talked about a sentence that I really liked and I accused Benjamin Rush of cutting it out of the pamphlet, and I’m here to redeem Benjamin Rush because when I looked this up today to double check on myself what I discovered was, this is actually Benjamin Rush’s favorite sentence and Benjamin Franklin struck it out.  [laughs]  So it was in the draft but it didn’t make the final printed copy of Common Sense, and this is the sentence. Okay. “A greater absurdity cannot be conceived of, than three millions of people running to their seacoast every time a ship arrives from London, to know what portion of liberty they should enjoy.”  I think that’s a good sentence. I agree with Rush. I think Franklin had it wrong. I think that’s good sort of pointed sarcasm, so I’m sorry it didn’t make the final printed version. Rush is right.

So sarcasm — effective — irreverence, shock value — all effective. Even just emotion, even Paine’s emotion, was effective because it was so strong, because he was so passionate, and because he was so straightforward, as in a sentence like this. “Every thing that is right or reasonable [correction: “natural”] pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.'” Okay, dramatic, passionate, emotional language.

So all of this stuff that I’m describing here, all of this rhetoric, all of this logic, all of the sort of rationale behind this pamphlet — this is popular culture but it’s not low culture. It may not have had really refined language but it had correct language. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style, in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.”  Okay. By writing that, Jefferson achieved none of those things.  [laughs]  That’s like a really good example of how different Paine sounded, [laughs] — perspicuity of expression and happiness of elucidation. Okay, not in Common Sense. Jefferson does not sound like Thomas Paine.

Common Sense’s Popularity and Founder’s Reactions


Left: Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, 1792 / White House Blue Roome
Right: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 / White House Blue Room

Given all of this, the widespread popularity of the pamphlet isn’t surprising, and the first printing sold out in a few weeks. There were many re-printings, first in Pennsylvania, then in other colonies, and even ultimately in Europe. And all in all, a majority of the population of the colonies either read Common Sense or received some kind of distilled version of it at their local tavern or in conversation, as presented by other people who had read it.

By March of 1776, there had been 125,000 copies sold and by colonial standards that’s a mind-blowing number of copies, and here’s a way to sort of put that in context. At this period, even later, even in the 1790s, in a city like New York or Pennsylvania, a newspaper that would have been considered to have a big circulation number — like wow, that’s a really big newspaper — would have had a circulation of 1,000. Okay. So 125,000 copies is a lot of copies. That’s a pretty remarkable number. And sales were helped by the fact that the pamphlet was priced really low so that it could be bought by anyone, even the relatively poor.

Now of course Paine wasn’t shy about his own accomplishments and he later told anybody who would listen that his pamphlet had enjoyed, quote, “the greatest sale that any performance [has] ever had since the use of letters.”  [laughter]  Okay. That’s not a modest man. It is the greatest-selling thing of all time. Okay. Okay, Tom, it’s important but come on.  [laughter]

Now of course not everybody cheered with the publication of Common Sense. There were many people who were enraged at what it dared to say about the English monarch, about the British constitution, about independence. Who was this guy anyway? Right? Who was he to promote independence?  As Samuel Adams put it with actually unusual understatement for Samuel Adams — he said the pamphlet, quote, “has fretted some folks here more than a little.”  It upset a lot of people. More direct criticism was issued by an English gentleman traveling in Virginia in his diary. He wrote, “A pamphlet called Common Sense makes a great noise. One of the vilest things that ever was published to the world. Full of false representations, lies, calumny, and treason.”

Now you may be surprised to hear that John Adams, ultimately a leading proponent of independence, did not like Common Sense. John Adams did not like the pamphlet. It wasn’t because of the first two parts. Right? He’s all for questioning the British constitution. He’s all for independence. That’s fine, but what really got Adams was the third section of the pamphlet, the section about what kind of government might we be able to create in the absence of the British constitution. This made Adams crazy, because to Adams and to many others at the time, good lawmakers were supposed to always be practical thinkers and they were supposed to be realistic about what a society could achieve. They were supposed to think about the realities of a society and then what would be politically possible, and this is not what he thought Paine was doing. He thought Paine was sort of blue sky, unrealistic, tossings off about possibilities, without thinking really hard about probabilities. So this is John Adams’ summary of Common Sense. This is true John Adams. Okay. Common Sense, quote, “a poor, ignorant, malicious, shortsighted, crapulous mass.”  [laughs]  That’s John Adams’ opinion of Common Sense.

John Adams really did not like Plato’s Republic either, and for the same reasons. Right? He thought Plato was irresponsible. He hated Plato’s Republic. Jefferson was not a big fan either. He thought that — Actually, both of them thought that Plato was sort of vaporing about political ideals and not really thinking about realistic application to real people. So to these guys at this time the real challenge of what they’re doing is to match ideals and realities, and they didn’t think Plato was doing that at all.  So this is what Adams [correction: Jefferson] first had to say about Plato’sRepublic “While wading through the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this.”  [laughter]

Okay.  He really doesn’t like Plato’s Republic, but he also just didn’t like Plato. So overall he said — he talked about how he read all of Plato’s works and he talked about oh, he had three Latin dictionaries and a German one and a French one just in case, and he worked his way through, and he said he learned only two things from all of Plato’s work. He learned, number one, that Benjamin Franklin stole an idea from Plato [laughter] — didn’t give him credit, [laughs] and number two, he learned that sneezing is a cure for the hiccups.  [laughter] And he said, quote, “Accordingly, I have cured myself and all my friends of that provoking disorder, for thirty years, with a pinch of snuff.” Okay. That’s Plato to John Adams.  [laughs]  That’s it. So I just love that. I love that. It’s John Adams at his best. Okay.

Social Impact of the Pamphlet and Conclusion

The Friends of the People caricatured by Isaac Cruikshank, November 15, 1792. Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine are surrounded by incendiary items. / Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum

So away from Plato, back to Common Sense. For many people Common Sense was kind of a conversion experience, and there are people that are fence sitters who maybe — might have had the makings of a radical and in reading the pamphlet or hearing of the pamphlet, they actually were radicalized by it. It was talked of everywhere. As Rush put it, “Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind.  It was read by public men.”  It was “repeated in Clubs, spouted in schools, and in one instance delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon, by a clergyman in Connecticut.” That’s a Connecticut moment. I’m always happy when we have little Connecticut or Yale moments.

It was talked about everywhere. Its rhetoric was so powerful that for many it inspired them to stand back, examine their situation, and really loathe Britain for the first time — like oh, [laughs] I’ve never thought of loathing Britain before, but yet now I am. As George Washington wrote, Common Sense was “working a wonderful change in the minds of many men.”

In the end, regardless of whether one agreed or not with his argument, Paine’s pamphlet did one fundamentally important thing. He focused the prevailing colonial political conversation on independence. He lifted the argument above constitutional reckoning. He inspired others to write about the topic as well, sometimes for independence, sometimes against, but independence became now the topic to discuss. As a reader in Boston put it, “Independence a year ago could not have been publicly mentioned with impunity. Nothing else is now talked of, and I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent it.”

Now Paine was all too happy to remind anyone who would listen about the significance of his pamphlet. He considered it his lifetime achievement. He wanted his tombstone to read “Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense.”  Of course, that was assuming he was going to have a tombstone which [laughter] he didn’t. [laughs] The poor guy. I didn’t think of that until this second — oh, bad irony. He said that regardless of whatever form he took in the afterlife, he would always know he had written Common Sense.

Okay, but did Common Sense cause independence?  Okay. Paine clearly would have loved to tell you that it did. That’s the kind of conclusion you really can’t make, but clearly you can say it was so powerful, so widely read, so controversial that it shattered much of the psychological resistance to the idea of independence.

And also on a more social level, Common Sense invited an entire range of people into the political conversation that in some ways hadn’t really been included before, just by deliberately making this pamphlet available to as broad an audience as possible. And his message in a sense was fundamentally democratizing as well. Paine preached that any people can deliberate and decide how they are to be governed. And then they can act on that choice. Any people are capable of creating and implementing their own government. It’s a powerful message, and regardless of whether people agreed or disagreed about what government they should be creating, the ideas underlying that pamphlet in a sense were really revolutionary, in a sense, and certainly radicalizing, just at this moment when things are taking a turn, just at this moment when the King has declared the colonies in rebellion, and very soon we’re going to have Lexington and Concord.

So you can see how we’re right at this moment where things are going to take a shift. Common Sense, partly timing-wise, came out at just the moment where it was going to strike and have the broadest impact.