Quick! Name a Founding Father. I’ll bet you didn’t even have to stop and think before you said Thomas Jefferson or John Adams or Benjamin Franklin. But the name Thomas Paine probably didn’t spring immediately to your lips. That’s a shame. Modern Americans haven’t exactly forgotten Paine, but he doesn’t get the Founding-Father cred he deserves. So on this Fourth of July, I thought I’d give a shout-out to Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, and the man without whom the American Revolution might not have taken place.
Paine was born in England, but moved to Philadelphia after a series of business and career failures. In 1774, he arrived in the largest city of the colonies, and it was quickly clear that he was the man for his time and place. The colonists were in the midst of a raucous public debate about whether or not to separate from Britain. Paine not only had very firm ideas about the issue, he knew just how to get them across.
Paine was a talented writer and an outspoken champion of freedom. Shortly after arriving in the colonies, he became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine as well as a regular contributor to it. He wrote on all kinds of topics, including science and philosophy. But mostly he wrote about politics and current events. He strongly denounced slavery (which was at that time legal in all thirteen colonies) and argued for equality for women.
A friend suggested he write a pamphlet explaining why the colonies should declare their independence from Britain. (Pamphlets were all the rage in those days; in some sense they were rather like today’s blog posts.)
At this time, very few colonists wanted to go as far as separating from Britain. They wanted to be treated more fairly and get a little respect. But they weren’t ready to declare their independence. The colonies enjoyed a high standard of living—higher than the citizens of England—and at least locally they already had a representative government. They didn’t want to rock the boat. Paine, however, saw things differently. He was a natural and gifted boat-rocker.
He wrote the pamphlet, called Common Sense, and it was like nothing anyone had seen before. He aimed his words at ordinary readers, using examples they could relate to (farming, family life), but his arguments were tight and well-reasoned. He anticipated the response from those who would say that the colonists had it good under the crown and had no need to step out on their own. He wrote, “We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat ….”
Common Sense became an immediate best seller, and historians think that it was a major factor in pushing the colonists toward declaring their independence. So this year on Independence Day, let’s take a moment to pay a little respect to Thomas Paine and his powerful pamphlet.
For Further Reading:
I have a book on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense forthcoming from Cavendish Square publishing. I think you’ll enjoy it. But meanwhile you might enjoy reading Albert Marrin’s Thomas Paine: Crusader for Liberty. And be sure to read Common Sense itself. You can find it free online, but if you want an edition with a scholarly introduction and notes, I recommend Common Sense and Other Writings, edited by Gordon S. Wood, with notes by George W. Boudreau.