“Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” – John Adams
Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in Britain. His first thirty seven years of life were pretty much a series of failures and disappointments. Business fiascos, firings, the death of his first wife and child, a failed second marriage, and bankruptcy plagued his early life. He then met Benjamin Franklin in 1774 and was convinced to emigrate to America, arriving in Philadelphia in November 1774. He thus became the Father of the American Revolution with the publication of Common Sense, pamphlets which crystallized opinion for colonial independence in 1776.
The first pamphlet was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an instantaneous sensation, swiftly disseminating 100,000 copies in three months among the two and a half million residents of the 13 colonies. Over 500,000 copies were sold during the course of the American Revolution. Paine published Common Sense after the battle of Lexington and Concord, making the argument the colonists should seek complete independence from Great Britain, rather than merely fighting against unfair levels of taxation. The pamphlets stirred the masses with a fighting spirit, instilling in them the backbone to resist a powerful empire.
It was read aloud in taverns, churches and town squares, promoting the notion of republicanism, bolstering fervor for complete separation from Britain, and boosting recruitment for the fledgling Continental Army. He rallied public opinion in favor of revolution among layman, farmers, businessmen and lawmakers. It compelled the colonists to make an immediate choice. It made the case against monarchy, aristocracy, tyranny and unfair taxation, offering Americans a solution – liberty and freedom. It was an important precursor to the Declaration of Independence, which was written six months later by Paine’s fellow revolutionaries.
Paine’s contribution to American independence 241 years ago during the first American Fourth Turning cannot be overstated. His clarion call for colonial unity against a tyrannical British monarch played a providential role in convincing farmers, shopkeepers, and tradesmen reconciliation with a hereditary monarchy was impossible, and armed separation was the only common sense option. He made the case breaking away from Britain was inevitable, and the time was now. Armed conflict had already occurred, but support for a full-fledged revolution had not yet coalesced within the thirteen colonies. Paine’s rhetorical style within the pamphlets aroused enough resentment against the British monarchy to rally men to arms, so their children wouldn’t have to fight their battles.
“I prefer peace, but if trouble must come, let it be in my time that my children may know peace.” – Thomas Paine
Paine did not write Common Sense or The American Crisis pamphlets for his contemporaries like John Adams, Samuel Adams, Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin. These intellectual giants were already convinced of the need to permanently break away from the British Empire and form a new nation. Paine wrote his pamphlets in a style understandable to the common man, rendering complex concepts intelligible for the average citizen. Paine seized this historic moment of crisis to provide the intellectual basis for a republican revolution. To inspire his citizen soldiers, George Washington had Paine’s pamphlets read aloud at their encampments.
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.” – Thomas Paine – The American Crisis
The wealthy landowners and firebrands who comprised the Continental Congress leadership were not the audience Paine was trying to sway. They were focused on how a Declaration of Independence would affect the war effort. They were deficient in making their case to the less informed populace.
Without public support and volunteers to fight the Redcoats, the revolution would have failed. Paine’s indispensable contribution to our country’s independence was initiating a public debate and disseminating ideas about independence among those who would need to do the fighting and dying if independence was to be achieved.
Paine was able to synthesize philosophical enlightenment concepts about human rights into common sense ideas understood by ordinary folks. Paine was not a highly educated intellectual and trusted the common people to make sound assessments regarding major issues, based upon wisdom dispensed in a common sense way. He used common sense to refute the professed entitlements of the British ruling establishment. He used common sense as a weapon to de-legitimize King George’s despotic monarchy, overturning the conventional thinking among the masses.
Paine was able to fuse the common cause of the Founding Fathers and the people into a collective revolutionary force. Even though their numbers were small, Paine convinced them they could defeat an empire.
“It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense
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