How Thomas Paine Popularized American Independence

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Oil Painting of Thomas Paine by Auguste Milliere (1880)

On January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine anonymously published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense.  Identifying himself as “an Englishman,” the recent immigrant to Philadelphia aimed to persuade the common American colonist to believe in the cause of American independence on the account of British tyranny.  While the idea of independence was espoused by several members of the Continental Congress and many of the colonial elite, it was Paine who helped spread the idea of independence and colonial unity throughout the American colonies.  The historian Robert Ingersoll wrote, “It is but the meager truth to say that Thomas Paine did more for the cause of separation, to sow the seeds of independence, than any other man of his time.”[1]

Thomas Paine was born on January 29, 1737 in the small town of Thetford, County Norfolk,England.  The son of a Quaker corset maker, Paine attended grammar school but received his “exceedingly good moral education” from his father, inheriting the belief in “the essential goodness of mankind, as well as a lifelong commitment to public service.”[2] Since Quakers rejected Anglicanism, they were outsiders who were not afforded many of the rights of other citizens.  Raised in a Quaker household, Thomas Paine witnessed equalities in the British system that may have shaped his belief in it being a tyrannical government.

As an adult working in London, Paine would meet Benjamin Franklin through his interest in Whig politics.  In January 1775, Thomas Paine would arrive in the United States without “money, reputation, or prospects” and with nothing more than letters of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin.[3] Despite only modest writing experience, Paine would shortly become the primary contributor to Pennsylvania Magazine, a magazine which would grow in readership with Paine’s pen. Paine would often write about radical ideas of the time period – the idea of women’s rights or the abolition of slavery.  However, “he saved his sharpest quills for the subject increasingly close to his heart – the fundamental corruption, venality, and tyranny of the English system of government.”[4]

At the time of Paine’s immigration, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the largest city in the American colonies.  It was known as a bustling city of artisans, and its coffee and public houses that were full of political discourse made it the intellectual center of the United States.  In addition, it was also the city that hosted the Continental Congress- making it the political center of the United States.  While writing in Philadelphia, Paine would make the acquaintance of Dr. Benjamin Rush – another advocate for independence and future founding father.  Under the influence of both Franklin and Rush, Paine would publish the pamphlet Common Sense.

While both Rush and Franklin were pro-independence, there was not much in the way of mass appeal for such a declaration.  While the popular pamphlet Letters of a Pennsylavania Farmer by John Dickinson (1768) was also about colonial grievances, it was much less radical in scope.  While Dickinson’s pamphlet complained about the Townsend Acts and other means of taxation, in the view of Dickinson and all colonists, the British government had every right to regulate American trade and to reap whatever profit they could from the mercantilist arrangement that trade was based upon.”[5]  Even after Lexington and Concord (1775), the Continental Congress was much more interested in reconciling with Great Britain and King George III than revolution.  On July 6, 1775, the Continental Congress would issue the Olive Branch Petition which would, “assure the king of the still-strong bonds of affection and loyalty that would surely outlast these momentary quarrels.”[6]  Overwhelmingly, in both the Congress and the nation, those who were pro-independence were the minority.  However, Paine’s Common Sense would soon unite the American colonists in the cause of independence.

In Common Sense, Paine states, “The Cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.  Many circumstance hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.”[7]  At the time Common Sense was published, the colonies were separated by both political and cultural differences.  Paine, who had spent his fourteen months in America almost exclusively in the city of Pennsylvania, ignored these differences.  Instead, he unified “the colonists’ diverse grievances into a single grievance and all potential policies into a single policy, he convinced his geographically dispersed readers that their interests were one and the same.”[8] Paine set out to convince the American colonists of the tyranny they faced under British rule and sought to unite them under the goal of American independence.

Paine’s pamphlet was nearly an overnight success, as he sold 120,000 copies by April 1776.  Paine did this by not appealing to the educational and business elites of the colonies but by writing in a way that appealed to the Common man.  Paine wrote blistering attacks of the King and the English system of government.   Speaking of the monarchy, Paine made such bold statements as, “It was the most preposterous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry” and “it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.”[9] Paine was a “street corner radical” who favored “allusions to popular history, nature and scripture rather than Montesquieu, Tacticus and Cicero.”[10]  Paine referenced scriptures and the idea of rights that exist in nature to appeal to the common man –to make the arguments in Common Sense applicable to colonists of all walks of life.  Paine wrote, “But where say some is the King of America?  I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal – of Britian.”[11]  The principles and philosophies of Common Sense could be discussed at a coffee house, included in a sermon, or discussed by a family at a farm.  The language was plain and universal, and spoke directly to the people who would be called upon to support such a revolution regardless of their class or education.

Liell notes that a friend of John Adams wrote that people, “wonder why the principles and dictates of Common Sense have not the same Influence upon the Enlarged minds of their superiours.”[12]  Adams was not alone, as now the delegates had to answer to constituents that were increasingly in favor of independence after reading Paine.  Paine told his readers, “A government of our own is our natural right,”[13] and the people believed him.  Adopting the principles they saw in Common Sense, the people demanded action of the Continental Congress, forcing them to address the groundswell Paine had caused. Paine even provided a blueprint for a new American government – a republic where lawmakers were elected directly by their constituents.  While such a government was not known to be in existence (and thus not common) such a government would appeal to those who had little say in the British style of government.  While most colonists might previously not thought about Paine’s concepts, one could see why such a form of government would appeal to the colonial masses.

By the end of 1776, some 500,000 copies of Common Sense would be in circulation.  It is estimated that there was a copy of Common Sense for every household in America – making it perhaps second only to the bible in readership.  While it is true that Paine’s pamphlet alone could not account entirely for the arguments for and against independence it certainly helped popularize the notion perhaps more than any single event or act.  By the time it was published, the Revolutionary War had gone on for eight months.  However, it is noted that Common Sense served as a rallying call for the working class in the army as well as outlined a cause that was worthy of sacrifice.  Paine rejected birthright monarchy, nobility, and the British tradition in simple terms that appealed to the common man.  Common Sense was empowering and helped found the American principles and belief in government – that government should represent the people and act in their interests.  Thomas Paine’s influence on American history is undoubted and not often paralleled.

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[1] Robert G. Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine,” The North American Review , Vol. 155, No. 429 (Aug., 1892): 183, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25102425 (accessed May 25, 2013).

[2] Scott Liell, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 29.

[3] Liell, 16.

[4] Ibid., 51

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Thomas Paine, “Common Sense,” in 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence, ed. Scott Liell (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003), 152.

[8] Liell, 18.

[9] Paine, 160.

[10] Liell, 20.

[11] Paine, 184.

[12] Ibid., 107.

[13] Paine, 184.

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