BOOK REVIEW | Common Sense

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January of 1776, is undoubtedly one the most influential works in the history of mankind. Its first run sold out within two weeks and went on to sell around 500,000 copies in a country with only about 2 million free people. Its message was simple, its language easily understood: Britain had no right or ability to properly govern America, the monarchical system was profoundly flawed and unnatural, and the colonies were in a perfect historical position to both win independence and maintain it. While most of the ideas found in the monograph were not begun with Paine, and had been repeatedly debated upon the floor of the Continental Congress, they had not yet been presented directly to the people in so clear and accommodating a manner. The result was a steady tide of public support for independence, and perhaps most significantly, for the Continental Army and General Washington’s rapidly depleting resources.

John Adams once wrote of it: “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain,” acknowledging the general approval that had been raised before declaring independence that July of 1776. However, Adams, like many others at the time, was no fan. The more years that went by the more he grew to hate both Common Sense and its author, the former for the radically democratic ideals it espoused, the latter more than likely for the attacks on Christianity Paine would publish as The Age of Reason while imprisoned in France during the French Revolution.

Paine was a recent English immigrant who failed at just about everything in life until he befriended Doctor Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia and was encouraged by him to write his tract for independence, published at first anonymously. This began his long career as a revolutionary. Undoubtedly the poorest of America’s Founding Fathers, he took up the rifle and joined Washington’s army, writing the inspiring The American Crisis along the way (“These are the times that try men’s souls…”). After the Revolution he would join anti-monarchical radicals in England, penning the immortal Rights of Man, before escaping arrest and fleeing to France, where he became immersed in the tumult of the French Revolution.

However, after he published the controversial The Age of Reason, he found many of his former friends had abandoned him, with Thomas Jefferson being the sole exception. He died in the Greenwich Village area of New York a destitute, his funeral attended by a paltry few.

Thomas Paine

Read today, it is not difficult to see why Common Sense persuaded so many in its time. Paine writes inspiring prose. His observations, too, can be profoundly philosophical and transcend their intended subject. For instance, he opens the text with this historical truth: “a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.” Every civil rights movement can testify to the generational shifts to which these simple words refer.

Paine does not weigh his writing with provincial grievances against the crown, but rather places his arguments on more meta-historical grounds. He sees the Revolution as not simply a fight for the American independence for which he was advocating, but as a new chapter in mankind’s history, where men may remake their political structures anew, based not upon heredity and tradition but upon liberty and reason. Much like Lincoln would come to give Union soldiers a greater cause than punishing rebellion in the mission of slavery’s destruction, thereby reinvigorating the war effort by boosting morale, Paine also reaches for higher causes to inspire. It is not only the colonies’ freedoms that are at stake, but liberty itself. In these moments the text truly shines, such as when Paine passionately pleads: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her – Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Of course, like every best-seller before and since, the work is not without its flaws. Paine is seemingly contradictory at times, and his biblical arguments against monarchy are weak but can certainly be marked up to a need to pander to his intended audience.

It should be remembered, however, that the pamphlet was intended to be a timely piece, the intention of which was not to create an all-encompassing political philosophy, but to convince people of the day that independence was the only logical and moral path for America to take, and that the opportunity was slipping by. Common Sense, despite its shortcomings, still holds the power to inspire, and so much of what Paine wrote rings true today as it helped to ultimately define Americans’ views of government, freedom, and their own history, much as John Adams would have hated to admit.

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For another look at Paine, see my post: Thomas Paine, Reappraised.

Thomas Paine, Reappraised

Some years back I was walking through Greenwich Village and came upon an old building plaque which read:

Thomas Paine

Born – 1737

Died – 1809

On this site.

The world is my country

All mankind are my brethren

To do good is my religion

I believe in one God and no more

Every American school kid grows up learning about Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” which justified for many Americans the revolutionary cause and argued for the superiority of representational government. (For a closer look, see my review.) John Adams had reportedly stated, “Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

Born in England, Paine immigrated to America after meeting Benjamin Franklin in 1774. During the war he served under George Washington, and it was at the Continental Army’s seemingly lowest point, in the winter of 1776, that he penned “The American Crisis,” which began with the immortal lines, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

Despite his revolutionary accolades, he found little financial support in the newly established United States. When revolution broke out in France, he showed his endorsement by responding to Edmund Burke’s conservative attacks on the revolutionaries by publishing his Declaration of the Rights of Man. He traveled to France to oversee the French translation but soon ran afoul of Jacobin extremists due to his opposition to the death penalty. Imprisoned, he began writing his last great — and most controversial — work, The Age of Reason, a three part condemnation of Christianity and religion and a call for deism and scientific inquiry. Convinced that Washington had played a role in his imprisonment, Paine wrote a public letter condemning his former ally.

These attacks on the revered first president and on Christian theology destroyed Paine’s reputation in the United States. Nevertheless, he returned to the new republic, finding few prominent friends save for Thomas Jefferson (who was sympathetic to Paine’s views), who invited him to the White House during his presidency. Nearly everyone else abandoned him, and his name was bile on the lips of those who spoke it.

On his deathbed, he was asked by a doctor if he wished to accept Jesus Christ. Paine replied, “I have no wish to believe on that subject,” and took his final breath. His few remaining friends attended his quiet burial. In 1819, the English radical William Cobbett stole his bones and brought them to England, hoping to give him a more proper burial. Over time, however, most of the bones have been lost.

Paine is a personal hero of mine. He was a citizen of the world, a man of moral convictions, and an advocate for the liberty of both body and mind. As I stood reading the plaque, which had been placed there by the Greenwich Village Historical Society in 1923, I kept imagining that small party of mourners paying their respects to a man who deserved more recognition and appreciation. As I rode the train back home a poem began rattling in my mind. A simply rhymed verse, it was my own eulogistic offering of sorts. I jotted it down and I now share it here.

Lingering Paine

There is a bustling village
Where well-known Paine had died,
Within the crooked nooks
Of Gotham’s old design.

It was on a street called Grove
At number fifty-nine,
When whispers could be heard
On corners at the time.

Long before the beatnik pens
Let out their desperate sighs,
Stonewall's mortar buckled
Beneath the weight of cries.

The words that stirred a people
And helped a nation rise,
They echo with us still,
And keep this Paine alive.

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about Paine, I recommend the late Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography as a worthy primer. It is a slim volume, written with Hitchens’s signature wit, that succeeds in giving the reader a summary of Paine’s life and the reasons for why it mattered, and matters still.

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