Today in 1776, Thomas Paine anonymously published a pamphlet called “Common Sense.” It was a concise defense of the patriot cause.
After emigrating from England two years prior with the assistance of Benjamin Franklin, Paine became one of the most ardent and famous supporters of the colonial struggle against Britain. Though it is hard to determine exactly how many copies were printed and disseminated, thousands of copies found their ways into the hands of patriots.
Within the tract, Paine explained that he was “not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence.” He professed, however, to be “clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so.”
In just 47 pages, “Common Sense” made the following arguments:
- That many traditional rights were naturally bestowed, and preexisted government.
- That legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed, and that governmental establishments were based on contractual relationships between individuals.
- That the incendiary British policy toward the colonies had violated the colonial charters and the British constitutional system itself.
- That the American colonies could not be reasonably represented in British Parliament, nor could any empire judiciously govern the American colonies.
- That the British claim to the right to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever” and to supplant the will of the colonial legislatures was contemptuous, malignant, and unauthoritative.
- That the British royal line derived from a bastard foreigner who gained power only through military prowess and a successful invasion of the British Isles in 1066.
- That a free people could withdraw from an illegitimate government, as such a government ceased to possess the ability to demand compliance.
His blunt, straightforward style resonated strongly with common people, making his work an immediate success. Though some, including Thomas Jefferson, James Otis, and James Iredell, had all articulated similar ideas in the years prior, many of their arguments were coated in legalese and historical references that were unfamiliar to typical colonists. It was Paine’s work therefore that struck the greatest chord with the everyday American.
Paine’s newfound fame made him a leading patriot agitator. He continued this streak the next year in “The American Crisis,” an attempt to encourage the masses to support the war against Britain. The pamphlet was read aloud to the army three days before the Battle of Trenton, one of Washington’s greatest victories. Some allege that Paine’s work served as a substantive boost of morale during a trying time.
Paine remained a controversial figure for the rest of his life. He later served in the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, was almost beheaded in the Great Terror, was tried and convicted of seditious libel in absentia in Britain, and strongly criticized George Washington.
He died virtually friendless in New York following the publication of his controversial work, the Age of Reason. Still, the deed he achieved the most fame and prestige for, was, without a doubt, his authorship of the widely-distributed pamphlet that made the most prevalent case for severance from the British crown.