Happy Birthday, Common Sense

Two hundred and 30-six years ago this week, a pamphlet was published in Philadelphia. There is some disagreement among historians over the exact date (variously given as January 9th or 10th), and the pamphlet’s title page itself only lists the year, 1776. Whatever the actual date, though, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense hit the American consciousness like a bombshell — one which would reverberate for years to come.

The full title of the work is: COMMON SENSE, Addressed to the Inhabitants of America, On the following Interesting Subjects.  I. Of the Origin and Design of Government in general, with concise Remarks on the English Constitution.  II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.  III. Thoughts on the present State of American Affairs.  IV. Of the present Ability of America, with some miscellaneous Reflections. After all, if you’ve got a whole page to use for a title, why not fill it up?

To summarize the pamphlet a bit more concisely, it was a call for America to declare her independence from Britain. As such, it was outright treason, of course — which is why it was published anonymously at the time. It soon became the best-selling pamphlet ever printed in America — and all over the world, after it was shipped and translated to other lands. Hundreds of thousands of copies were printed in America alone — at a time when the entire population of the country was only a few million. To proportionally match this today, a book would have to sell something like 60 million copies in this country alone — an almost-impossible feat.

The thoughts in the pamphlet were not strikingly original. Similar proposals had been printed in newspapers and even discussed in the Continental Congress. The difference was that Paine wrote in very direct language which everyone could understand — even if they were illiterate and had to have the words read to them. Previous pamphleteers had flaunted their erudition by inserting Latin phrases or classical literature references in an effort to paint their writings with a very high-toned and educated brush. Paine chose to use Biblical references instead — something most people could sink their teeth in a lot easier than a reference to an obscure Greek or Roman.

Paine used terminology which is still striking today for its clarity. In monarchies like Britain, he wrote, “the King is law” — whereas in the future government he envisioned for America, “THE LAW IS KING.” That’s a concept simple enough for a child to understand.

Common Sense appeared at a crucial time in the Revolutionary War. The “shot heard ’round the world” had already been fired, and the British army held Boston while George Washington’s forces laid siege to the town. Even so, many Americans recoiled in horror at the thought of breaking all ties with the mother country. In the Continental Congress, four or five of the thirteen colonies had already instructed their delegations not to even consider voting for independence. It was a touchy issue, and it had by no means been settled in January of 1776.

Paine came down squarely for independence (even though he spelled it differently — all spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, and emphasis in the following excerpts comes directly from the original). He began by reviewing the concept of government itself:

Society in every state is a blessing, but Government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a Government, which we might expect in a country without Government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

To put it another way, sometimes we get the government we deserve. Paine then details the flaws in the concept of being led by a monarch, and being led by the offspring of whichever self-styled king happened to win the last civil war. He doesn’t mince words, either:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. For all men being originally equals, no one by birth could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve some decent degree of honours of his contemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in Kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an arse for a Lion.

After laying this groundwork, Paine builds up to what he sees as an inescapable conclusion that America and Britain should part ways; again, quite plainly put:

Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.

He goes on to back this clarion call up with all the logical reasoning he can bring to bear, and indeed made what is likely the first-ever “American exceptionalism” argument:

Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for government to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island. In no instance hath nature made the satellite larger than its primary planet, and as England and America, with respect to each other, reverses the common order of nature, it is evident they belong to different systems. England to Europe: America to itself.

I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of Separation and independance; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that ’tis the true interest of this continent to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork, that it can afford no lasting felicity, — that it is leaving the sword to our children, and shrinking back at a time, when, a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.

Paine realises that such an undertaking will be complicated — the business of creating a governmental structure out of scratch:

If there is any true cause of fear respecting independance, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Men do not see their way out — Wherefore, as an opening into that business, I offer the following hints; at the same time modestly affirming, that I have no other opinion of them myself, than that they may be the means of giving rise to something better. Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter.

After this modest preamble, Paine offers his detailed suggestions as to how a national American government might be formed, and how a separate group should be charged with setting up an American constitution. As he stated, he offered it up as a mere example as to how such a thing could be accomplished, and he invites others to improve upon his suggestions. But he remains adamant that the task needs doing, and needs doing soberly and intelligently:

A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a constitution of our own, in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance.

He ends the pamphlet with — once again — a metaphor that even the most uneducated American could quite easily understand. One might say that Paine, in Common Sense, had the common touch:

These proceedings may at first appear strange and difficult, but, like all other steps which we have already passed over, will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and, until an Independance is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of it’s necessity.

There were others who wrote about the subject of independence along with Paine. His ideas weren’t stunningly original. But the way he presented them was. Common Sense had more impact upon the consciousness of Americans of the time than a hundred newspaper articles or lofty debates in Congress could ever hope to achieve. Much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin would later help provoke the Civil War by the power of its imagery, Common Sense helped propel the colonists towards the previously-unthinkable concept of taking their place among the nations of the Earth.

Today, of course, we bloggers merely follow in the footsteps of paths laid down by the original “bloggers” — the revolutionary pamphleteers who printed their own screeds for the populace to read. Which is why I thought it was worth it to honour the most-influential of all of these pamphlets, two hundred and 30-six years later. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was a foundational document of our country, and it deserves the recognition of a warm-hearted “Happy Birthday!” from us all.


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