When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
January 10, 1776 – Common Sense, a fifty-page pamphlet by Thomas Paine, was published. It sold over 500,000 copies in America and Europe, influencing both the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the architects of the French Revolution.
Even after American forces pushed the British army out of Boston in 1775, many people were reluctant to consider breaking away from Britain as a viable option. Most insisted that they were still its loyal subjects who resisted what they saw as its tyrannical laws and unfair taxation. With the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet urging Americans think beyond merely resisting British authority. This 47-page pamphlet— Common Sense — published in Philadelphia in January 1776, was a scathing inditement of the injustice of rule by a king as well as a roadmap for creating a new sort of government in which people were free and had the power to rule themselves. By promoting the idea of American exceptionalism and the need to form a new nation to realize its promise, Paine’s pamphlet attracted public support for the Revolution.
Here are some of Paine’s key points:
- Government’s purpose was to serve the people. Paine described government as a “necessary evil,” which existed to give people a structure so they could work together to solve problems and prosper. But to do that, it had to be responsive to people’s needs. The British system, Paine argued, failed at that, because it gave the monarchy and nobles in Parliament too much power to thwart the people’s elected representatives. “The constitution of England is so exceedingly complex, that the nation may suffer for years together without being able to discover in which part the fault lies, some will say in one and some in another, and every political physician will advise a different medicine,” Paine wrote.
- Having a king was a bad idea. Paine didn’t just find fault with British rule of the colonies. He ridiculed the very idea of having a hereditary monarch at all. “In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places, which in plain terms, is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears,” Paine wrote. “A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
- America as the home of the free. Paine refuted the notion that Americans should be loyal to a mother country that he considered a bad parent. “Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families,” he wrote. Besides, he argued, America’s real connection was to people everywhere who yearned to escape oppression. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe,” Paine proclaimed. “Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
- America had a rare opportunity to create a new nation based on self-rule. As Paine saw it, both Americans and the British knew it was inevitable that the colonies would break free. “I have never met with a man, either in England or America, who hath not confessed his opinion, that a separation between the countries, would take place one time or other.” And that time had come. America had raw materials, from timber and hemp to iron, and the skills that it needed to build and equip an army and navy for its defense. Just as important, the individual colonies had the potential to put aside differences and form a powerful nation. But they needed to do it quickly, before the population grew to a point where new divisions might develop. The moment in history was “that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once,” he wrote.
- A strong central government was needed. Paine envisioned that the new nation would have a strong central government, with a constitution that protected individual rights, including freedom of religion. “A firm bargain and a right reckoning make long friends,” he argued.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, an estimated half-million copies were in circulation throughout the colonies. It was also often read aloud, which helped spread its these ideas making it tough for colonial leaders to take a halfway stance against the British setting the colonies on the path to declaring independence. Paine’s pamphlet unified Americans and win converts to the cause.