'Common Sense' and the American Revolution by Harvey Kaye

by Harvey Kaye

Harvey Kaye is the Ben and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Social Change and Development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. This essay was printed in TPNHA’s journal in May, 2001, and it first appeared in his book, Firebrand of the Revolution (Oxford U. Press, 2000).

We should never fail to recount the story of the American Revolution. We should never forget that our nation was forged in struggle, a struggle — however inadequate and in need of continual renewal and advancement — that was revolutionary. And we should never fail to appreciate the fundamental role of the radical Thomas Paine in helping us to realize what we might become. Would there have been an American Revolution, an American war for independence, had Thomas Paine not written his stirring pamphlet Common Sense? Most likely, yes. However, the American Revolution might not have been the kind of republican and democratic struggle it became, and the course of the nation’s development would likely have been quite different.

Born January 29,1737, in Thetford, England, Thomas Paine was the only son of Joseph Pain, a Quaker staymaker, and Frances Cocke, the daughter of an Anglican lawyer. Neither a happy nor an affluent couple, Joseph and Frances nevertheless were extremely fond of their son and committed to his receiving a formal education. In addition to educating the boy in the Bible at home, they enrolled him in the Thetford Grammar School. Among his studies, he most enjoyed science and poetry.

But Tom’s parents could afford to keep him in school only so long. When he turned 13, they apprenticed him to his father. In his father’s workshop, he learned not only the craft of corsetmaking, but also the dissenting and egalitarian spirit of the Quakers and the historical memory of “turning the world upside down” in the English Revolution of the 1640s and 50s.

An artisan’s life apparently afforded insufficient excitement for the young man. Two weeks before his twentieth birthday, Tom ran away to serve aboard an English privateer, hoping to gain adventure and a bit of money. The encounters, rigors, and oppressions on board must have taught him a great deal, but hen soon had enough of life between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” After just a year, he disembarked for London, to work again as a journeyman staymaker.

During the next decade and a half, Tom suffered more than his share of tragic disappointments, mistakes and failures. In 1759,he set up shop as a master craftsman on the southeast coast where he met and married his first love, Mary Lambert. Yet, sadly, within a year Mary died in premature childbirth and, for lack of trade, Tom was forced to give up the business.

In 1764,he secured appointment as an excise officer, but he was expelled a year later, supposedly for having stamped goods without inspecting them (a not-unusual practice of over-worked excise officers). During the next few years he kept himself going by working as a staymaker, a teacher, and a preacher while he petitioned for reinstatement in the excise service.

Finally, in early 1768, he received a new posting, to Lewes in Sussex. There he boarded with a tobacconist, whose daughter, Elizabeth Ollive, he married on the shopkeeper’s death. Tom also became active in local affairs and a “regular” in the political debates at the White Hart Tavern. He soon developed a friendly reputation as a man who enjoyed a few good drinks and had a “skill with words.”

Recognizing his talents, Paine’s fellow officers chose him to lead their campaign for higher salaries. Thus, in 1772 he penned his first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, and moved to London to lobby Parliament. His sojourn back in the capital both increased his knowledge and resentment of aristocratic government and politics and renewed his awareness of the popular radicalism of the middle and working classes. Additionally, it enabled him to renew his interest in natural philosophy through attendance at science lectures - occasions that placed him among circles of intellectuals and freethinkers which, fortuitously, included Benjamin Franklin.

Unfortunately, the campaign failed and the Excise Commission discharged Tom for ignoring his official duties. Making matters worse, the tobacco shop also failed, and Tom and his wife agreed to separate.

Now 37 years old, with few resources and without prospects, but possessed of a seemingly indefatigable willingness to try again, Tom resolved to go to America. The renowned Ben Franklin himself provided Tom with a letter of introduction, but little could either man have suspected that the mix of memories and skills, which Paine carried with him, would prove so volatile when brought into contact with America.

America would inspire Paine and he would not only refashion his own life, he would contribute, as well, to refashioning American life. Just a year after his arrival, he would declare: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And his words would fire the imagination of his new compatriots.

The America to which Paine journeyed was thriving, dynamic, and rebellious. The population of the l3 colonies had reached almost 3 million. The vast majority lived in the countryside, but Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston had developed into prosperous regional capitals.

Colonial life did not simply reflect life in the mother country. Americans were more pro-monarchy than the English themselves; but with the king and his ministers an ocean away they could afford to be. While rich gentlemen “lorded it” over others, actual aristocrats were a rare breed in America. And, though religious toleration varied from colony to colony, the Church of England never secured the authority it held at home. Rather, religious pluralism and enthusiasm characterized American life.

Moreover in contrast to Britain, America had little unemployment or poverty. Although the same property-holding qualifications to vote applied in America as in Britain, the colonies were far more democratic places. More than half of colonial white men held enough property to vote; they governed themselves through elected assemblies (subject to the veto power of royal governors); and they enjoyed the freest press of the eighteenth century. Like their British cousins, colonials celebrated their liberties, and the middle and lower classes - though excluded from formal political debates - effectively registered their views through street-crowd actions.

America seemed exceptional, yet serious contradictions marked the developing society. Fundamental inequalities shaped colonial life and antagonisms were intensifying. Women’s lives varied based on class and marital status, but all women suffered the restrictions of male domination. Colonials prided themselves on their liberties, but their economies depended upon denying freedom to others. To gain passage to America, poor white immigrants subjected themselves to indentured servitude. More cruelly, a vicious trade brought Africans to work as slaves and they numbered half a million. The rebelliousness of servants and slaves distressed their masters. And not far away lived the Native American peoples, determined to resist colonial expansion as best they could.

Real inequalities also prevailed among free whites. Landlordism and tenantry spread, periodically inciting farmers to riot in protest. Property also shaped urban life. Wealthy merchants had built fortunes on transatlantic commerce. Together with the southern planters and northern landlords, they constituted provincial ruling classes and dominated colonial assemblies. Also, an intellectual elite of lawyers and prominent Protestant clergy developed in close connection to these ruling classes.

Of course, the urban majority belonged to the working classes. The “master mechanics,” owned their own shops and hired journeymen and apprentices. These skilled artisans were Tom Paine’s folk. Literate and often interested in science and public affairs, they aspired to an independent livelihood and community respect, gained through hard work, moderation, and self-improvement. As well, they desired a greater role in public affairs.

Below the artisans, propertyless laborers grew in number, including sailors, dockworkers, hired servants, and the unskilled. Though better off in America than in Britain, they well knew both that they lacked the rights of the propertied and that the rich were growing richer. Their rising sense of injustice, and readiness to express it, made their superiors nervous.

Holding these diverse colonials together, and binding them to the empire, was their shared sense of “Britishness” (though not all were actually British or even of British descent). Like their British counterparts, they believed they enjoyed rights which other peoples did not - rights secured through the ages and assured by the English Constitution. Ironically, the very demands of the British Empire would soon wear away at the colonials’ attachments to Britain and its institutions.

Britain’s triumph in the Seven Years War - known to us as the French and Indian War (1756-63) - drove the French from Canada and secured British domination of North America and the Atlantic world. But victory and supremacy had a high price, exhausting the treasury and forcing the British Government to raise taxes and seek additional sources of income.

King George III and his chief financial minister, George Grenville, logically assumed that the costs of colonial security should be borne by the colonials themselves. The colonials did not share that assumption; they felt they had paid for the North American war with their blood.

As well, the British Government sought to more effectively regulate American commerce, and to protect Native American treaty rights against white encroachment. The resulting policies instigated a series of imperial crises.

In 1763, Grenville laid out a “Proclamation Line” along the Appalachian Mountains, which restricted white territorial expansion to the west. And during the next decade he and his successors announced a string of new taxes and regulations governing colonial commerce and administration: the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act, the Declaratory Act, the Townshend Acts, the Tea Act, and the so-called Coercive or Intolerable Acts.

The British Government believed that the (unwritten) English Constitution gave it the authority to make laws for the colonies, for all Englishmen were supposedly represented in Parliament whether or not they actually voted for its members. But most Americans believed that Parliament was acting in an arbitrary and unconstitutional way, and violating their rights as Englishmen by making laws without their active consent.

Angered by events, colonial leaders delivered speeches and wrote pamphlets decrying tyranny and the threat to liberty. They rightly worried about agitating the colonial masses, for their own words and actions did just that. And, once mobilized, middle and lower-class folk grew less and less willing to defer to their “betters.” They gathered in street protests; they hung figures in effigy; and they attacked British officials and their property.

Colonial defiance made the system unworkable. But every time Parliament repealed its latest revenue-raising law, it turned around and enacted new taxes. In reply, the colonials staged boycotts and actions like the Boston Tea Party. Occasionally, such confrontations turned violent, as in the Boston Massacre, when British troops fired into a protesting crowd and killed several people.

Resistance escalated. Colonials organized, first locally, then across colonial lines, creating groups like the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence. By 1774, the dispute had become a full-blown imperial crisis. It came to a head when Parliament closed Boston Harbor and essentially placed Boston and the Massachusetts colony under siege. Outraged, the colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in September 1774. They promised aid to Massachusetts, called for a continental boycott of British goods, and issued a declaration against “taxation without representation.” Meanwhile, militias trained more seriously and the “Minutemen” readied themselves. The British had united the colonials in rebellion.

It was at this time that Paine sailed to America, landing in Philadelphia only weeks after the First Continental Congress adjourned. The eight-week voyage did not augur well for his future. The crossing was horrible, if not horrific. Following the usual seasickness, a deadly epidemic known as “ship fever,” probably typhus, struck passengers and crew alike. When they finally docked on November 30, l774, Paine had to be carried ashore on a stretcher and spend the next few weeks recuperating.

Given his past, Paine was remarkably fortunate (not just for having survived the journey). Traveling as a free man, with Franklin’s letter of introduction and a bit of money in his purse, Paine’s own status contrasted sharply with that of the majority of new arrivals. One hundred of the 120 passengers with whom he sailed came as indentured servants, and Philadelphia’s Slave Market could easily be seen from his rented lodgings.

In early January, Paine roused himself to get out and about. Though only a square mile in size, Philadelphia - with a fast growing population of 30,000 and America’s busiest harbor - had emerged as the unofficial commercial and cultural capital of British North America. The city’s prosperity and diversity clearly impressed him. Founded by William Penn, a Quaker, Pennsylvania had served as a haven for the Friends and Philadelphia reflected its Quaker heritage. Its European population included native and immigrant English Quakers, Anglicans and Catholics, German Lutherans and Mennonites, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, and Jews.

Philadelphia’s politics also appealed to Paine. The merchant elite controlled economic affairs and colonial government. However, they faced challenges from below. The skilled mechanics resented the merchants’ domination and they began to demand a direct role in government. Not only the wealthier artisans, but also the poorer mechanics and laborers, numbers of whom had enlisted in Pennsylvania’s militia, started to demand rights of political participation. Such things thrilled Paine - and yet the paradox of white servitude and black bondage in the midst of a prosperous, liberty-loving and spirited people astounded him.

As Franklin had directed, Paine first arranged to meet Richard Bache, who immediately took a liking to the new arrival and promised both to help him find employment as a children’s tutor and to introduce him to the city’s leading figures.

Also, as he had in London, Paine quickly took to spending time in bookshops. One afternoon, the owner of his favorite shop, Robert Aitken, engaged him in conversation about his literary interests, leading Paine to show him several of his own writings. Aitken then amazed Paine by offering him the editorship of the Pennsylvania Magazine, a new periodical that he planned to co-publish with John Witherspoon, the president of the college of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton). Incredibly, only weeks off the ship, Paine had a new career as a journalist.

The first issue appeared on January 24, 1775. The magazine flourished. Paine himself contributed essays, poems and scientific reports, written, as was the custom, under various pseudonyms, such as “Atlanticus,” “Vox Populi,” and “Justice and Humanity’”

Expressing renewed optimism and a progressive view of the future, Paine developed a writing-style and a vocabulary that reflected the promise he sensed in American life. Notably, in his opening editorial he warned against “historical superiority” the idea that the present age represents the highest and final stage of history.

Appreciating American possibilities, Paine also confronted America’s contradictions. He criticized aristocratic and lordly pomposity. In one essay he considered the oppression of women. In yet another he vigorously aatacked slavery, calling for its abolition and insisting upon America’s responsibility to support the slaves following emancipation. Not long after, Franklin returned to Philadelphia and established the first American Anti-Slavery Society with Paine as a founding member.

Though Paine wrote critically of British imperialism, he continued to favor reconciliation. That is, until April I9, l775,when British troops opened fire on colonial militia at Lexington, Massachusetts leaving 8 militiamen dead and 10 wounded. News of the battle — “the shot heard round the world” — turned Paine into an American patriot and radical. Forsaking his Quaker background, he now argued the legitimacy of violence in defense of liberty and, in the poetic verses of The Liberty Tree, he aligned himself with the American cause.

Yet, what exactly was America’s cause: The restoration of “Englishmen’s rights”? The reform of the imperial system? or outright separation? Radicals — like Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson — privately discussed separation but, publicly, they merely proposed reorganizing America’s colonial relationship to Britain. And even that seemed too extreme to many.

The Pennsylvania Magazine prospered under Paine’s editorship. Nevertheless, Paine’s relations with his bosses soured by the summer of 1775. Witherspoon turned against Paine for having the audacity to actually edit Witherspoon’s words. In revenge, Witherspoon spread rumors that Paine drank heavily, a slur that would follow him to the grave. Paine did drink, mostly wine and brandy, but not at all to the extent his enemies claimed. At the same time, salary questions divided Paine and Aitken. Increasingly confident of his literary abilities, Paine had requested a raise. Aitken refused. In the autumn, Paine left the magazine.

Paine quit not simply because he became fed up with his employer. More important, he had decided upon a new and very daring project: to write a pamphlet calling for separation from Britain.

Ever since the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April l775, a state of war had prevailed. In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress had convened in Philadelphia and created a Continental Army under the command of George Washington. Still, peace overtures continued and American goals remained undefined. Tom Paine, the newcomer, would revolutionize American thinking.

Paine’s writings had started to garner significant attention and he had been befriended by one of Congress’s more radical members, the young Philadelphia doctor, Benjamin Rush. When Paine told him of his writing plans, Rush counseled moderation, fearing the time was not yet right. However, Paine would not be deterred. He was absolutely convinced that although Americans did not speak openly of it they yearned for independence. Whatever his reservations, Rush welcomed Paine’s commitment and, in turn, Paine regularly sought his new friend’s editorial advise.

Starting in September 1775, Paine devoted his energies to producing the pamphlet. History beckoned, and he could not afford to hesitate. Determined to reach the broadest possible audience, he held nothing back. He summoned forth his memories of Britain and his affection for America. He drew upon his readings of eighteenth-century liberal and republican political thought- readings that emphasized individual freedom and contended that individuals constitute representative government to protect their rights to life, liberty and property. Paine articulated those ideas with his understanding of popular, democratic political aspirations. He quoted the Bible, he cited historical examples, and called upon the force of reason itself.

After completing the manuscript in December, he sent copies to Sam Adams and Ben Franklin for their consideration. They liked it and suggested only minor revisions. Rush then introduced Paine to the Philadelphia publisher, Robert Bell, who, sympathetic to its arguments, accepted the (dangerous) commission of printing it. Paine wanted to call his pamphlet Plain Truth, but Rush proposed another title, Common Sense, and Paine listened.

Oon January10, 1776, Common Sense swept onto the American scene and into American consciousness. In just two weeks the first printing sold out. Soon, supply could not keep up with demand. With or without permission, presses around the colonies issued new editions, including one in German for immigrants. During the next few months, 150,000 copies were distributed in America alone (the equivalent today would be 15,000,000 - making it, proportionately, the nation’s greatest bestseller ever). And in very little time translations appeared in Europe.

Paine originally signed his pamphlet “Written by an Englishman.” However, within weeks folks had figured out who that Englishman was. Paine himself relished the attention, but he sought no material rewards. He declined all royalties, insisting that any profits be used to purchase mittens for Washington’s troops.

Paine wrote Common Sense to transform the colonial rebellion into a war for independence. But he did more than that. He called upon Americans to recognize their historical possibilities and historic responsibilities. Harnessing their shared- but, as of yet, unstated thoughts, and expressing them in language bold and clear, he urged them to make a true revolution of their struggles.

He forcefully declared the American cause to be much more than a question of separation from Britain. Announcing that “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” he proclaimed it a campaign against the tyranny of hereditary privileges and for a democratic republic.

Even before he issued the call for independence, Paine dealt with Americans’ surviving emotional attachments to the King and Britain. Against those who reverently praised the benevolence of the English Constitution, he insisted that “it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”

Paine revealed the monarchy to be a ridiculous institution whose origins were anything but divinely ordained: “A French bastard [William the Conqueror] landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. — It certainly hath no divinity in it… The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.”

Appealing to Americans’ religious and egalitarian sentiments, he added that “hereditary succession” compounds the evil of monarchy: “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.”

He humorously observed that “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 ass for a lion.” And he charged that “monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the [whole] world in blood and ashes.”

Paine utterly rejected the proposition that Britain was America’s “parent country.” He described British conduct as selfish and shameful: “Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families.” If anything “Europe, not England, is the parent country of America,” he contended: “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe…we claim brotherhood with every European Christian…” Paine then turned to America. He appealed directly to Americans’ economic interests. Yet, in addition to outlining their tremendous commercial prospects, he offered a vision of independence that asked them to see themselves as “Americans.” He wrote so as to compel them to comprehend themselves as a people no longer subject to king and noble but - as was their “natural right” - free and equal before God and “the law” and governing themselves through democratically-elected representatives.

Urging unity, Paine portrayed America, not as thirteen separate entities, but as a nation-state: “Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honour…Our strength is continental not provincial.” In favor of a republican government, he proposed a one-chamber Continental Congress headed by a rotating President. Finally, he surveyed America’s physical and material riches to prove it had the resources to actually accomplish the revolution.

Philosophers have argued about the originality of Paine’s ideas. But one thing is certain: They were radically original in both appeal and consequence. Elite colonial intellectuals had penned many a speech and pamphlet, but they had narrowly addressed themselves to the upper classes.

Paine - artisan by upbringing and intellectual by effort - addressed himself to Americans of all classes. The very style and content of his words entailed a more democratic conception of “the people” than had prevailed up to that time. Paine not only wrote so working people could understand, but also to integrate them into the political nation. Capturing the imagination of artisans and farmers in an unprecedented fashion, Paine recruited them to the cause of independence and encouraged them to restructure the political and social order. He devised a new, more democratic language of politics and way of arguing about politics than ever before had existed.

Praising America’s religious diversity, Paine connected the advance of religious freedom to the cause of independence and the creation of a new polity. America would serve as a model to the world and, welcoming of immigrants, as a refuge:

O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the world is over-run 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.

Paine’s vision of a democratic republic was potentially unlimited. This point was well understood, not only by loyalist Tories who desired reconciliation with England and vehemently denounced Common Sense and its author. It was also well understood by elite-minded patriots like John Adams who, while pleased by the call for independence, spoke critically of Paine and his ideas because they feared the popular, radical-democratic aspirations that his pamphlet evoked.

For Paine, the American Revolution possessed world-historical importance:” The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” he wrote. In fact, whereas before this time “revolution” had meant to merely “revolve,” as in an orbit, hereafter it would mean to overthrow an old regime and create a new one.

Weeks passed before anyone in the Continental Congress responded openly to Paine’s arguments. Apparently, delegates did not know what to do. But they created a great commotion in other parts. In Virginia, Edmund Randolph observed that Common Sense “insinuated itself into the hearts of the people”; in Massachusetts, Deacon Palmer noted that “I believe no pages were ever more eagerly read, nor more generally approved. People speak of it in rapturous praise”; and in the field commanding the Continental Army, George Washington reported how Paine’s pamphlet “is working a wonderful change in the minds of many men,” adding that his own reading of it had finally persuaded him of the need to break with Britain.

Reservations persisted. The propertied rich feared the new politics of the working classes, but most figured they would be better trying to lead than resist it. In the spring, colonial assemblies began to issue resolutions calling for independence and instructing their delegates at Philadelphia to follow suit. Finally, in June, Congress appointed a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson to draft an American Declaration of Independence. Paine was not a member of that committee, but all had read his Common Sense. And, on July 4,1776, the United States of America declared its independence. Paine’s contributions to the making of the American Revolution - indeed, to the making of the Age of Revolution and the modern world - had only just begun. He would go on to write the invaluable American Crisis Papers, the radical-democratic Rights of Man, the freethinking Age of Reason, and the social-democratic Agrarian Justice. For good reason he remains a hero, most of all to radicals, socialists, and religious freethinkers.

Paine clearly deserves a most prominent place in American memory. His words led the way in turning our rebellion into a war for independence, and our war for independence in to a revolution. Moreover, he helped to endow the nation’s history with a radical-democratic impulse, one which would encourage not only eighteenth-century workingmen to refashion the nation, but also later generations of American men and women who have found themselves oppressed and marginalized.

Contrary to the ambitions of our own powers that be: The stuggle for liberty, equality and democracy has not ended. I just hope we will continue to honor Paine, not only in our histories, but also in our politics.