After fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord, England’s King George III expressed his view of the British-colonial relationship in a speech to Parliament On October 27, 1775. Both the king and the majority party in Parliament viewed any compromise with the colonies as a threat to the continued existence of the British Empire.
King George declared that the American colonies were in rebellion against the crown and therefore subject to military intervention.
Thomas Paine wrote a response to the king’s pronouncement, for which his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush suggested the title Common Sense (the full title is Common Sense; Addressed to the Inhabitants of America). Paine argued that the cause of America should not be just a revolt against taxation but a demand for independence.
Paine was born and raised in England to a Quaker family of modest means in Norfolk, England in 1737. His formal education ended when he was 12 years old, after which he pursued various occupations without great success.
In 1774 he emigrated to Philadelphia, where he soon took on the job of editing Robert Aitken’s radical new monthly newspaper, the Pennsylvania Magazine. Paine loved controversy, hated the British aristocracy, and was devoted to the Enlightenment ideal of individual liberty. So it comes as no surprise that he was an immediate and vocal supporter of American independence. (Magen Mulderon)
Paine had originally intended Common Sense to appear in newspapers in several installments, but he realized that his argument was more convincing when taken as a whole. So he contracted with Philadelphia printer Robert Bell to publish the work.
When it was first published in 1776, Common Sense did not credit its author. Its publisher, the wealthy Benjamin Rush, was also anonymous. For many months, while the pamphlet was the talk of the colonies, the public didn’t know who wrote or published it.
Paine wanted it that way, both because his arguments against British rule would bring government retaliation, and because he shared the Enlightenment belief that ideas were more important than the identity of the speaker expressing them. (Institute for Free Speech)
In part, Paine writes in Common Sense,
“Absolute governments (tho’ the disgrace of human nature) have this advantage with them, that they are simple; if the people suffer, they know the head from which their suffering springs, know likewise the remedy, and are not bewildered by a variety of causes and cures.”
“But 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.”
“I know it is difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials.”
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was originally published on January 10, 1776; the pamphlet is famous as one of the most influential essays in history, credited with convincing large portions of the American colonies that independence from Great Britain was necessary. Without Paine’s work, the American Revolution as we know it may not have happened.
Common Sense’s first printing consisted of 1000 copies, with profits to be split evenly between the author and publisher. By January 20 Bell was advertising a “new edition” in press, which likely means that the first printing had already sold out.
Bell published his unauthorized “second edition” (really just a reprint of the first edition) on January 27. Paine meanwhile contracted with printers Thomas and William Bradford to publish, at the author’s expense, a “new edition” with “large and interesting additions by the author” and a response to Quaker objections to a military rebellion. The Bradford edition was published in February and sold for half the price (one shilling) of Bell’s.
Undeterred, Bell produced a third edition that not only pirated the additional materials from the Bradford edition, but also included a section called “Large Additions to Common Sense,” which reprinted several pieces by other authors. Paine was predictably incensed by this and published another denunciation in the Post, to which Bell then responded in kind.
Despite – or more likely, because of – this feud, copies of Common Sense continued to sell briskly in Philadelphia.
Paine often gets credit for more or less single-handedly galvanizing the reluctant colonists to commit to the war of independence. As one historian puts it “Common Sense swept the country [sic] like a prairie fire,” and “as a direct result of this overwhelming distribution, the Declaration of Independence was unanimously ratified on July 4, 1776.
This may be overstating the case a bit. Paine’s pamphlet was certainly popular and influential in revolutionary America, but the real story of Common Sense‘s creation, dissemination, and reception is less straightforward – and perhaps more interesting – than the myth. (Mulderon)
There were many loyalist rebuttals of Common Sense. One of the earliest and best known is Plain Truth: Addressed to the Inhabitants of North America, written by Maryland planter James Chalmers under the generic pseudonym Candidus.
Paine’s follow-up to Common Sense was a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis. General George Washington had the first pamphlet read to his troops at Washington’s Crossing in late 1776 to convince them to extend their enlistments so he could attack Trenton.
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph,” said Paine.
In his later years, Paine would become a controversial figure because of his writings on religion and his role in the French revolution. President Thomas Jefferson had permitted Paine to return from France in his final years and wrote about the author in 1821.
“Paine wrote for a country which permitted him to push his reasoning to whatever length it would go … no writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of style; in perspicuity of expression, happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming language.”
“[I]n this he may be compared with Dr Franklin: and indeed his Common sense was, for a while, believed to have been written by Dr Franklin, and published under the borrowed name of Paine, who had come over with him from England.” (National Archives)
Click the following link to a general summary about Common Sense: