The War of Independence marked an important period in the history of the United States when first colonies declared their freedom from the British Empire. Although it might be hard to imagine it today, many people were initially opposed to an organized rebellion against Great Britain. In 1776, this fact prompted Thomas Paine to write the pamphlet Common Sense, which was to serve as agitation for democracy and independence as opposed to the tyranny of the British monarchy.
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The freedom of the Thirteen Colonies was established later that year when the Congress composed of delegates representing all thirteen states voted for separation from Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson in June of 1776 documented this resolution of independence and post factum explained the reasons for choosing the freedom from the British Crown. Thus, the pamphlet and the declaration both played an important role in the American Revolution; however, their historical significance has differed throughout time.
When writing Common Sense, Paine recognized that many colonies felt loyal to the British monarchy and hoped for reconciliation with the Crown. Therefore, the author of the pamphlet set out to demonstrate monarchical and aristocratical tyranny of Great Britain in order to eliminate the “long habit of not thinking a thing wrong” (Paine, 1776, p. 1). Paine suggested that any kind of government was evil, listed the shortcomings of the British form of ruling, and proposed to unite American states using democratic principles. The author concluded by positively evaluating the capability the colonies to confront Great Britain in their strive for independence.
Addressing “the inhabitants of America” (1776, p. 1), Paine aimed his ideas at a broad audience that mostly consisted of common people. To make his arguments more appealing and comprehensible, the author of the pamphlet used simple and emotionally charged writing style, which contrasted with legal and theological narratives typically used at that time (Ossipow & Gerber, 2017). This characteristic of Paine’s publication helped it to gain wide recognition.
Historical context was another factor contributing to the persuasiveness of Common Sense. The pamphlet was published shortly after the Proclamation of Rebellion made by King George III and the introduction of the Prohibitory Act as a measure against rebellious colonists in America (Taul, 2017). At that time, reconciliation with Great Britain seemed unlikely, which added weight to Paine’s ideas and arguments. Following its first appearance, the pamphlet became an immediate success, with an estimate of 120-150 thousand sales in the period of a few months (Ossipow & Gerber, 2017).
More importantly, it produced a debate regarding the possibility of separation from the British Crown, and, in doing so, influenced public opinion on the matter (Taul, 2017). This fact allows concluding that the publication of Common Sense served as a crucial prerequisite to the adoption of the resolution of independence. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the significance of the pamphlet decreased once its main goal was achieved and the Thirteen Colonies proclaimed their freedom from the British monarchy.
In contrast with Common Sense, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence from the beginning was a collective effort. The document’s creation was initiated by Congress in order to explain the reasons for separation of American colonies from Great Britain (Taul, 2017). In line with the democratic principles outlined by Paine, five members representing different states were entrusted with drafting the declaration, although it is commonly accepted that Jefferson was its principal author (Taul, 2017). Being a political document, the Declaration of Independence required a distinct writing style from the one Paine used in his pamphlet.
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Jefferson’s ideas were inspired by Scottish Enlightenment, while his text featured intertextual references to Locke and Vattel (Ossipow & Gerber, 2017). Furthermore, when drafting the declaration, the politician relied on his skills of summarizing legal cases (Ossipow & Gerber, 2017) and imitated such documents as Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, British Declaration of Rights, and his own text of Virginia constitution (Taul, 2017). As a consequence, Jefferson’s draft was written in the concise legal language and focused on the facts. In addition, the text of the Declaration of Independence reflected the influence of Paine’s Common Sense by using similar logic in its arguments in favor of American independence.
The declaration that is known today was the result of further revisions of Jefferson’s draft by Congress. Since the Declaration of Independence was purposed to establish political legitimacy of a new country, it was phrased in the way that was accepted in European countries of that time. According to Taul (2017), the language of the declaration “reflected a range of concerns about security, defense, commerce, and immigration” (p. 183).
The American Declaration of Independence became the first legal document of such type and inspired a string of similar declarations by other countries that sought independence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Taul, 2017). Overall, the universal nature of equality values that inspired the document helped to ensure the relevance of the Declaration of Independence for multiple historical periods and occasions.
Today, Jefferson’s declaration is inseparable from American culture that emphasizes equality and same opportunities for all people. Possibly the best-known phrase from this historically significant text summarizes the main values of modern-day Americans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (“The Declaration of Independence,” 1776, para. 2). The importance of the declaration for the history of the United States is further evident in the fact that Independence Day, one of the major federal holidays, is celebrated on July 4, which is the date when the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
In times of revolutionary America, both Common Sense and Jefferson’s draft of the declaration were influential texts that helped to shape history. Perhaps, the significance of Paine’s pamphlet for the War of Independence was even greater as without it, there could have been no separation of American colonies from Great Britain. With time, however, the recognition of the two texts changed.
The Declaration of Independence remains a topical document and the source of inspiration for those seeking equality and justice, while Common Sense is partially forgotten. Such differences in the destiny of these two historical texts are likely to be caused by their distinct goals, as well as their dissimilar writing styles. Being a lengthy publication that aims to persuade people to unite in the face of the British tyranny, Paine’s pamphlet is hardly relevant for the life of today’s society. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, on the other hand, reminds modern American citizens of the values that are at the cornerstone of the United States.
The Declaration of Independence. (1776). Web.
Ossipow, W., & Gerber, D. (2017). The reception of Vattel’s Law of Nations in the American colonies: From James Otis and John Adams to the Declaration of Independence. American Journal of Legal History, 57(4), 521-555.
Paine, T. (1776). Common sense. Web.
Taul, G. E. (2017). Declaration of independence (1776). In D. Head (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Atlantic world, 1400–1900: Europe, Africa, and the Americas in an age of exploration, trade, and empires (Vol. 1, pp. 180-185). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.