Thomas Paine was born in 1737 to a poor Quaker in Thetford, England. In his early life, he was surrounded mostly by farmers and the uneducated. He left school at the age of twelve, and shortly after became apprenticed to his father as a corset maker. This trade was to follow him throughout his days in England as his ‘something to fall back on’ while exploring various career options. After several years and failed ventures, Paine moved to Lewes in East Sussex in 1768 to be a school teacher.
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As luck would have it, Paine had arrived on the threshold of the American Revolution. The ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ was fired a mere six months from his arrival, and the Battle of Bunker Hill soon after prompted Paine to compose Common Sense in the autumn of 1775. It was published anonymously on January 16, 1776, an act that propelled Thomas Paine into both instant fame and the annals of United States history.
The tract closed with a final blast at the idea that things might still be patched up. (Paine 336) “Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord is broken…. There are injuries which nature cannot forgive…. As well the lover forgives the ravisher of his mistress, as the continent forgives the murderers of Britain.”
As many as half a million copies of Common Sense are said to have been distributed throughout the colonies. The work convinced many, including George Washington, that a complete removal from the Kingdom of Great Britain was not only necessary, but inevitable. Paine’s influence, as well as that of John Locke, can clearly be found in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. (McCartin, 23)
Paine’s strength lay in his ability to present complex ideas in clear and concise form, as opposed to the more metaphoric theoretical approaches of his Enlightenment contemporaries in Europe, and it was Paine who projected the name United States of America for the new people. (Kaye, 119) When the war happened, Paine published a succession of significant pamphlets, The Crisis, attributed with rousing the early colonists throughout the tribulations confronted in their extensive effort with the British.
Common Sense is in essence an argument for America’s independence, though it doesn’t come right out and say it. The publication as a whole is based on liberal ideas on what the government’s role should be. Basically, Paine felt the government should have limited power. Man’s natural rights of life, liberty, or property (they changed it to happiness later) should in no way be restricted. Government’s role is “Securing freedom and property to all men, and, above all things, the free exercise of religion” (Paine, 389). It is the umpire, i.e. the government which enforces, not introduces the rules.
It then goes on to attack the governmental set up as it is on England. The hierarchy set up in England left no room for those with real ideas and thoughts of change to enter the government. As Paine stated, “Mankind being originally equal in the order of creation,” meant that no one should think themselves as better than anyone else, and that having a system set up in non-egalitarian fashion was, “unwise, unjust, and unnatural.”
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In the end, Paine hoes on to say what made Common Sense so important, that America has no need to tie itself with England, and that there are enough markets in America that it would be suitable to keep all products, natural or manufactured, in the country. (Fruchtman, 98) Another advantage would be that all property would be kept secure. Paine even suggested a plan as to how a new system may be put into effect, stating that in America “the Law is King,” and not the other way around.
With all this before the people, it is easy to see how Paine’s “common sense” could have easily enticed the colonial people into thoughts of wanting independence and seceding from England. Paine’s essay is typical of work from this point in history. During the middle to late 1700’s, the British presence was being noticed and literary works that asked people to realize that independence was necessary were popular.
Fruchtman, Jack. Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom. Four Walls, Eight Windows, 1994.
Kaye, Harvey J. Thomas Paine: Firebrand. Oxford University Press, 2000.
McCartin, Brian. Thomas Paine Common Sense and Revolutionary Pamphleteering. Rosen Publishing, New York, 2002.
Thomas Paine : Collected Writings : Common Sense / The Crisis / Rights of Man / The Age of Reason / Pamphlets, Articles, and Letters: Library of America (1995).