Common Sense 1776

On January 9, 1776, Pennsylvanian James Wilson asked the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, to issue a statement renouncing any desire for independence. That same day, in the same city, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense first appeared; its message could not have been more different. Everything that is right or natural pleads for separation, argued Paine. Promising to inquire into the pretensions of monarchy and aristocracy, Paine delivered a scathing critique of hereditary government and an ardent plea for independence. Perhaps the most important political pamphlet produced in Revolutionary America, and certainly the most widely read, Common Sense helped transform the imperial crisis from a colonial struggle for greater autonomy within the British Empire into a revolutionary movement for independence. The circulation of Common Sense was unprecedented in colonial America. Within three months of its first publication, 120,000 copies were in circulation from New Hampshire to Georgia. Most Revolutionary political pamphlets were written by gentlemen for gentlemen and filled with dense, dull prose. Paine instead wrote for a much broader audience, using clear, direct language to argue the cause of independence to all ranks. Paine’s appeal to a broader class of the people justified popular political action during the crisis of empire leading up to the American Revolution. Common Sense also helped turn independence into a popular cause. When it first appeared in January 1776, few colonists sought separation from Britain or a revolution within colonial society. Yet, by July 1776, Common Sense had convinced many colonists that independence was not only necessary but desirable. Thomas Paine’s call for independence in Common Sense had a profound effect on popular thinking. An unprecedented 120,000 copies of the pamphlet were distributed within the first three months of publication in January 1776. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) By so poignantly framing the long train of abuses perpetuated by Britain against the colonies, Paine convincingly established that reconciliation with Britain was no longer a viable option. By so effectively attacking established institutions like the British constitution and the monarchy, Paine made it possible to imagine the colonial rebellion as a revolution. According to Paine, the problems facing the colonies stemmed from monarchy, aristocracy, and the whole British system of hereditary government. The much-vaunted British constitution, which the colonists had long placed their faith in, was but the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials. It could provide the colonists with no protections for their liberties. Because Britain’s hereditary government was independent of the people, it had inevitably become overgrown, excessive, bloated with its own power, and thus tyrannical. Neither the king nor Parliament would yield to the colonists’ demands and recognize their rights. The ongoing British efforts to put down the rebellion in New England demonstrated that reconciliation would be on British terms only. The colonists faced either submission to tyranny or independence and liberty. After establishing the impossibility of reconciliation, Paine laid out the bright prospects for an independent America. Since monarchical tyranny in the person of the king and aristocratical tyranny in the persons of the peers contributed nothing towards freedom, the colonists and freedom would be better served by simple, representative, republican governments in an independent America. There was not a single advantage this continent can reap, by being connected with Great-Britain, contended Paine. The colonies had benefited from British mercantilism for sure, but at a cost greater than its worth. The independent colonies would pursue friendship with all of Europe, and, so long as eating is the custom of Europe, American farmers would find a ready market for their produce. Paine also challenged his readers to think of themselves as Americans, as members of a new continental union, rather than as British subjects or colonial provincials. Finally, Paine’s eloquent defense of rights, independence, and republican government promised a kind of liberty unimaginable in the British Empire. In its most profound and effective parts, Common Sense linked the colonial cause to the cause of freedom itself throughout the world, situating the colonists in a near-millennial struggle between freedom and tyranny. Although freedom found itself hunted round the globe, We have it in our power to begin the world over again and prepare in time an asylum for mankind. Common Sense did not lead the colonies on a direct path to independence; no single document could generate the consensus needed for such a momentous and difficult decision. It instead further frayed the colonists’ ties to the monarchy and the British Empire, sparked public discussion about independence, a topic that had been largely taboo, and provided a framework for understanding the events that eventually pushed the colonies to declare their independence in July 1776. John Craig Hammond See also: Paine, Thomas; Politics and Government (Chronology); Politics and Government (Essay); Revolutionary War; Document:Common Sense (1776). Bibliography Foner, Eric. Tom Paine and Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Foner, Philip S. The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine. 2 vols. New York: Citadel, 1945. Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of American Independence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Defending Common Sense In 1776 and 2011 Let’s Be Fair! Common Sense by Thomas Paine, 1776 Social Studies and History … Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings by …

Leave a Reply

− 1 = 1