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Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | Context


British-American Relations Prior to 1776

English rule of the North American Eastern seaboard began with the establishment of the first successful settlement, Jamestown, in 1607. Jamestown was located in the first formal colony, Virginia, which was followed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. The British monarchy and Parliament ruled the colonies without much conflict through the French and Indian War (1754–63), which secured control of North America for the British. However, war is expensive, and the costs of protecting and administering the colonies was responsible for an increase in British debt from £73 million to £130 million (nearly $13 billion) during the war. King George III and Parliament thought it only fair for the colonies to pay for a portion of their own defense, so Parliament began issuing taxes on British goods imported to America. From 1764 to 1770, the British levied taxes on official documents, such as deeds and mortgages, as well as imported items like tea, glass, and lead. The colonists fought back through mostly peaceful protest and boycotts of British goods. That hurt the British economy. Certain taxes would be repealed only to be replaced a year later with new ones, which started the cycle all over again.

The growing discord between the colonies and Great Britain stemmed from interpretations of the British Constitution. The British Constitution is a collection of laws and unstated customs. The British government interpreted its constitution as asserting the right of Parliament to make laws for the king's subjects, no matter where they lived. The American colonists thought that wasn't fair, particularly when it came to tax laws. They pointed to the part that stated there would be "no taxation without representation." Because they did not have any direct representatives in Parliament, the colonists felt they should not pay taxes they didn't agree with. The longer this argument went on the more belligerent the colonists and Parliament became. No one in the colonies was thinking about separating from Great Britain, and until the summer of 1774 most colonists remained proud of their connection to the English Crown. That's when 3,000 British troops moved into Boston as part of the punishment for the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, so named when a group of Bostonian radicals threw 342 chests of imported tea into the harbor.

The First Continental Congress gathered on September 15, 1774, to discuss obtaining the same rights as citizens of England. The result was the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which defined the rights of Americans and limited the power of Parliament over the colonies. King George III wasn't persuaded by the declaration. He was ready to use force against the colonies and persuaded Parliament to agree. Should Great Britain back down now, it would lose the colonies forever.

On April 19, 1775, under orders from the king, British general Thomas Gage marched 700 soldiers to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy a cache of colonial weapons. Along the way the British troops were confronted by 77 colonial militiamen in nearby Lexington. Shots were fired, resulting in the deaths of 10 colonists and injuries to nine others. The British continued to Concord, where they destroyed the colonial weapons cache, then headed back to Boston. They were confronted along the way by armed colonists. A battle ensued, and nearly 400 colonists and British troops had been killed or injured. The colonists chased the British soldiers into Boston, where they were trapped for more than two months. Meanwhile the Second Continental Congress was working on the Olive Branch petition, which was intended to be an overture of peace to the British government that affirmed the colonies' loyalty. The king refused to read the petition. After learning about the huge number of British casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775), he declared the colonies to be in a "state of rebellion" and began preparing for war.

The battles of Lexington and Concord (1775) were a turning point for many colonists, including Thomas Paine. He viewed Great Britain's use of force as a violation of the rights of its subjects, and though he had once been a proponent of reconciliation with the British government he now understood the relationship was too broken to be repaired. Paine began writing a treatise, or essay, in the fall of 1775 and published it the following January as Common Sense. In it he uses reason and logic, as well as biblical and historical examples, to prove the unsuitability of monarchal rule and the need for American independence. Instead of attacking specific laws put forth by the king and Parliament, he argues the very structure of the monarchy and its relationship with Parliament impedes the prosperity of the colonies. According to Paine, colonial independence from the Crown and Parliament was the only way forward.

History of the Pamphlet

Common Sense is a pamphlet, which is an unbound publication short in length—up to 48 pages. Pamphlets have been around as long as the printing press, which was invented around 1440. Mostly used as a medium for critical and political essays, the pamphlet became extremely popular during the 16th-century religious controversies in England, France, and Germany. One of the earliest pamphleteers was Martin Luther, the leader of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which led many European Christians to leave the Roman Catholic Church and form Protestant sects. His 95 Theses pamphlet, nailed to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517 and widely published a few months later, spurred public discussion and debate.

Passed around and read aloud in public squares and taverns, pamphlets were one of the earliest forms of social media, and they joined European and English immigrants in the American colonies. While pamphlets in Europe grew to include romantic fiction, poetry, autobiographies, and the occasional personal attack, American colonists used the pamphlet as a political tool. Inexpensive to print and written in simple language, more than 2,000 different pamphlets were published in the colonies during the Revolutionary War era (1764–89). Thomas Paine (writing under different pseudonyms) was one of the most prolific and persuasive pamphleteers of the time. His Common Sense was responsible for sparking the fight for colonial independence from Great Britain, and his American Crisis series, issued between 1776 and 1783, energized American troops. The age of the pamphlet in North America ended in 1787 with The Federalist Papers, a series of pamphlets written by politicians Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in favor of a national constitution. The resulting constitution's first amendment, which outlines freedom of expression and religion, opened the doors for people to openly print dissenting ideas. Thus political dialogue moved away from pamphlets and into newspapers, magazines, and bound books.

Enlightenment Influences

The ideas put forth in Common Sense were inspired by the Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Also known as the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment was a worldwide intellectual movement that changed the way people thought about God, nature, and humanity. Logic and reason replaced the guiding forces of religious faith, superstition, and tradition prominent during the Middle Ages. Leading European philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire critiqued traditional authoritarian state governments and encouraged others to examine the institutions, customs, and morals enforced by state and religious authorities through a lens of reason, or critical thinking based on facts and observation.

Paine was familiar with the work of these and other philosophers of the era, though he didn't subscribe to any one interpretation of Enlightenment philosophy. He saw himself as a "gardener of ideas," picking and choosing the philosophical tenets that made the most sense to him. One of those ideas was the concept of the social contract, proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is an agreement (either explicitly stated or implied) between rulers and the people they rule. Proponents believe people are born into an "anarchic state of nature," or a state of chaos that comes before the civilizing forces of society. They use reason and logic to form a society and government, thereby creating a social contract. Paine describes the founding of a hypothetical government in Part 1 of Common Sense and comes to the same conclusion: government is useful and necessary but only works when it is based on reason, not tradition or heredity. That type of government—representative of all citizens and logical in structure—is what Paine ultimately recommends in his revolutionary pamphlet.

Quaker Influences

Paine also calls for religious tolerance throughout Common Sense. This is in line with Enlightenment philosophy, which promotes religious tolerance and legal, educational, and social reforms. It is also a basic tenant of the Quaker religion, which was founded in the mid-17th century at the height of Enlightenment. Also known as the Society of Friends and the Friends Church, Quakers forego the traditional religious trappings of scripture, clergy, and churches to instead focus on their personal relationships with God. Paine's father was a Quaker, so Paine was very familiar with the teachings of the group. Though they don't follow a specific creed or religious guidelines—Quakerism is built on the idea one's relationship with God is always changing—Quakers are known for their commitment to peace, their devotion to serving others, and their acceptance of people of all religions, which may stem from the persecution of members of the faith through the late 17th century.

Quakers believe everyone is born equal. This idea stuck with Paine, who says as much in Common Sense and advocated for the abolition of slavery throughout his lifetime. Quakers also speak plainly and honestly, just as Paine does in his persuasive pamphlets. The one area in which Paine deviates from the Quaker mentality is in that of violence. Quakers oppose violence in any form for any reason. Paine believes the use of violence in the quest for American independence is acceptable because the colonies' cause is so great. If the colonists simply wanted to come to some sort of mutual agreement, violence would be immoral. British violence against the colonists calls for taking up arms to ensure the separation of the Crown and the colonies.

Response to Common Sense and Lasting Effects

Common Sense was an immediate hit. The first and second printings sold out within a month, and by the end of 1776 at least 25 editions had been printed. Paine's instinct that colonists would be receptive to the idea of independence was correct, and the idea gained traction in taverns and state houses alike. The poor, wealthy, soldiers, and merchants found common ground in Paine's arguments. Even George Washington was swayed. There were those who initially resisted the idea of independence; namely, the propertied rich who felt threatened by the "new politics" of the working class. They quickly realized it would be better to lead the charge for change than to resist a movement that couldn't be stopped.

It took members of the Continental Congress a little longer to become sympathetic to Paine's ideas. They simply didn't know what to do or how to proceed, and it took a few weeks for them to develop a response. Congressman John Adams was gravely concerned that Paine's "inflammatory" words, which he referred to as "a disastrous meteor," would negate the work the Continental Congress had done to repair relations with the British government. He had a good point. Paine's tone of anger and frustration throughout Common Sense was an anomaly in colonial-era pamphlets, which were generally academic and civil in nature. Raw emotion was saved for private letters and diaries. Paine's words had the potential to incite a riot, which was exactly his purpose. He wanted people to change the course of the colonies' future.

Many colonists had no interest in changing the future. These Loyalists, who supported Parliament and the Crown, felt England's protection was needed for survival. Reverend Charles Inglis of New York published a scathing rebuttal to Paine's ideas in a pamphlet of his own, The Deceiver Unmasked; Or, Loyalty and Interest United: In Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled Common Sense (1776). After declaring Paine's pamphlet "an insidious attempt to poison [American] minds and seduce them from their loyalty and truest interest," Inglis asserts the best course of action was to make up with Great Britain so peace can reign and the colonies can remain under Great Britain's protection.

Loyalists aside, many colonists were starting to warm to the idea of independence. By the spring of 1776 some colonial assemblies issued resolutions calling for independence from Great Britain and instructed their representatives in the Continental Congress to do the same. However, the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina assemblies were not ready to declare independence when a resolution calling for it was introduced on June 7. The vote for independence was delayed, and in the meantime the Continental Congress appointed a committee, led by Thomas Jefferson, to draft a statement of American independence. The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. It summarized the colonists' reasons for separating from Great Britain and established the 13 American colonies as an independent nation. The text itself includes many ideas brought forth by Paine's Common Sense, including the equality of all people and the human right to a just and representative government.

The structure of the U.S. government was also heavily influenced by Paine. As he suggested in Common Sense, the American federal government includes a president and a representative Congress. Members of Congress are elected by the public. Senators represent entire states while Representatives represent individual districts, as Paine suggested in Part 3 of his text. The third leg of government, the judicial branch, was established by the framers of the Constitution and was not part of Paine's original plan.

Paine went on to champion another revolution against a monarchy. Shortly after the American Revolution, people in France started contesting the country's feudal system, public exclusion from political power, and rising taxes. The French Revolution of 1789 was built on the same Enlightenment principles Paine championed in the American colonies. He revisited those same principles again in Rights of Man (1791–92), a set of pamphlets supporting the dissolution of the French monarchy.

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