Common Sense | Study Guide

Thomas Paine

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Common Sense | 10 Things You Didn't Know


It's hard to imagine something as seemingly trivial as a pamphlet leading to a great revolution—but that's exactly what Thomas Paine's Common Sense accomplished. At only 49 pages, Paine's short treatise on the necessity of American independence is often credited with sparking the American Revolution of the 1700s. First published on January 10, 1776, Common Sense detailed the importance of an uprising in the Thirteen Colonies, and the imperative that the colonists reject British rule and form their own government and constitution.

Common Sense may have had the greatest circulation of any publication in American history, relative to the population at the time. While historians dispute this due to lack of official sales records from the 18th century, Paine's pamphlet was widely read across the Thirteen Colonies leading up to the Revolutionary War and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Written in the style of a sermon, rural and undereducated colonists were able to understand this uniquely accessible landmark work that inspired a revolution.

1. Common Sense was originally published anonymously.

Due to the radical political nature of his pamphlet, Paine initially didn't want to be credited as the author of Common Sense. The publication first appeared under anonymous authorship, but Paine wasn't able to maintain this for very long. In March 1776, Paine was revealed to be the author of the pamphlet, since the overwhelming popularity of Common Sense caused many readers to demand to know its writer. Paine's name became officially tied to the colonies' endeavor for independence from Britain.

2. Paine and his publisher feuded over the printing cost of Common Sense.

Paine made a risky agreement with his publisher, Robert Bell, regarding Common Sense. Paine promised that if the pamphlet caused Bell to lose money, he'd cover the costs. When Bell set the price of Common Sense at two shillings, Paine adamantly protested that this was too high—clearly fearing that poor, rural colonists wouldn't purchase his work. The two had a falling out, and Paine eventually found a new publisher who agreed to set the price at one shilling. In order to do this, Paine had to pay for the printing of an additional 6,000 copies himself. Eventually, Paine agreed to allow any printer to distribute Common Sense if they were willing to pay the production costs.

3. Founding Father John Adams thought that Paine had gone too far with Common Sense.

John Adams, U.S. Founding Father and the country's second president, believed that Common Sense was a bit too radical. Although Adams agreed with Paine's call for independence from Britain, he believed that Common Sense was a step in the wrong direction, advocating violent rebellion against the British monarchy. Adams condescendingly described Paine's pamphlet as:

... without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work.

4. Although Common Sense was written as a Protestant sermon, Paine identified as a deist.

Common Sense was written to appeal to the rural, Protestant everyman of the American colonies, and as such was written in the style of a Protestant sermon. However, Paine did not identify with the mainstream Protestant denominations of his day—in fact, he feared the connection of Church and State would cause hardships for an independent America. Paine identified as a deist, meaning he believed that God's relation to the world didn't include direct interference. Paine described his misgivings with organized Christianity, stating:

Soon after I published the pamphlet Common Sense, in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion. The adulterous connection of church and state, wherever it had taken place, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, had so effectually prohibited, by pains and penalties, every discussion upon established creeds, and upon first principles of religion, that until the system of government should be changed, those subjects could not be brought fairly and openly before the world; but that whenever this should be done, a revolution in the system of religion would follow.

5. Paine never profited from Common Sense, or any of his published work.

Although Paine's pamphlet was widely read across the Colonies, Common Sense did not prove to be a lucrative endeavor for the author. Paine never saw a profit from the work, or his subsequent book The Rights of Man, published in 1791. Paine seemed to take this financial failure with a grain of salt, however, and once declared:

In a great affair, where the happiness of man is at stake, I love to work for nothing ... I take neither copyright nor profit from anything I publish.

Although Paine never turned a profit from his writing, Common Sense achieved remarkable circulation throughout the Colonies. Estimates vary regarding the exact extent of the pamphlet's distribution—ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 copies sold. However, modern historians have noted that these numbers may have been fabricated, in part, as a form of propaganda, since no solid sales figures exist from the 18th century.

6. Paine was imprisoned while supporting the French Revolution.

Paine's revolutionary work continued outside the Americas. Paine moved to France to support the French Revolution—and wound up in prison. After Common Sense was translated to French, the pamphlet was distributed in Europe and became quite popular. Paine traveled to France and received a hero's welcome. The author was elected to the newly formed French Assembly to assist in writing a constitution. However, Paine spoke out against French revolutionaries who were sentencing scores of nobles to execution at the dreaded guillotine—a political view which earned him the same sentence.

Paine was imprisoned in 1793, although he was rather pampered during the time he was incarcerated. He was confined to the Luxembourg prison in Paris, which had formerly been a palace, and only locked up at night. Although Paine was still supposed to be executed, the future American president James Monroe was able to secure his release and transport him back to America in November 1794.

7. Paine initially intended to use the profits from Common Sense to buy mittens for the troops.

Paine had a noble intention for any profits that he might see from the publication of Common Sense: mittens. American troops were fighting in frigid Quebec against British forces in 1775, right at the onset of the American Revolutionary War. The troops were undersupplied and freezing in the harsh Canadian winter. Paine desperately wanted his profits from Common Sense to be used to supply the soldiers with mittens for the campaign. However, since the pamphlet never turned a profit, this goal never became a reality.

8. At the end of his life, Paine was so unpopular that only six people attended his funeral.

Paine's revolutionary work led to considerable popularity in both America and France—but this reputation was short-lived. His radical and revolutionary persistence caused Paine to fall out of favor in both countries, and he was relatively friendless at the time of his death in 1809. Only six people accompanied his funeral procession, excluding the carriage drivers and undertakers. A passerby described the scene, writing:

On my return from my journey ... I met the funeral of Tom Paine on the road. It was going on to East Chester. The followers were ... six drunken Irishmen, then a riding chair with two men in it, one of whom was asleep, and then an Irish Quaker on horseback. I stopped my sulkey to ask the Quaker what funeral it was; he said it was Paine, and that his friends as well as his enemies were all glad that he was gone, for he had tired his friends out by his intemperance and frailties.

9. Paine flunked out of school at age 12.

Although his writing would inspire a revolution, Paine did not perform well in school. Paine was born in England, where he attended school, but flunked out by age 12. This was a great disappointment for Paine's father, who had set high aspirations for his son. At age 19, Paine worked briefly as a sailor, before returning to England and finding work as a tax officer.

10. Benjamin Franklin helped Paine move to the Thirteen Colonies, and avoid death on the voyage.

Paine owed his arrival in America—and his survival on the voyage—to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. The two met while Franklin was living in London in 1757, and Franklin was willing to write Paine a letter of recommendation for employment in the Colonies. Paine's ship to the Colonies was plagued by deadly typhus fever, however, and many of the passengers succumbed to the illness. Paine was only rescued due to the timeliness of Franklin's letter. Franklin's recommendation marked Paine as "important," and he was removed from the ship, taken to shore, and nursed back to health.

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