Revolutionary War Historical Article
Thomas Paine and "Common Sense"
By Matthew B. Parker
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the November 2001 edition of the Liberty Tree Newsletter. The Author Is Matthew Parker, who was then attending San Diego State and is the son of Dana Parker, of Morgan's Rangers.
On June 8,1809, Thomas Paine died, lonely, ignored and virtually shunned as a result of some of his religious views - his funeral was attended by only half a dozen people. However, thirty-three years earlier, in January 1776, he wrote a runaway best-seller that galvanized the American public, solidified a latent popular desire for freedom, and by the following July gave a group of 56 delegates in Philadelphia the courage to sign a document that forever changed the world.
In 1607, the first American colony, Virginia, was founded. Along with Virginia, twelve other colonies were formed throughout the 1600,s and early 1700's. These colonies were permitted by England, the mother country, because they were going to increase England's revenues. The people of these colonies had in their minds that America was going to be a utopia.
At first this wasn't quite the case, as the colonists were struggling to find ways to support themselves. During these years, England essentially ignored the colonies. During the next few years, the colonist found ways to prosper, growing tobacco and other crops as well as shipbuilding, and their economies started booming.
In the 1750's, tensions broke out between the English and French, resulting in the French & Indian War (known in Europe as the Seven Years War). Ending in 1763, the war left England with a huge debt, as well as the expense of maintaining 10,000 troops in the colonies to keep the peace between the colonists and the Native Americans, all borne by the British taxpayer. Parliament felt that the colonies should pay at least a portion of the ongoing expense of maintaining troops there. This led to the enactment of various direct taxes on the colonists (notably the Stamp Act), who up until that time had paid duties on imported goods, but no direct taxes to England.
British subjects had been paying stamp taxes for decades and the idea that the colonists should also pay them seemed natural and unlikely to cause much reaction. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Even Benjamin Franklin, who was in England at the time, could not believe the level of rage that the colonists felt over the Stamp Act.
The colonists, had fought side-by-side with the British soldiers in the French and Indian War, as well as spent their colonial funds fighting in that war against France, the traditional enemy of England (not necessarily the colonies). Thus, the colonies felt they had made their contribution to the war, and were continuing to fulfill the trading role with England that they always had for the past 150 years. They saw no obligation to start paying direct taxes to England. The fact that they had no representation in Parliament made it all the more obvious that if they let this get started, England could bleed the colonies dry.
This led to the Boston Tea Party, a protest over the tax on tea. To punish the rebellious Bostonians, England shut down Boston Harbor, sent thousands of troops to Boston, and put Massachusetts under martial law.
On April 19, 1775, shots were fired on Lexington Green, starting the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Two months later the colonists again engaged the British in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
However, after that a lull came in the fighting as summer turned to fall and then winter. Many in Massachusetts considered themselves to still be British colonists, albeit with a major dispute with the mother country, but loyal subjects of the king nonetheless. Most people in the other colonies had similar feelings and did not want to leave their king. Countries throughout the world were run by kings, queens, emperors, shoguns, czarinas, or some equivalent ruler. After all, everyone knew that some form of inherited power was necessary for stability in society. Until "Common Sense."
In Common Sense, published in January of 1776, Paine ridiculed the idea of a small country ruling a great continent. Paine called for freedom and a republican government and went on to explain how to achieve these goals, along with the desired separateness and moral superiority that the colonists had always wished for.
In language that the common man could understand, Paine argued that political connection with England was both unnatural and harmful to Americans. Paine pointed out that reconciliation would only cause more calamities. He continued that it was repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent could any longer remain subject to any external power.
Paine pointed out all the advantages of breaking away from England's rule. He enumerated the economic advantages that came with independence as well as the improvements in personal well being it would bring. Paine was able to unite dissenting voices and let these voices focus on a way to put them to use.
This unique document captured what had been in the back of people's minds, but they had been afraid to say. Why do we need a king anyway? It was a phenomenal best-seller, selling 120,000 copies in only three months, and eventually over 500,000 copies. This in a population of only 2.5 million and in an age in which a pamphlet that sold 2,000 copies was considered a big success. "Common Sense" was read aloud in public meetings, passed along from reader to reader, and reproduced in newspapers throughout the colonies.
The fall/winter of 1775/1776 was a political void. There had been fighting the previous summer, but the grievances of the colonists had still been ignored by England. The Continental Congress felt it had tried everything to appeal to England for justice, but was still unwilling to break away from the mother country. The question was: Now what?
Into this void came "Common Sense" This compelling document is what flamed the coals of the American Revolution to fire.
This document is the most important one of the American Revolution because it is the document that actually triggered the colonists to stand up for themselves and taught them the right way to go about doing it. If it weren't for Thomas Paine's persuasive writing, we might still be under English rule. The Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our country, was written six months after the publication of Common Sense and it was only written because it was encouraged in Common Sense. So, is the pamphlet the foundation for our country? In the words of Thomas Paine, The birthday of a new world is at hand. He could not have been more right.