Great Ideas Collection: Thomas Paine

In the sixteenth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ . 

Common Sense is a pamphlet that was anonymously published in 1776 and was widely circulated throughout the thirteen colonies of America; its aim being to inspire the people to fight for their right to independence from Great Britain.

In proportion to the population size of the colonies at that time – approximately 2.5 million – the pamphlet had the largest sale and distribution of any book published in America, and was widely read aloud at taverns and meeting places. It was so influential that John Adams, the second president of the United States, said, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

In a time when there was a lot of doubt and uncertainty about whether or not to claim independence, the pamphlet encouraged the people of America to make a stand.

“What is it that we want? Why is it that we hesitate? From Britain we can expect nothing but ruin.”

It is rather surprising then that the author of Common Sense, Thomas Paine, is in fact an Englishman. Born in Thetford, Norfolk, Paine emigrated to the American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin. Throughout the pamphlet, it is obvious that Paine was disheartened with his country of birth, declaring that “the authority of Great Britain over this continent, is a form of government, which sooner or later must have an end.”

He believed that the monarchy and succession of Britain had laid not just America, but the world in “blood and ashes.” He believed that hereditary right is an evil that “once established is not easily removed” – and it wasn’t just Paine that thought so:

Volumes have been written on the subject of the struggle between England and America. Men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resort, decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge.

The difference between the writings of others and Paine’s is that Paine is attempting to call an end to the debate and the dithering of Americans, to get the people on side with George Washington, whose troops had at the time surrounded the British army in Boston.

The text is a piece of propaganda in order to get the people of America on side; “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth… Tis not the affair of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one eighth part of the habitual globe.”

Lots of powerful and emotive phrases are used throughout to inspire and strengthen the cause for independence. In one argument, Paine claims that, “this new world [America] hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster.”

Paine continues by exploring how America does not need the protection of Great Britain. A major argument in favour of independence is that America has the means to defend itself, “No country on the globe is so happily situated, so internally capable of raising a fleet as America.”

He adds to this:

Our iron is superior to that of other countries. Our small arms equal to any in the world. Canon we can cast at pleasure. Saltpetre and gunpowder we are everyday producing. Our knowledge is hourly improving. Resolution is our inherent character, and courage hath never yet forsaken us.

However, the abilities of America were undermined by British rule. Paine felt that as long as Britain was in control of the colonies, America would always be underrated on the world stage.

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