Today we are going to be
discussing certainly one of the biggest bestsellers in early
American history, and that’s Thomas Paine’s
pamphlet Common Sense. Before I plunge in to Common
Sense, I am going to answer the
question that was asked from this section of the room on
Tuesday, about how do you vote on
voting–the little brain teaser of the Continental Congress.
And I found the answer to this
So the answer to the question
is: they actually had a pretty animated debate in the
Continental Congress on the whole voting question,
and some people said it should be according to population and
some said, ‘Well, you should put property
in with population,’ and some people said one colony,
one vote. And with–after apparently
arguing for quite some time, what they realized was they
actually really didn’t have an orderly way to figure out
population and property worth, [laughter]
and so they ultimately just decided one colony,
one vote, [laughs] –like, that’s all we can do.
And they were really concerned
because they didn’t want that to be a precedent.
They were all worried that
they’d be setting a precedent for all time.
So when they wrote it down in
the minutes, they said, we’re deciding one
colony, one vote, but not with the idea
that it will be a precedent for all time.
Of course, it then becomes a
precedent for Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
But the answer to the
question–how did they vote?– is apparently someone made a
motion– ‘I make a motion that we just
do the one colony, one vote thing’–and people
just voted on the motion as a group.
So that is the answer to the
question: How do you vote on voting?
I had not thought about it
before and yet historians have addressed it so there you go
so–Okay. That is the answer to the
question. On to Common Sense,
which really, truly unquestionably was a
bestseller. It actually sold over 120,000
copies in its first few months in print,
and a little bit later in the lecture I’m going to give you a
sense of how that compares with how some other things might have
sold in this time period. You’ll really get a sense of
what kind of a bestseller this was.
And certainly many scholars
consider it to be the most brilliant political pamphlet of
the Revolution, not necessarily for the
subtlety of its argument but certainly for the way in which
it’s argued, and I’ll talk more about that
in the course of the lecture. So what we’re going to be
looking at is the pamphlet itself and what specifically
made it so remarkable. And then we’re also going to
look some at its author, Thomas Paine,
who he was and how he came to produce this influential
pamphlet. But I actually want to begin
with something that I just– in my head when I think about
Thomas Paine I think about this, so I feel like I can’t start
this lecture without discussing it.
And that has to do with the
death of Thomas Paine or actually, to be more accurate,
the body of Thomas Paine. Okay.
It’s one of the sad ironies of
history that this person who– all through this lecture I’m
going to be talking about the great influence of his pamphlet,
had this great influence throughout the Revolution–
and he actually died pretty much poor and not very much
liked by Americans of all political stripes,
more having to do with his politics later in his life than
what he was doing during the Revolution,
but he was not a happy camper in the years of his death.
But the most horrifying thing
about Paine’s death has to do with the question of his body.
So Paine first asked about
being buried in a Quaker cemetery,
and the Quakers weren’t very excited about that because they
were not really hoping to have that cemetery become a tourist
attraction so that didn’t work. So he basically ended up at
first being buried on his small farm in upstate New York.
A few years later a newspaper
editor named William Cobbett decided that what he was going
to do was disinter the body and take it back to England,
and then in England they would set up a memorial to Thomas
Paine. This was his plan.
So he did.
He disinterred the body;
he went on a boat; he and dead-body Paine went
sailing back to England. Got back to England,
raised the issue and apparently did not get very much support
for the idea of a memorial of some kind.
At this point it gets a little
So not knowing what else to
do–and why at this point he didn’t think to bury him
someplace else, I don’t know–but apparently he
had the bones put in a trunk and kept them on his farm for a
So, body of Paine sitting on
his farm in England. Then he died–Mr. Cobbett
died and the trunk and Paine was passed on to his son,
and then his son I guess went into debt in some way and his
belongings began to get auctioned off and the person
doing the auctioning didn’t want to have anything to do with
auctioning off a body. Like, I’ve never auctioned off
a body before, I don’t want anything to do
with this–and basically Paine’s corpse disappeared.
We really do not know where
Thomas Paine is. Truly, there was a trunk and it
had Paine in it and then it vanished.
And I went searching today
before I gave this lecture, trying to figure out
like–okay, maybe there’s been a recent development in the search
for Thomas Paine, the corpse, and no actually.
Although I did discover that in
2001 there was a society that wanted to create some kind of
memorial here in America and they decided that they were
going to try to trace the body so they set out trying to trace
the body. What they found was,
all over the world are people who claim to have a piece of
Thomas Paine, right?
Well, his skull might be in
Australia but his leg–that might be in England.
So the sort of–the horrifying
end to Thomas Paine is his body disappeared and perhaps little
pieces of Thomas Paine are floating around as little relics
all over the world. So that’s Paine’s sort of weird
ending, certainly not the kind of
ending that you would wish for the person who has written the
pamphlet we’re going to be talking about today.
And we are given that–what he
ended up writing was so influential and so different
from much of what was being written at this time.
Now as I said at the outset,
it’s not the great subtleties of its argument that made it
stand out. And in fact its popularity was
due to the very things that were its greatest strengths:
the fact that it was passionate,
the fact that it had a really simple style,
that it spoke to the common man, that it captured and
completely overturned prevailing colonial ideas about the
relationship between the mother country and the American
colonies. As someone wrote at the time,
Paine spoke a language which the colonists had felt,
but not thought. One of the remarkable things
about the pamphlet is that it was written by a somewhat
bankrupt English corset-maker a mere fourteen months after he
had arrived in America from England.
Paine knew relatively little about colonial affairs when he
decided to write it. He wasn’t really an established
writer. He had done writing before.
I’ll talk a little bit about
this today, but he wasn’t this sort of well-known and
established writer. He wrote some for newspapers.
And actually the idea for the
pamphlet initially wasn’t really his.
He wrote it at the
encouragement of Dr. Benjamin Rush.
I mentioned that in the first
lecture, and I’m going to come back to that too.
So Paine is relatively new to
the colonies, not really an established
writer, so how is it that he ends up writing this pamphlet?
Well, more than anything else
it actually was Paine’s experience of events in the
colonies between 1775 and 1776 that inspired what he wrote.
Now let’s look for a moment
at–to see here what Paine is experiencing in that year before
he wrote the pamphlet. What is happening around him.
I’m going to talk about this
really briefly here because I’ll be talking in more detail about
this on Tuesday, but one thing I will mention
here very briefly is, part of what happens between
1775 and 1776 is the meeting of the Second Continental Congress.
And that actually begins
meeting in the spring of 1775. I’ll talk about the details of
the Congress Tuesday. For now, I’ll just talk about
the general mindset. For one thing,
no colony instructed its delegates to this Second
Continental Congress to work for independence.
That was not the agenda.
Delegates were pretty much
still acting under the assumption that they were trying
to force Parliament or the King or someone to acknowledge their
liberties and redress their grievances,
and the overall assumption still was that balance had been
thrown off within the British constitution and it needed to be
rebalanced. So they’re talking about trying
to figure out a way of balancing things,
maybe a new balance, but they’re not talking about
throwing the entire system aside.
Actually, in the minds of many
at the time they probably were thinking,
why destroy what had for a very long time been one of the most
successful political empires in the world.
John Adams noted in his diary
at the opening of the Second Continental Congress that at
what he called an “elegant supper” at the opening of
the Congress, many representatives and their
friends toasted, quote, “the Union of
Britain and the Colonies on a constitutional foundation.”
So that’s what they’re hoping
for as this Congress opens. As an example of this initial
mindset of the Congress– again more about this
Tuesday–moderates attempted one last stab at some kind of basic
reconciliation with the Crown, and they issued what came to be
known as the Olive Branch Petition.
It failed for a number of
reasons–again more next week– one of the most basic reasons
being the King refused to read the Olive Branch Petition,
which pretty much is the way to guarantee the failure of a
petition. By doing that,
the King basically gave some credence to the views of the
more radical members of the Continental Congress,
and radicals got even more credence on August 23,
1775, when the King issued a proclamation that declared the
colonies to be in rebellion, and then made plans to send
20,000 British troops to the colonies,
including Prussian mercenaries. Okay, a big change in things,
much more detail Tuesday, but this is important to the
setting of Common Sense. So the King ignores the Olive Branch Petition.
He’s sending troops,
not just any troops but literally hired guns,
right?–foreign hired guns to go to the colonies.
So the colonies have now been
declared in rebellion. An army is coming.
At this point the colonists
realize that they need to maybe take some form of action and
make some kind of military preparation,
not in an aggressive way but certainly in a defensive way.
Even as they began to do this
and try to stock up on military supplies and engage in militia
training, still a lot of colonists
considered it pretty unlikely that a string of relatively
weak– prosperous as they
were–colonies could hope to defeat England,
the most powerful nation on earth.
And even if they did
miraculously somehow manage to do that,
certainly also most people in the colonies would have assumed
that instantly, foreign powers would have come
zipping over to North America and would have swallowed up
these helpless little colonies, and so now instead of belonging
to England they would have belonged to France or maybe
Spain. So certainly things weren’t
really feeling really optimistic at this moment in which things
seemed to be dramatically shifting,
and this is the setting in which Paine wrote Common
Sense. In his mind,
the time was right for some kind of a drastic change for the
better in the American colonies and,
as we’ll see, instead of just tinkering with
the English constitution Paine basically turns his back on it,
rejects King George III, rejects Parliament,
and ultimately rejects even the idea of monarchy.
So instead of centering on the
British constitution, Paine based his ideas about
colonial society and government on natural rights logic,
arguing that the colonies should join in a new government
grounded on equality. Now obviously ideas about
natural rights, natural rights talk,
isn’t new. Paine’s achievement was to take
those kinds of ideas and in a sense give them to ordinary
people. Part of what he argues in his
pamphlet is: this isn’t some great high constitutional
argument. This is about you and me and
life in the colonies. And, as we’ll see,
in method and in audience and in argument–for all of these
reasons, Paine’s pamphlet had a big impact.
So let’s look for a moment at
who this man was who wrote this early American bestseller.
Well, he was relatively poor.
He was never really well off.
Obviously, he was an
intelligent–strikingly intelligent person.
He was someone who loved to
assert his own importance. He loved to brag about his
great accomplishments. He loved to dominate a
conversation. It’s possible towards the end
of his life he may have had a drinking problem.
I tried to get authoritative
word on this. Probably I didn’t realize it.
When I’m– I–Although I’ve
taught this course before, before I give every lecture I
actually go over it and kind of redo it and then I research
things so before I come to class I’m actually having these
random– It’s like a big game of Trivial
Pursuit. Was Thomas Paine really drunk?
Research, research, research.
Okay. Maybe not so much.
What happened to the body?
Oh. We still don’t know.
So I have these weird Trivial
Pursuit moments in preparation for the course here.
So, maybe drunk,
maybe not, a slight drinking problem.
Either way, he was born in
England in 1737. Supposedly the cottage that he
was born in was literally in the shadow of a place of execution,
so the dark hand of the State was looming over the cottage of
Thomas Paine. He was born poor.
His father was a stay-maker.
Paine did go to grammar school
and he liked learning, but at the age of 12 he was
pulled out to be apprenticed to his father.
As a young man,
he had a number of different trades.
None of them were enormously
successful. I think for a little while he
might have been a sailor. I think he was a minor
officeholder. I think he was an excise man in
England for a little while. In his spare time he liked to
go to public lectures in London, and that’s where he met men
like Benjamin Franklin. And Franklin ultimately proved
important to Paine, because Paine ended up doing
what a lot of sort of vaguely rootless people in England might
have decided to do. He decided to try his luck in
the American colonies where there seemed to be some
opportunity for self-promotion, for sort of making something of
yourself. But before setting off,
Paine did an intelligent thing, and that is,
he made an appointment with Franklin.
And Franklin did an important
thing. He wrote a letter of
recommendation for Paine. And a letter of recommendation
in this period was kind of a magical thing because,
if you think about it, unlike now where there are five
million ways in which we all can check on each other,
there really weren’t ways in which one person knew anything
about a stranger or could verify or check on who some complete
stranger was. There’s a reason why the early
nineteenth century is the age of the con man.
It’s really easy for someone to
drift into town, claim to be somebody,
no one has a way of checking, and then the person can drift
out, taking various amounts of money and belongings with him.
So letters of recommendation
were kind of magical because basically they represented one
person vouching their reputation for another.
The person who wrote it said,
‘I’m writing this letter for Mr. Paine.
I, Mr. Franklin,
am writing for Mr. Paine and I’m introducing him to your
attention and wish that you will introduce yourself to him and
show him around Philadelphia’– seemingly a basic statement,
but Franklin was basically saying,
‘I’m–Here’s my reputation. I’m vouching for this guy so
you could–you can get to know him.
You can trust him because I’m
recommending him.’ So it was a smart move on
Paine’s part. It was a nice thing for
Franklin to do, and in the letter that Franklin
wrote he referred Paine to his son-in-law, Richard Bache,
in Philadelphia. So Paine arrived in America in
late 1774, but apparently the whole
overseas passage was pretty horrible so he was pretty much
out of commission until January 1775,
and at that point when he was up and about,
Bache offered to introduce him into the local literary and
political scene. Now what happened next is a
really good case for the importance of serendipity and
the importance of bookstores. Okay.
So Paine liked to hang out in
this one local bookstore. Apparently he went there every
That’s the local literary
scene–[laughs] the bookstore–
and he befriended the owner of the bookstore and the owner
eventually invited Paine to be the editor of a new journal that
he wanted to start, that he was calling the
Pennsylvania Magazine. So Paine wrote for the
Pennsylvania Magazine for a while and he wrote a
bunch of different kinds of things.
He wrote fiction.
He wrote essays.
He wrote social commentary.
As an example,
he wrote a piece on British cruelty in the East Indies and
Africa and against native Americans,
writing, quote, “When I reflect on these I
hesitate not for a moment to believe that the Almighty will
finally separate America from Britain.
Call it Independence or what
you will, if it is the cause of God and humanity it will go
on.” Now considering–I’m going to
talk a little bit more about the fact that people aren’t really
talking about independence at this point,
so that’s a pretty bold statement before Common
Sense. Now one thing was noticeable
about Paine’s writings. And that is that when they
seemed to strike at issues of American liberty,
even indirectly, even seemingly through
metaphor– as in one essay that talked
about British domination of India but everybody assumed
India must really be the North American colonies–
whenever he was referencing any of that sort of thing,
sales jumped. Everyone wanted to read those
essays. And ultimately it was some of
those essays that brought Paine to the attention of Benjamin
Rush. Rush went to that same
bookstore, the magical bookstore, the center of Paine’s
life. He happened to meet Paine at
that same bookstore–so the moral is it’s a good thing to
hang out in bookstores. And through their conversations
Rush later wrote that at the time he observed that,
quote, “Paine had realized the independance of the American
colonies upon Great Britain”
even at that time and that “he considered the measure
as necessary to bring the war to a speedy and successful
issue.” So he meets Paine and one of
the things he notices is well, this guy’s already kind of
thinking about independence. Paine himself later wrote about
his opinion of the colonies upon his arrival,
and he said that the thing that most struck him was how loyal
the colonists were to Great Britain,
and this is, Paine’s words here. “I found the disposition
of the people such, that they might have been led
by a thread and governed by a reed.
Their suspicion was quick and
penetrating, but their attachment to Britain
was obstinate, and it was at that time a kind
of treason to speak against it. They disliked the ministry,
but they esteemed the nation.”
I think that’s a really
important point: “They disliked the
ministry but they esteemed the nation.”
“Their idea of grievance
operated without resentment, and their single object was
reconciliation …. I viewed the dispute as a kind
of law-suit. I supposed the parties would
find a way either to decide or settle it.
I had no thoughts of
independence or of arms. The world could not then have
persuaded me that I should be either a soldier or an
author.” Ultimately, it was the battle
of Lexington that changed Paine’s view,
and his life, as it changed that of many
others. As Paine put it,
“when the country, into which I had just set my
foot, was set on fire about my ears,
it was time to stir.” And so it’s at this point that
Paine begins to tinker with the idea of writing a pamphlet.
And apparently he spoke with
Benjamin Rush about it, and Rush later recalled in a
letter to a friend that he offered Paine one overall piece
of advice at the outset of the project.
He said to Paine,
“there were two words which he should avoid by every
means as necessary to his own safety and that of the
public,” and the two words were
“independence” and “republicanism.”
Okay, and if you think about
Common Sense, he didn’t listen to that
advice at all. And as a matter of fact it’s
impossible to know what went through Paine’s mind at that
moment. He certainly–He knew the
colonies were, as he put it,
on fire, he knew that popular sentiment was building even
against the King, but knowing his personality
it’s entirely possible that if Rush said to him,
‘Whatever you do, don’t mention independence,’
that Paine’s reaction might have been well,
that’s at the center of it, isn’t it?
So that’s it;
that’s going to be what I write about, isn’t it,
and it’s going to be independence.
And he might have deliberately
done the precise thing he was asked not to do,
and focus on the most controversial issue that seemed
to be at the very heart of the controversy that seemed to be,
certainly to Paine, lurking right underneath the
surface of this prevailing constitutional argument.
So Paine wrote the pamphlet,
he read parts of it to Rush as he did, and Common Sense
is published in January 1776.
And I did state correctly
earlier that he wanted to call it Plain Truth and
Benjamin Rush thought Common Sense was a better title,
and I agree with Benjamin Rush. I like Common Sense
better. The pamphlet–The main argument
of the pamphlet did three things.
So number one,
it basically refuted the prevailing ideas against
independence. It went one step further and
demonstrated the necessity of independence and how possible it
was. And it demonstrated the
stupidity and utter uselessness not only of the English monarchy
but just of monarchies generally.
This is a radical message,
and it was written in a radically simple style aimed at
being accessible to a broad audience.
This was all the more radical
given that American independence had not really been seriously
discussed by the great majority of colonists with the exception
of some extreme radicals who I’ve been mentioning now and
again in lectures. So let’s look for just a minute
at how Paine went through the three parts of his argument–
and in a sense, there’s three parts of his
argument, and the pamphlet itself has
three sections. And the first section of the
pamphlet centers on getting people past this ongoing
constitutional argument about the proper relationship between
the colonies and the mother country.
And to accomplish this,
Paine did something amazingly bold.
He just tossed aside the entire
idea of focusing on the English constitution as the context for
determining the fate of America, and rather than going on and on
and on with the same constitutional debate,
he began his pamphlet with an attack not only against King
George but also against the entire idea of monarchy.
And he had a couple strategic
reasons for choosing to do this. First, the Crown was the last
remaining emotional and political link that was really
tying the colonies to the mother country.
By this point,
the colonists had lost faith in Parliament,
so Paine certainly knew that if he could strike at this last
linchpin of colonial sentiment, he could advance the cause of
independence. Second, if Paine could destroy
the legitimacy not only of King George but also of the idea of
monarchy overall, then the English constitution’s
legitimacy would suffer as well, once again hopefully opening
the way for independence. And then third,
I think equally important, rhetorically Paine had a really
good writer’s sense of pacing, and he knew that if he opened
this pamphlet with this really dramatic challenge to all of the
prevailing assumptions about government,
and if he turned all of these assumptions on their head,
he would pull readers in to his pamphlet and in to his argument
immediately and hold them there for the center of his argument,
which was the second section of the pamphlet,
and that is really the part that focuses on independence.
Independence at this point was
a topic that people didn’t discuss openly.
They didn’t talk about it in
public. If discussed at all,
it was discussed privately among friends because basically
it amounted to treason. Paine’s dramatic introduction
opened the way for him to introduce this really
controversial topic. If the English constitution
lacked legitimacy, well, what next?
And his answer obviously is:
well, independence, the obvious solution.
Which then brings us to the
third section of the pamphlet–and that is the
future. Paine concludes the pamphlet by
discussing just what Americans could institute to replace the
English constitution, what kind of government they
might be able to construct to replace what they were stripping
away. Now throughout his work Paine
hammered away at old ideas and propounded new ones.
He argued that America was
distinct from England, that it was multicultural,
that it actually was more the child of Europe than the child
of England. He promoted American commerce.
He promoted social mobility.
He praised the innocence of the
New World as compared with the corruption and decadence of the
Old World. He struck at the trappings of
monarchy, things like hereditary privilege and court intrigue.
He was an individualist arguing
that society was made of individuals who should all be
able to strive for their own good.
He wasn’t arguing that families
or patron-client relationships should define society any
longer. He depicted government as a
kind of necessary evil that was prone to create bureaucracies
and privilege. As he put it,
“Government, like dress, is the badge of
lost innocence,” so it’s the price we pay for
being flawed beings. And he seemed to speak of an
American millennium, speaking of America as God’s
chosen people. Paine argued that America’s
success was linked to the success of all humankind,
that the American colonists could launch a worldwide
democratic revolution. And, as he put it–I’ll quote
it again, but I think maybe it was the
first lecture that I quoted this as my sort of random
inspirational sentences from random guy from the eighteenth
century. This is where this comes from.
It’s the statement about
beginning the world anew: “We have every opportunity
and every encouragement before us,
to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the
earth. We have it in our power to
begin the world over again….The birthday of a new
world is at hand.” That’s millennial talk there.
The power of the pamphlet
wasn’t just in its argument or in specific points of argument,
but rather, it was in the way that it reversed prevailing
assumptions. Paine forced readers to
consider a whole new way of looking at the impending
crisis–and actually at the entire imperial system.
He laid bare assumptions that
had led colonists to resist independence,
and then by exposing these biases and holding them up to
scorn, he forced people to think
beyond what they had thought before.
So basically the old paradigm
had been: liberty can survive among brutal and self-interested
men only through a balance of institutionalized forces so no
one can monopolize the power of the state and rule without
opposition. So monarchy,
nobility, and the people have an equal right to share in the
struggle for power; complexity in government in
this sense is a good thing; simplicity allows for
monopolization. Well, Paine argues,
complexity is not a virtue in government.
It simply makes it impossible
to tell who is at fault. Paine charged that the
complexity of the British government was designed to serve
the monarchy and the nobility, that the King did nothing but
wage war and hand out gifts to his followers,
and that this entire idea of British
constitutional-institutional balance was a fraud.
Now the boldness of this
message becomes clearer when you compare it with some other
pamphlets of the time, many of which were aimed at
exploring difficult questions– right?–constitutional issues,
and then coming up with recommendations.
Common Sense isn’t about
exploring difficult constitutional questions.
It aimed to,
quote, “tear the world apart.”
This pamphlet did not have the
kind of rational tone and lawyerly,
precise logic and high scholarship that you see
floating through a lot of the other pamphlets of this period.
And the tone was part of why
the pamphlet ended up being so effective.
Paine didn’t use legal
arguments. He didn’t invoke legal
authorities. He assumed that his readers
would have some kind of limited knowledge of the Bible.
He didn’t use a lot of Latin,
and if he did use Latin he tended to follow it up with an
English translation. He used really straightforward
syntax, a really simple vocabulary.
As he himself explained it:
“As it is my design to make those that can scarcely
read understand, I shall therefore avoid every
literary ornament, and put it in language as plain
as the alphabet.” So what he wanted to write he
said was, quote, “simple facts,
plain arguments, and common sense.”
Sometimes it was Paine’s
irreverence in comparison with other pamphlet writers that made
his writing seem so effective. So for example,
writing about the origins of the English monarchy and William
the Conqueror, Paine wrote,
“no man in his senses can say that their claim under
William the Conqueror is a very honorable one.
A French bastard landing with
an armed banditti, and establishing himself king
of England against the consent of the natives,
is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.”
It’s not your typical pamphlet.
Sometimes he used really
straightforward language just for shock value,
trying to make his point by–trying to upset prevailing
ideas– by saying something in a
shockingly straightforward and irreverent manner.
And that’s obviously going to
be really effective if he was talking about the King–to use
sort of shockingly irreverent language.
So for example,
he really tried hard to dehumanize King George III,
writing for example, he has “sunk himself
beneath the rank of animals, and contemptibly crawls through
the world like a worm.” Okay.
That’s pretty irreverent language.
“Even brutes do not devour
their young.” Okay.
That would have been really
shocking [laughs] to someone to read at the time,
that that’s a description of the King.
Or he used sarcasm,
as in this sentence. Now I mentioned this
sentence–I don’t know–in the first–one of the early
lectures. I talked about a sentence that
I really liked and I accused Benjamin Rush of cutting it out
of the pamphlet, and I’m here to redeem Benjamin
Rush because when I looked this up today to double check on
myself what I discovered was, this is actually Benjamin
Rush’s favorite sentence and Benjamin Franklin struck it out.
So it was in the draft but it didn’t make the final printed
copy of Common Sense, and this is the sentence.
“A greater absurdity
cannot be conceived of, than three millions of people
running to their seacoast every time a ship arrives from London,
to know what portion of liberty they should enjoy.”
I think that’s a good sentence.
I agree with Rush.
I think Franklin had it wrong.
I think that’s good sort of
pointed sarcasm, so I’m sorry it didn’t make the
final printed version. Rush is right.
ve–irreverence, shock value–all effective.
Even just emotion,
even Paine’s emotion, was effective because it was so
strong, because he was so passionate,
and because he was so straightforward,
as in a sentence like this. “Every thing that is right
or reasonable pleads for separation.
The blood of the slain,
the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.'”
Okay, dramatic, passionate, emotional language.
So all of this stuff that I’m
describing here, all of this rhetoric,
all of this logic, all of the sort of rationale
behind this pamphlet– this is popular culture but
it’s not low culture. It may not have had really
refined language but it had correct language.
As Thomas Jefferson put it,
“No writer has exceeded Paine in ease and familiarity of
style, in perspicuity of expression,
happiness of elucidation, and in simple and unassuming
By writing that,
Jefferson achieved none of those things.
That’s like a really good example of how different Paine
sounded, [laughs]–perspicuity of expression and happiness of
elucidation. Okay, not in Common Sense.
Jefferson does not sound
like Thomas Paine. Given all of this,
the widespread popularity of the pamphlet isn’t surprising,
and the first printing sold out in a few weeks.
There were many re-printings,
first in Pennsylvania, then in other colonies,
and even ultimately in Europe. And all in all,
a majority of the population of the colonies either read
Common Sense or received some kind of distilled version
of it at their local tavern or in conversation,
as presented by other people who had read it.
By March of 1776,
there had been 125,000 copies sold and by colonial standards
that’s a mind-blowing number of copies,
and here’s a way to sort of put that in context.
At this period,
even later, even in the 1790s, in a city like New York or
Pennsylvania, a newspaper that would have
been considered to have a big circulation number–
like wow, that’s a really big newspaper–
would have had a circulation of 1,000.
So 125,000 copies is a lot of
copies. That’s a pretty remarkable
number. And sales were helped by the
fact that the pamphlet was priced really low so that it
could be bought by anyone, even the relatively poor.
Now of course Paine wasn’t shy
about his own accomplishments and he later told anybody who
would listen that his pamphlet had enjoyed,
quote, “the greatest sale that any performance [has]
ever had since the use of letters.”
Okay. That’s not a modest man.
It is the greatest-selling
thing of all time. Okay.
Okay, Tom, it’s important but
come on. [laughter]
Now of course not everybody cheered with the publication of
Common Sense. There were many people who
were enraged at what it dared to say about the English monarch,
about the British constitution, about independence.
Who was this guy anyway? Right?
Who was he to promote
independence? As Samuel Adams put it with
actually unusual understatement for Samuel Adams–
he said the pamphlet, quote, “has fretted some
folks here more than a little.”
It upset a lot of people.
More direct criticism was
issued by an English gentleman traveling in Virginia in his
diary. He wrote, “A pamphlet
called Common Sense makes a great noise.
One of the vilest things that
ever was published to the world. Full of false representations,
lies, calumny, and treason.”
Now you may be surprised to
hear that John Adams, ultimately a leading proponent
of independence, did not like Common Sense.
John Adams did not like the
pamphlet. It wasn’t because of the first
two parts. Right?
He’s all for questioning the
British constitution. He’s all for independence.
but what really got Adams was the third section of the
pamphlet, the section about what kind of
government might we be able to create in the absence of the
British constitution. This made Adams crazy,
because to Adams and to many others at the time,
good lawmakers were supposed to always be practical thinkers and
they were supposed to be realistic about what a society
could achieve. They were supposed to think
about the realities of a society and then what would be
politically possible, and this is not what he thought
Paine was doing. He thought Paine was sort of
blue sky, unrealistic, tossings off about
possibilities, without thinking really hard
about probabilities. So this is John Adams’ summary
of Common Sense. This is true John Adams.
quote, “a poor, ignorant, malicious,
shortsighted, crapulous mass.”
That’s John Adams’ opinion of Common Sense.
I have to add here for no
reason except that when I was writing this I thought of it,
and then this is my excuse to mention it in a lecture,
and so I will. How many of you here have read
Plato’s Republic? Some of you have read
Plato’s Republic. Okay.
John Adams really did not like
Plato’s Republic either, and for the same reasons.
He thought Plato was
irresponsible. He hated Plato’s Republic.
Jefferson was not a big fan
either. He thought that–Actually,
both of them thought that Plato was sort of vaporing about
political ideals and not really thinking about realistic
application to real people. So to these guys at this time
the real challenge of what they’re doing is to match ideals
and realities, and they didn’t think Plato was
doing that at all. So this is what Adams first had
to say about Plato’s Republic:
“While wading through the whimsies,
the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of
this work, I laid it down often to ask
myself how it could have been that the world should have so
long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as
this.” [laughter] Okay.
He really doesn’t like Plato’s
Republic, but he also just didn’t like Plato.
So overall he said–he talked
about how he read all of Plato’s works and he talked about oh,
he had three Latin dictionaries and a German one and a French
one just in case, and he worked his way through,
and he said he learned only two things from all of Plato’s work.
He learned, number one,
that Benjamin Franklin stole an idea from Plato [laughter]–
didn’t give him credit, [laughs]
and number two, he learned that sneezing is a
cure for the hiccups. [laughter]
And he said, quote, “Accordingly,
I have cured myself and all my friends of that provoking
disorder, for thirty years,
with a pinch of snuff.” Okay.
That’s Plato to John Adams.
[laughs] That’s it.
So I just love that.
I love that.
It’s John Adams at his best.
So away from Plato,
back to Common Sense. For many people Common
Sense was kind of a conversion experience,
and there are people that are fence sitters who maybe–
might have had the makings of a radical and in reading the
pamphlet or hearing of the pamphlet,
they actually were radicalized by it.
It was talked of everywhere.
As Rush put it,
“Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American
mind. It was read by public men.”
It was “repeated in Clubs,
spouted in schools, and in one instance delivered
from the pulpit instead of a sermon,
by a clergyman in Connecticut.”
That’s a Connecticut moment.
I’m always happy when we have
little Connecticut or Yale moments.
It was talked about everywhere.
Its rhetoric was so powerful
that for many it inspired them to stand back,
examine their situation, and really loathe Britain for
the first time– like oh, [laughs]
I’ve never thought of loathing Britain before,
but yet now I am. As George Washington wrote,
Common Sense was “working a wonderful change
in the minds of many men.” In the end, regardless of
whether one agreed or not with his argument,
Paine’s pamphlet did one fundamentally important thing.
He focused the prevailing
colonial political conversation on independence.
He lifted the argument above
constitutional reckoning. He inspired others to write
about the topic as well, sometimes for independence,
sometimes against, but independence became now the
topic to discuss. As a reader in Boston put it,
“Independence a year ago could not have been publicly
mentioned with impunity. Nothing else is now talked of,
and I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent
it.” Now Paine was all too happy to
remind anyone who would listen about the significance of his
pamphlet. He considered it his lifetime
achievement. He wanted his tombstone to read
“Thomas Paine, author of Common
Sense.” Of course,
that was assuming he was going to have a tombstone which
[laughter] he didn’t.
[laughs] The poor guy.
I didn’t think of that until
this second–oh, bad irony.
He said that regardless of
whatever form he took in the afterlife, he would always know
he had written Common Sense. Okay, but did Common Sense
cause independence? Okay.
Paine clearly would have loved
to tell you that it did. That’s the kind of conclusion
you really can’t make, but clearly you can say it was
so powerful, so widely read,
so controversial that it shattered much of the
psychological resistance to the idea of independence.
And also on a more social
level, Common Sense invited an entire range of
people into the political conversation that in some ways
hadn’t really been included before,
just by deliberately making this pamphlet available to as
broad an audience as possible. And his message in a sense was
fundamentally democratizing as well.
Paine preached that any people
can deliberate and decide how they are to be governed.
And then they can act on that
choice. Any people are capable of
creating and implementing their own government.
It’s a powerful message,
and regardless of whether people agreed or disagreed about
what government they should be creating,
the ideas underlying that pamphlet in a sense were really
revolutionary, in a sense, and certainly
radicalizing, just at this moment when things
are taking a turn, just at this moment when the
King has declared the colonies in rebellion,
and very soon we’re going to have Lexington and Concord.
So you can see how we’re right
at this moment where things are going to take a shift.
partly timing-wise, came out at just the moment
where it was going to strike and have the broadest impact.
That is all I have for today.
Have a good weekend.
I will see you on Tuesday and
we will move on to independence. We get independence next week.
It’s very exciting.