Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776
Advisor: Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor in Law, Literature and Criticism,
Columbia University; National Humanities Center Fellow.
How did Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense convince reluctant Americans to abandon the goal of
reconciliation with Britain and accept that separation from Britain — independence — was the only option
for preserving their liberty?
By January 1776, the American colonies were in open rebellion against
Britain. Their soldiers had captured Fort Ticonderoga, besieged Boston,
fortified New York City, and invaded Canada. Yet few dared voice what
most knew was true — they were no longer fighting for their rights as
British subjects. They weren’t fighting for self-defense, or protection of
their property, or to force Britain to the negotiating table. They were
fighting for independence. It took a hard jolt to move Americans from
professed loyalty to declared rebellion, and it came in large part from
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Not a dumbed-down rant for the
masses, as often described, Common Sense is a masterful piece of
argument and rhetoric that proved the power of words.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
The man above does not look angry. To us, he projects the typical
figure of a “Founding Father” — composed, elite, and empowered. And to us his famous essays are awash
in powdered-wig prose. But the portrait and the prose belie the reality. Thomas Paine was a firebrand, and
his most influential essay — Common Sense — was a fevered no-holds-barred call for independence. He
is credited with turning the tide of public opinion at a crucial juncture, convincing many Americans that war
for independence was the only option to take, and they had to take it now, or else.
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense – A Close Reading Guide from America in Class 2
Common Sense appeared as a pamphlet for sale
in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, and, as we
say today, it went viral. The first printing sold out
in two weeks and over 150,000 copies were sold
throughout America and Europe. It is estimated
that one fifth of Americans read the pamphlet or
heard it read aloud in public. General Washington
ordered it read to his troops. Within weeks, it
seemed, reconciliation with Britain had gone from
an honorable goal to a cowardly betrayal, while
independence became the rallying cry of united
Patriots. How did Paine achieve this?
Over a year elapsed between the outbreak
of armed conflict and the Declaration of
Independence. During these fifteen months, many
bemoaned the reluctance of Americans to renounce
their ties with Britain despite the escalating warfare
around them. “When we are no longer fascinated with the Idea of a speedy Reconciliation,” wrote
Benjamin Franklin in mid-1775, “we shall exert ourselves to some purpose. Till then Things will be done
by Halves.”1 In addition, there remained much discord among the colonies about their shared...