Reflections on the anniversary of the publication of Thomas Paine’s classic work…
by John F. Di Leo
Historians, political scientists, and philosophers alike often look at revolutions and ask the question “Was it a simple coup d’etat, or a real popular revolution? And if a real popular revolution, just how ‘popular’ was it, really?”
It’s often not that easy to tell. We can easily look at the Russian Revolution, for example, and see how there was first a large popular revolution, one that was then taken over by a much smaller communist contingent that was nowhere near as popular, but was brutal enough to win over the nascent White Russian government. One can do the math easily, to see the difference between those loyal to the czar, those loyal to the White Russian government of Kerensky, and the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks who took over once the czar had been deposed and a much more fragile new government was nominally in charge, but had not yet consolidated its power.
The American Revolution, or our War of Independence, was known by its contemporary supporters as “The Glorious Cause” (we can only imagine how its opponents referred to it!), and it poses an interesting question.
It’s usually assumed, 200 years later, that the American colonies south of Canada were split roughly into thirds: a third of the people were loyalists, a third were patriots, and a third didn’t particularly care, and just hoped to stay out of trouble.
This is a roughly accurate split for much of the war, but even so, it paints an incomplete picture because it doesn’t get into the distribution (for example, New Englanders were mostly patriots, and Georgians and Carolinians were mostly loyalist)… and it doesn’t explain WHY the idea of independence caught on as a popular trend at all. Even in New England, why did people – who generally had a much happier and healthier life there than back home in Europe – want to separate from the great protection and general benevolent neglect of the British Crown?
A Moment in History
Many wars begin with a single event, on a single day, and that day is often remembered. The current War on Terror had started long before – the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, or the murders at the Munich Olympics in 1972, or the ghastly intifada of the 1990s… but we in the USA date it to the horrific mass murders at New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington DC on September 11, 2001.
We think of the War Between the States as starting at the Battle of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. We think of World War II as commencing on December 7, 1941. All these wars had really begun earlier, but these were the first big dates, the first memorable events from the eyes of the Americans. Europeans certainly date WWII from a couple years prior, and Israel has been living with the war against islamofascist terror since its founding… these are just the dates from our perpective.
So too would Great Britain view the American Revolution differently than we would on this side of The Pond. Americans think that we had been trying to negotiate for a peaceful resolution during the 1760s and 1770s; we view that period as our conciliatory era in which we hoped to stay in the Empire, as George III kept driving us away. But the British (or at least, some British) think that we started on the path toward revolution with the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765.
The truth of such popular uprisings can’t easily be pinned down to a single date, but in the case of the American Revolution, there certainly is a moment when the tide turned, and it came from perhaps the most unlikely of sources.
It was on January 10, 1776, that a recent immigrant from Britain – a former ropemaker and Customs clerk named Thomas Paine – self-published a tract called “Common Sense,” and he opened the eyes of the American colonists in a way that had never been done before.
For all his faults – and yes, he had many – “Common Sense” was arguably the single most popular political documents in human history, making Thomas Paine one of the most important figures in the Founding period. Without “Common Sense” being so voraciously read across the colonies – it went through multiple printings, and by the end of the Revolution, had been read by most of the population – it is entirely possible that the Revolution would never have caught on in the public mind, and we would have surrendered in 1776 or 1777.
The Context of January 10, 1776
George III was the third Hanoverian king of England. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was born in England, and thought of himself as an Englishman… but it is important to note that the history of the 17th century – the popular revolution against Charles, the great battles for legislative control over the monarchy that had intended to solidify more of the post-Magna Carta trends in limited government – was not a history of his branch.
George III balked at the idea of some Parliament overruling him, so he used the power of his office – appointments and the award of lands, titles, and monopolies – to strengthen his power base in Parliament. For most of his rule – not all, but most – the king’s faction, represented by Lord North and other sycophants, was dominant in Parliament, and did the king’s bidding.
The Rockingham faction recognized that the majority was foolishly driving the American colonies away, and fought in the Houses of Commons and Lords for over a decade on the matter, but got nowhere. The King’s power in Parliament won practically every vote, for ever more restrictions on, and punitive measures against, the troublesome American colonies (which could have so easily been avoided if they’d just allowed our colonial legislatures to manage the necessary issues). Through appointments and pressure and outright bribes in Parliament, what later came to be known as “The Chicago Way” prevailed.
Throughout the 1760s, crisis after crisis occurred, as the British implemented a tax, Americans would oppose it, and a different tax would be imposed. The British would award a monopoly, Americans would oppose it, and a penalty would be imposed. We saw smuggling increase as a way to avoid unfair monopolies; we saw local manufacturing grow as a way to avoid having to purchase everything from England. By the end of the 1760s, Boston was essentially under martial law, which so horrified the other colonies that even blissfully peaceful Virginia joined a coastwise boycott of England.
In 1774, a Continental Congress had been convened, but the majority of those who elected them wanted resolution of our differences, not revolution. In 1775, real war, hot war, broke out at Lexington and Concord, but still the Continental Congress didn’t even utter the word “independence.” A Continental Army parked itself outside of Boston to place the still-British-held city under siege. By the summer of 1775, that Congress had nationalized a Continental Army and appointed George Washington as Commander in Chief to lead them.
On May 10, 1775, a band of revolutionaries under the quarrelsome command of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold captured Fort Ticonderoga, specifically to win control over that fort’s great artillery stores, but as they couldn’t agree on a way to move them out, they left them behind. In November, young bookseller Henry Knox pitched a wild idea to General Washington for their collection and movement, and set out with his blessing and a couple dozen men on a wild goose chase to transport a noble train of 5000 lb cannons across mountains, rivers, and forests in the dead of winter. Amazingly, they made it in time to play the key role in the Battle of Dorchester Heights in March of 1776… but on January 10, they were still far away, in the middle of the Berkshires. The Continental Army was still stuck in a nervous status quo outside Boston, where they had been for half a year, as both the Continental Congress and the majority of colonists were wondering if they’d all started down a foolish path toward a huge fatal mistake.
As the American people watched the army twiddle their thumbs, the Glorious Cause sure wasn’t getting any more popular in the public mind.
Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, in Norfolk, England. He worked in his youth for his father’s business, making rope stays for the shipping industry, then attempted several very different careers on his own, none to any substantial success. He served as a Customs collector, taught school, served on a town council and a parish committee, and eventually joined an action by the Customs collectors to complain to the government about the need for better pay (a legitimate issue, since underpaid tax collectors are especially susceptible to bribery and other corruption). He got his first taste of real politics when he penned the Customs collectors’ complaint to Parliament, entitled “The Case of the Officers of Excise” in 1772.
In June of 1774, he met Benjamin Franklin, who had been in England for most of the prior decade as the delegate of several American colonies to represent them before the Crown. Franklin recommended that Paine give up on England and move across the Pond for a fresh start. Franklin gave him a letter of recommendation, and he headed to Philadelphia, arriving on November 30, 1774. As soon as he recuperated from the fever he’d caught aboard ship, he became a citizen of Pennsylvania. In January, 1775, he became editor of The Pennsylvania Magazine, and dove right into the goal of getting to know his newly adopted country.
As any good editor must, he talked to people. To the public, to the politicians, to the merchants, to the shoppers. He talked to other publishers; he talked to clergy. He quickly developed an understanding of America that was almost entirely unavailable to the neighbors he’d left in England (even Ben Franklin, the colonies’ emissary, having been away for nearly a decade, had the same experience upon his own return in 1775).
America, he discovered, was not some frontier of newly arrived settlers, dependent upon the Mother Country for culture, for goods and services, for leadership and decision-making. The American colonies had now been settled for almost a century and a half. Many of the cities were as established as the English cities he had left. Philadelphia was the largest English-speaking city in the world after London itself… with businesses, shops, schools, churches, newspapers, and everything else that any city has. Some Wild West outpost of unwashed, uncultured illiterates, we were not.
With the exception of a few veterans of the Seven Years War, neither the king nor his ministers, nor the members of the Houses of Lords or Commons, had been to the American colonies. And even the changes since that war, and since Franklin left, had been considerable, and evident to anyone who’d open his eyes and pay attention.
One more difference that Paine was one of the first to notice was in a general difference between Americans and Englishmen. Even most colonists thought of themselves as New Yorkers, or New Englanders, or Virginians, or Georgians. But there was now a distinct American character that could be recognized at a moment’s glance by an outsider, to which most of the colonists themselves were blind.
George Washington and Gouverneur Morris, from long-established colonial dynasties, knew it… new arrivals like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine knew it… but most Americans simply didn’t think of themselves that way… until Common Sense.
In those far-off days before such modern publishing houses as Allen and Unwin, Harper Collins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, the publishing business was wide open. Anyone with a printing press was desperate to get the most possible use out of his expensive equipment, so the same shop might publish a weekly newspaper, a monthly magazine, political handbills, and ads for shops or theaters.
Political tracts were therefore self-published; it wasn’t shocking to see that a book didn’t come from a known publisher. They might even be published completely anonymously; especially if they took an editorial position against the established power structure. The book would just show up in a shop for sale, without any indication of what printing press had been used to print it, or who funded the purchase of the paper, ink, and binding.
Throughout Paine’s first year in Pennsylvania, he gained an understanding of our ways, and recognized that the entire English approach to these colonies was wrong. He realized that George III, who appeared to be a properly constitutional monarch in England, was indeed a tyrant from the perspective of England’s foreign territories. And he started writing it down.
“Common Sense” was a short booklet, only 48 pages in its early printings, and declared itself simply as “Written by an Englishman.” It aimed a solid broadside against King George III, showing what Paine had learned in his year in Pennsylvania, that the King was a vindictive tyrant, violating the natural and longstanding bonds between subject and crown that had for so long made Americans proud to be Englishmen.
He laid out the case, issue by issue, in plain common speech so that any reader could understand. Political theorists generally wrote for the educated; Paine wrote for everybody in the clearest possible language. He wrote of stark choices and clear contrasts, declaring what we all know that government ought to be, and then decisively proving that the English government had failed in every way.
Paine’s eloquence is amazing, considering his background. This was not an English major from Oxford or a long-established parson who’d been giving homilies for decades. He had been a magazine editor for barely a year, and had only written one minor political tract before. But he wrote “Common Sense” – in the spirit of a long and masterful sermon – and literally transformed the political landscape of the world.
Changing the World
Thomas Paine’s tract was sold out instantly. Much like a modern movie, music CD, or bowl game that sells out on the day of release, Paine’s booklet went into a second printing immediately.
Because of the lack of copyright enforcement in that era, there were so many unauthorized editions that it’s impossible to know for sure how many were published. Paine’s original printer, Benjamin Rush’s ally Robert Bell, printed and sold 100,000 copies in 1776 alone. It is generally estimated that there were about 500,000 copies printed and sold in 1776, and it received widespread readings both in the Colonies and across the Pond, in France and Britain.
Paine donated his royalties to the Continental Army, and even formally renounced his copyright, enabling any willing printer to publish it if they could find an audience.
And what an audience they found! With a colonial population of only about two million at the time, a book was published for one in four… and since the book was shared by families and friends, passed around in pubs and church halls, assigned by schoolmasters, and used as a subject for debate on the Op/Ed pages, it is reasonable to assume that practically every resident of the Colonies read it, as well as a huge number of Europeans. As a publishing industry feat, it is unequalled in human history.
George Washington directed that it be read aloud to the Continental Army. Parsons read sections from it in church and used it in their sermons. It was everywhere… and so, it succeeded in its goal, far beyond what any sane analyst would have thought possible.
As Paine had his faults, so too does such a personal document. Paine tried to channel for good his personal irritation with the way he felt he’d been cheated by the bureaucracy… but a bit of unfair personal griping is still evident. He tried to channel for good his dislike for established churches, which grew to a malicious anti-clerical sentiment as he aged, but his personal prejudice still shines through in this book.
It is a testament to both the brilliance of the whole and the fairness of his audience that this very devout public still adored the book. The reader could see his prejudices and set them aside, because the argument was not dependent on a distaste for the Anglican Church or the individual apparatchiks of a leviathan government.
In fact, the problem was with George III, as he said then, as Thomas Jefferson was to say six months later, and as today’s historians must acknowledge as well. George III was a tyrant, acting against his colonies as he could not act at home, and so he, and he alone, had sown the seeds of his empire’s very destruction.
With the publication of “Common Sense” on January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine changed the American mind, and as such, this humble staymaker and excise officer, editor and polemicist, very personally and very effectively, changed the world.
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Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and trade compliance trainer, a recovering politician occasional amateur actor. His columns are found regularly in Illinois Review.
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