Book Review: “Common Sense” (1776) by Thomas Paine

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I’ve been reading “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine
So men say that I’m intense or I’m insane
You want a revolution? I want a revelation!
So listen to my declaration:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident
that all men are created equal,”
And when I meet Thomas Jefferson
Imma compel him to include women in the sequel!
Work! (X)

Yes, I did pick up this pamphlet because I am obsessed with the musical Hamilton (what can I say, I can relate to men thinking that you’re intense and/or insane), and I am so glad that I did. Common Sense is a remarkable read that holds up incredibly well and is worth reading for anyone interested in history or political philosophy. Who’d have thought that an eighteenth-century political essay would make me laugh out loud multiple times?

Thomas Paine was an English philosopher and political theorist who became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He used Enlightenment rhetoric to write powerful propaganda for the independence movement in the British American colonies, including a number of pamphlets. Pamphlets were an important medium for a long time; they were used to spread ideas from the 16th all the way through the 19th century. Paine’s Common Sense is considered to be one of the most influential pamphlets in American history; it is credited with uniting the colonists and bringing them around to the idea of a revolution. According to John Adams, “without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

In this work, published anonymously, Paine presents his arguments in favour of American independence. Common Sense was read by a great number of the rebels and read out loud at gatherings to those who were unable to read it themselves. Therefore, it had to be written in a way that anyone, with or without an education, could understand. Paine reasoned: “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.” This clarity means that the pamphlet is still very accessible to readers today; the language is straightforward, the arguments easy to understand, and there are even some philosophical mic-drops where Paine’s passion and frustration shine through. Example:

One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.

Oh snap.

Even though Thomas Paine was the poorest of the Founding Fathers at this point, he decided to give up his share of the profits from Common Sense and donated it to the Continental Army instead. On top of this monetary contribution, he also served in the army himself and wrote a series of dispatches called “The American Crisis” that would be printed in newspapers throughout the colonies:

[Paine] wrote the first of them by the light of a campfire during Washington’s desperate retreat across New Jersey, in December, 1776. Getting ready to cross the frozen Delaware River—at night, in a blizzard—to launch a surprise attack on Trenton, Washington ordered Paine’s words read to his exhausted, frostbitten troops: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” The next morning, the Continentals fought to a stunning, pivotal victory. (X)

Paine’s career didn’t stop there – he was sued for libel, got involved in the French Revolution, was accused of promoting blasphemy in The Age of Reason… Paul Collins, one of Paine’s biographers, describes him as “a walking revolution,” and he really did seem to have a talent for getting himself into trouble. Even though he became a deeply unpopular man towards the end of his life, Common Sense is still one of the most important historical documents in the history of the United States. Despite everything, Thomas Paine’s legacy is secure (sure).

Note: my edition from Penguin’s Great Ideas series also includes the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1797), in which Paine introduces the concept of a guaranteed minimum income. This work ties in neatly with some of the ideas introduced in Common Sense, but since there is a lot more talk of how much it will cost and other practical matters, it is not quite as interesting a pamphlet for the contemporary reader.


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Common Sense” (1776) by Thomas Paine

  • December 28, 2015 at 7:57 pm
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    Haha, it’s so great that Hamilton prompted you to read this — and even better, that it actually made you laugh out loud. That’s the sign of a true classic (and of a musical that’s going to end up in every history teacher’s year-end “educational film” collection).

    Reply
    • December 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm
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      I enjoyed this so much more than I’d expected to! And you’re right, you just know that there are kids out there who are suddenly going to do a lot better on their history tests.

      Reply

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