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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Common Sense and the American Revolutionhomesitemap
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Workshop 2:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript One:
Thomas Paine and American Independence

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In fact, Paine managed to get himself a job as editor of the Pennsylvania magazine, which he edited on a day-to-day basis and contributed certain articles, apparently, on science, a tax on slavery, and even articles on behalf of women's rights. Then—and let me stress again, less than 14 months when he got off the boat—he wrote the pamphlet Common Sense, copies of which the Philadelphia publisher Robert Bell first sold on January 9, 1776. Within days, the New Hampshire delegate to the Second Continental Congress reported that "the pamphlet was greedily bought up and read by all ranks of people." Soon, rival publishers in Philadelphia and in other cities brought out new editions of the pamphlet. Paine estimated later that some 150,000 copies of the pamphlet were sold in America alone. And of course there were editions abroad as well. That he proudly described as "the greatest sale that any performance have had since the use of letters." That may have been a bit of an exaggeration. A contemporary, the Reverend Ashbel Green, was probably nearer the mark when he said, "The pamphlet had a greater sale than any other published in our country."

Well, the issue that we want to address today is, in part, why it was so successful, and how successful it was. The pamphlet was so successful because of the argument it made and the way in which Paine made that argument. It's important to understand that at the time, there was virtually no published discussion of independence. Most people were ardently anxious to avoid it. The predominant part of the American population at that time was of British origin, and it wanted desperately to remain British. They were very proud of their British identity. They tried to approximate British styles; they tried to approximate British practices in one area after another. They didn't want to lose that wonderful tie with what they understood as the most estimable country in Western Europe.

Then Paine's pamphlet appears, and it presents a straightforward, unapologetic, no-holds-barred argument for independence, and with a form of language that was virtually unprecedented in the pamphlet literature of the American Revolution. It isn't the first pamphlet that got attention beyond the immediate colony in which it was written—what we would call national attention except, of course, there is no nation as of yet. The couple other pamphlets could claim that honor. During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, a Marylander, Daniel Dulany, wrote a pamphlet entitled Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies for the Purpose of Raising a Revenue by Act of Parliament. It was widely read and praised. Even more, John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, published as a pamphlet in 1768, won national praise and national attention.

But those pamphlets were strange by our notion of a revolutionary propaganda. They're not excitable, if you will; they're not propagandistic. They make arguments that are almost legal or scholarly, citing authorities from political thought or from law. They are very downplayed, very logical, and they're effective in their way. But Paine's pamphlet, of course, was something else altogether. You don't have to read very many pages of it before you understand it. You wouldn't call it a scholarly treatise. His language was direct, colloquial. "Suitable," John Adams said, "for an emigrant from Newgate"—that is a British jail—"or one who had chiefly associated with such company."

But it was also very moving, if patently unrealistic. For example, when it said, "We have it in our power to begin the world over ...." Okay, point one, then—the argument and the style. Point two, I think we have to consider the fact that there wasn't an awful lot of competing events to take people's attention away from this pamphlet. This is a time when there weren't mass media; there was a mass medium, which is newspapers and pamphlets. It's the printed word that could appeal to large audiences. Colonial newspapers had only begun to be published in the 18th century. They were located in the port cities, by and large, and they did not even touch all of the population. So the only rival to the newspaper was the spoken word, and the spoken word is not a mass medium. Obviously it only deals with people within earshot, because there is not even any amplification equipment available.

Third, I think—and this is the most important—I would commend to your attention the context in which the pamphlet appeared was absolutely critical. Remember that by January 1776, the Americans had been at war with Great Britain since the previous April. By this point, in fact, the British were under siege in Boston, which was then a peninsula. All the surrounding territories were held by the colonists, and there was a kind of a stalemate with only occasional actions.

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