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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
Common Sense is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language. How it could have been produced by the bankrupt Quaker corsetmaker, the sometime teacher, preacher, and grocer, and twicedismissed excise officer who happened to catch Benjamin Franklin’s attention in England and who arrived in America only 14 months before Common Sense was published is nothing one can explain without explaining genius itself. For it is a work of genius—slapdash as it is, rambling as it is, crude as it is. It “burst from the press,” Benjamin Rush wrote, “with an effect which has rarely been produced by types and papers in any age or country.” Its effect, Franklin said, was “prodigious.” It touched some extraordinarily sensitive nerve in American political awareness in the confusing period in which it appeared.
It was written by an Englishman, not an American. Paine had only the barest acquaintance with American affairs when, with Rush’s encouragement, he turned an invitation by Franklin to write a history of the Anglo-American controversy into the occasion for composing a passionate tract for American independence. Yet not only does Common Sense voice some of the deepest aspirations of the American people on the eve of the Revolution but it also evokes, with superb vigor and with perfect intonation, longings and aspirations that have remained part of American culture to this day.
What is one to make of this extraordinary document after 200 years? What questions, in the context of the current understanding of the causes and meaning of the Revolution, should one ask of it?
Not, I think, the traditional one of whether Common Sense precipitated the movement for independence. To accomplish that was of course its ostensible purpose, and so powerful a blast, so piercing a cry so widely heard throughout the colonies—everyone who could read must have seen it in one form or another—could scarcely have failed to move some people some of the way. It undoubtedly caused some of the hesitant and vaguely conservative who had reached no decision to think once more about the future that might be opening up in America.
For it appeared at what was perhaps the perfect moment to have a maximum effect. It was published on January 10, 1776. Nine months before, the first skirmishes of the Revolutionary War had been fought, and seven months before, a bloody battle had taken place on Breed’s Hill, across the bay from Boston, which was the headquarters of the British army in America, long since surrounded by provincial troops. Three months after that, in September 1775, a makeshift American army had invaded Canada and taken Montreal. In December its two divisions had joined to attack Quebec, and though that attack, on December 3o-31, had failed miserably, the remnants of the American armies still surrounded the city when Paine wrote Common Sense , and Montreal was still in American hands.
That a war of some sort was in progress was obvious, but it was not obvious what the objective of the fighting was. There was disagreement in the Continental Congress as to what a military victory, if it came, should be used to achieve. A group of influential and articulate leaders, especially those from Massachusetts, were convinced that only independence from England could properly serve American needs, and Benjamin Franklin, recently returned from London, had reached the same conclusion and had found likeminded people in Philadelphia. But that was not the common opinion of the Congress, and it certainly was not the general view of the population at large. Not a single colony had instructed its delegates to work for independence, and not a single step had been taken by the Congress that was incompatible with the idea—which was still the prevailing view—that America’s purpose was to force Parliament to acknowledge the liberties it claimed and to redress the grievances that had for so long and in so many different ways been explained to the world. All the most powerful unspoken assumptions of the time—indeed, common sense—ran counter to the notion of independence.