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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
All of this is part of the remarkable history of the pamphlet, part of the extraordinary impact it had upon contemporaries’ awareness. Yet I do not think that, at this distance in time and in the context of what we now know about the causes of the Revolution, the question of its influence on the developing movement toward independence is the most useful question that can be asked. We know both too much and too little to determine the degree to which Common Sense precipitated the conclusion that Congress reached in early July. We can now depict in detail the stages by which Congress was led to vote for independence—who played what role and how the fundamental, difficult, and divisive problem was resolved. And the closer we look at the details of what happened in Congress in early 1776 the less important Common Sense appears to have been. It played a role in the background, no doubt; and many people, in Congress and out, had the memory of reading it as they accepted the final determination to move to independence. But, as John Adams noted, at least as many people were offended by the pamphlet as were persuaded by it—he himself later called it “a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass”—and we shall never know the proportions on either side with any precision.
What strikes one more forcefully now, at this distance in time, is something quite different from the question of the pamphlet’s unmeasurable contribution to the movement toward independence. There is something extraordinary in this pamphlet- something bizarre, outsized, unique- quite aside from its strident appeal for independence, and that quality, which was recognized if not defined by contemporaries and which sets it off from the rest of the pamphlet literature of the Revolution, helps us understand, I believe, something essential in the Revolution as a whole. A more useful effort, it seems to me, than attempting to measure its influence on independence is to seek to isolate this special quality.
Certainly the language is remarkable. For its prose alone, Common Sense would be a notable document—unique among the pamphlets of the American Revolution. Its phraseology is deeply involving—at times clever, at times outrageous, frequently startling in imagery and penetration—and becomes more vivid as the pamphlet progresses.
In the first substantive part of the pamphlet, ostensibly an essay on the principles of government in general and of the English constitution in particular, the ideas are relatively abstract but the imagery is concrete: “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.” As for the “so much boasted constitution of England,” it was “noble for the dark and slavish times in which it was erected"; but that was not really so remarkable, Paine said, for “when the world was overrun with tyranny, the least remove therefrom was a glorious rescue.” In fact, Paine wrote, the English constitution is “imperfect, subject to convulsions, and incapable of producing what it seems to promise,” all of which could be “easily demonstrated” to anyone who could shake himself loose from the fetters of prejudice. For “as a man who is attached to a prostitute is unfitted to choose or judge of a wife, so any prepossession in favor of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.”
The imagery becomes arresting in Part 2, on monarchy and hereditary succession, institutions which together, Paine wrote, formed “the most prosperous invention the Devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.” The heathens, who invented monarchy, at least had had the good sense to grant divinity only to their dead kings; “the Christian world has improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust!” Hereditary right is ridiculed by nature herself, which so frequently gives “mankind an ass for a lion .”