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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
The vast variety of interests, occasioned by an increase of trade and population, would create confusion. Colony would be against colony. Each being able, would scorn each other’s assistance: and while the proud and foolish gloried in their little distinctions, the wise would lament that the union had not been formed before.
So on the major questions Paine performed a task more basic than arguing points in favor of independence (though he did that too); he shifted the premises of the questions and forced thoughtful readers to come at them from different angles of vision and hence to open for scrutiny what had previously been considered to be the firm premises of the controversy.
Written in arresting prose—at times wild and fierce prose, at times lyrical and inspirational, but never flat and merely argumentative, and often deeply moving—and directed as a polemic not so much at the conclusions that opponents of independence had reached but at their premises, at their unspoken presumptions, and at their sense of what was obvious and what was not, Common Sense is a unique pamphlet in the literature of the Revolution. But none of this reaches its most important inner quality. There is something in the pamphlet that goes beyond both of these quite distinguishing characteristics, and while it is less susceptible to proof than the attributes I have already discussed, it is perhaps the most important element of all. It relates to the social aspects of the Revolution.
Much ink has been spilled over the question of the degree to which the American Revolution was a social revolution, and it seems to me that certain points have now been well established. The American Revolution was not the result of intolerable social or economic conditions. The colonies were prosperous communities whose economic condition, recovering from the dislocations of the Seven Years’ War, improved during the years when the controversy with England rose in intensity. Nor was the Revolution deliberately undertaken to recast the social order, to destroy the last remnants of the ancien régime , such as they were in America. And there were no “dysfunctions” building up that shaped a peculiarly revolutionary frame of mind in the colonies. The Anglo-American political community could have continued to function “dysfunctionally” for ages untold if certain problems had not arisen which were handled clumsily by an insensitive ministry supported by a political population frozen in glacial complacency, and if those problems had not stirred up the intense ideological sensibilities of the American people. Yet in an indirect way there was a social component in the Revolutionary movement, but it is subtle and latent, wound in, at times quite obscurely, among other elements, and difficult to grasp in itself. It finds its most forceful expression in the dilated prose of Paine’s Common Sense .
The dominant tone of Common Sense is that of rage. It was written by an enraged man—not someone who had reasoned doubts about the English constitution and the related establishment in America, but someone who hated them both and who wished to strike back at them in a savage response. The verbal surface of the pamphlet is heated, and it burned into the consciousness of contemporaries because below it was the flaming conviction, not simply that England was corrupt and that America should declare its independence, but that the whole of organized society and government was stupid and cruel and that it survived only because the atrocities it systematically imposed on humanity had been papered over with a veneer of mythology and superstition that numbed the mind and kept people from rising against the evils that oppressed them.
The aim of almost every other notable pamphlet of the Revolution- pamphlets written by substantial lawyers, ministers, merchants, and planters—was to probe difficult, urgent, and controversial questions and make appropriate recommendations. The aim of Common Sense was to tear the world apart—the world as it was known and as it was constituted. Common Sense has nothing of the close logic, scholarship, and rational tone of the best of the American pamphlets. Paine was an ignoramus, both in ideas and in the practice of politics, next to Adams, Wilson, Jefferson, or Madison. He could not discipline his thoughts; they were sucked off continuously from the sketchy outline he apparently had in mind when he began the pamphlet into the boiling vortex of his emotions. And he had none of the hard, quizzical, grainy quality of mind that led Madison to probe the deepest questions of republicanism not as an ideal contrast to monarchical corruption but as an operating, practical, everyday process of government capable of containing within it the explosive forces of society. Paine’s writing was not meant to probe unknown realities of a future way of life, or to convince, or to explain; it was meant to overwhelm and destroy. In this respect Common Sense bears comparison not with the writings of the other American pamphleteers but with those of Jonathan Swift. For Swift too had been a verbal killer in an age when pamphleteering was important to politics. But Swift’s chief weapon had been a rapier as sharp as a razor and so pointed that it first entered its victim unfelt. Paine’s writing has none of Swift’s marvelously ironic subtlety, just as it has none of the American pamphleteers’ learning and logic. Paine’s language is violent, slashing, angry, indignant.