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The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
This inner voice of anger and indignation had been heard before in Georgian England, in quite special and peculiar forms. It is found in certain of the writings of the extreme leftwing libertarians; and it can be found too in the boiling denunciations of English corruption that flowed from the pens of such would-be prophets as Dr. John Brown, whose sulfuric Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times created such a sensation in 1757. But its most vivid expression is not verbal but graphic: the paintings and engravings of William Hogarth, whose awareness of the world had taken shape in the same squalor of London’s and the provinces’ demimonde in which Paine had lived and in which he had struggled so unsuccessfully. In Paine’s pamphlet all of these strains and sets of attitudes combine: the extreme leftwing political views that had developed during the English Civil War period as revolutionary republicanism and radical democracy and that had survived, though only underground, through the Glorious Revolution and Walpole’s complacent regime; the prophetic sectarian moralism that flowed from 17th-century Puritan roots and that had been kept alive not in the semiestablished nonconformism of Presbyterians and Independents but in the militancy of the radical Baptists and the uncompromising Quakers whom Paine had known so well; and finally, and most important, the indignation and rage of the semi-dispossessed, living at the margins of respectable society and hanging precariously over the abyss of debtors prison, threatened at every turn with an irrecoverable descent into the hell that Hogarth painted so brilliantly and so compulsively in his savage morality tales—those dramatic “progresses” that depict with fiendish, almost insane intensity the passages people in Paine’s circumstances took from marginal prosperity, hope, and decency, through scenes of seduction, cruelty, passion, and greed, into madness, disease, and a squalor that became cosmic and apocalyptic in Hogarth’s superb late engraving entitled The Bathos .
These were English strains and English attitudes—just as Common Sense was an English pamphlet written on an American theme—and they were closer in spirit to the viciousness of the Parisian demimonde depicted in the salacious reportage of Restif de La Bretonne than to the Boston of the Adamses and the Philadelphia of Franklin. Yet for all the differences—which help explain why so many American radicals found Common Sense so outrageous and unacceptable—there are similarities too. In subdued form something of the same indignation and anger lurks around the edges and under the surface of the American Revolutionary movement. It is not the essential core of the Revolution, but it is an important part of it, and one of the most difficult aspects to depict. One catches a sense of it in John Adams’ intense hatred of the Hutchinson-Oliver establishment in Boston, a hatred that any reader of Adams’ diary can follow in innumerable blistering passages of that wonderful book, and that led to some of the main triggering events of the Revolution. It can be found too in the denunciations of English corruption that sprang so easily to the lips of the New England preachers, especially those most sunk in provincial remoteness and closest to the original fires of Puritanism which had once burned with equal intensity on both sides of the Atlantic. And it can be found in the resentment of otherwise secure and substantial Americans faced with the brutal arrogance and irrational authority of Crown officials appointed through the tortuous workings of a patronage system utterly remote from America and in no way reflective of the realities of American society.
Common Sense expresses all of this in a magnified form—a form that in its intensity no American could have devised. The pamphlet sparked into flame resentments that had smoldered within the American opposition to England for years, and brought into a single focus the lack of confidence in the whole European world that Americans had vaguely felt and the aspirations for a newer, freer, more open world, independent of England, which had not, until then, been freely expressed. Common Sense did not touch off the movement for a formal declaration of independence, and it did not create the Revolutionary leaders’ determination to build a better world, more open to human aspirations, than had ever been known before. But it stimulated both; and it exposes in unnaturally vivid dilation the anger- born of resentment, frustration, hurt, and fear—that is an impelling force in every transforming revolution.