December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
The Most Uncommon Pamphlet of the Revolution
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.
If it is an exaggeration, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that one had to be a fool or a fanatic in early January 1776 to advocate American independence. Militia troops may have been able to defend themselves at certain points and had achieved some limited goals, but the first extended military campaign was ending in a squalid defeat below the walls of Quebec. There was no evidence of an area of agreement among the 13 separate governments and among the hundreds of conflicting American interests that was broad enough and firm enough to support an effective common government. Everyone knew that England was the most powerful nation on earth, and if its navy had fallen into disrepair, it could be swiftly rebuilt. Anyone whose common sense outweighed his enthusiasm and imagination knew that a string of prosperous but weak communities along the Atlantic coast left uncontrolled and unprotected by England would quickly be pounced on by rival European powers whose ruling political notions and whose institutions of government were the opposite of what Americans had been struggling to preserve. The most obvious presumption of all was that the liberties Americans sought were British in their nature: they had been achieved by Britain over the centuries and had been embedded in a constitution whose wonderfully contrived balance between the needs of the state and the rights of the individual was thought throughout the western world to be one of the finest human achievements. It was obvious too, of course, that something had gone wrong recently. It was generally agreed in the colonies that the famous balance of the constitution, in Britain and America, had been thrown off by a vicious gang of ministers greedy for power, and that their attention had been drawn to the colonies by the misrepresentations of certain colonial officeholders who hoped to find an open route to influence and fortune in the enlargement of Crown power in the colonies. But the British constitution had been under attack before, and although at certain junctures in the past drastic action had been necessary to reestablish the balance, no one of any importance had ever concluded that the constitution itself was at fault; no one had ever cast doubt on the principle that liberty, as the colonists knew it, rested on—had in fact been created by—the stable balancing of the three essential socioconstitutional orders, the monarchy, the nobility, and the people at large, each with its appropriate organ of government: the Crown, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. If the balance had momentarily been thrown off, let Americans, like Britishers in former ages, fight to restore it: force the evildoers out, and recover the protection of the only system ever known to guarantee both liberty and order. America had flourished under that benign system, and it was simply common sense to try to restore its balance. Why should one want to destroy the most successful political structure in the world, which had been constructed by generations of constitutional architects, each building on and refining the wisdom of his predecessors, simply because its present managers were vicious or criminal? And was it reasonable to think that these ill-coordinated, weak communities along the Atlantic coast could defeat England in war and then construct a system of government free of the defects that had been revealed in the almost-perfect English system?
Since we know how it came out, these seem rather artificial and rhetorical questions. But in early January 1776 they were vital and urgent, and Common Sense was written to answer them. There was open warfare between England and America, but though confidence in the English government had been severely eroded, the weight of opinion still favored restoration of the situation as it had been before 1764, a position arrived at not by argument so much as by recognition of the obvious sense of the matter, which was rooted in the deepest presuppositions of the time.
In the weeks when Common Sense was being written the future—even the very immediate future—was entirely obscure; the situation was malleable in the extreme. No one then could confidently say which course history would later declare to have been the right course to have followed. No one then could know who would later be seen to have been heroes and who weaklings or villains. No one then could know who would be the winners and who the losers.
But Paine was certain that he knew the answers to all these questions, and the immediate impact that Common Sense had was in large part simply the result of the pamphlet’s ringing assertiveness, its shrill unwavering declaration that all the right was on the side of independence and all the wrong on the side of loyalty to Britain. History favored Paine, and so the pamphlet became prophetic. But in the strict context of the historical moment of its appearance, its assertiveness seemed to many to be more outrageous than prophetic, and rather ridiculous if not slightly insane.
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 .”
What of the true origins of the present-day monarchs, so exalted by myth and supposedly sanctified by antiquity? In all probability, Paine wrote, the founder of any of the modern royal lines was “nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence of subtility obtained him the title of chief among the plunderers; and who, by increasing in power and extending his depredations, overawed the quiet and defenseless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions.” The English monarchs? “No man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conquerer is a very honorable one. A French bastard, landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.” Why should one even bother to explain the folly of hereditary right? It is said to provide continuity and hence to preserve a nation from civil wars. That, Paine said, is “the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind.” English history alone disproves it. There had been, Paine confidently declared, “no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions” since the Conquest. The fact is that everywhere hereditary monarchy has “laid … the world in blood and ashes.” “In England a king hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which in plain terms is to impoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain!” People who are fools enough to believe the claptrap about monarchy, Paine wrote, should be allowed to do so without interference: “let them promiscuously worship the Ass and the Lion, and welcome.”
But it is in the third section, “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs,” that Paine’s language becomes most effective and vivid. The emotional level is extremely high throughout these pages and the lyric passages even then must have seemed prophetic:
The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. … ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time by the proceedings now. Now is the seedtime of continental union, faith, and honor. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound will enlarge with the tree, and posterity read it in full grown characters.
The arguments in this section, proving the necessity for American independence and the colonies’ capacity to achieve it, are elaborately worked out, and they respond to all the objections to independence that Paine had heard. But through all of these pages of argumentation, the prophetic, lyric note of the opening paragraphs continues to be heard, and a sense of urgency keeps the tension high. “Everything that is right or reasonable,” Paine writes, “pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘ TIS TIME TO PART .” Now is the time to act, he insists: “The present winter is worth an age if rightly employed, but if lost or neglected the whole continent will partake of the misfortune.” The possibility of a peaceful conclusion to the controversy had vanished, “wherefore, since nothing but blows will do, for God’s sake let us come to a final separation, and not leave the next generation to be cutting throats under the violated unmeaning names of parent and child.” Not to act now would not eliminate the need for action, he wrote, but only postpone it to the next generation, which would clearly see that “a little more, a little farther, would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.” To talk of reconciliation “with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections, wounded through a thousand pores, instruct us to detest, is madness and folly.” The earlier harmony was irrecoverable: “Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. … As well can the lover forgive the ravisher of his mistress as the continent forgive the murders of Britain.” And the section ends with Paine’s greatest peroration:
O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare to oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
In the pamphlet literature of the American Revolution there is nothing comparable to this passage for sheer emotional intensity and lyric appeal. Its vividness must have leapt out of the pages to readers used to greyer, more solid prose.
But language does not explain itself. It is a reflection of deeper elements—qualities of mind, styles of thought, a writer’s personal culture. There is something unique in the intellectual idiom of the pamphlet.
Common Sense , it must be said, is lacking in close rigor of argumentation. Again and again Paine’s logic can be seen to be grossly deficient. His impatience with following through with his arguments at certain points becomes almost amusing. In the fourth and final section, for example, which is on America’s ability to achieve and maintain independence, Paine argues that one of America’s great advantages is that, unlike the corrupt European powers, it is free of public debt, a burden that was well known to carry with it all sorts of disabling social and political miseries. But then Paine recognizes that mounting a full-scale war and maintaining independence would inevitably force America to create a national debt. He thereupon proceeds to argue, in order, the following: 1) that such a debt would be “a glorious memento of our virtue”; 2) that even if it were a misery, it would be a cheap price to pay for independence and a new, free constitution—though not, for reasons that are not made entirely clear, a cheap price to pay for simply getting rid of the ministry responsible for all the trouble and returning the situation to what it was in 1764: “such a thought is unworthy a man of honor, and is the true characteristic of a narrow heart and a peddling politician.” Having reached that point, he goes the whole way around to make the third point, which is that “no nation ought to be without a debt,” though he had started with the idea that the absence of one was an advantage. But this new notion attracts him, and he begins to grasp the idea, which the later federalists would clearly see, that “a national debt is a national bond”; but then, having vaguely approached that idea, he skitters off to the curious thought that a national debt could not be a grievance so long as no interest had to be paid on it; and that in turn leads him into claiming that America could produce a navy twice the size of England’s for i/aoth of the English national debt.
As I say, close logic, in these specific arguments, contributes nothing to the force of Common Sense . But the intellectual style of the pamphlet is extraordinarily impressive nevertheless, because of a more fundamental characteristic than consistency or cogency. The great intellectual force of Common Sense lay not in its close argumentation on specific points but in its reversal of the presumptions that underlay the arguments, a reversal that forced thoughtful readers to consider, not so much a point here and a conclusion there, but a wholly new way of looking at the entire range of problems involved. For beneath all of the explicit arguments and conclusions against independence, there were underlying, unspoken, even unconceptualized presuppositions, attitudes, and habits of thought that made it extremely difficult for the colonists to break with England and find in the prospect of an independent future the security and freedom they sought. The special intellectual quality of Common Sense , which goes a long way toward explaining its impact on contemporary readers, derives from its reversal of these underlying presumptions and its shifting of the established perspectives to the point where the whole received paradigm within which the Anglo-American controversy had until then proceeded came into question.
No one set of ideas was more deeply embedded in the British and the British-American mind than the notion, whose genealogy could be traced back to Polybius, that liberty could survive in a world of innately ambitious and selfish if not brutal men only where a balance of the contending forces was so institutionalized that no one contestant could monopolize the power of the state and rule without effective opposition. In its application to the Anglo-American world this general belief further presumed that the three main socioconstitutional contestants for power—the monarchy, the nobility, and the people—had an equal right to share in the struggle for power: these were the constituent elements of the political world. And most fundamental of all in this basic set of constitutional notions was the unspoken belief, upon which everything else rested, that complexity in government was good in itself since it made all the rest of the system possible, and that, conversely, simplicity and uncomplicated efficiency in the structure of government were evil in that they led to a monopolization of power, which could only result in brutal state autocracy.
Paine challenged this whole basic constitutional paradigm, and although his conclusions were rejected in America—the American state and national governments are of course built on precisely the ideas he opposed—the bland, automatic assumption that all of this made sense could no longer, after the appearance of Common Sense , be said to exist, and respect for certain points was permanently destroyed.
The entire set of received ideas on government, Paine wrote, was false. Complexity was not a virtue in government, he said—all that complexity accomplished was to make it impossible to tell where the faults lay when a system fell into disarray. The opposite, he said, was in fact true: “the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered and the easier repaired when disordered.” Simplicity was embedded in nature itself, and if the British constitution had reversed the natural order of things, it had done so only to serve the unnatural purposes of the nobility and the monarchy, neither of which had a right to share in the power of the state. The nobility was scarcely even worth considering; it was nothing but the dead remains of an ancient “aristocratical tyranny” that had managed to survive under the cover of encrusting mythologies. The monarchical branch was a more serious matter, and Paine devoted pages of the pamphlet to attacking its claim to a share in the constitution.
As the inheritor of some thuggish ancestor’s victory in battle, the “royal brute of Great Britain,” as he called George in, was no less a ridiculous constitutional figure than his continental equivalents. For though by his constitutional position he was required to know the affairs of his realm thoroughly and to participate in them actively, by virtue of his exalted social position, entirely removed from everyday life—“distinguished like some new species”—he was forever barred from doing just that. In fact the modern kings of England did nothing at all, Paine wrote, but wage war and hand out gifts to their followers, all the rest of the world’s work being handled by the Commons. Yet by virtue of the gifts the king had at his disposal, he corrupted the entire constitution, such as it was. The king’s only competitor for power was the Commons, and this body he was able to buy off with the rewards of office and the intimidation of authority. The whole idea of balance in the British constitution was therefore a fraud, for “the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France, with this difference, that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the formidable shape of an act of Parliament.” Yet, was it not true that individuals were safer in England than in France? Yes, Paine said, they are, but not because of the supposed balance of the constitution: “the plain truth is that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey.”
This was a very potent proposition, no matter how poorly the individual subarguments were presented, for it was well known that even in the best of times formal constitutional theory in England bore only a vague relation to the informal, ordinary operation of the government, and although penetrating minds like David Hume had attempted to reconceive the relationship so as to bring the two into somewhat closer accord, no one had tried to settle the matter by declaring that the whole notion of checks and balances in the English constitution was “farcical” and that two of the three components of the supposed balance had no rightful place in the constitutional forms at all. And no one—at least no one writing in America—had made so straightforward and unqualified a case for the virtues of republican government.
This was Paine’s most important challenge to the received wisdom of the day, but it was only the first “of a series. In passage after passage in Common Sense Paine laid bare one after another of the presuppositions of the day which had disposed the colonists, consciously or unconsciously, to resist independence, and by exposing these inner biases and holding them up to scorn he forced people to think the unthinkable, to ponder the supposedly self-evident, and thus to take the first step in bringing about a radical change.
So the question of independence had always been thought of in filial terms: the colonies had once been children, dependent for their lives on the parent state, but now they had matured, and the question was whether or not they were strong enough to survive and prosper alone in a world of warring states. This whole notion was wrong, Paine declared. On this, as on so many other points, Americans had been misled by “ancient prejudices and … superstition.” England’s supposedly protective nurturance of the colonies had only been a form of selfish economic aggrandizement; she would have nurtured Turkey from exactly the same motivations. The fact is, Paine declared, that the colonies had never needed England’s protection; they had indeed suffered from it. They would have flourished far more if England had ignored them, for their prosperity had always been based on a commerce in the necessities of life, and that commerce would have flourished, and would continue to flourish, so long as “eating is the custom of Europe.” What in fact England’s maternal nurture had given America was a burdensome share of the quarrels of European states with whom America, independent of England, could have lived in harmony. War was endemic in Europe because of the stupidities of monarchical rivalries, and England’s involvements had meant that America too was dragged into quarrels in which it had no stake whatever. It was a ridiculous situation even in military terms, for neutrality, Paine wrote, is “a safer convoy than a man of war.” The whole concept of England’s maternal role was rubbish, he wrote, and rubbish, moreover, that had tragically limited America’s capacity to see the wider world as it was and to understand the important role America had in fact played in it and could play even more in the future.
… the phrase parent or mother country hath been jesuitically adopted by the king and his parasites with a low papistical design of gaining an unfair bias on the credulous weakness of our minds. Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe … we claim brotherhood with every European Christian, and triumph in the generosity of the sentiment. … Not one third of the inhabitants even of this province [Pennsylvania] are of English descent. Wherefore I reprobate the phrase of parent or mother country applied to England only, as being false, selfish, narrow, and ungenerous.
The question, then, of whether America had developed sufficiently under England’s maternal nurture to be able to live independent of the parent state was mistaken in its premise and needed no answer. What was needed was freedom from the confining imagery of parent and child which had crippled the colonists’ ability to see themselves and the world as they truly were.
So too Paine attacked the fears of independence not defensively, by putting down the doubts that had been voiced, but aggressively, by reshaping the premises on which those doubts had rested. It had been said that if left to themselves the colonies would destroy themselves in civil strife. The opposite was true, Paine replied. The civil strife that America had known had flowed from the connection with England and was a necessary and inescapable part of the colonial relationship. Similarly, it had been pointed out that there was no common government in America, and doubts had been expressed that there ever could be one; so Paine sketched one, based on the existing Continental Congress, which he claimed was so fairly representative of the 13 colonies that anyone who stirred up trouble “would have joined Lucifer in his revolt.” In his projected state, people would worship not some “hardened, sullentempered Pharaoh” like George m, but law itself and the national constitution, “for as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be KING .” The question was not whether America could create a workable free constitution but how, in view of what had happened, it could afford not to.
So too it had been claimed that America was weak and could not survive in a war with a European power. Paine commented that only in America had nature created a perfect combination of limitless resources for naval construction and a vast coastal extension, with the result that America was not simply capable of selfdefense at sea but was potentially the greatest naval power in the world—if it began to build its naval strength immediately, for in time the resources would diminish. So it was argued that America’s population was too small to support an army: a grotesquely mistaken idea, Paine said. History proved that the larger the population the smaller and weaker the armies, for large populations bred prosperity and an excessive involvement in business affairs, both of which had destroyed the military power of nations in the past. The City of London, where England’s commerce was centered, was the most cowardly community in the realm: “the rich are in general slaves to fear, and submit to courtly power with the trembling duplicity of a spaniel.” In fact, he concluded, a nation’s bravest deeds are always done in its youth. Not only was America now capable of sustaining a great military effort, but now was the only time it would ever be able to do so, for its commerce was sure to rise, its wealth to increase, and its anxiety for the safety of its property to become allengrossing.
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.
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.