Articles‎ > ‎

The Simple Common Sense of Independence: A Review Essay of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"

posted Mar 31, 2011, 5:14 PM by The Tibetan Political Review
By Mila Rangzen
Submitted to The Tibetan Political Review by the author
May 24, 2010 -- Freedom begins from the double barrel of reason and passion!  A few writings have changed humanity and Common Sense is one of them.  Were Common Sense not written, most probably America today
 would still be languishing under the political yoke of Britain. Neither a sane nor an insane individual had ever said a word of American independence before Common Sense was written. It jolted the American people into action for freedom and independence from Britain rule. Thomas Paine’s little pamphlet Common Sense is one of those books that changed the world. Like The Communist Manifesto, or The Origin of Species, it had the effect of altering men’s minds with consequences that were far-reaching and long-lasting. No one could have predicted such a work from the pen of Paine, who had come to America only in 1774 at the age of 37 after a very undistinguished career in England. He was a born propagandist, however, and the cause of American independence fueled his imagination and inspired his writing. Of all the thousands of political pamphlets that have been forgotten since the invention of printing this is one that has survived. Written as an ephemeral tract, it has remained one of the important documents of American history.
The pamphlet appeared on 10 January 1776, less than six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At the time it was published Americans were very much divided in their attitude towards Britain. The struggle for home rule had been going on for years and was gradually intensifying, but only a few Americans then favored separation from England. The Continental Congress was called in 1774 in an effort to head off a radical solution. Benjamin Franklin, in London, said in March 1775 that he had never heard anyone in America, drunk or sober, advocate independence. George Washington told a friend in May 1775 that if the friend ever heard of Washington joining the movement for separation, he had his leave to set him down for everything wicked. Thomas Jefferson wrote in July 1775 that he was looking with fondness towards reconciliation with Great Britain.
Then the next January Paine’s pamphlet, with title supplied by Benjamin Rush, burst on the colonies, and nothing was ever the same afterwards. Although leaders like Washington, Samuel Adams, Franklin, Richard Henry Lee, and others were beginning to work quietly for independence by that time, no one before Paine had come out flatly in print for separation. Paine’s pamphlet swept through the colonies, and since there was no copyright law, anyone could reprint it. Perhaps 100,000 copies were in circulation by the time the Declaration was signed, and it has been estimated that probably every literate person in the thirteen colonies had read it. The population of the colonies was 2.5 million.
While most writers of political pamphlets were intellectuals writing for other intellectuals, Paine wrote a prose that anyone could read including farmers, mechanics, tradesmen and laborers. Paine committed every logical fallacy in his argument, but the brilliance of his journalism was overwhelming, and it had a catalytic effect in moving public opinion in favor of independence. This single most influential revolutionary manifesto of the era was not written by a well-known leader thought to be “exceptional” or “super human,” but rather by a complete unknown whose anonymity was maintained even as his pamphlet unleashed revolutionary impulses throughout the continent.
Washington wrote to Joseph Reed that letters he had received from Virginia, mentioned that the pamphlet was working a powerful change there in men’s minds. Charles Lee, who became a general in the continental army, wrote to Washington to say that he had never seen such a masterly, irresistible performance that would give the coup-de-grace to Great Britain. Franklin and others also testified to the prodigious effects of the pamphlet when the first copies arrived in the American camp at Cambridge.  An officer in that army observed that a reinforcement of five thousand men would not have inspired the troops with equal confidence as this pamphlet did. Of course, the Revolution might have occurred whether or not Paine had existed, but Common Sense prepared people’s minds for the break with England. It awakened the public mind, and led the people loudly to call for a declaration of American national independence.
Where Paine got the ideas that he put into his pamphlet is moot. He was not a reader, and he no doubt picked up his notions here and there, perhaps from conversations with friends like Franklin and Rush. He always prided himself on the originality of his ideas, but his thoughts on government and natural rights were widely current in the Enlightenment, as perhaps are the ideas of Freud today among people who never have read him. The idea with which Paine opened his pamphlet, that “…government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one” was held by many liberal theorists of the time.
After this preliminary statement, Paine went for the jugular in attacking the British Constitution and undermining American loyalty to the Crown. Americans were already were at odds with Parliament over the issue of taxation without representation, but they did not blame the king for their grievances. Paine attacked monarchy, hereditary succession, and the divine right of kings with eminently quotable language. As for the divine right of William the Conqueror to rule England, he said, “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.”
Then Paine moved on to “Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs,” in which he offered “nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense. So he went on, arguing sometimes logically, sometimes illogically, arguing by analogy, begging the question, but always phrasing his brief in memorable language. He ended this section with a peroration for freedom: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Europe regards her ‘freedom’ like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
Then he ended the final chapter of the pamphlet with a call for a DECLARATION FOR INDEPENDENCE.
* * *
Note: Common Sense was translated into Tibetan by Lhasang Tsering and Pema Bhum, under the Tibetan title of rGyun shes. The translators also included a lengthy scholarly introduction by Issac Kramnick and a glossary of relevant political and historical terms. The book was published by Amnye Machen Institute in 1995, in its World Literature Translation Series.