Author Topic: "COMMON SENSE FOR EIGHTEEN PENCE"  (Read 911 times)

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Offline JT Coyoté

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« on: January 10, 2017, 12:47:31 am »
Today is January 10, 2017. It was exactly 241 years ago today, on Tuesday January 10, 1776 that the famed sonnets of liberty hit the streets of Philadelphia pouring from the book shops and coffee houses in exquisite prose. It turned the Colonies from half-hearted reconciliation and resignation, toward the bright new day of independence, liberty, and self determination.

Having said that, I think it may be timely to recite a few pages here concerning Common Sense, the masterwork of Founding Father Thomas Paine, as seen through the lens of Scott Liell's brilliant book, 46 Pages. It marvelously recreates the feeling, mood, and events of the time into which Common Sense was released that winter day so long ago.

I'll begin with the last paragraph on pg.79 and finish with the first paragraph on pg.85.

" Having thus made the case for independence and drawn a hopeful picture of an American future separate from Great Britain, Paine placed the burden of securing that future directly upon his audience.  He insisted that the time had come for them to take action in the achievement of the American liberty he had described:

I am not induced by motives of pride, party or resentment to espouse
the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively,
and conscientiously persuaded that it is in the true interest of the
country to be so; that every thing short of that is mere patchwork,
that it can afford no lasting felicity -- that it is leaving the sword to
our children, and shrinking back at a time when a little more, a little
further would have rendered this continent the glory of the earth.

Paine's prose at times reaches the lyric power of poetry when describing the stakes, in success or failure, of the ongoing conflict.  He used a simple but powerful language and imagery to evoke a cause far larger than taxes, tariffs, and parliamentary overreach.  In declaring and defending their separation from Great Britain, said Paine in Common Sense, the colonies would not merely be redressing their individual and temporal grievances; they would be securing the blessings of self-government for an entire nation and for future generations:

The sun never shown on a cause of greater worth.  'Tis not the affair
of a city, a country, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent . . . 
'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 seed-time of
continental union, faith and honour.

And, Paine warned, the cost of failure or inaction at this critical epoch would be just as enduring:

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.

As memorable and often quoted as are Paine's earlier denunciations of Britain, these passages -- in which Paine spoke like a profit of manifest destiny half a century before the Monroe doctrine was written -- stand as the most striking lines in the pamphlet and, indeed, in all the literature of the revolutionary period.

For Paine, however, the opportunity of the current crisis ultimately transcended even the founding of a new nation, rising to a unique destiny such as had never presented itself to any people in history.  He not only called Americans to their patriotic duty, but also summoned them to shoulder a burden on behalf of civilization.  He spoke not only to those who loved their country but also to "ye that love mankind," insisting that the danger, uncertainty, and sacrifice that lay ahead were worth accepting for both American liberty and for liberty itself:

Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression.  Freedom hath
been hunted around 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

Such was the substance of Paine's attack against the government of Great Britain.  Such was the tone of his challenge to the people of America.  What would be made of that attack and that challenge in the days, weeks, and months that followed is now a matter of historic certainty.  But at the time that Common Sense was first laid before the public, neither its author nor its supporters nor detractors had any inkling of its ultimate impact on their lives or their country.

After the author was finished and satisfied with his work, Paine and [Benjamin] Rush faced the difficult task of finding a publisher who would undertake to set in type, print, and distribute a work containing such audacious, unpopular views.  In spite of his wide connections throughout Philadelphia, Rush found the search to be difficult.  Finally he found a man who was willing to run the risk -- an established printer, publisher, and bookseller named Robert Bell.

Bell, another immigrant from Scotland, had been in the colonies for ten years and, according to Rush, was as "high tone" on the subject of independence as Paine.  The occasional book auctions Bell conducted were popular as much for the Scotsman's wit as for the volumes on sale.  The author and printer planned an ambitious first run of 1,000 copies, which would consume all of the paper in Bell's warehouse.  It was also agreed that Paine would assume the cost of the printing -- around thirty pounds -- and the release of the pamphlet was scheduled for January 9.  All that remained was to name the pamphlet.  Paine at first favored Plain Truth, perhaps in homage of Dr. Franklin who had written an earlier pamphlet of the same name.  In the end, to the approval -- and perhaps at the suggestion -- of Benjamin Rush, he settled upon Common Sense.  Apart from a single announcement placed in a local newspaper, Common Sense would sink or swim solely on the merit of its composition.  As Paine would remember:

There never was a pamphlet, since the use of letters were known, about
which so little pain was taken . . . . The book was turned upon the world
like an orphan, to shift for itself; no plan was formed to support it.


Any uncertainty about the commercial fate of the orphan was short-lived.  In the absence of a plan, plain old good luck would play a significant role in the phenomenal success of Common Sense and of the ideas it contained.  Paine did not intend Common Sense to be an example of the two most popular types of revolutionary era pamphlet; it was neither a response to an isolated event nor a reply to a previous pamphlet.  Part of the success, no doubt, arose from the fact that it's timely publication and contentious style meant that it would be received as an instance of both.  It would, at least in the short term, become connected with a real event, and it would also spark a string of responses, mostly from Tories, that would last through most of the spring.  The event, which heightened the relevance of and fueled the appetite for Common Sense during its first few days, originated from a long distance.

On Tuesday, January 10, 1776, Common Sense was published and distributed for sale in the city's many bookshops.  On the same day, Philadelphians received the text of the king's speech before the opening of the new session of parliament -- given October 26, 1775, but not received in the colonies until almost three months later.  The Pennsylvania Evening Post for January 9, 1776, published the first account of the speech, as well as the first advertisement for a new pamphlet called Common Sense.  Samuel Adams' own reaction neatly expresses the public sentiment toward this event:

I have seen the Speech which is falsly & shamefully called most gracious.
It breathes the most malevolent spirit, . . .  and determines my opinion of
the Author of it as a Man of a wicked heart . . . .  What have we to expect
from Britain, but Chains & Slavery?

That Thomas Paine's attack against the policies and character of George III was being circulated throughout the colonies simultaneous with the text of the king's speech was an important stroke of marketing luck.  Paine recognized as much himself, writing in the appendix of the second edition of Common Sense:

Had the spirit of prophecy directed the birth of this production, it could not
have brought it forth at a more seasonable juncture or a more necessary
time.  The bloody mindedness of the [speech] shew the necessity of pursuing
the doctrine of the [pamphlet].

Instead of being viewed as shockingly insubordinate, Paine's personal attack on the king was greeted as an apt response to this new provocation.  Not that Paine showed any gratitude for the boost in sales -- he labeled the speech "a piece of finished villainy."

Further adding to its momentum and currency, Common Sense also brought forth a frantic volley of respondents, some attempting to support but most to attack Paine and rebut his arguments.  The response began almost immediately in the city's newspapers and by March had been taken up by a series of pamphleteers of varying abilities.  This public discussion began as a flood and maintained a steady flow from the week Common Sense was published up until the Declaration of Independence announce the resolve of a new nation.  According to historian Eric Foner, "Between January and July of 1776, scarcely a week went by without a lengthy article in the Pennsylvania Press attacking or defending, or extending and refining Paine's ideas, and the same was true in other cities as well." For Paine and his new publishers, this had the net effect of keeping the public mind focused on "Common Sense and Independence" for the remainder of winter, through spring, and into the summer of 1776."


"Consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious
breach of trust, as offensive in the sight
of God as it is derogatory from our own
honor or interest of happiness."
~John Adams

Offline Jackson Holly

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« Reply #1 on: January 10, 2017, 06:05:14 am »

... thanks JT ... beautifully written commentary.
Paine's vision of a 'sea to shining sea', continent-wide
Republic was very strong and inspirational ...
and still is.
St. Augustine: “The truth is like a lion; you don't have to defend it.
Let it loose; it will defend itself."

Offline JT Coyoté

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« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2017, 12:49:09 am »

... thanks JT ... beautifully written commentary.
Paine's vision of a 'sea to shining sea', continent-wide
Republic was very strong and inspirational ...
and still is.

Thanks Jack, and I agree whole-heartedly

It's curious how profound the spirit set forth in Common Sense continues to be. I've been reading from the letters and essays of James Madison regarding his view on the best way to lawfully facilitate what amounts to Paine's vision, while maintaining the lion's share of sovereignty within the people. 

In a period of just a few short months, Thomas Paine had formulated a concise view of the problem, crystallized its cause, then plotted with unerring logic the path that should be taken by the people of America to gain their liberty and "... begin the world anew." 

Madison essentially exhausted himself in essays and letters during the fight for the Bill of Rights hashing out the fine points with his peers. Back and forth, pro and con, letter after letter solidifying how best to bring this vision to a stable self righting reality. This took years, a forest of paper and rivers of ink to accomplish...

I just uncovered a huge data base of the Founding Father's documents... I'll know if it's for real when I can locate and view the actual scans of the letters and essays...


"Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual
agents against error... They are the natural enemies
of error, and of error only... If [they] be restrained
now, the present corruptions will be protected, and
new ones encouraged."
~Thomas Jefferson,
Notes on Virginia, 1782