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In early 1776, an obscure English immigrant named Thomas Paine published a small pamphlet that would shift the political landscape and alter the course of history for two nations. Paine’s simple but passionate revolutionary manifesto, Common Sense, spread the idea of American independence from Britain throughout the colonies like a raging fire.
The meager 46-page pamphlet that sold for one or two British shillings changed the minds, stirred the emotions, and gained a groundswell of support as its words inspired the colonists to action. The rising patriotic fervor ignited by Common Sense propelled the Second Continental Congress to begin work on the Declaration of Independence.
The Beginning of the American Revolution
With the occupation of Boston by British troops starting in 1768, tensions between the American colonists and the English Crown were escalating. Though independence from the parent country was only discussed by the colonists behind closed doors, there was a growing faction that believed that freedom for the 13 colonies was inevitable. Massachusetts was a hotbed of patriotic sentiment, so much so that the State House reorganized itself as a Provincial Congress, which in effect declared independence from Britain. The Provincial Congress named the wealthy merchant John Hancock head of the Committee of Safety, which gave him the authority to form a militia. By early 1775, the state of Massachusetts was actively preparing for war with Britain.
In the colony of Virginia, which was the largest and most economically vibrant of the 13 colonies, men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry were outraged by the British aggression. It was in the Virginia House of Delegates that Patrick Henry gave his bold speech: “Our brethren are already in the field why stand we here idle?...I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.” In Philadelphia, the patriot leader and physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, stepped up his attacks on the British in the press, demanding that Congress counter the British “with the sword in their hand.” Soon enough the colonists would take up the “sword,” or rather their muskets in Massachusetts on Lexington Green.
On April 19, 1775, the British, in hot pursuit of hidden rebel arms and the patriot leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock, clashed with a band of colonial Minute Men—mostly farmers and their sons—in the opening salvo of what would become the American Revolutionary War. The exchange of musket fire killed eight colonials and scattered the band of militia. Next the British regulars continued their march to nearby Concord to capture a stash of rebel gunpowder. Word of the battle spread quickly throughout the colony and by that evening, 4,000 armed colonials descended on the area. The outnumbered British made a hasty retreat through a hail of musket balls on the road back to Boston. By the end of that fateful day, 150 British troops were dead and a third as many of the Massachusetts militia had also perished. When news of the massacre at Lexington reached Philadelphia, Dr. Rush took the offense to heart and “resolved to bear my share of the approaching revolution.”
Thomas Paine Comes to America
Thomas Paine was born in a quiet pastoral town about 70 miles north of London in 1737. The son of a Quaker small farmer and corset maker, Thomas grew up like most young English boys from a middle-class family. His formal education ended after grammar school, and at age 13 he became his father’s apprentice as a corset maker. In his late teens he left home to seek his fortune. For the next two decades he worked as tax collector, corset maker, schoolteacher, tobacconist, and sailor, but found little success in any of these pursuits.
Though his formal education was scant, he did spend much of his spare time reading books on the natural and political sciences. In 1772, his luck changed when he met the American Benjamin Franklin, who was in London as an ambassador for the colonies of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Franklin and Paine struck up a friendship and Franklin provided the 37-year-old Paine with a letter of introduction as an “ingenious, worthy young man.” With Franklin’s encouragement, Paine boarded a ship sailing to the British colony of Pennsylvania in North America. There Paine hoped to start a new life and make a name for himself. For in England, one’s fate in life was usually determined at birth by family status, but Franklin convinced Paine that in America he could make a name for himself based on his wit and hard work.
In late November 1774, Paine arrived in Philadelphia deathly ill with typhoid fever, with little money, reputation, or prospects. The Quaker Colony of Pennsylvania, founded in 1682 by William Penn, had as its capstone the city of Philadelphia. The city had expanded to occupy the entire swath of land between the western shore of the Delaware River and the eastern banks of the smaller Schuylkill River. With the constant influx of Europeans and the growing population of colonists, the city numbered some 30,000 inhabitants, second only in size to London in the British Empire. The leading citizens followed British fashions, read British magazines and newspapers, and saw their home in the New World through the eyes of the Old World. For his first year in Philadelphia, Paine supported himself as a freelance journalist working for, among others, the newly formed monthly, the Pennsylvania Magazine.
One day while Paine was browsing in a bookstore, the owner, Mr. Aitken, introduced him to a fellow customer, the prominent physician Dr. Benjamin Rush. The two engaged in a lively conversation on politics and the growing movement for independence of the colonies from Britain. Out of their mutual interest, Paine and Rush struck upon the idea of an anonymous pamphlet encouraging the colonists to break from the mother country. Before their next meeting, Rush put some thoughts down on paper about American independence. Rush suggested that Paine, who was a writer always looking for “hot” topics, write a pamphlet on the need for independence of the 13 colonies from Britain. Rush recalled later of their meeting: “I suggested he had nothing to fear from the popular odium to which such a publication might expose him. For he could live anywhere, but that my profession and connections tied me to Philadelphia, where a great majority of the citizens and some of my friends were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain. He readily assented…and, from time to time, called at my house and read to me every proposed chapter as he composed it…”
Dr. Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Rush became one of the most prominent physicians in the opening decades of the United States of America. As a young man he attended the University of New Jersey at Princeton, then continued his studies at the medical school at the university in Edinburgh in Scotland. After receiving his MD degree, he worked at hospitals in London to gain valuable hands-on experience. It was during his time in London that he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin. After completing his training in London, he returned to Philadelphia to establish his medical practice. In the early 1770s, Philadelphia was a leading center of commerce with a growing faction of those who wanted to separate the 13 colonies from Britain. Along with his medical practice, Rush was involved in the patriot cause, attending meetings and writing several articles for the local papers. When delegates arrived in Philadelphia for a meeting of the First Continental Congress in October 1774, Rush welcomed them into his home and became associates and friends with many, including the lawyer and delegate from Massachusetts, John Adams, as well as the shy and aristocratic Thomas Jefferson from Virginia.
The Publication of "Common Sense"
When the pamphlet Dr. Rush had been helping Paine prepare was almost finished, they sought a printer brave enough to put to paper the revolutionary ideas. Rush gave a first draft of the pamphlet to a few of his fellow revolutionaries, including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, and the scientist and inventor David Rittenhouse. Their reactions to the pamphlet have not been recorded, as nobody but Rush publicly admitted to reading the draft, or even knowing of its existence.
Rush and Paine convinced Robert Bell, a 43-year-old Philadelphia printer, to publish the first 1,000 copies. Initially, Paine used the title of Plain Truth, a throwback to Franklin’s pamphlet from decades before. Rush suggested the more appropriate title was Common Sense, which Paine agreed to. In early January 1776, the pamphlet was published anonymously. With it simply signed “The Author,” many people thought that either Samuel or John Adams was the true author of the pamphlet. The first 1,000 copies sold quickly in Philadelphia and speculation began to grow as to who had written the 46-page pamphlet. The timing of the release of Common Sense couldn’t have been more perfect as the local newspapers had just published King George’s speech in which he called the rebels “an unhappy and deluded multitude” and promised to send more troops to destroy the rebels.
The Popularity of "Common Sense" Grows
With the first printing of Common Sense sold out, Paine approached Bell for his cut of the profits. Bell declared there were no profits from the first printing. Realizing he had been cheated, Paine decided to take his printing business elsewhere. Paine added to the pamphlet 12 more pages, creating a second edition. Rush’s friends, the printers William and Thomas Bradford, agreed to print the second edition, which would be 6,000 copies. The new printers had to hire additional staff to meet the demand. Distribution of the second edition went to all the colonies. Robert Bell claimed he had the right to print as many copies as he wanted and did so with alacrity. By the end of March, some 120,000 copies had been sold. For a country of only three million people, this amounted to, and still is, a runaway bestseller.
Before the phenomenon of Common Sense had run its course, an estimated 500,000 copies, many of which were bootleg copies, had been sold in America and Europe. Rush did much to spur sales of the pamphlet, writing, “the controversy about independence was carried into the newspapers, in which I bore a busy part.” The exact amount of influence Common Sense exerted on the revolutionary cause in America is a subject of endless debate among historians; however, it was significant, allowing the average colonist to openly discuss the word independence, a word that had been virtually taboo up until the release of the pamphlet.
Before Common Sense, the American colonists had little appetite for independence from Great Britain. They had grievances with Parliament and the king’s ministers, but a peaceful solution was sought. As though a switch had been tripped, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet transformed the spirit of reconciliation with the Crown into a passion for independence. In Congress, the marginalized pro-independence delegates, led by the Massachusetts and Virginia delegations, found themselves riding a bow wave of public support. This new passion for liberty that suddenly made sense in minds of the colonists would ultimately lead to the spilling of the blood of thousands of continentals and their English brethren.
Political Philosophy Accessible to Those Who Didn't Commonly Read It
Though Common Sense contained no original political thinking, it did put into words what a great many patriots had been mulling over in their own minds. Unlike the works of political writers like James Otis and John Dickinson, Common Sense was not written by a lawyer for the well educated; it was written in language the average colonist could relate to. The pamphlet opens with a scathing rebuke of government:
“Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last is a punisher.”
After further expounding on his theme, arguing the superiority of natural law over political codes, he boldly attacks the institution of hereditary monarchy, writing,
“In the early ages of the world, according to the Scripture chronology there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throws mankind into confusion. Holland without a king that enjoyed more peace for this last century than any of the monarchical government in Europe… One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion.”
Paine called on Americans to declare its independence, writing, “Everything that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘Tis time to part.” He ends the pamphlet with the paragraph: “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. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England had given her warning to depart. O receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind!” In short, Common Sense was a powerful work of political philosophy written for those who didn’t read works on political philosophy, but it worked!
John Adams on "Common Sense"
John Adams first encountered the pamphlet Common Sense in New York. There he purchased two copies, likely for two shillings, keeping one copy for himself and sending the other by post back to his wife Abigail at their farm in Braintree. Adams was traveling with two companions to Philadelphia for a meeting of the Second Continental Congress in January 1776. Shortly after Common Sense was published, Adams approved of the effect the pamphlet was having on the people and noted it contained “a good deal of good sense, delivered in a clear, simple, concise and nervous style.”
Adams realized that Paine’s words had done more in a few weeks to move the populace toward revolution than all the political writings of the past decade. Adams feared that the Continental Congress was ahead of the average colonist in seeking a break with Britain; the 46-pages of Common Sense had done much to alleviate Adam’s concerns and moved the hearts and minds of the colonists toward independence.
The deeper Adams dug into the text of Common Sense and the more he pondered its ideas, the more misgivings he had, however. The writer, he told his wife Abigail, “has a better hand at pulling down than building.” Paine’s attempt to prove the unlawfulness of monarchy using analogies from the Bible, declaring monarchy to be “one of the sins of the Jews,” struck Adams as being absurd. Paine touted to his audience in Common Sense that with America’s vast resources in men and matériel, a war would be swift with an American victory almost assured. Adams felt deeply that any war with Britain would be long and protracted, costing many lives. He warned in a speech on February 22 that the war would last ten years.
Additionally, Adams was a scholar of government and deemed Paine’s understanding of Constitutional government as “feeble.” He vehemently objected to Paine’s outline of a unicameral structure for the legislature. This spurred Adams to begin putting down his own thoughts on an outline for a new government if freedom was won from Britain. He wrote later that he had resolved “to do all in my power to counteract the effect” on the popular mind of such a misguided plan.
Good to his word, in the spring of 1776 Adams put down his thoughts on the establishment of government in an essay titled Thoughts on Government, Applicable to the Present State of the American Colonies. Adams wrote the document in response to a request from the North Carolina Provisional Congress and to refute the plan for government outlined in Common Sense. The document called for three branches of government, executive, judicial, and legislative, all to provide a system of checks and balances on each other. Adams rejected Paine’s idea of a single legislative body, fearing it would become tyrannical and self-serving. Adams broke the legislative branch into two parts to check the power of the other branch.
Once again, Common Sense spurred the colonists to think of independence; in the case of Adams, his thoughts put down on paper became instrumental in the writing of the Constitution of the United States.
Epilog: Thomas Paine
After Common Sense made its spectacular debut, Paine served as a military aide-de-camp during the Revolutionary War, secretary of the Continental Congress’s Committee for Foreign Affairs, and clerk to Pennsylvania’s legislature. During the war he found time to continue his writing, penning a popular series of articles and a pamphlet series called The Crisis. The series sold well and generated considerable income for Paine, all of which he donated to the Colonial government to support Washington’s army. After the Revolutionary War, he returned to Europe to promote his invention of a single-arch iron bridge. During the French Revolution he supported the moderate wing of the French revolutionaries, sat in the French National Assembly for the district of Calais, and narrowly escaped the guillotine.
His later writing of the Age of Reason would brand him an “infidel” among the Christian community. The book was a major statement of Enlightenment criticism of traditional Christian theology. In 1802, he returned to America to find that many of his old friends had turned against him over his bitter attack on Christianity in the Age of Reason. He died impoverished on his farm in New Rochelle, New York, in 1809.
Epilog: Dr. Benjamin Rush
Like Thomas Paine, Dr. Benjamin Rush took an active role in America’s war for freedom from Great Britain, but after the publication of Common Sense the vectors of their two lives diverged. In June 1776, Dr. Rush was elected to the Pennsylvania Provincial Council, in which he was a vocal opponent of British rule. A month later he was made a member of the Second Continental Congress, thus becoming a signer of the Declaration of Independence. During the American Revolutionary War, Dr. Rush served as the Surgeon General in the Middle Department [middle states] of the Continental Army for more than a year.
His short military career ended in a cloud of controversy. He was appalled with the way the army medical department was ran, corruption and embezzlement were common, and he became embroiled with a Congressional investigation and court martial of Dr. William Shippen, Jr., Director-General of the Hospitals of the Continental Army. Through happenstance, Rush also became connected with what became known as the Conway Cabal, a shadowy conspiracy to oust General Washington as head of the army. Though Rush’s actions and intentions were honorary, his lack of political acuity cast a shadow over his short military career.
At the end of his military career, he returned to his first love, medicine. Working as a private physician and professor of chemistry at the College of Philadelphia, he soon became one of the most respected healers in the city. He was also a champion of many social causes: he helped with the establishment of the first free dispensary in America to serve the poor, became president of the country’s first anti-slavery society, was an instigator of prison reform, and a founder of Dickinson College. In medicine, he promoted and practiced a revolutionary “system,” which was later discredited, that in simplest terms was built around the hypothesis that all diseases resulted from an imbalance in nervous stimulation. The historian R.H. Shryock wrote of Rush, “He was, finally, the first medical man in the country to achieve a general literary reputation…Rush was probably the best-known American physician of his day…”
- Boatner, Mark Mayo III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1966.
- Boyer, Paul S. (Editor) The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
- Fried, Stephen. Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father. New York: Crown, 2018.
- Liell, Scott. 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to American Independence. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003.
- Malone, Dumas (Editor) Dictionary of American Biography, Volume XVI. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1935.
- McCullough, David. John Adams. New York: Touchstone, 2002.
- Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/147/147-h/147-h.htm
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Doug West