Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Paine Publishes "Common Sense"
232 years ago, an unknown and obscure former sailor and schoolteacher published one of the biggest blockbuster pieces in American political history: Common Sense. Thanks in part to a personal letter of reccomendation from Benjamin Franklin, the 39 year old Thomas Paine made his way from his native England to Pennsylvania. Once there, Paine was overcome by the rapid wave of revolution that was sweeping the American countryside. Despite this wave of revolutionary fervor, however, Americans were still (for the most part) reluctant to declare their independence from Britain. As one historian put it...
At the time Paine wrote "Common Sense," most colonists considered themselves to be aggrieved Britons. Paine fundamentally changed the tenor of colonists' argument with the crown when he wrote the following: "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. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still."
We cannot overemphasize the role that Paine's Common Sense played in shaping the views of the American colonists. By July of 1776, Common Sense had been read by roughly 1/3 of the American population (a huge number for the colonial era). His work sold 500,000 copies in a year's time, propelling Paine to the vanguard of American revolutionary politics. It is not a stretch of the imagination to proclaim Common Sense as the 47 pages that changed America.
What I find disturbing, however, is the fact that Paine's Common Sense is vitrually unknown and unread today. In a recent survey, only 24% of American had heard of Common Sense and even less had read it. Maybe somebody should explain to the public that Common Sense was the colonial world's Harry Potter. Maybe then they would give it a chance.