It was 1776. America was cutting ties with Britain and were claiming their independence.
Thomas Paine was writing what would be the biggest-selling, most read and successful political literature in history which would influence the American Revolution and their Declaration of Independence.
Paine lived an unhappy life in England, twice married with his first wife dying when he was twenty four years old and the second wife divorcing him. He met a sixty-eight year old American scientist Benjamin Franklin who would later call Paine his “adopted political son.” Franklin believed America would benefit from Paine and urged him to move there. In 1774, Paine arrived in Philadelphia and immediate liked what he saw. He saw mixed religions and ethnicities, immigrant workers who were seeking a better life compared to the harsh regimes of England. He was inspired.
America had issues that didn’t sit well with Paine, largely with social injustices and inequalities but more importantly slavery. The young country had a population of immigrants who had fled their oppressive homelands to come and build a new country that could be a shining example to the world. Thomas Paine believed he could be the person to help guide them in the right place. He was amazed and excited to see that even low paid workers were increasingly demanding to be able to vote in elections. It was clear that there were people prepared to shape their own futures.
One of the most important writings in American history was produced by Thomas Paine. “Common Sense” was published in 1776, selling 150,000 copies in a nation of 4 million.One of the biggest colonial bestsellers and it was so important that Thomas Jefferson used it when writing the Declaration of Independence months later.
It is important to note that the “Common Sense” was produced in an era where there were no large media outlets or social media making his numbers even more remarkable. Paine had deliberately wrote in a manner that would resonate with the people by using language that would relate them. One example was how he referenced the bible in his writing despite his well known criticism towards Christianity. It was clear that he meant to spark emotion in order to make his points heard.
Its structure is clear and concise with four separate parts outlined. He begins by stating the differences between society and government and makes it clear that government is a “necessary evil.” It states how important society is by showing how isolated people find it easier to live with each other than apart. However as society grows, a government is needed to prevent the evil we see in humans. Promoting civil society through laws and accountability with representations and elections ensuring those basic standards remain.
The second part argues against monarchy by starting since all men and women are equal at creation, there should not be a distinction between kings and subjects. He then goes to criticise the British set-up and offered a plea for independence. Finally, he lays out how his democracy of the USA would look like.
The “common sense” may be seen as a revolutionary piece of writing but equally what made it stand out was how pragmatic it was. There was a clear focus on security and the economy, things that would relevant today. This is what made it appeal to people with contrary beliefs and enabled people to continue the debate.
The strategy could well be used more in the current climate, as we are seeing a new era of divisiveness. A huge part of that problem is that the world is very different from when Paine was writing the “Common Sense.” America in particular has grown in numbers substantially and people are now bombarded with information which has led them to form opinions whilst isolating themselves from people who think differently.
One reason for this is that society has lost what Paine was so strong at which was to carry out logical arguments. With people reading less than before and the increasingly high use of electronic media and equipment, people are now simply following sequences rather than understanding causes. Our memories are being deprived and people are now constantly reading language that is more suited to being sold a product rather than provoking thoughts. We live in a new culture where emotion regularly beats intellect. If Thomas Paine lived today, rather than releasing his pamphlet “Common Sense”, it would probably come in the form of a blog.
What makes him so innovative is the manner in which he addressed his leader and this is why he continues to live on. “Common Sense” shows that one person can make a difference and that engaging people is key. America being an idea is the critical component of American Independence and that thought is still vital today.