‘It Was Time for Every Man to Stir’: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense


In April 1775, British redcoats and American militiamen clashed in the Battles of Lexington and Concord. In the following months, many Americans held out hope that the colonies would reconcile peacefully with their mother country. On January 10, 1776, however, Thomas Paine anonymously published the pamphlet Common Sense, which urged American colonists to separate from Great Britain. Paine pointed out the shortsightedness and futility of efforts to reconcile with Britain—and he did so in easily understood and convincing language. He wrote:

It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things to all examples from former ages, to suppose, that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power. The most sanguine in Britain does not think so. The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan short of separation, which can promise the continent even a year’s security. Reconciliation is NOW a falacious dream. Nature hath deserted the connexion, and Art cannot supply her place. For, as Milton wisely expresses, “never can true reconcilement grow where wounds of deadly hate have pierced so deep.”1

Paine highlighted fundamental flaws inherent in monarchy.

For all men being originally equals, no ONE by BIRTH could have a right to set up his own family in perpetual preference to all others for ever, and though himself might deserve SOME decent degree of honors of his cotemporaries, yet his descendants might be far too unworthy to inherit them. 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.2

Perhaps most importantly, Paine called for action, citing the Americans’ opportunity to create a haven 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. Freedom hath been hunted round 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 mankind.3

In 1776, this was treason. “But,” Paine would later reflect, “when the country, into which I had but just set my foot, was set on fire about my ears it was time to stir. It was time for every man to stir.”4 So Paine devised an ingenious tactic to set the country stirring. He noted that King George III had recently given a speech that would soon be published in the colonies. Seeing an opportunity to stress the contrast between his ideas for America and those of the monarch, Paine decided to publish the pamphlet as close as possible to the publication of the speech. On January 9, 1776, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the king’s speech along with the first advertisement for Common Sense. As Paine had hoped, the king’s speech vexed colonists—and Common Sense was available the following day to capitalize on the discontent.

Common Sense was more successful than Paine ever could have imagined. Its straightforward language appealed not only to the wealthy and well educated, but also to the masses of colonial farmers and laborers. Even the illiterate could understand it with ease when it was read aloud in pubs. Common Sense sold well over 100,000 copies in its first three months, going through numerous editions and reportedly becoming the best-selling American title, even to this day. It convinced countless colonists wavering between reconciliation and rebellion to side with the latter.

Just over six months after the publication of Common Sense, delegates to the Constitutional Convention affixed their names to the Declaration of Independence, pledging “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” to the cause of separation from Great Britain. They did so knowing that the majority of their electors now supported independence—thanks substantially to Thomas Paine.

Rekindle the revolutionary flame with a bit of Common Sense, available free from Gutenberg Press.

Endnotes

1 Thomas Paine, Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America (Philadelphia: W. & T. Bradford, 1776) Kindle Edition, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/147, 42.

2 Paine, Common Sense, 22.

3 Paine, Common Sense, 56.

4 Richard Gimbel, Thomas Paine: A Bibliographical Check List of Common Sense, with an Account of Its Publication (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 15.


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