"We have it in our power to begin the world over again." -- Thomas Paine, Common Sense
Common Sense was first published anonymously by Thomas Paine in January of 1776 and is regarded by many as the most important piece of writing of the American Revolution. Although descent among the colonists was growing over the British government's newly levied taxes and customs duties and the bloody battle at Concord, there was still talk of reconciliation among the colonists. However, Paine's convincing arguments against the monarchy and British domination spread like wildfire throughout the colonies and turned the public tide toward independence. General George Washington wrote to a friend in Massachusetts: "I find that Common Sense is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men. Few pamphlets have had so dramatic an effect on political events."
Paine's ability to write in plain language made his ideas accessible to colonists rich and poor. His writing was powerful, dramatic and often scathing -- especially when describing the monarchy. Paine described the kings of England as mere usurpers who, like criminals, had seized power by force:
"...could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them [kings] to their rise, we should find the first of them nothing better than the principle ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners, or pre-eminence in subtilty obtained him the title of chief among plunderers."
Common Sense went to print with an agreement between Paine and its publisher, Robert Bell that if the pamphlet lost money, Paine would cover the cost. Bell set the price at two shillings, which Paine thought too high. The public did not agree and by Paine's own estimates Common Sense sold over one hundred fifty thousand copies in its first printing (not counting England and Ireland). Eventually over five hundred thousand copies were sold. By today's standards Common Sense would be considered a bestseller. The pamphlet was a huge financial success. While Paine could certainly have used the money, he never took a penny of the profits instead turning his share over to the American cause. *
Paine's Common Sense made an irrefutable argument for separation from England and described the revolution as not only achievable but inevitable. Throughout the colonies letters to newspapers quoted Paine's words. "Nothing else is talked of," wrote Bostonian Andrew Elliot to a friend in London, "...I know not what can be done by Great Britain to prevent it."
John Adams was one of the few who criticized Common Sense. While he agreed with Paine's call for separation from England, he thought the pamphlet was too radical. Adams called Paine's writing; "...without any restraint or even an attempt at any equilibrium or counter poise, that it must produce confusion and every evil work."
Common Sense is Thomas Paine's most well known and most quoted work. His words in the introduction to Common Sense remain as true today as they were in 1776:
"The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances have, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure is."
* His agreement with Bell was for his share of the profits to be used to buy mittens for the American Soldiers stationed in Canada After a falling out with Bell, he found another publisher who lowered the price to one shilling. Paine later paid for the publishing of six thousand copies out of his own pocket and eventually allowed reproduction of the pamphlet by anyone who would cover the costs.