Americans remember 1776 as the year of revolution, but it didn’t start that way. As 1775 turned into 1776, the people of the thirteen American colonies of the United Kingdom considered themselves to be aggrieved Britons. They were unhappy with the way they were being treated, but few seriously considered severing their ties with the Crown by taking up arms. Ten days into the new year, that sentiment began to change dramatically. By the account of those who lived through those days, few things were more influential in turning the tide of sentiment toward revolution than a 47-page pamphlet that was released on January 10, 1776. That fateful publication was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
It did not take long for the newly-emigrated Paine to believe America would be better off on its own. He grew impatient with the way the complaints of the colonists were brushed aside by King George III and Parliament. He began working on Common Sense in late 1775 under the working title of Plain Truth. Originally intended to be published as a series of letters in the Philadelphia newspapers, it quickly grew to be large enough to stand on its own. Two years after arriving in America he published his writings in pamphlet form. This 47-page publication transformed the thinking of the masses and turned 1776 into the year of revolution.
Paine’s words were beyond powerful. He reminded the colonists that they were in the New World not because of their affinity to England, but because of the need to be separate from it. He wrote, “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.”
Paine argued for independence from Great Britain, insisting that a new nation should be born out of the colonies. Paine was the first to suggest that this nation should be called the United States of America.
Within a few months, 150,000 copies were in circulation. Before the Revolution ended, an estimated 500,000 were sold. In proportion to the population of the colonies at the time (2.5 million people), it was the best-selling book in American history. With an estimated 20% of the people owning a copy of the pamphlet, it would be the equivalent of over 60 million books being sold today.
In addition to the printed copies, many handwritten summaries and whole copies were passed around. Paine granted publishing rights to practically everyone who requested them, including several international publishers. Ultimately, he relinquished his copyright, sending the document into the public domain. Consequently, although it was one of the best-selling publications of all time, Paine made no money off of it.
For the first three months of publication, Paine kept his authorship a secret. His name did not become officially connected with Common Sense until March 30, 1776. By then, his words had captivated the hearts and minds of those who would be remembered as America’s Founding Fathers.
Six months after Common Sense saw print, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. He drew heavily on Paine’s work. John Adams would later say, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”
Having successfully turned the tide of public opinion in America, Paine returned to Europe and turned his attention to accomplishing the same thing in France. His prickliest and often-controversial personality caused him to run afoul of the French revolutionaries, however. In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death.
Only by sheer happenstance was his life spared during his imprisonment. The jailers daily marked the cell doors of the prisoners who were slated to be executed that day. On the day marked for Paine’s execution, he was bedridden with a high fever. The guards allowed him to keep his cell door open to allow him some fresh air. When his door was marked to show it was his day for execution, the mark was placed on the inside of the door. Later, when the prisoners were rounded up for execution, Paine’s door was closed, hiding the symbol from the guards.
Paine was released from his French imprisonment and returned to the country he helped create. He brought his often-difficult personality quirks with him and succeeded in alienating himself from almost all of his former friends and supporters. Despite his major contributions to the American Revolution and society as a whole, Thomas Paine died alone on June 8, 1809, in New York City. Only 6 people showed up at his funeral, and half of them were former slaves.
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