Saturday, January 8, 2011

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine
I was reminded earlier today that tomorrow marks an important day in our national calendar.  It is the anniversary of the publication of Common Sense, by Thomas Paine.  The date was January 9, 1776.

At the time he wrote the pamphlet, America was nearly balanced by three factions, not unlike our political landscape today:  Revolutionaries who longed for independence from Great Britain, Loyalists who remained loyal to the Crown and King George III, and another third who couldn't make up their minds and were undecided.

Paine's early history is not a predictor of his greatness that would come later with his pen and paper.  He was born into a poor family in an obscure village in England.  He had little formal education.  He was bouncing around in several occupations -- corset maker, seaman, schoolteacher, customs collector, tobacco seller -- none that produced success.

He was down and out when he met Benjamin Franklin, who was living in London.  Franklin suggested that Paine relocate to America, "a land of new opportunity," he told him.

Paine nearly died en route by ocean voyage to America.  When he landed in Philadelphia he was half-dead.  With the help of Franklin, Paine was given letters of recommendation to help him get a job as a magazine writer.

Even his later critics begrudgingly admitted Paine had more "brains than books, more sense than education, more courage than politeness, more strength than polish."  He was just what the doctor ordered to move an ambivalent nation to action.  He demanded that Americans demand their freedom and settle for no compromise.  There was nothing in his writings to suggest he was the least bit interested in compromise.

"The birthday of a new world is at hand," he wrote.  He vociferously attacked the idea of living under the King of England.  He planted the seeds of revolution and a complete break with England.  Here's a sample of his rhetoric:

"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! [America] receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind."

Paine's words must have sounded like a bugle call to action to the struggling colonists.  Washington, at the head of the Continental Army already engaged in armed conflict with the daunting forces of the Crown on land and sea, used the pamphlet to rally his troops and boost enlistments among those who were still undecided.  Thousands snatched up the pamphlet and decided he was right.  He rallied a nation to produce the Declaration of Independence later that summer.

Thomas Edison would write 150 years later, "We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. . .  In Common Sense Paine flared forth with a document so powerful that the Revolution became inevitable."

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