I wonder what the Tea Partiers and their political enablers in the GOP, with all of their much ballyhooed “going back to the original meaning of the Constitution”, would have made of Thomas Paine? If they even know who Tom Paine was. Because of all the men who made the American Revolution and the Republic that came forth from it, Thomas Paine is the forgotten Founding Father. In fact, I’m not sure if he is even afforded that honorific. Paine didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, nor was he elected to office nor did he hold any of the great government posts. He left the United States — a name he coined — after the Revolution. Paine is excluded from the exalted ranks of Washington, Jefferson, Adams et al. or as the historian Eric Foner styles them, those “canonized in popular culture”.
And Paine is unlikely to be canonized anytime soon — he was a passionate egalitarian, a polemicist and a journalist, an internationalist before the term was coined, a believer in the subordination of government to the will of all the people and the rule of law, an enemy of hereditary rights, an opponent of capital punishment, convinced that America’s advantage lay in the absence of deep disparities of personal wealth, a passionate advocate of science and reason, and, most damningly to large swathes of American public opinion, deeply dismissive of the Bible and theology as the revealed word of God. Given that record, Paine is not likely to be embraced by the lunatic fringe who claim a return to the original intent of the founders and a government of Christian Dominionism is the answer to all our problems. And Paine himself would have recoiled at a party laying claim to the revolutionary inheritance. To Paine, the dead weight of the past was a hindrance to reason and progress. (For a passionate, entertaining and scabrous look at how Paine has been overlooked, played down and written out of the official histories, especially in Philadelphia which was his American base of operations, check out this article.)
Paine arrived in Philadelphia from his native England on the eve of the Revolution. The son of a Quaker father, growing up in what was the Puritan hotbed of East Anglia, the birthplace of an earlier English republicanism, it’s entirely possible that Paine absorbed the influences of those two diverse folkways, but information on his early life is scanty so we may never know what shaped his thinking.
What we do know is that Paine landed up in Philadelphia in 1774, armed with a letter of introduction from Ben Franklin, then acting as the representative of several American colonies in Britain. Philadelphia was a seething hotbed of political agitation and it wasn’t long before Paine had secured a job as editor of the Pennsylvania Weekly and was forging contacts among the leaders of those agitating against the imperial power. One of these, Benjamin Rush, urged Paine to write a pamphlet outlining the American case.
The story of how “Common Sense” came about and the response to its publication is usually glossed over in narratives of the period. But it is a seminal moment nonetheless, just as important, maybe more so, than the story of how the Declaration of Independence was drafted, and certainly more important than the better known stories of the Virginia blowhard Patrick Henry and his overblown speeches, the jolly undergrads out on a jape that is the Boston Tea Party or the epochal, little understood midnight ride of Paul Revere.
According to the Thomas Paine Society “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 had 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.”
Prior to this the Americans were threading a cautious course, insisting they were agitating for nothing but their rights as Englishmen and were careful not to advocate for independence. Rush specifically warned against Paine making the wider, more radical appeal.
Paine was having none of it. In a sharply argued, direct and forceful work, originally called Plain Truth, re-titled at Rush’s suggestion Common Sense, he changed at a stroke the whole dynamic of America’s unsure drift to independence. Paine wrote in language far from the classical high style of his political contemporaries. He was careful to echo the tone and tenor of the arguments he was hearing in the homes, the coffee shops and barrooms of Philadelphia. In doing so, he won himself a mass audience. His vision of a republic of virtue and equality, independent of Britain, resonated deeply with thousands of ordinary Americans, creating a new revolutionary reality that the more deeply conservative leaders of the Continental Congress were forced to acknowledge. Paine argued forcefully that republican government was superior to monarchy and hereditary rule, then the universal norm the world over. He argued for equality of rights before the law and for an America that would stand independent as a bastion of human freedom.
It was heady stuff. The success and influence of Common Sense was immediate and huge. Much of what Paine said had been said before, but his synthesis of ideas, set out with plain-spokenness and simplicity created a mass audience and gave coherence to ideas informing the plain people of the colonies. It would be on their shoulders that the success or failure of the revolution would rest. Now, to quote an earlier English republican, not only would the “plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows” be again in the vanguard against an English King and aristocratic tyranny– albeit this time in blue, not russet uniforms — but he would have, thanks to Paine, a handy primer with which to make his case, spelled out clearly and forcefully.
Clarity, forcefulness, coherence. They don’t make republicans like they used to, do they???