Thomas Paine's Common Sense was instrumental in shifting the argument from accommodation with Britain to outright independence for the American colonies.
Credit: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.. Artist – Auguste Milliere, National Portrait Gallery, London.
In 1776 an obscure immigrant published a small pamphlet that ignited independence in America and shifted the political landscape of the patriot movement from reform within the British imperial system to independence from it. One hundred twenty thousand copies sold in the first three months in a nation of three million people, making Common Sense the best-selling printed work by a single author in American history up to that time. Never before had a personally written work (unlike the divine Bible) appealed to all classes of colonists. Never before had a pamphlet been written in an inspiring style so accessible to the "common" folk of America. This lesson looks at Thomas Paine and at some of the ideas presented in Common Sense, such as national unity, natural rights, the illegitimacy of the monarchy and of hereditary aristocracy, and the necessity for independence and the revolutionary struggle.
After completing this lesson, students will be able to
Thomas Paine's Common Sense played no small part in convincing large numbers of Americans to relinquish an English identity and risk their lives for the cause of freedom, revolution and a new nation. In his modest pamphlet of 46 pages, Common Sense, Paine put forth the first comprehensive, public call for independence, advancing arguments that far exceeded previous critiques of English rule in their radicalism and scope. It quickly reached a broad, mass audience, extending beyond the literate public as colonists read it aloud in a wide variety of settings. George Washington, for example, was so affected by Common Sense that he relinquished all personal hope of mending fences with England and ordered the pamphlet to be distributed to his troops.
Common Sense made a clear case for independence and directly attacked the political, economic, and ideological obstacles to achieving it. Paine relentlessly insisted that British rule was responsible for nearly every problem in colonial society and that the 1770s crisis could only be resolved by colonial independence. That goal, he maintained, could only be achieved through unified action. Hardnosed political logic demanded the creation of an American nation. Implicitly acknowledging the hold that tradition and deference had on the colonial mind, Paine also launched an assault on both the premises behind the British government and on the legitimacy of monarchy and hereditary power in general. Challenging the King's paternal authority in the harshest terms, he mocked royal actions in America and declared that "even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their own families." Finally, Paine detailed in the most graphic, compelling and recognizable terms the suffering that the colonies had endured, reminding his readers of the torment and trauma that British policy had inflicted upon them.
In addition to the audacity and timeliness of its ideas, Common Sense compelled the American people because it resonated with their firm belief in liberty and determined opposition to injustice. The message was powerful because it was written in relatively blunt language that colonists of different backgrounds could understand. Paine, despite his immigrant status, was on familiar terms with the popular classes in America and the taverns, workshops, and street corners they frequented. His writing was replete with the kind of popular and religious references they readily grasped and appreciated. His strident indignation reflected the anger that was rising among the American body politic. His words united elite and popular strands of revolt, welding the Congress and the street into a common purpose. As historian Scott Liell argues in Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence: "[B]y including all of the colonists in the discussion that would determine their future, Common Sense became not just a critical step in the journey toward American independence but also an important artifact in the foundation of American democracy" (20).
Teachers preparing to teach this lesson should review some of the primary and secondary sources relating to Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the political events surrounding its publication.
The teacher can distribute copies of the following excerpts—available here as a PDF—to the students and then read the excerpts aloud, as the passage might have been read to colonists at a coffee house in 1776. Reading aloud may help students, who have difficulty with 18th century English, catch the cadence and meaning of the selection.
Selection from Common Sense (taken from paragraphs 17 and 21-24 of the section titled "Thoughts on the Present State of American Affairs.").
1. "I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain. I repeat the challenge; not a single advantage is derived. . .
2. Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe, that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation, may be included within the following descriptions.
3. Interested men, who are not to be trusted, weak men who CANNOT see, prejudiced men who will not see, and a certain set of moderate men who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class, by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this Continent than all the other three.
4. It is the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of present sorrow; the evil is not sufficiently brought to their doors to make them feel the precariousness with which all American property is possessed. But let our imaginations transport us a few moments to Boston; that seat of wretchedness will teach us wisdom, and instruct us forever to renounce a power in whom we can have no trust. The inhabitants of that unfortunate city, who but a few months ago were in ease and affluence, have now no other alternative than to stay and starve, or turn out to beg. Endangered by the fire of their friends if they continue within the city and plundered by the soldiery if they leave it, in their present situation they are prisoners without the hope of redemption, and in a general attack for their relief they would be exposed to the fury of both armies.
5. Men of passive tempers look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, "Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this." But examine the passions and feelings of mankind: bring the doctrine of reconciliation to the touchstone of nature, and then tell me whether you can hereafter love, honour, and faithfully serve the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land? If you cannot do all these, then you are only deceiving yourselves, and by your delay bringing ruin upon posterity. Your future connection with Britain, whom you can neither love nor honour, will be forced and unnatural, and being formed only on the plan of present convenience, will in a little time fall into a relapse more wretched than the first. But if you say, you can still pass the violations over, then I ask, hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant. . .
6. 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."
Students now re-read the excerpts, responding to the questions listed below. Students should record their answers in their notebooks, or annotate the excerpts on the student worksheet , gathering the textual evidence for their answer.
Optional: Students can work in groups to deal with several paragraphs. Each group can discuss the questions that correspond to their paragraphs and reach a group answer. The document divides neatly in two, so some groups can deal with the first four paragraphs, and some groups can tackle the final two paragraphs.
Groups should then present their interpretations to the full class so that others can respond with further questions and/or explanations of why they agree or disagree with the group's interpretations.
First half of the document: Paragraphs 1-4, Questions 1 & 2 Second half of the document: Paragraphs 5-6, Questions 3 & 4
Alternatively, the teacher can lead a close, paragraph-by-paragraph reading of the text with the class as a whole. At the end of each paragraph s/he can raise the corresponding questions. Teachers using this approach should be careful to encourage different student interpretations of the text (making the point that different understandings are possible) and to push students to defend their interpretations with textual evidence (making the point that not all readings are viable, only those supported by the text).
1. Paragraphs 2 and 3
According to Paine, what kinds of people "espouse the doctrine of reconciliation" with England? What does Paine's language tell you about how he feels about these people?
2. Paragraph 4
How does Paine describe life in Boston, and why does he think the situation there shows that England should not be governing the colonies?
3. Paragraph 5
How does Paine describe those who would reconcile with Great Britain? What does his description of them tell you about his attitude toward them?
What questions does Paine have for those who would reconcile with England? Why does Paine think reconciliation is impossible?
4. Paragraph 6
Who, in this paragraph is the "fugitive," who must receive or take in that "fugitive," and why must that fugitive be received?
How does Paine link the fate of America with the fate of the world? What role does Paine assign to America?
As a way of setting Common Sense directly in the context of its time, ask students to examine two timelines, one Timeline at the PBS Liberty, and the other Timeline from the George Washington Papers, (and click on 1774, 1775, 1776). Instruct them to select events that they think might relate to the criticisms of England and arguments for independence that Paine makes in paragraphs four and five of the selection above. Ask them to make a list of the specific events they have selected. Next to each event, ask them to write down particular sentences and phrases from paragraphs four and five that directly relate to the event.
When students have finished this timeline work, they should hold a whole-class discussion of the broader questions below.
1. Why do you think the ideas or emotions that Paine conveys in this reading appealed or failed to appeal to the American people in 1775? (In answering, draw upon your previous study of the events leading up to the American Revolution, and the timeline activity).
2. Do you think that the role in the world that Paine assigns to America in 1776 was a valid role for a country to assume at that time? Should America/could America have become the kind of instrument for change that Paine describes?
This activity has two steps. First, students will read and respond to the following excerpt from Common Sense—available here as a PDF—and answer the accompanying questions provided on the student worksheet. Next, students will break into groups and debate.
Students can answer these questions as a homework assignment and discuss their answers in the following class, or the questions can be posed in class and discussed immediately.
These excerpts are available to students here as a PDF, along with the accompanying questions.
MANKIND being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance; the distinctions of rich, and poor, may in a great measure be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill sounding names of oppression and avarice. Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means of riches; and though avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy.
But there is another and greater distinction for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is, the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of heaven; but how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like some new species, is worth enquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or of misery to mankind . . .
To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity. 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 contemporaries, 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.
Secondly, as no man at first could possess any other public honors than were bestowed upon him, so the givers of those honors could have no power to give away the right of posterity, and though they might say "We choose you for our head," they could not, without manifest injustice to their children, say "that your children and your children's children shall reign over ours for ever." Because such an unwise, unjust, unnatural compact might (perhaps) in the next succession put them under the government of a rogue or a fool. Most wise men, in their private sentiments, have ever treated hereditary right with contempt; yet it is one of those evils, which when once established is not easily removed; many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest.
This is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditionary history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar. Perhaps the disorders which threatened, or seemed to threaten, on the decease of a leader and the choice of a new one (for elections among ruffians could not be very orderly) induced many at first to favor hereditary pretensions; by which means it happened, as it hath happened since, that what at first was submitted to as a convenience, was afterwards claimed as a right.
England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.—It certainly hath no divinity in it. However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right, if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.
Yet I should be glad to ask how they suppose kings came at first? The question admits but of three answers, viz. either by lot, by election, or by usurpation. If the first king was taken by lot, it establishes a precedent for the next, which excludes hereditary succession. Saul was by lot, yet the succession was not hereditary, neither does it appear from that transaction there was any intention it ever should. If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next; for to say, that the right of all future generations is taken away, by the act of the first electors, in their choice not only of a king, but of a family of kings for ever, hath no parrallel in or out of scripture but the doctrine of original sin, which supposes the free will of all men lost in Adam; and from such comparison, and it will admit of no other, hereditary succession can derive no glory. For as in Adam all sinned, and as in the first electors all men obeyed; as in the one all mankind were subjected to Satan, and in the other to Sovereignty; as our innocence was lost in the first, and our authority in the last; and as both disable us from reassuming some former state and privilege, it unanswerably follows that original sin and hereditary succession are parallels. Dishonorable rank! Inglorious connexion! Yet the most subtile sophist cannot produce a juster simile.
As to usurpation, no man will be so hardy as to defend it; and that William the Conqueror was an usurper is a fact not to be contradicted. The plain truth is, that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.
But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
Another evil which attends hereditary succession is, that the throne is subject to be possessed by a minor at any age; all which time the regency, acting under the cover of a king, have every opportunity and inducement to betray their trust. The same national misfortune happens, when a king worn out with age and infirmity, enters the last stage of human weakness. In both these cases the public becomes a prey to every miscreant, who can tamper successfully with the follies either of age or infancy.
The most plausible plea, which hath ever been offered in favour of hereditary succession, is, that it preserves a nation from civil wars; and were this true, it would be weighty; whereas, it is the most barefaced falsity ever imposed upon mankind. The whole history of England disowns the fact. Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been (including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions. Wherefore instead of making for peace, it makes against it, and destroys the very foundation it seems to stand on.
This set of questions—available here as a PDF—refers to specific passages in the excerpt:
Stage a class debate on monarchy and hereditary succession. A simple version is to give the students a resolution for or against hereditary monarchy, split them into two groups, and have them debate the resolution. The method below is more cumbersome but draws more directly on students' work with the Paine text.
A. Make a list of Paine's major arguments against monarchy and hereditary succession drawn from the work your class has done with this excerpt. Break into as many groups as there are arguments that your class has identified (the arguments may not change, but different classes may group them differently). Assign one of Paine's arguments to each group.
B. Have each group imagine that they, like many others in the 18th century, believed in monarchy. Ask them: What counter-arguments could be used in response to Paine? Have them list these arguments and prepare to present and defend them.
C. Have a debate. Each group presents its pro-monarchy arguments while another group defends the portion of Paine's argument that is under attack. The Paine argument should be familiar to the class, but you can give groups some time to prepare their defense of that argument as well.
D. After the debate open the floor to questions and statements from the rest of the class.
Students may write this essay in class or as a homework assignment.
Write a minimum five hundred-word essay that responds to the question below:
Why, in your view, do many historians claim that the language and the ideas expressed in Common Sense strongly appealed to the common people in the 13 North American colonies?
Please give specific evidence from the text and the timeline assignment, based on our discussions. Please be sure that your response includes at least two examples of a) the language in Common Sense and b) the ideas in Common Sense.
Have the class judge the winner of the debate through an evaluation of each group's overall presentation and defense of its position. Have the judges rate each side's clarity, persuasiveness, use of supporting evidence, and response to opposing arguments. Make sure that judges use specific examples from the debate to support their evaluations [link to evaluation sheet] Collect an evaluation sheet that delineates these areas from each student.
1. Serious students bent on doing additional research may want to compare the Second Continental Congress' Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms (July 6, 1775), available at the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project at Yale Law School website, with Paine's Common Sense (January 1776), paying particular attention to the similarities and differences between the two documents. This comparison will give them a more sophisticated understanding of the rapid evolution in American political consciousness that Common Sense brought about. Teachers supervising this research may want to direct students to particular sections of these texts and supply background material that describes the changes that were transforming America in the period when the documents were written.
2. Students interested in a biographical approach can put Thomas Paine in context with some of the other revolutionary era founders. Have the students read the National Park Service: Links to the Past on-line biographical profiles of Thomas Paine, Sam Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. (Links provided below.) Either in groups or as a full class have students list and discuss what each of the leaders did and did not have in common with one another. Then consider the following questions in a full class discussion or as a paper assignment:
Biographies on the National Park Service: Links to the Past website:
4 class periods