"Common Sense": The Rhetoric of Popular Democracy

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.

Guiding Questions

Who was Thomas Paine and what particular impact did he have on the American Revolution?

What are the main ideas of Thomas Paine's Common Sense and how did they influence the people in England's 13 North American colonies?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to: identify important arguments for independence made in Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and explain why these arguments helped persuade American colonists that independence was necessary.

Describe the importance of Common Sense in the movement toward revolution.

Define the particular role of Thomas Paine in the American Revolution and describe the special skills that he brought to the work of the American Revolution.