THE UNCOMMON MAN BEHIND "COMMON SENSE"
Throughout the winter of 1776, months before America's first Fourth, Philadelphia heard a call to independence. The call was no lawyer's tangle, no politician's puffery. This was common speech, common logic. This was Common Sense.
Despite resentment of British "tyranny," few were talking of revolution. We must remain loyal to the crown... If only the king would... But this new argument was clear, powerful, remarkable.
--"The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind."
-- "There is something very absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island."
-- "Every thing that is right or reasonable pleads for separation. The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘Tis time to part.'"
Stirring words, but who wrote them?
"Who the author of this Production is, is wholly unnecessary to the Public," the pamphlet noted, "as the Object for Attention is the Doctrine itself, not the Man."
The pamphlet sold 50,000, then 75,000, then 100,000 copies. Common Sense was reprinted in newspapers, read aloud in taverns and on village greens. "If you know the author of COMMON SENSE," a Philadelphia newspaper wrote, "tell him he has done wonders and worked miracles."
When the author finally emerged, his pedigree was British but his story just so damned American. Like some modern movie hero, his timing perfect, his spirit soaring, Thomas Paine burst onto the American scene. Born to a poor family in England, Paine toiled as a rope maker, a tax collector, a carpenter. With a grammar school education and a failed marriage behind him, he moved to London in 1774. A single newspaper article earned him an introduction to Ben Franklin. The old printer took to the young writer and wrote Paine a letter of recommendation. In November of 1774, Paine boarded a ship, westbound.
During a stormy Atlantic crossing, typhoid killed several passengers. Arriving in Philadelphia, Paine was carried ashore. But by spring, when shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Paine was editing Pennsylvania Magazine. That fall, his article on independence brought him into a circle of like-minded rebels. On January 10, 1776, Common Sense hit the streets.
How could one reconcile with the king when monarchy "has in it the nature of oppression." King George, that "Royal Brute," was a "hardened, sullen-tempered Pharoah." Hadn't history shown that "of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived"?
Few books have changed the world, but without Common Sense, John Adams wrote, "the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain." Paine was not finished, however. As "America's first embedded journalist," (New York Times) he camped with ragged, dispirited troops. One night huddled by a fire, he wrote: "These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman..." Washington had this salvo read to his soldiers. Paine pumped out more passionate arguments in The American Crisis. (Read a Thomas Paine Sampler in The Dusty Bookshelf.)
After independence, Paine was the proverbial rebel without a cause. "I have exiled myself from one country without making a home of another," he lamented. Back in England, he watched as French peasants overthrew another king, terrifying conservatives but inspiring his Rights of Man. England suppressed the book and took him to court. In 1792, Paine fled into the turmoil of the French Revolution where he joined the National Assembly, then during the Reign of Terror, was nearly guillotined. Freed, he finally returned to America. When he died in 1809, just six people came to his funeral.
Rights of Man was just too radical. Imagine calling for women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, letting all men vote, a progressive income tax, and questioning organized religion. John Adams blamed the French Revolution on "Paine's yellow fever." A century later, Theodore Roosevelt called Paine "a filthy little atheist."
Today, Americans across the political spectrum embrace Thomas Paine. Ronald Reagan used his stirring claim, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Progressives love how he championed the common man -- and woman. Some said Paine's exaltation of individual freedom made him "the patron saint of the Internet." So where is the Thomas Paine memorial? And Paine himself?
Buried on his New York farm, Paine's body was exhumed and taken to England in hopes of a memorial. But plans -- and bones – crumbled; the body disappeared. Today, one historian noted, "All over the world there are people who claim to have a piece of Thomas Paine," a bone here or there. Like his immortal phrases -- "rights of man," "age of reason," "These are the times..." Thomas Paine is embedded in the world.