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home : columns : columns May 26, 2018

2/27/2018 1:46:00 PM
Making sense of 'Common Sense'
By Jim Williams

Not long ago I was reading the late Christopher Hitchens book "Hitch-22," which was a fond look back at the life of a brilliant writer who was suffering from late-stage esophageal cancer.

He frequently mentioned Paine. I had to admit that I was unfamiliar with who this guy was. Unsatisfied with this revelation, I did a little Google sleuthing and discovered who and what Thomas Paine was - only one of the most important figures in the history of our country.

Paine wrote "Common Sense," or what he called, "the little pamphlet." This "pamphlet" was a rallying point for what became the Declaration of Independence. Initially published anonymously in January of 1776, "Common Sense" was written by an Englishman. At first, the working title was "Plain Truth." Starting out as a series of letters, it became too large to publish in that form so Paine later elected to publish it in pamphlet form. "Common Sense" presented to Americans during this time the most concise argument for freedom from British rule when many Americans were still undecided about which direction the country should proceed. What made "Common Sense" such a great book was that Paine wrote it in a way that the common person could read and understand it.

"Common Sense" was written in only four sections, outlining each argument for independence, noting the distinction between society and government, and explained the origins of monarchies and heredity succession from both a historical and biblical perspective. Paine argued in such a way it was clear that monarchies were obsolete and were no way to govern a new country based on freedom and liberty.

More importantly, Paine laid out in precise detail the disagreement with British rule. He explained in simple terms how ridiculous it was for a small English island to rule a huge and unexplored continent. He also presented a big-picture view of America as more than just a British colony; it was now a new country made up of people from all over Europe and beyond. The book allowed Americans to see how British rule and it's actions against America were not only immoral, but would see America as a British colony dragged unnecessarily into British wars.

Paine's pamphlet was the most popular book of the entire revolutionary era. Paine made political and moral ideas easy to understand for the common man. The book brought Americans together to debate political issues of the day. Disdaining large words and complex phrases, Paine wrote in a concise, simple way that helped make the book accessible to all Americans. Even Americans who were illiterate could hear the book read in public gatherings and become part of the debate.

Despite this, many of the colonists were unsure about whether to declare independence or remain loyal to British rule. Many in fact were leaning toward reconciliation with the King. But the moving words of Thomas Paine eventually inspired the colonists to get off the fence and into a fight for their independence and the future of their country.

In addition to "Common Sense," Paine wrote several other pamphlets worthy of note. "The Rights of Man" offered Paine's defense of the French Revolution. His views on this led to some jail time, and nearly got him executed. It appears that the ruling French didn't take too kindly to an Englishman stirring up the locals with talk of social welfare, advocating policies like progressive taxation, retirement benefits, and public employment. Not to mention voting for their rulers instead of having them appointed for them by the ruling monarchy.

Later, Paine produced probably his greatest work, "The Age of Reason." Here, Paine promoted deism, and challenges institutionalized religion and the legitimacy of the Bible. You can't say that Paine didn't know whom to piss-off in his lifetime. Despite his influence, only six people attended his funeral.

The importance of Thomas Paine and "Common Sense" to the founding of this country cannot be overstated.

In 1805, just a few years before Paine's death, John Adams wrote, "I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine."

I'm sure I would have discovered who Tom Paine was at some point, but I'd like to thank Chris Hitchens for his wonderful book, "Hitch-22," which exposed me to the writings of Thomas Paine as well as many other things. Look for a column about Christopher Hitchens in the near future.

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