In 1774, an Englishman named Thomas Paine, having met Benjamin Franklin and received letters of introduction from him, immigrated to Pennsylvania and entered the print media industry. Paine’s ties to Franklin thrust him into revolutionary circles almost immediately, and, at his American friends’ urging, in early January 1776, he published an essay called “Common Sense.”
Paine’s tract became a best-seller virtually overnight—arguably the most popular printed work ever produced in America, right up to the present. Within 90 days of its release, it had been purchased by roughly one out of every eight adult colonists; most Americans read “Common Sense,” and if they couldn’t read it, someone else read it to them.
In true Enlightenment fashion, Paine’s essay used reason (or “common sense”) to excoriate the very notion of monarchy—and the men and women who wore the crown.
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.
Monarchs ruled by coercion, not divine sanction. They made serious (and often criminal) mistakes all the time, even if their advisers were the ones to always take the blame. Monarchs were often stupid or brutish or unprepared, and their rule was arbitrary anyway.
In addition to questioning monarchy in general, “Common Sense” introduced ideas of independence from Britain. This was important, since most Americans with revolutionary leanings nevertheless felt apprehensive about actual secession from the empire. Paine cut through such misgivings by an appeal to “common sense.”
Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” Paine wrote. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”
“Common Sense,” too, seems to have convinced hundreds of thousands of Americans that they could be part of something historically unique, important, and earth-shaking.
We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand …
Paine’s call was for “The Free and Independent States of America.” Thousands began reading as agitators for their rights as freeborn Englishmen; thousands finished reading as agitators for outright independence.
Bucking Up the Continental Army
Fast forward 10 months—and the Continental Army had retreated into New Jersey. Having lost New York, and with winter approaching, “Patriot” morale was at its lowest since the Revolution began. Washington’s army was dwindling; some had deserted, others had died or been captured, and enlistments were about to expire as Washington’s few thousand ragged troops marched wearily on into Pennsylvania.
That’s when a new pamphlet by Paine arrived, the first in a series collectively known as “The American Crisis.” Crucially, Washington distributed copies to his men. The pamphlet’s opening line:
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 his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.
For Washington’s dilapidated band—reportedly on the verge of calling it quits until the general ordered Paine’s essay read aloud—the line immediately became an unofficial motto.
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” Paine thundered next, before reminding his embattled listeners why they fought:
Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared, that she has a right (not only to TAX) but “to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER,” and if being bound in that manner is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious, for so unlimited a power can belong only to God.
Paine then spoke directly of the Continental Army itself, even on the heels of its New York defeat:
I shall not now attempt to give all the particulars of our retreat [through New Jersey] to the Delaware [River], suffice it for the present to say, that both officers and men, though greatly harassed and fatigued, frequently without self, covering or provision, the inevitable consequences of a long retreat, bore it with a manly and martial spirit.
Once again, Paine’s words arrived just when they were needed most.
The date of the “Crisis” reading was Dec. 23, 1776. The Americans desperately needed a win. Two days later, they got one.
It was Christmas night when Washington led his men daringly across the icy Delaware River to surprise the Hessians stationed nearby. By the numbers, the Battle of Trenton was a minor engagement, but for its meaning to the revolutionaries’ cause, it was momentous.
After the battle, Washington is reported to have remarked, “This is a glorious day for our country.”
It may never have happened absent the might of Paine’s pen.
Dr. Jackson, who teaches Western, Islamic, American, Asian, and world histories at the university level, is also known on YouTube as “The Nomadic Professor.” You can follow his work, including entire online history courses featuring his signature on-location videos filmed the world over, at NomadicProfessor.com