On January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine published anonymously the pamphlet Common Sense. A powerful treatise that would serve a critical role in shifting public discourse and opinion in favor of breaking ties with the British crown. And yet, most Americans rarely consider Paine a central figure in much of anything, let alone the birth of our nation.
As Gordon S. Wood states in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Common Sense and Other Writings, “We cannot quite bring ourselves to treat him as one of America’s founding fathers.” Yet, his influence as a public figure can hardly be denied. The first printing of Common Sense sold out in a week. It was in such high demand it would go on to have dozens of editions and sell over 150,000 copies, an unheard of number during that period when most pamphlets were lucky to break a thousand.
Why is it then we so rarely associate Thomas Paine with the American Revolution when nearly everyone on both sides of the pond probably read his writings? A celebrity of the eighteenth century, Paine’s skill set of putting radical ideas and concepts into laymen’s terms made his work an invaluable tool for the founding fathers.
In the introduction to his pamphlet, Paine readily admits the ideas he’s putting forth are controversial but believes readers will eventually come to agree with him.
“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.”
Nearly all of us have at least heard of Common Sense, especially if you’ve seen the movie National Treasure, but do we ever delve into the man behind the words? When our first nonfiction serial, 1776: The World Turned Upside Down, launches on January 24th you’ll get to learn more about Thomas Paine and other revolutionary figures, some might be new to you and others you’ll learn about the person before they became a legend.