Making History

All authors want to be published and relatively well known in their lifetimes. Some are. And a few of those (very few) actually manage to help change history. One of those was Thomas Paine, an Englishman whose pamphlet, Common Sense, helped drive the American Revolution and shape many of its core beliefs. The pamphlet was first published anonymously on January 10, 1776. It became an immediate success and, in relation to the population of the colonies at the time, it had the largest sale and circulation of any book in American history.

Paine–a British-born expat–began Common Sense in 1775, just as the Revolution was really starting to heat up. Unlike most Enlightenment thinkers and writers, he wrote for the common man, avoiding Latin phrases and complicated literary allusions. He shaped his arguments in favor of independence by viewing the matter from both Biblical and historical perspectives. He rejected the notion of hereditary monarchy by arguing that all men are born equal, claimed it was absurd for a mere island to rule a whole continent, and pointed out that America was not, actually, a British nation but was a melting pot made up of people from all over Europe (he ignored the Native Americans).

Dr. Benjamin Rush helped edit the pamphlet, and it was printed and sold by R. Bell in Philadelphia. The pamphlet exploded, selling 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 the first year (and let’s not forget, this was a time when there were only about 3 million people living in the colonies, and not all of them were literate). R. Bell printed 25 editions in the first year alone. Paine donated all his proceeds to George Washington’s Continental Army.

Common Sense was read throughout the country in homes and taverns, and it greatly helped spread revolutionary ideas, bolster support for the cause, and aid recruitment to the army. Paine wasn’t done: in late 1776 he published The Crisis to inspire soldiers in their fight against the British. His writings and later diplomatic service were considered so helpful, he was later awarded $3,000 (a considerable sum in those days) as recognition for his services to the nation.

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