Thursday, November 20, 2014

John Ferling on Paine's Common Sense

Nothing that I have read, by or about Tom Paine, does so good a job explaining my connection to the great American revolutionary as this passage from John Ferling’s book, Independence:The Struggle to Set America Free, Bloomsbury Press:2011, pp. 217 – 223.  

Tom Paine didn't invent the American Revolution, he brought people around – aristocrats and the common people alike – to the necessity and the urgency of it.

This passage is totally worthy of your time and attention.  If you like what you read here, read the book.

Just days before word of the Canadian calamity reached Congress, an express arrived with the first tidings of George III's October address to Parliament.  “It is decisive," a New Englander instantly responded.  No greater proof was needed that Britain's monarch "meant to make himself an absolute despotic Tyrant."  Samuel Ward added that "Every Man must now be convinced that . . . our Safety depends wholly upon a brave, wise and determined Resistance."  Samuel Adams told others that this proved the king was the driving force behind British policy.  War guilt "must lie at his Door," he added.  A Virginian, Francis Lightfoot Lee, concurred.  The king's speech laid bare his and North's “bloody intentions" and demonstrated beyond doubt that it was folly to any longer continue "gaping after a reconciliation."
Thirty-six hours after the express brought the king's speech to town, Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the most important pamphlet published in the American Revolution – indeed, the most influential pamphlet published in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America – hit Philadelphia's streets.  Its central argument was cogent and timely: Reconciliation was not in the best interests of the colonists.
The thirty-seven-year-old Paine was an Englishman who, like Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams,
had failed at numerous endeavors.  Unemployed, divorced, and at loose ends, he had left his homeland in 1774 to begin a new life in America.  He claimed that he came to the colonies planning to start a school for girls, but if that was his intention, he never got around to it.  In his last years in England, with time heavy on his hands, Paine had taken to writing essays.  He discovered that he had a facility for writing.  Furthermore, he could earn a modest living as an author, enabling him to avoid toiling for sixty hours a week, as his other jobs had required.  Paine had hardly landed in Philadelphia before he took up his pen.  He published a newspaper or magazine article roughly every two weeks during his initial ten months in the city.  He wrote about the war, calling it wicked and "unworthy [of] a British soldier," attacked slavery, and reflected on science, mathematics, dogs, dueling, women ("at all times and in all places" women have been "adored and oppressed"), love, ancient history, and unhappy marriages.
Within a few months, it was apparent to Paine's growing number of readers that he was no ordinary writer.  His essays, typified by a seldom-equaled clarity, also brandished an unmatched passion and verve.  Sometime in the autumn of 1775 – most likely when Dickinson persuaded the Pennsylvania assembly to instruct its delegates to Congress to seek redress and reconciliation – some congressmen and private citizens in Philadelphia appealed to Paine to pen a tract urging American independence.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of Philadelphia's leading physicians, somewhat artlessly though accurately told Paine that he had nothing to lose by writing such a radical essay.  What, Rush asked, could happen to someone who was already unemployed and nearly penniless?
The thought had already crossed Paine's mind.  Though he had previously intended to write a series of short newspaper pieces on American independence, the entreaties of influential men set him to thinking in terms of writing a longer essay suitable for a pamphlet, and in November he commenced work.  Paine made writing look easy, though in reality it was hard, slow work for him.  He lashed himself to his desk for a few hours daily and over the course of a month crafted an essay of some eighteen thousand words.  Not much of his argument was original.  He had heard the ideas bandied about in coffeehouses and taverns, and some of his polemic – especially those portions dealing with governance in England – was the staple of eighteenth-century English radicalism.  It was Paine's genius to marshal the disparate arguments in a cohesive and straightforward manner.  Above all, Paine presented his arguments to readers in an inviting literary style.  Common Sense was free of nearly indecipherable jargon and minus the recurrent Latin phraseology so popular with the lawyers who wrote most of the pamphlets.  It was crucial for Paine to write in an accessible manner, as he was seeking to do what few other pamphleteers had ever tried.  Most pamphleteers wrote for the best educated in society.  Paine consciously sought a wider audience.  His object was to convince the mass of colonists that it was desirable and feasible for America to sever its ties with Great Britain, and he especially wished to bring on a transformation in how American independence was viewed by the inhabitants of the most recalcitrant colonies, including Pennsylvania.
The first few pages of Common Sense, which are no longer well remembered, were not unimportant.  Paine explained that government was much simpler than the common people had been led to believe by the best educated and socially elite, who, of course, wished to continue monopolizing power.  As government's purpose was to secure the safety and well-being of the citizenry, Paine wrote, it was only "common sense" that the citizenry should share in the governing process.  In sketchy terms, he outlined republican governance.  All that America needed for its government was a unicameral assembly (which it had in Congress) that was broadly representative of the people (which was not particularly true of Congress, though Paine did not point this out).  In such a system, Paine continued, the elected representatives would have "the same concerns at stake [as] those who have appointed them" and would share "a common interest with every part of the community."
Great Britain's system was the very antithesis of what he had described, Paine told his readers.  Dominated by a monarch – who came to the throne through hereditary succession – and a titled nobility who inherited seats in one house of Parliament, Britain's rulers seldom displayed "fidelity to the public" and "contribute[d] nothing towards the freedom of the State." The Crown – the monarchy – was the "overbearing part in the English constitution," the engine that drove the entire system, Paine added.  As Common Sense appeared at the same moment that word of the king's October speech to Parliament arrived in the colonies, what Paine said appeared to be dead on target.
"The evil of monarchy," Paine asserted, was that it had left England groaning under kings who all too often were "foolish . . . wicked, and . . . improper,” sometimes too young, over and again too old, on many occasions "ignorant and unfit," their "minds . . . early poisoned" by the belief that they were "born to reign, and others to obey." Not least among the iniquities of monarchy was that royal families were sequestered from their subjects to the point that they were unfamiliar with the wants and needs of the people.  Kings, Paine went on, had little to do but create titles and make wars, and the wars they had started had "laid . . . the world in blood and ashes." The staggering result of war after war, not to mention the cost of creating sinecures for favorites and sycophants, was that the citizenry had been shackled with oppressive taxes to pay for it all.
But above all else, if monarchy contributed little of benefit to the people of England, it was actively baneful to colonists who lived three thousand miles away and whose outlook and interests were usually strikingly different from those of the English Crown and nobility.
However, by remaining tied to Great Britain, Americans were victimized by far more than monarchs and aristocrats.  The American people and the British nation had dissimilar interests, but imperial governments sought almost solely to advance the interests of the latter.  As a result, the connection to royal Britain left Americans to suffer "injuries and disadvantages."
This moved Paine to challenge Congress's very reason for fighting the war: to reconcile with Great Britain.  To remain tied to the mother country would not only inhibit American commerce; it would also subject the American people to a "second hand government" on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  “America is only a secondary object" to that British government, he contended.  "England consults the good of this country no further than it answers to her own purpose." It will drag America into European wars that are of no concern to the colonists.  It would fight those wars as long as it wishes.  It would make whatever peace on whatever terms it pleases without consultation with the provincial authorities.
There were those who said that “America has flourished under her . . . connection with Great Britain [and] the same connection is necessary towards her future happiness,” Paine wrote.  This was a “fallacious” assertion, he responded.  “We may as well assert that because a child has thrived upon milk, that it is never to have meat." Others said that Britain has protected America.  True, Paine wrote, but London safeguarded the colonies in order to exploit their wealth and trade.  Dependence was no longer necessary.  America was capable of standing on its feet.
Paine took a swipe at "all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation," including those in Congress and none more clearly than Dickinson.  He charged that they were "Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men, who cannot see; prejudiced men, who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men, who think better of the European world than it deserves; and this last class, by an ill-judged deliberation, will be the cause of more calamities to this continent, than all the other three."
He then threw down the gauntlet: "I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain." None existed, Paine insisted.  Once independent of Great Britain, Americans could govern themselves and secure the true interests of America.  Peace and prosperity would ensue.  "Our plan is commerce, and that, well attended to, will secure us the peace and friendship of all Europe; because it is the interest of all Europe to have America a free port." The time had come to declare American independence.  “’TIS TIME TO PART."
Once it was independent, republican America would be an example to the world.  American independence would strike "a new era for politics” – it would be nothing less than the 'birthday of a new world." Sounding very much like the revolutionary that he was, Paine proclaimed, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
In the final section of Common Sense, Paine maintained that victory in a prolonged war for independence could be won.  America was unified and debt-free, and it had the resources and manpower for creating powerful armies and a sturdy navy.  (America needed a fleet only one-twentieth the size of the Royal Navy to be "an over-match for her," he claimed.) Paine implied – he was careful not to make this a categorical argument – that help from Great Britain’s traditional European enemies, France and Spain, could be had and that it would be useful.  What he did say unreservedly was that it was "unreasonable” to expect French and Spanish assistance so long as reconciliation – “strengthening the connection between Britain and America" – was the object of the war.  When Congress declared independence, he implied, Versailles and Madrid would find that intervention on America's behalf was desirable; for if London lost its colonies, Great Britain would be seriously weakened.  Aside from Paine's assaults on monarchy and reconciliation, it was this cogent passage – merely one long sentence -- that made Common Sense so timely.  The pamphlet had no more than appeared before word arrived of the disaster at Quebec.  Where once many would have taken umbrage at the thought of a foreign alliance, the horrific failure in Canada led many to see that close ties with France were perhaps America's only hope of saving itself.
Four days after Common Sense hit the streets, a New Hampshire delegate reported that it had been "greedily bought up and read by all ranks of people” in Philadelphia.  Another congressman related that it "has had a great Sale.” John Hancock said that the pamphlet "makes much talk here." Franklin informed a correspondent that it "has made a great Impression here." Samuel Adams, one of the first to purchase the tract, immediately sent copies to friends in Massachusetts, informing them that it had "fretted some folks here." Other delegates eagerly wished to learn what the authorities back home thought of "the general spirit of it," and some explicitly asked provincial leaders if they had been converted by Common Sense to "relish independency.”
Common Sense hit like a bombshell.  Some 250 pamphlets on the Anglo-American crisis had been published in America during the previous decade, and none had come close to equaling the sales of Paine's tract.  Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania had outsold all rivals before 1776, but within a few months, nearly one hundred times more copies of Common Sense may have been sold than Dickinson's immensely popular leaflet had realized during its eight-year life span.  Timing was obviously crucial for Paine’s success, as was his crisp and lucid writing style.  But so too was his palpable rage at Great Britain.  Unbridled fury seemed to leap from the pages of the pamphlet.  Paine’s wrath struck a responsive chord with Americans who were beside themselves with anger at a mother country that made war on its colonies and willfully destroyed port cities, incited Indian attacks, and fomented slave insurrections.
Paine's euphoria at an American Revolution – a term that had not yet come into common usage – also transported readers.  He provided a transcendent meaning for the events that were churning up the lives of the inhabitants of the colonies.  Not only did the fate of contemporaries hang in the balance, Paine said; unborn generations of Americans and Europeans also depended on the creation of an independent America.  “’Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now," Paine wrote.  He proclaimed that "a new era" had begun on April 19, 1775 – the day the war began – an epoch that would be ushered in by cleansing changes, none more important than the republicanism that would supplant rule by monarchy and privileged nobility, preserving "the RIGHTS OF MANKIND." “The time hath found us," he declared, and it had brought forth the "seed-time of continental union, faith, and honor," and above all of American nationhood and American independence.  No one had said such things in print previously, but across the broad landscape countless Americans took to heart what Paine had written, and their ready acceptance of his radical message quickened the pace toward American independence.