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Common Sense is Published - This Day in History - January 10th, 1776

Posted on Monday, January 10, 2022

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On This Day in History, January 10th, 1776, Thomas Paine's influential pamphlet Common Sense was published.

Common Sense Historical Marker at Third and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia

Thomas Paine spent nearly the first 35 years of his life in England, until in 1772 he had a chance encounter with Benjamin Franklin who witnessed a speech he gave before British Parliament. Impressed with Paine, the two began meeting regularly to discuss politics and developed a friendship. It was on the advice of Franklin that Paine decided to move to Franklin's adopted hometown of Philadelphia in November of 1774.

Shortly after Paine's arrival in Philadelphia, the first battles of the American Revolution were fought in Massachusetts. Paine was invigorated to be in America as so many were speaking out against a British government that Paine had long viewed as unjust, but he was disappointed by how pervasive loyalty to the British Crown nonetheless remained in America. Even some of the most ardent supporters of the war hoped for a reconciliation with the British Crown once disputes were settled. Paine on the other hand saw this conflict as a great opportunity for America to permanently declare its independence, grab the reigns of power and usher in a radical new democratic government.

Paine did however find allies in Philadelphia who shared his desire for true independence from Great Britain, among them was Benjamin Rush who was introduced to Paine through letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. It was Rush who helped to encourage Paine to write a pamphlet extolling the benefits of American independence and once Paine had written Common Sense, it was Rush who helped him secure a publisher in Robert Bell, who was unafraid to print the incendiary words against the British Crown contained in Common Sense. Bell published Common Sense at his print shop in Philadelphia on January 10th, 1776 and it quickly sold out. Future editions were published and sold out as quickly as they could be published. Over 25 editions were published in the first year alone and Common Sense quickly became the best selling pamphlet in the American Colonies and even sold widely in England and France as well. In fact, taking into account the proportion of books sold to the American population at the time, there is a compelling argument to be made that it is the best selling book in American History.

Thomas Paine Portrait located in the Second Bank of the United States Portrait Gallery

Perhaps the most powerful part of Common Sense was how Paine tied the actions of the British to the suffering of the common man. To many regular people in America, a lot of the taxes and restrictions that the British Parliament had passed, were seemingly irrelevant to their lives. To many, these seemed like the problems of the wealthy and the powerful, and there was little hope that their lives would improve much regardless of who was running America. Not only did Paine lay out why Americans should declare their independence, he also presented a radical new vision for what that independence should look like.

Paine showed that declaring independence was not just a necessary action to right a grievous wrong, it was an opportunity to create a new type of country that would not just benefit the wealthy, but everyone. Paine did not want to just declare independence from Great Britain, he wished to declare independence from the entire British system. Paine denounced the very idea of monarchy and pointed out how absurd it was that any common man should consent to one. While pointing intense criticism at King George and the British Monarchy, Paine also advocated for a new America where everyone had a voice regardless of their wealth, where anyone could vote or hold office, regardless of their economic station in life.

Before Common Sense was published, there were already many Americans who wanted Independence, but few were happy about it. Independence felt like something that the British had forced them into. Paine’s writings changed that. Not only did it convince many people that Independence was the only path forward, it brought excitement at the possibilities that Independence could bring.

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