Full Title: Common Sense Author: Thomas Paine Year: 1776 Publisher: Forgotten Books
ISBN 978-1605060309 (U.S.) View It On Amazon Wikipedia
Common Sense was originally published as a “pamphlet”, with the goal of inspiring
colonists in North America to demand (and fight for) independence from Great Britain. Paine
wrote in a direct, concise manner understandable by the common person. His pamphlet was aimed
at the great majority of Americans, who were understood to be uncommitted to either side on the
independence issue. Because of the incendiary (even treasonous) language and uncertain future
of the colonies, Paine first published it anonymously.
At least one newspaper reprinted the book in its entirety, and others created handwritten
summaries or even entire copies to circulate. Dozens of editions were cranked out and it’s
estimated that 500,000 copies were sold in the first year alone. Relative to the size of the
population at the time, about 2-3 million, Common Sense was the best-selling book in American
history. George Washington made sure the pamphlet was read to his troops.
What I Liked Least About It
My particular version of the book, published by Forgotten Books, was oddly formatted in a
san serif font with spaces between quotation marks and words, which could be distracting at
times. I’m certain this was the fault of the publisher, however, since I’ve seen
and read other versions in the past.
As for Paine’s actual writing, it’s brilliant, especially considering the time in
which it was written, and his intended audience. Perhaps my only complaint is that he
occasionally states that the argument to follow will be entirely constructed of reason, but then
after a few logical points he ascends to heights of rhetoric and appeal to emotion. It
struck me as dishonest, though no more so than most political arguments today.
What I Liked Most About It
The huge draw of this book, both today and in the late 1700s, is of course that it actually
makes sense, and that there are no complex lines of thinking — thus the perfect title:
“Common Sense”. Paine makes the case for several assertions, including the
absurdity of a tiny island ruling a giant continent, that Americans were from all over
Europe rather than just England, that being considered part of England meant being dragged
into England’s regular wars with other European nations (irrelevant to America), that
the vast distance across the ocean meant unweildy and inefficient rule — it could
take many months to receive a response to any grievance, and that Britain was ruling the
colonies for her own good with little respect as for the good of the Americans.
But beyond that, he made a strong case against monarchy in general, and specifically against
the form of English government — something that nation still has failed to address.
There are many quotable portions, including the following:
“But there is another and great distinction for which no truly natural or religious
reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into KINGS and SUBJECTS. Male
and female are the distinctions of nature, good and bad the distinctions of Heaven; but
how a race of men came into the world so exalted above the rest, and distinguished like
some new species, is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness or
of misery to mankind.”
While I can say with a surety that I would not like to have lived during revolutionary times
in America — the smell alone would likely make me gag, not to mention the lack of
modern medicine and technology — if I must have lived then, I hope I would be in the
company of thinking persons like Paine.
The advantage of 240 extra years of history is helpful, yet I think modern writers could
add or subtract little to Paine’s work in order to have a greater effect on the
colonists at the time.