Common Sense

By Thomas Paine, 1776

Review is copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry. All Rights Reserved.

Published: 2015.11.27

Copyright 2015 by Wil C. Fry.
Some rights reserved.
Full Title: Common Sense
Author: Thomas Paine
Year: 1776
Publisher: Forgotten Books
ISBN 978-1605060309 (U.S.)
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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.

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