Guest Essayist: Scot Faulkner, Co-Founder, George Washington Institute of Living Ethics, Shepherd University

As 1776 began, America’s rebellion against British colonial rule was not yet a revolution.  Less than half the projected number of volunteers had enlisted in the Continental army with desertions mounting.  George Washington was entrenched, but stalemated in Cambridge outside of Boston. The British Commander, General John Burgoyne, mocked the situation by writing and producing the satirical play, “The Blockade”, which portrayed Washington as an incompetent flailing a rusty sword.  Then something amazing happened.

“Common Sense” was published on January 9, 1776.  It remains one of the most indispensable documents of America’s founding.  In forty-eight pages, Thomas Paine accomplished three things fundamental to America.  He is the first to publically assert the only possible outcome of the rebellion is independence from Great Britain. He makes the case for American independence understandable and accessible to everyone.  He lays the ground work for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

Paine is both the most unlikely and likely person to accomplish this pivotal Trifecta.  He was born in rural England on January 29, 1737, the son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother. This religious diversity formed a key part of his early writings on religious freedom. His career was a mixture of failed business ventures, failed marriages, and minor positions in British Excise (tax) offices. This mix of mundane activities masked the brilliant mind of an outstanding observer, thinker, and communicator.

In the summer of 1772, Paine wrote his first political article, The Case of the Officers of Excise, a twenty-one page brief for better pay and working conditions among Excise Officers. The work had little impact on Parliament, but did bring him to the attention of political thinkers in London, and ultimately to being introduced to Benjamin Franklin in September 1774. Franklin recommended that Paine immigrate to Pennsylvania and commence a publishing career.  Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774 and became editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine in January 1775.

Editing the magazine gave Paine two major opportunities.  He honed his writing skills for appealing to a mass audience and he befriended those opposing British colonial rule, including Benjamin Rush, an active member of the Sons of Liberty. After open rebellion erupted in April 1775, Rush was concerned that, “When the subject of American independence began to be agitated in conversation, I observed the public mind to be loaded with an immense mass of prejudice and error relative to it”.  He urged Paine to make the case for American independence understandable to common people.

Common Sense was just that. Paine laid out methodical and easily understood reasons for American independence in plain terms. Up until Common Sense those opposed to British rule did so only in lengthy philosophical letters circulated among intellectual elites.

Common Sense ushered in a new style of political writing, devoid of Latin phrases and complex concepts.  Historian Scott Liell asserts in Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence: “[B]y including all of the colonists in the discussion that would determine their future, Common Sense became not just a critical step in the journey toward American independence but also an important artifact in the foundation of American democracy.”

Paine’s simple prose promoted the premise that the rebellion was not about subjects wronged by their monarch, but a separate and independent people being oppressed by a foreign power:

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.  This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.  Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”Common Sense was an instant bestseller. It sold as many as 120,000 copies in the first three months, 500,000 in twelve months, going through twenty-five editions in the first year alone. This amazingly wide distribution was among a free population of only 2 million Americans.

Originally published anonymously as “Written by an Englishman”, word soon spread that Paine was the author.  His authorship known, Paine publically declared that all proceeds would go to the purchase of woolen mittens for Continental soldiers. General Washington ordered Paine’s pamphlet distributed among all his troops. Within the year, Paine became an aide-de-camp to Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s top field commanders.

Common Sense was not only read by the masses, it was read to them. In countless taverns and local gatherings Paine’s case for American independence and for a unique American form of government was heard even by common folk who had never learned to read.

The masses heard and embraced the concept that, “A government of our own is our natural right”.  They also heard and understood the foundations of America: Government as a “necessary evil” formed and maintained by the will of the governed – “in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King”; and the need for an engaged electorate, “this frequent interchange will establish a common interest with every part of the community, they will mutually and naturally support each other, and on this, (not on the unmeaning name of king,) depends the strength of government, and the happiness of the governed.”

While the Declaration of Independence became the philosophical core of our Revolution, Common Sense initiated and broadened the public debate about independence, building the public commitment necessary to make our Revolution possible.

March 11, 2013 – Essay #16

Read Common Sense by Thomas Paine here:

Scot Faulkner is Co-Founder of the George Washington Institute of Living Ethics, Shepherd University.  Follow him on Twitter @ScotFaulkner53




13 replies
  1. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Maybe it’s time for a refresher course on “Common Sense”. That might be the spark that is needed to reclaim our Nation and remind those in office that government is through the consent of the governed. Unless the governed today don’t mind the near tyrannical government threatening our freedoms.

    • Scot Faulkner
      Scot Faulkner says:

      Remembering why America happened is about the underlying principles as well as the pivotal events, people, and documents. Our civic culture is at risk because so few people take the time to read and understand who we are.

  2. Ron
    Ron says:

    This may be the heart of our national problem; “The more simple any thing is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.” Our government has grown into such a complex monster that “we have to pass a law to find out what’s in it” and even then, no one can really understand what’s in it. Every reasonable citizen knows what the problems are, but it’s no longer easy to repair because there are so many advocates and beneficiaries for thousands of programs that it’s almost impossible to solve even one of the well-known problems without upsetting a large percentage of the citizens.

    We need another “Common Sense” today. Even with it, we would need to reprint another set of Federalist Papers in language so simple that even those who buy into the Progressive agenda might understand how far that agenda is from the optimal structure that our founders left for us – and how that agenda is a path to destruction of our Republic. It reminds me of the book “Pilgrim’s Progress;” since our Republic’s journey began more than 200 years ago, we’ve found so many appealing paths to follow that we now have no idea how to get back to the path we were on. All these side paths seem so satisfying for the present that we don’t understand that we’ll never reach our ultimate, most satisfying, destination if we allow ourselves to keep getting diverted. We Constitutionalists have a lot of work to do!

    • yguy
      yguy says:

      We need another “Common Sense” today. Even with it, we would need to reprint another set of Federalist Papers in language so simple that even those who buy into the Progressive agenda might understand how far that agenda is from the optimal structure that our founders left for us – and how that agenda is a path to destruction of our Republic.

      Many conservatives seem to think liberals are intellectually deficient compared to conservatives, but such egoism can only serve as a basis for grave strategic and tactical errors. Liberals don’t believe in absurdities because of any lack of intellectual capacity, but because their thinking has become emotionalized as a result of the increasing feminization of the American body politic.

    • Scot Faulkner
      Scot Faulkner says:

      Ron you are correct. America needs a 21st Century version of “Common Sense” to remind us that our founding principles are timeless and still very relevant today. This document also needs to make people aware of the fundamental threats to these principles (both foriegn and domestic).

  3. Linda Moak
    Linda Moak says:

    I loved this guest essay! And, how very prescient his words are 200 plus years later…it seems that many of our culture’s failings have arisen out of this conflict between society and government with reference to their respective roles. Post modern America has bought into the same old lies as those in merry old England. Thomas Paine seemed to know and embrace “truth”…sadly, America has exchanged the “truth” for self-actualization and a culture of blame.

  4. James
    James says:

    As someone who has, over the past 5-6 years, begun to study the laws of nature that the Declaration of Independence centered around, around the concept that government is established for the purpose of protecting equally life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not to rule over people, which is exaclty what the revolution was a fight against. When Paine wrote that the law is king, it is the laws of nature that he was referencing.

    What our nation has become is the exact tyranny that the our founders fought against. They call ruling over us service, when it is really just code wording in order to sell themselves to the ignorant public, that they might retain their power and grow it.

    The path that Ron speaks of is the path back to God, morality and virtue, which are the pillars of liberty, as well as the path to education based on the self-evident truths contained in the Declaration and within the laws of nature.

  5. Jared Midwood
    Jared Midwood says:

    This essay was an eloquent and relevant reminder of Thomas Paine’s important work. Paine is responsible for boosting colonial morale during the Revolutionary War, setting the stage for American religious liberty and political freedom, and influencing the Founding Fathers in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. His message remains fundamental to the very principles and values that the United States was built upon, and it is extremely important for today’s generation to be acquainted with his work. Maybe if every American citizen read “Common Sense” and an adept background / analysis such as the one by Scot Faulkner, they would be inspired to change the course our country is on today.

    • Scot Faulkner
      Scot Faulkner says:

      Dear Jared:

      You are right on target. American education steers away from teaching the fundamental principles, documents, and events that made us who we are.

      As important is Pop culture. The entertainment industry would rather clutter our movie theaters with films about car chases and drug dealers instead of “Lincoln”. Up through th 1950s, movies and television shows about American history were a staple. Now they are rare. The British get it right – in the last decade they have had wonderful historical films, like “The King’s Speech” and “Young Victoria”. They strike the right balance between personalizing and enobling their history. In America we mostly have the liberal agitprop of Quentin Tarrantino and Oliver Stone.

      Every one of the 90 in 90 documents have amazing stories that would make compelling films.

      • Ron
        Ron says:

        Perhaps the producers of “The Bible” series currently airing could be convinced to produce such a series, perhaps based on Hillsdale’s Constitutional Reader

  6. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    The full text of the final edition of “Common Sense” included the addendum of the subsequent letter exchanges that spilled over into a dialogue with Quakers. In there, Thomas Paine charges the Quakers not to play politics for their requesting colonists to refrain from meddling with the affairs with Parliament and the King of England. He retorts back why they do not complain then about the King’s meddling with the affairs of the colonists.

    What strikes me most; however, is the common dialogue of the day made so much use of Bible reference, Bible stories, and Bible examples as part of the debate, which in this case Thomas Paine uses the Bible as a text for making a case against why the King is not have a Divine Right to rule the American Colonies. And yet, in these post modern times we have atheists and skeptics who laud Thomas Paine as being deist at best, and atheist at worst. But regardless of the religious views of Paine, which in another letter to the constitutional convention of France encouraged French schools to teach the science and nature of God who created all things and is the progenitor of the sciences (meaning knowledge), you simply could not make any debate in those days without being versed in Scripture. Because so often was Bible references made in writings that if you did not know the Bible references or stories, you would be at a disadvantage of context.

    Nowadays, we have people churning out with PhDs who have not even read the Bible, and yet claim to be an authority on these classical documents supposing to be our historians. Back then, you could not even graduate from college anywhere in the American colonies without having the ability to give a sermon, read the Latin, Greek and maybe even Hebrew in the original texts, and cite classical authors from their original writings. Today, scholars are rather classically illiterate as they cannot read original classics and have to resort to hear-say of those who have translated original classics or wrote their paraphrases and interpretations about them. Higher education, in all of its lofty accolades, has become vulgar and where does that leave the commoner today but left to fend for themselves with the classics? It gets to the point where you cannot trust that you are getting good information from the education system and have to slog through a lot of misinformation to get to the real deal.

  7. Ron
    Ron says:

    Ralph, I’ve always enjoyed the wisdom in your comments over the three years of these studies. What you say here is absolutely correct. I’ve been amazed at how frequently the Bible is quoted directly or indirectly. I would not have known that had I not started these studies.

    It’s encouraged me to work more to connect the Bible and our founding documents. For example, I see strong connections between the Biblical Exodus and the exodus of Christians from Europe to America; later, the progressivism of the Israelites, leading to their destruction, being similar to the progressivism of Europeans and Americans today, ultimately leading to our destruction if we don’t reverse our course.

    One connection I’ve recently made is to the Declaration of Independence:
    Life: Created by God in His image
    Liberty: Free Will
    Pursuit of Happiness: Eternal happiness, not ephemeral hedonistic pleasure

    Looking forward to more of your wisdom.


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