Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Causes of the American Revolution: Part 4 – Tom Paine and Common Sense

At the beginning of 1776, Tom Paine, a brilliant British immigrant, published his fiery pamphlet, Common Sense. Many claim that its message turned the colonies towards revolution, independence from the political and economic control of Great Britain.

Dismissing best-sellers such as the Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter, can a blockbuster such as Common Sense change a nation’s thinking? Was it one of the causes of the American Revolution?

Certainly, Paine’s core anti-monarchy message absolutely meshed with the colonial opinion that the British King George III was a threat to American liberty and progress. Combine that with the constant assault of Parliament’s taxes and tariffs, occupation by British troops, and other draconian measures, guaranteed Common Sense wouldn’t be ignored.

Paine was an immigrant with a string of failures behind him when he arrived in prosperous Philadelphia. But he impressed people, got to know the right kind, including Franklin. He had enormous, varied interests; it didn’t take him long to become a journalist. He made good use of his skills. But his thinking was always ahead of his contemporaries. John Adams, with his conservative logic, didn’t like his ideas. He felt that, because of no moderation or balance, they would result in what I will describe as democratic bedlam.

How many other publications have changed a nation’s thinking? I could not think of a whole lot. I will limit my selection to Das Kapital and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Our Declaration of Independence will be discussed separately.

If you really think about what changed the thinking and direction of the world, I think it would have to have been religions. Along the way, of course, they have generated enormous hatred and still do.

I must confess that I haven’t always read book introductions. Many were too long and complex. But now I am a convert (that can be dangerous). Two volumes of Paine’s writings had excellent introductions by distinguished authors. Their commentary was illuminating.

But colonials torn between loyalty to their traditional allegiance and the excitement and uncertainty of independence quickly caught on to Common Sense. It came at the right time at the right place.

What precise moment determines when a person joins a revolution? Such a moment may not even actually exist. It could be a gradual process.

A question for Friends of 1776: what would have happened without Common Sense at all?

Paine spent many years here, including with the military. But his biography takes him much further. His subsequent digressions and accomplishments show again that when it comes to biography, truth is absolutely stranger than fiction. The greater intensity of his political thoughts, the more controversy he generated.

For me, ultimately, he was somewhat over the top. His relationship to America was only part of his vision on how the world could be run. His long connection with France at the time of its own revolution took him into areas which couldn’t have been imagined for the journalist in Philadelphia. Dr. Joyce Appleby, Professor Emeritus, History, UCLA, wrote one of the introductions I read. She make the point that Paine’s “life later began to acquire some of the ragged edges it had had in England”. His decline comes as a sad finale for a man with such staggering talents. He deserved more than his anonymous end. – Renata Breisacher Mulry

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