Americans appreciate a slogan that captures the essence of a political cause. Pro-Life. Black Lives Matter. Me Too. Make America Great Again.
We were equally inclined to sloganeering in 1776 when a recent immigrant to our shores, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet entitled “Common Sense.” It was a literary revolution cloaked in a slogan, and as a slogan, it changed the world.
Paine arrived from England in late 1774, when the temperature of revolutionary oratory was still below the boiling point. In what must be a sensation common to all immigrants, past and present, he was struck by the limitless potential of America, a place where one’s advancement is based on individual merit and, ideally, unimpeded by previous circumstances.
Paine took note of the sharp contrast between American and English definitions of freedom. Convinced of the superiority of their Crown-in-Parliament regime, halfhearted British officials extended to Americans a measure of independence compatible with their place within Britain’s commercial empire. Offended by this misappropriation of power, colonial elites composed essays in defense of American rights. Ordinary Americans resisted as well, though their preferred methods involved stoning British troops and dumping tea in Boston Harbor.
Paine steered clear of the disputes until clashes in Lexington and Concord transformed him into the most potent pamphleteer in history. Enraged by the violent deeds of King George III’s army, Paine flung aside his allegiance to England and embraced the cause of American independence. The product of his political conversion was “Common Sense.” Released by a Philadelphia printer on Jan. 9, 1776, it became the first bestseller in American history.
Paine’s ideas poured forth like hot lead from a Brown Bess musket. He blasted the notion that a small island state could govern an immense continent. He shattered the illusion that, despite having been attacked by “fire and sword,” Americans could reconcile their differences with the “Pharaoh of England.” He hammered away at London’s claim that Amercans were too divided to govern themselves under their own constitution. “The authority of Great Britain over this continent is a form of government which sooner or later must have an end,” he wrote.
Paine’s appeal that change come sooner rather than later persuaded everyone from Continental Army officers to Connecticut midwives. But his target audience was Colonial America’s version of “a basket of deplorables,” the frontier farmers, cod fishermen and woodcutters who resented the heavy hand of Parliament. Borrowing from anti-monarchy passages in I Samuel 8 and 12 and energized by the democratic spirit of the “Methodist Revolution,” he wrote in a straight-forward style that exhorted everyday Americans to fulfill their destiny. Roused by Paine, they rallied around the independence movement, marking the first but not the last time that America’s “rabble” imposed their will on elites.
“Common Sense” embolden American representatives to issue the Declaration of Independence, where Paine’s furor is apparent in Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that should government seek to subject a people to “absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Paine saw the American Revolution as a history-altering force to confront enemies of liberty, wherever they lurked. He referred to himself as “a citizen of the world,” so it remains one of the ironies of modern times that, due to his support for French revolutionaries and his condemnation of orthodox Christianity, he is sometimes vilified as an alcoholic atheist.
I doubt that people experiencing political oppression would care for that view. Their hope would be that our hostility to tyranny is equal to that exhibited by Thomas Paine, who when hearing Benjamin Franklin boast “Where liberty is, there is my country,” responded, “Where liberty is not, there is my country.”
On the eve of what may be the least festive July 4th of our times, we debate how best to celebrate America’s founding principles, eloquently expressed by an immigrant who stirred a generation to resist encroachments on their cherished freedoms. Beneath the cloud of coronavirus, our Independence Day barbecues and picnics may be somewhat subdued. But not so much that we can’t pepper them with a hearty dash of common sense.