Common Sense (pamphlet)

Common Sense
Pamphlet's original cover
Author Thomas Paine
Country United States
Language English
Published January 10, 1776
Pages 48

Common Sense [1] is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 advocating independence from Great Britain to people in the Thirteen Colonies. Written in clear and persuasive prose, Paine marshaled moral and political arguments to encourage common people in the Colonies to fight for egalitarian government. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution, and became an immediate sensation.

It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history. [2] As of 2006, it remains the all-time best selling American title, and is still in print today. [3]

Common Sense made public a persuasive and impassioned case for independence, which before the pamphlet had not yet been given serious intellectual consideration. He connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity, structuring Common Sense as if it were a sermon. [4] [5] Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era". [6]

The text was translated into French by Antoine Gilbert Griffet de Labaume in 1790.

Publication history

Thomas Paine arrived in the American colonies in November 1774, shortly before the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Though the colonies and Great Britain had commenced hostilities against one another, the thought of independence was not initially entertained. Writing of his early experiences in the colonies in 1778, Paine "found the disposition of the people such, that they might have been led by a thread and governed by a reed. Their attachment to Britain was obstinate, and it was, at that time, a kind of treason to speak against it. Their ideas of grievance operated without resentment, and their single object was reconciliation." [7] Paine quickly engrained himself in the Philadelphia newspaper business, and began writing Common Sense in late 1775 under the working title of Plain Truth. Though it began as a series of letters to be published in various Philadelphia papers, it grew too long and unwieldy to publish as letters, leading Paine to select the pamphlet form. [8] Benjamin Rush recommended the publisher Robert Bell, promising Paine that, where other printers might balk at the content of the pamphlet, Bell would not hesitate nor delay its printing. Bell zealously promoted the pamphlet in Philadelphia's papers, and demand grew so high as to require a second printing. [9] Paine, overjoyed with its success, endeavored to collect his share of the profits and donate them to purchase mittens for General Montgomery's troops, then encamped in frigid Quebec. [10] However, when Paine's chosen intermediaries audited Bell's accounts, they found that the pamphlet actually had made zero profits. Incensed, Paine ordered Bell not to proceed on a second edition, as he had planned several appendices to add to Common Sense. Bell ignored this and began advertising a "new edition". While Bell believed this advertisement would convince Paine to retain his services, it had the opposite effect. Paine secured the assistance of the Bradford brothers, publishers of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, and released his new edition, featuring several appendices and additional writings. [11] Bell began working on a second edition. This set off a month-long public debate between Bell and the still-anonymous Paine, conducted within the pages and advertisements of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, with each party charging the other with duplicity and fraud. Both Paine and Bell published several more editions through the end of their public squabble.[ citation needed]

The publicity generated by the initial success and compounded by the publishing disagreements no doubt propelled the pamphlet to incredible sales and circulation. Common Sense sold almost 100,000 copies in 1776, [12] and according to Paine, 120,000 copies were sold in the first three months. One biographer estimates that 500,000 copies sold in the first year (in both America and Europe – predominantly France and Britain), and another writes that Paine's pamphlet went through twenty-five published editions in the first year alone. [6] [13]

Aside from the printed pamphlet itself, there were many handwritten summaries and whole copies circulated. Paine also granted publishing rights to nearly every imprint which requested them, including several international editions. [14] It was immensely popular in France, where it was published without its diatribes against monarchy. [15] At least one newspaper printed the entire pamphlet; the Connecticut Courant did so in its issue of February 19, 1776. [16] In terms of circulation and impact, Richard Gimbel estimates that an "equivalent sale today, based on the present population of the United States, would be more than six-and-one-half million copies within the short space of three months". [14]

For nearly three months, Paine managed to maintain his anonymity, even during Bell's potent newspaper polemics. His name did not become officially connected with the independence controversy until March 30, 1776. [17] Paine never did recoup the profits he felt due to him from Bell's first edition. Ultimately, he lost money on the Bradford printing as well, and because he decided to repudiate his copyright, never did profit from Common Sense.[ citation needed]