Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Reputation: The Greatest Propagandist of the Revolution

  • Credited as the person who gave America its name: United States of America 
  • Had Christian background: his father was a Quaker; his mother was Anglican. 
  • Received little education and was self-taught. 
  • 1774:Met Benjamin Franklin and left for America carrying letters of introduction from Franklin.
  • Arrived at a time of frustration with British rule under King George III, at a time the American Revolution was brewing due to the following primarily three-fold reasons:
  • Taxation without representation
  • Stamp Act of 1765: exacted tax on every printed material
  • Townshend Act of 1767: exacted tax on goods the colonists imported, such as paper, paints, glass, and tea shipped from England
  • The Tea Act of 1773: lifted duties on imported tea by India Company, thus making imported Tea cheaper and consequently bankrupting local tea businesses
  • Arrival of British troops to enforce taxes
  • Usurpation of previous rights, abolition of assemblies and constitutions, and fighting in Massachusetts.
  • Became coeditor of the Pennsylvania Magazine and injected himself into American politics.
  • 1776: wrote “Common Sense” which called for immediate independence from England.
  • It was instant bestseller and sold about 150,000 copies in three months.
  • Adopted the plain style “to make those who can scarcely read understand.” 
  • It made possible the start of the American Revolution; he attacked King George III and made step-by-step argument subverting the concept of Monarchy and subservience to the monarch. It was a discourse on the evils of monarchy. 
  • He subtitled it “On the Origin and Design of Government in General” and advocated for immediate Independence from England, arguing that the origin of government is the people, society, and not a deity that ordained a particular family to rule.  

“Common Sense”

What Paine meant by Common Sense:

  1. Language understood at the time by America’s “common” people
  2. Shared sentiments, implying the emergence of an American national character, a cohesive unit working together
  3.  Commonplace knowledge of what needs to be done

Paine’s main arguments in “Common Sense,” both implicit and explicit:

  1. Independence now because of British Acts imposing taxes and limiting people’s rights
  2. Argument that government is made by society, and is not a fixed institution, an argument based on Locke’s Social Contract Theory.
  3. Argument that American reconciliation with Britain was not feasible

Paine’s New Political Language Gave Old Words New Meanings:

  1. New meaning for the word “revolution” (used for political change, not for the orbit of the earth)
  2. “Common Sense” used for political purposes to move people to undertake revolutionary action to create a new democratic society

Paine also wrote “The American Crisis,” a series of pamphlets published during the actual fighting for independence that made possible the motivation and success of the Revolution; the “Crisis” series primarily

  1. Outlined the rewards of victory and the consequences of defeat.
  2. Demanded national unity/independence of purpose
  3. Used phrases such as “our country” and “our countrymen” to suggest an already formed American national character
  4. Fostered a spirit of nationalism
  5. Motivated independent fighters and stirred a spirit/passion of patriotism
  6. Used inspirational language; portrayed the military situation from an optimistic perspective
  7. Invoked God and scripture
  8. Divine providence
  9. God will not permit a peaceful people (his elect) to be destroyed
  10. “show your faith by your works”

Washington purportedly ordered the “Crisis” to be read to soldiers to motivate and raise their morale.  A popular quotation that almost everybody memorized was “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

Following the successful American Revolution, Paine finally wrote the “Age of Reason”

  • It was intended to be a religious revolution to subject Christianity and other major religions to scientific scrutiny and criticism.
  • He argued against what he perceived as unscientific in the Bible, such as the miracles of Jesus and the virgin birth of Jesus. 
  • Designed to present what Paine called “the theology that is true.”

This attack on Christianity made him so unpopular that it led Theodore Roosevelt to characterize Paine as a “filthy little atheist”; when he died, he was refused burial at a Quaker cemetery. Consequently, till today, the resting place of his remains is unknown. 

Concluding Thoughts and Questions

“Like all propagandist, Paine sought to arouse men’s emotions.”  Cite passages from “Common Sense” that in your opinion demonstrate this fact.  Do you agree that propaganda is necessary in situations such as that in which Paine wrote his pamphlet? Why, or why not?

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