Today in history: Happy birthday, Thomas Paine

January 29th, 2013

On January 29, 1737, Thomas Paine was born in Norfolk, England. In 1774, he moved to London, where he met Benjamin Franklin, who suggested that he consider emigrating to America. Taking Franklin’s advice (and his letter of introduction), Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774. Soon thereafter he became a citizen of Pennsylvania and, in January of 1775, took up the editorship of Pennsylvania Magazine

On January 10, 1776, Paine published the first of his two famous pamphlets in support of the American Revolution: Common Sense. (The second pamphlet series, The American Crisis, began to be published later that year, and begins with the famous lines: “These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”)

Common Sense was published about eight months after hostilities began at the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, but still six months before the American Colonies officially declared their independence from Great Britain in July of 1776. The monograph immediately became popular and influential, with over 100,000 copies sold in the first few months of 1776; by the end of the year, over half-a-million copies of the 48-page pamphlet had been distributed. Written by Paine and edited by Benjamin Rush (who would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence later that year), Common Sense was, according to historian Gordon S. Wood, “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era.” 

Take some time to read Common Sense, which is available in its entirety here. Here’s an excerpt:

The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months. The reflection is awful […]. In short, Independence is the only Bond that tye and keep us together. We shall then see our object, and our ears will be legally shut against the schemes of an intriguing, as well as cruel, enemy. […] Wherefore, instead of gazing at each other with suspicious or doubtful curiosity, let each of us hold out to his neighbor the hearty hand of friendship, and unite in drawing a line, which, like an act of oblivion, shall bury in forgetfulness every former dissention. Let the names of Whig and Tory be extinct; and let none other be heard among us, than those of a good citizen; an open and resolute friend; and a virtuous supporter of the Rights of Mankind, and of the Free and Independant States of America.

Related: EDSITEment lesson plan: Background on the Patriot Attitude Toward the Monarchy

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