Quick History: ‘Common Sense’

HENRY KINCAID, 10/04/2017-

Aristotle once made the argument that common sense was the ability for an “animal minded” being to use the five senses in order to perceive the real world. In the context of this particular passage, Aristotle was not only talking about the human mind but also the minds of all animal life. He theorised that all beings used senses such as sight and smell to observe the world around them; according to the famed philosopher, each of the senses perceived a “sensible”, a specific, identifiable experience such as colour and movement with sight, and sweet and sour with taste. When the individual sensations come together, it becomes something known as “common sensibles”, “common” meaning ‘shared’ as opposed to ‘specific’ or ‘individual’. The idea of common sense has evolved since 300BC, and has grown to become the assumed basic ability everyone possesses in order to solve basic, everyday problems, however; there is a third notable use of the word ‘common sense’, one that arguably gave shape to the most important nation on earth.

Written in around 1775-76, ‘Common Sense’ was a 48-page book authored by Thomas Paine, a man who went on to become a founding father of the United States. The work was intended to persuade the populace of the Thirteen Colonies in favour of independence from the British Empire. While deeply political in nature, the book never remained loyal to one political philosophy and instead, the piece took aspects of what became known as Classical Liberalism and Republicanism and merged these political arguments with moral ones in order to make the case for an egalitarian government.

Split into four distinct chapters or sections, Paine makes an argument for the need for a representative government while attacking the English Constitution and monarchy, and the “mixed state” solution proposed by John Locke, in which a parliament or congress draws legislation and a monarch passes it, thereby limiting royal power. Paine argues that the “mixed state” solution is not enough and goes on to advocate for a state with no reigning monarch or unelected head. Paine also makes an argument for a “Continental Charter” or “Charter of the United Colonies”, fulfilling the role of a Magna Carter, in what would go on to become the United States Constitution.

The book is written in an overtly direct, sermon-esque fashion, designed to replicate the way in which religious teachings were presented at the time. This may explain why and how the book became so popular in such a small amount of time, spreading and being performed in taverns and establishments across the colonies. When Paine arrived in what would become the United States in 1774, there were already violent altercations taking place between Republicans and the British (most notably the Battle of Concord and Lexington just after Paine arrived), however; the majority of Americans at the time were not entirely convinced either way, not supporting, nor campaigning against, a revolution.

‘Common Sense’ was originally intended to be a series of letters or articles presented in some local Philidelphia newspapers, but grew too long and instead was turned into the short book that it is known as today. Paine originally sought the help of publisher Robert Bell after a recommendation from a close friend named Benjamin Rush. Bell agreed with some apparent eagerness and together they released the first version of ‘Common Sense’ to huge success. Unlike most publishers at the time, Bell had no qualms with producing such a book and seemingly had no issues with the contents of the controversial text. Bell began to promote and advertise the work so heavily that it created a demand high enough to require a reprint, unfortunately, relations deteriorated between writer and publisher after Paine discovered the book, while highly successful in terms of sales, had not generated a profit. Paine temporarily scrapped a second edition of the works and requested Bell not publicise it, however; Bell defied these orders and advertised it anyway, leading Payne to cease all business associations with the publisher. With the public expecting a new version of the critically received works, as well as reprints of the original, Paine released an amended copy with the help of the Bradford Brothers while he worked on his second edition, this triggered a public dispute between ex-publisher Bell and the still anonymous Paine over the course of the next month. Unfortunately for Paine, ‘Common Sense’ never generated a profit, even with the change of publishers, however; it did sway the public perception of independence in the republican’s favour and is generally recognised as being the most important piece of literature of the revolutionary era.

Paine, unlike his work, was not very popular and many of his views were considered simply too radical for implementation at the time, however; these views, at least by today’s standards, would generally be considered quite tame. Among his beliefs regarding republicanism and egalitarianism, were his convictions of social and political equality for all, “all” including slaves and women. He also argued in favour of minor social security nets enabled through moderate taxation, and was also very critical of the church, especially of what he labelled as extreme hypocrisy. To quote Thomas Paine:

“All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.” 

Paine was appointed to the Continental Congress’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1777, but soon entered into a row with an influential diplomat by the name of Silas Deane; after public condemnation from John Jay, and two physical assaults in the street by supporters of Deane, Paine was forced to relinquish his position in the Committee and returned to life as a normal citizen. Later, with the help of Benjamin Franklin, Paine was sent to Europe in 1781 in order to enlist the help of France against the British occupation and, even though Paine spoke no French, managed to acquire a number of sizable loans to the Continental Government. Paine returned to America where, after the revolution, he began the construction of a bridge in Philadelphia; this work then lead him back to France which, in turn, lead him to London after diplomatic ties between Britain and France collapsed. In London, Paine authored a work titled Prospects on the Rubicon: or, an investigation into the Causes and Consequences of the Politics to be Agitated at the Meeting of Parliament’, in which Paine argues against Britain starting further conflicts with France.

By 1789, the French Revolution had begun and Paine once again took an interest in revolutionary politics. Paine visited France in 1790 where he wrote his 91,000-word essay entitled ‘Rights of Man’ where he defended the revolution against accusations from Edmund Burke, a conservative author and intellectual who said the revolution would end badly due to its abstract groundwork. Due to his ardent support of the early French Revolution, Paine, along with Franklin, Washington, and Hamilton (as well as several others) were granted honorary French citizenship. Paine went on to be elected a representative of Pas-De-Calais in the National Convention but when Maximilien Robespierre and the Montagnards took control of the Convention, and the Girondins were tried and executed, all foreigners were excluded from the Convention, including Paine.

Arrested in December of 1793 on the grounds of Paine’s British background, Paine awaited execution by guillotine. The story goes that while the gaoler was on his rounds, leaving chalk marks on cell doors to signify the inhabitant’s imminent demise, Paine was receiving guests who had left the cell door open. When the gaoler arrived at Paine’s door, the man accidently chalked the inside of the door as opposed to the outside. When the time came in the following morning to collect all those with chalk-marked doors, Paine was left alone as his chalk mark was not visible. Robespierre was imprisoned only a few days later, thereby allowing Paine to keep his life, however; Paine had to wait several months until his release after James Monroe (Minister to France at the time) successfully argued that Paine was, in fact, an American citizen rather than a British one. Paine left prison in November 1794, almost one year after his arrest. The time he had in the cells allowed Paine to write The Age of Reason’, a criticism of institutionalised religion, specifically Christianity, and an advocation for theism, a style of religious ideology that Paine appears to have subscribed to.

Paine soon returned to the French National Assembly along with the surviving Girondins, but he refused to sign the new constitution as it had removed the concept of universal suffrage that was once contained within the Montagnard Constitution of 1793, a concept that Paine had championed for throughout his entire adult life. Over the next few years, Paine returned to his life as an engineer and inventor, and also completed his book ‘Agrarian Justice’, but soon became embroiled in physical politics once again after a series of events caused him to have a meeting with one Napoleon Bonaparte. While at first, the two appeared to maintain a good relationship, with Napoleon alleging to sleep with a copy of ‘Rights of Man’ under his pillow, it soon took a turn for the worse after Napoleon began to demonstrate dictatorial traits, causing Paine to call him “the completest charlatan that ever existed”. Paine would likely have gone to prison again if not for President Jefferson’s invitation to Paine to return to the United States.

When an ageing Thomas Paine left for the US in 1802 (or 1803), he also left with the wife and children of his good friend Nicholas Bonneville, the father of famed Brigadier General Benjamin Bonneville, an explorer and pioneer who had the Bonneville Salt Flats named in his honour. Nicholas Bonneville was unable to go with them due to restrictions placed on his person by the Napoleon Regime after the Frenchman publicly compared Bonaparte to Oliver Cromwell.

Once again in the land he used to call his home, Paine found he remained an outcast due to his radical beliefs, specifically his beliefs of universal suffrage, his condemnation of the church, his public criticism of George Washington six years prior, and his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson. He also discovered that he was unable to vote in the State of New York (his home state since 1783) after he was told that Gouverneur Morris refused to recognise him as an American citizen.

In 1809, at the age of 72, Thomas Paine died in Greenwich Village, New York. His funeral and burial, apparently only attended by less than a dozen people, was not allowed to take place in the local New Rochelle cemetery as result of instructions in his will, and so instead it took place in the back garden of his own house (also in New Rochelle), under a walnut tree. His remains were exhumed by British journalist William Cobbett several years later in order to rebury them in Britain, however; the plan was never fully executed, resulting in the loss of the remains when Cobbett passed away. To this day, nearly 200 years on, the bones of Thomas Paine have never been recovered.

History has been kind to Thomas Paine, even if life wasn’t. The obituary in the New York Citizen read, in part, “He had lived long, did some good and much harm”; he was remembered this way until, in 1936, an article by The Times of London labelled him, “the English Voltaire”. This more positive label has generally stuck around ever since.  

There is little doubt regarding the significance of Paine’s work and the influence it has had on the modern world. While there is still some debate regarding the number of copies of ‘Common Sense that sold, especially regarding the book’s immediate success, there is a general consensus that the book was still highly successful, especially for the time. However, unlike any other significant revolutionary figures, Paine has never had the honour of a memorial in Washington DC instead, there are only a small handful of plaques, statues, and monuments around the world created in Paine’s name. Regardless of how little Paine is celebrated, his intellectual legacy is considerable; from Lincoln and Edison to Hitchens and Russell, Paine is and was a major influence on some of the world’s most important philosophers and thinkers and, for that, his service is invaluable.



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