From Common Sense Government:
As a revolutionary agitator, Thomas Paine was in a class by himself. Whereas Samuel Adams was a career politician, Paine was a career agitator. He came to America just in time to foment revolution with the publication of Common Sense. As soon as the American War for Independence was finished, Paine hopped the first ship to France to take part in their revolution. Things didn’t go nearly as well for him in France, and he ultimately ended up in prison. Being a career revolutionary, it seems, is not without attendant dangers.
Be that as it may, Paine was extraordinarily influential in the colonies. Common Sense was published in 1776 and achieved a massive audience, with 150,000 copies sold in a country of about three million. While there is very little in Common Sense that can be said to be unique to Paine, he captured the American mind in 1776.
Like Adams, Paine begins with a sort of state of nature theory and works forward from there. He has quite a lot to say about the King of England, and kings in general. The most important element of his argument, though, is his assertion that self-government is a natural right. Like Adams, Paine believed that the only legitimate form of government is one in which people have a hand in ruling themselves.
Both Adams and Paine take as a given that people are indeed capable of governing themselves. Just how capable are people of self-government? While this is a huge question, it was a question that the Founders would wait to answer. The sticky matter of declaring independence from Great Britain was at hand. By the time Paine wrote in 1776, there was no longer any chance at reconciliation with the British. The colonists were about to take a very bold step.
The song below from the musical Hamilton describes what New York City was like in 1776. The Schuyler Sisters describe all of emotions and ideas in the air of New York City, such as fear of violence and hope for freedom. Notice how Thomas Paine’s Common Sense helped shape these ideas and the culture of New York City during this time.
- What do you think it feels like to have “revolution in the air?” Right now, in January 2018, Iran seems to have “revolution in the air.” Have you ever witnessed such a thing? What do you think it feels like?
- When the founders were setting out to create the United States, they were very deliberate about what they were doing. Alexander Hamilton, in arguing for the Constitution, wrote that in this country would be decided the question of whether government is simply a question of force, or whether people are capable of creating good government deliberately, on their own. Do you think it is “common sense” to suppose that people can be self-governing?
- The video refers to a “second draft” of Jefferson’s manifesto for the country (the Declaration of Independence.) What rights do you see missing today, which might have been included? Or do you think all the principles needed to create a free society is already present in the documents of the time?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense Government materials.