Common Sense
Click to play audio.

Background sound:

Mallet noise

It was a printing press very much like this one - at Franklin Court in Philadelphia - that printed the first run of "Common Sense."

Joe Chauncey, a Park Ranger at Independence National Historical Park, admits that the technology may seem old fashioned:

If you want to know why the press is called the 'press,' there you go - we're literally pressing the paper.
Yet that didn't stop Thomas Paine from printing thousands of copies:

Joe Chauncey:

I have seen estimates as high as about a hundred thousand to a half million copies through that whole year of 1776.
The first run of "Common Sense" came off a press near Third and Walnut Streets in January of 1776. By March, 100,000 copies had been sold. "Common Sense" quickly spread beyond Philadelphia. It was reprinted more than two dozen times - from Salem, Massachusetts to Charleston, South Carolina.

Philadelphia was then the largest city in the American colonies, with a keen appetite for books and pamphlets. So it was no surprise, says printing historian Jim Green, that "Common Sense" started there:

I would say that literacy rates were higher in the Colonies than they were in England. Literacy was still not universal…. But they compare favorably with the literacy rates today. There had been printing in Pennsylvania for almost a hundred years. So there was a lot of print to read.
In the years leading up to the American Revolution, there were hundreds of pamphlets printed in the colonies, says historian Gary Nash. But none had the impact of "Common Sense."

Gary Nash:

It came off the press and people gobbled it up and it kept printing and reprinting. It was like the best seller of its day.
Media scholars compare the phenomenal attention to "Common Sense" to the Super Bowl. The success of the pamphlet was due at least in part, says Nash, to the author's willingness to engage the common man:

He spoke in the language of the dockworker, the street cleaner, the ordinary person. So his language, which was much less formal than that of the lawyers and the clergymen, who wrote most of these pamphlets, who were really speaking more to the elite much more so than the man and woman in the street.
According to Nash, Thomas Paine's politics were just as radical as his rhetoric:

He called George the Third a royal brute! Now that kind of language after all was pretty severe for the 1770s.
Paine had emigrated to Philadelphia from England in 1774, with the encouragement of printer and political dissenter Benjamin Franklin. But where Franklin and his circle had directed much of their anger at the English Parliament, and the corruption of the King's ministers, Paine shifted the focus to the King himself. That, says Nash, made many colonists nervous:

It alarmed those who were more conservative because they weren't eager to have ordinary people get energized and worked up. They would have preferred a quieter revolution. A revolution which was firmly under the leadership of the people at the top of colonial society.
Despite Paine's radical politics, his widespread popularity was useful for the usually restrained General George Washington.

Washington liked Paine, says historian Jim Green, because "Common Sense" gave a sense of purpose to the soldiers of the Continental Army. If not for Paine, figured Washington, these underpaid, underfed Revolutionaries might have abandoned the cause.

Jim Green:

The problem with the army was keeping them from going home. And that's what Washington said "Common Sense" was doing: it was keeping the army focused on the business at hand.
After "Common Sense," in December 1776, Paine wrote another pamphlet, "The American Crisis," with even more pointed revolutionary rhetoric:

"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. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily Conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."
Paine stood by his words: he wrote them as a soldier in Washington's Army.

His words also had an international effect. He was hailed by reformers in France, where he settled in 1792. After being briefly jailed in France, Paine returned to the United States. He died in New York City in 1809.
Back to Top