The understanding of the American Revolution has always been clear in the minds of readers but what has not been well defined was the knowledge of one occurrence which led to the Colonists certainty that America should break free from Great Britain. Chronologically we see the build-up of frustrations from the Colonists that made them see England in a different light. But what was the turning point to make the Colonists join together in the fight for Independence?
Thomas Paine’s, Common Sense, was an intrinsically important political pamphlet that triggered the Colonists to stand up for themselves against British tyranny. Historians of all partialities have given Paine well deserved credit for his part in Revolution. Popular historian, David McCullough, author of 1776, states that Common Sense, “had become more widely read than anything yet published in America.” Paine’s persuasiveness which sold over 120,000 copies in three months, transitioned the Colonists opinion of Great Britain and showed them the successful path for Independence. The pamphlet was an instrumental force in beginning the American Revolution and its ties to England. His arguments were compelling and captivating in confirming what many Colonists were thinking but not vocalizing. His pamphlet unlike many others of the time was written from the frame of mind of what author Scott Liell states in his book, 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense and the Turning Point to Independence, as “a street corner radical.” Because of this usage of practical language his pamphlet persuaded those Colonists who were questioning their relationship with the crown. This persuasion was needed to begin the revolution for Independence. Common Sense was the reason the American Colonists united for a Revolution.
To understand this premise, one must understand the atmosphere of America building up to its publication. During the 1600’s North America was growing rapidly with colonists mostly from England who aspired to gain wealth for the mother country of England. Through the many struggles of trying to survive and adapt in the new world the Colonists were not receiving much support from England. The colonists were not taken seriously by the empire because of the lack of progress in settling and finding riches that would bring in the revenue England had hoped for. The colonists after some time, however, were able to adjust and adapt to the land and began to be successful in growing tobacco and other prosperous crops, building ships and developing a strong economy. This new development caught England’s attention and the Colonies began to grow and prosper. Finally, England was interested in what was occurring in North America. When England fought France in the Seven Years War otherwise known as The French and Indian War, the Colonists picked up their weapons at their own financial cost and stood with England. After the war England was financially broken and needed to regain their financial status. They also needed to pay for the cost to maintain troops in America in order to help keep the relationship between England and the Native Americans secure. The financial burden was immediately placed on the Colonists who abhorred the idea of a direct tax to England. The Stamp Act in 1765, required the Colonists to pay tax on every piece of paper printed in the Colonies. The Colonists clearly believed that they had paid their debt when they used their own resources and monies to cover the cost of fighting the war to help England. Having no voice in Parliament caused a concern for the Colonists, and they felt that eventually England would drain the Colonies of everything they had worked hard for in the past 150 years. They desperately felt that this tax would set a path for future taxing without representation of the Colonists which would create a much larger stronghold of England in America. The atmosphere in America was quickly drifting away from England. The Colonies not only began to see an increase of other inhabitants from Europe but they began to resist English policy and contemplated their relationship with the mother country.
The Townsend Acts in 1767 also plagued the Colonists of more tax dollars, this time on glass, paint, oil and led. The acts paved the way for more frustration for the Colonists who began to see England’s control in America. These imposed taxes created frustrations so strong that the relationship between England and the Colonists had become volatile. The Boston Massacre of 1770 displayed the culmination of tensions between both sides close up, when British Soldiers and Colonists fought in the streets which ended with five Colonists dead. The tensions continued to rise in the spring of 1775 when a militia came face to face with British troops at Lexington and Concord and ended with over 100 men dead.
In January 1776, with tensions at the boiling point, Thomas Paine published a political pamphlet in which he argued that the political connection between England and the Colonists was harmful to America. Paine successfully argued this point by using common language that any man could understand. His words prompted the Colonists to act and begin the process for Independence. There were many who supported Paine’s thoughts and persuaded many others to read and analyze the pamphlet, including one of the most prominent voices for the Colonists, John Adams, who felt Common Sense was, “a great deal of good sense, delivered in a clear, simple, concise, and nervous style.” Adams also stated that, “the pamphlet was of great importance in the Revolution.”
In the beginning of his pamphlet Paine described the relationship between people and government. To help his readers understand how destructive government can be he directed his argument in an analogy that mirrored the Colonists situation. This analogy gave the Colonists a view that they could relate to and connect with. Paine explained a story of a small number of inhabitants cornered in an area of the earth and described the first attempt to create a government that secured the happiness and security of its inhabitants. He illustrated how quickly a government can grow and soon find its way in becoming too powerful. He stated, “the more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered and the easier repaired when disordered.” He continued by pointing out the poison of the English Constitution reiterating his prejudices of government control in a monarchy. He explained how England government operates which is, “independent of the people; wherefore in a Constitutional sense they contribute nothing towards the freedom of the state.” These words stroked the heart of the Colonists and got them to see how destructive government can be if the people are not at the heart of its existence. As a Colonist, the fear of not having a voice was financially devastating to their existence in America.
He described the English crown as, “overbearing,” and “unequal.” Although Paine pointed out the absurdities of the English Constitution he pointed fingers in a sense to the Colonists for allowing the crown so much control, stating, “Though we have been wise enough to shut and lock the door against absolute monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of the key.” Even though they have shown their disagreements against the system of monarchy, they still had not done enough to erase the system that created England’s control in America. These statements created a sense of fear in the Colonists and a motivation to unite together for the cause of Independence.
Paine justified the understanding that if England stayed attached to America, the consequences would be devastating to America’s growth and prosperity. Carefully answering every concern he had heard from the Colonists, he quickly denounced the claim that prosperity of America is because of Great Britain, “Europe is too thickly planted with Kingdoms to be long at peace, and whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin.” This is strikingly clear to the Colonists in understanding the detrimental power England can have on America.
If America had a reconciliation with England it would only cause more catastrophes. John Ferling describes the effect of a reconciliation of Great Britain in America in his book, Almost a Miracle, The American Victory in the War of Independence, illustrating, “Reconciliation would inhibit American Commerce. It would also guarantee, that the colonies would be dragged repeatedly into Britain’s many wars.” Paine also clearly states why the Colonists should not try to compromise or negotiate with England. It was time for the Colonists to act and understand that the repeated injuries from the King could not be forgiven, “There are injuries which nature cannot forgive; she would cease to be nature if she did.” Again, giving the Colonists motivation for a united Independence front.
Not only had Paine triumphantly described the consequences of reconciliation he also portrayed the advantages of gaining Independence. He described how situated America was with its natural supplies and potential American Navy. He illustrated potential economic incentives for Independence even drawing out charts of how a successful economic system can work in America. Another point he laid out was that of religion and well-being. He continued with the understanding that “it is the will of the Almighty, that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.” This of course would not be the route England would have paved for its inhabitants in terms of religion.
Paine’s pamphlet was not a call for war, more distinctively it was a call for a united front in America. The widely published pamphlet led many Colonists to question and form an opinion of Independence and separation from England. Common Sense provided the voice the Colonists felt they could not vocalize. In the end, Paine’s persuasive words of practicality and “Common Sense” unified an American collective ideal which paved the way for Independence.
Ferling, John. Almost a Miracle, The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Liell, Scott. 46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence. (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003).
McCullough, David. 1776. (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2005).