Thomas Paine was an influential writer during the American Revolution. In this lesson, we'll explore the content and style of two of his most famous pamphlets and how they helped shape American history.
Thomas Paine wasn't supposed to amount to much. Born in England in 1737, he failed out of school by the time he was twelve. He worked as an apprentice for his father, a corset-maker, but failed at that too. He became a sailor and failed. So he became a tax officer and failed.
No one thought Thomas Paine would amount to much, but in 1774, he met Benjamin Franklin, who helped Paine immigrate to America. There, Paine's life took a dramatic turn when he began to write pamphlets encouraging Americans to fight for their independence against England. His pamphlets became so popular that a larger percentage of the population read them than now watch the Super Bowl! Let's take a closer look at two of Paine's most popular and influential pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis.
Common Sense was published anonymously in January 1776 and gained immediate popularity. It was a call-to-arms for the American Revolution in which Paine encourages Americans to go to war to gain their independence. At the time, the question of American independence from the British was still an undecided issue. Common Sense swayed public opinion widely in favor of independence and helped to spark the revolution.
The pamphlet is divided into four sections. The first section explains why government is necessary, and that the ideal government is either run directly by the people or indirectly via elections. He then criticizes the English monarchy and aristocracy for ruling without representing the people.
The second section focuses in more closely on the concept of monarchy, and the English monarchy specifically. Paine opens this section by making a Biblical case against monarchy. He points out, for example, that all men are created equal in the eyes of God, and that the distinction between the monarchy and commoners is a false one. He then goes on to point out all of the problems that the British monarchy has brought to that country.
In the third section, Paine lays out his proposal for a new American government. In it, each colony would send representatives to a congress that would first draft a new charter for America, and then, eventually, run the country by electing a president and making and enforcing the laws of the land.
Paine proposed the formation of a new government in the pamphlet Common Sense.
The final section promotes the idea of an American military and how powerful Paine believed it could be. This supported the idea that America should insist on revolution, even at the cost of war. For Paine believed that America could quickly raise a military to rival England's and ensure their victory in the Revolutionary War.
Paine wrote in a simple and straightforward style in Common Sense, and the results were astounding. Instead of writing for the educated elite, he reached out to the common man and made government and revolution accessible to even the least-educated of America. Even people who could not read were able to hear Common Sense read aloud at public gatherings. As a result, more people than ever became passionate about revolution.
The American Crisis
But, once Americans were invested in the idea of revolution, what was the next step? Paine followed Common Sense with a series of other pamphlets published during the American Revolution, between 1777 and 1783. During this time, Paine traveled with the Continental Army, but wasn't very good as a soldier. However, his pamphlets inspired both the army and the common people of America during the war.
In total, Paine published sixteen pamphlets that collectively are known as The American Crisis. Like Common Sense, Paine did not publish The American Crisis under his own name, instead opting for the pseudonym, Common Sense, which linked these pamphlets to his earlier popular pamphlet.
The first sentence in the first pamphlet in The American Crisis is one of the most famous lines written by Paine, 'These are the times that try men's souls.' He goes on to say that fair-weather revolutionaries might take away their support now that the war had begun and was bloody, but that true patriots would continue to fight for their cause and their country, and would be celebrated and thanked by all Americans.
Paine's take on what he called 'the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot' was a smart way to start the pamphlet. As the Revolutionary War became a reality, many Americans despaired at how they were outnumbered by the British. It would have been easy for any of them to give up and quit, but Paine wanted to convince them, and the rest of the colonists, to continue to fight, to not give up and to prevail.
Thomas Paine believed the war could be won if the colonists did not give up.
Once again, Paine's style was simple, and his pamphlets were meant for the average American. They became popular amongst soldiers and civilians alike, and helped to inspire a nation to keep fighting the war, despite the force of the British military. Paine argues that God is on the side of America and that with the proper application of force, the American military could find victory over the British. Eventually, they did.
Thomas Paine was a famous writer during the American Revolution. His pamphlet Common Sense was written for average Americans and helped spark the Revolutionary War. When the war was underway, he wrote a series of sixteen pamphlets collectively known as The American Crisis, which encouraged Americans to keep fighting for their freedom from England.
After watching this lesson, you should be prepared to identify Thomas Paine as well as summarize the content and style of his pamphlets, Common Sense and The American Crisis.