July 04, 2005

Paine: Voice of the Revolution

It was the pamphlet Common Sense, authored by Thomas Paine, that helped propel the massive shift in public opinion toward revolution and independence in colonial America. It was published in January, 1776 and quickly 600,000 copies were spread throughout a colonial population of 3 million (America's first best seller); in other words, virtually every American either read it or had it read to them. It was dicussed in taverns and clubs, and it helped frame the national debate.

Thomas Paine met Ben Franklin in 1774 and his new friend helped arrange transport for Paine to America. The Englishman was a strong supporter of America's cause. He would famously remark in Common Sense:
    The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.
And also:
    Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.
After the American Revolutionary War, Paine went to France to press the cause there. He was one of two non-French members of the revolutionary legislature. Along with the finest minds of revolutionary France, Paine sided with the Girondin - leading to his imprisonment during the Reign of Terror. Paine engaged Edmund Burke in a great literary debate between classical liberalism and classical conservatism, and forcefully advocated for a government not beholden to ancient commitments.

He was a man of skillful argument and great words, and his work on behalf of freedom was invaluable. This holiday, let's remember the corset-maker from Thetford that helped create America.


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