Uncommon Sense

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It was a runaway bestseller before the concept existed, when printers set type by hand and the average American owned a Bible and perhaps a couple other books. Depending on the edition (and there were many — 25 the first year alone), it ran about 22,000 words, so few it’s usually called a “pamphlet” rather than a book. Yet this slim octavo that influenced thinking on two continents continues inspiring today. Its author hid his identity, not because many writers either remained anonymous or used Latin pseudonyms then, but because he had narrowly escaped imprisonment for debt and didn’t want to chance it for treason.

Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s magnificent, vivid defense of liberty, burst on Philadelphia 234 years ago this month. “Some writers have so confounded society with government,” begins this brilliant attack on the latter, “as to leave little or no distinction between them … [Yet s]ociety is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness.” With readers still reeling from that unanswerable logic, Paine detonates his next charge two sentences later: “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 calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer!” And so on, through paragraph after glorious paragraph, exposing and excoriating the oppression and corruption that are the State.

Robert Bell printed 1,000 copies and began selling them from his shop on Third Street January 10. That probably had Dr. Benjamin Rush smiling slyly, though not because his fame as a Patriot would one day equal his medical reputation. He had befriended Paine soon after the British immigrant sailed into town the previous year, so sick he debarked on a stretcher. Paine carried letters of introduction from no less than Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met before leaving London and who recommended the 37-year-old radical as “an ingenious worthy young man.” That may have been a tad optimistic, considering Paine’s abject failures, whether as a corset-maker, excise-tax-collector, or husband: widowed once, he separated from his second wife about six months before his voyage to America.

Franklin’s imprimatur may have endeared Paine to the doctor, but even more it was “conversation…Our subjects…were political,” Rush recalled. At some point, he urged Paine to pen the treatise Rush had planned — but feared — to write on the need for American independence: “My profession and connections…tied me to Philadelphia where a great majority of the citizens…were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain.” Fancy-free Tom could pick up and flee if the essay’s reception were as dire as the doctor expected.

Paine enthusiastically agreed. Rush helped by proof-reading; as editors are wont to do, he changed the title: Plain Truth became Common Sense. By now, ten days after “R. Bell, Printer” first offered the piece for sale, most of the city’s 25,000 inhabitants are talking about Common Sense. A copy has probably reached New York’s printers as well, though it will be mid-February before readers there can buy copies, while residents of Providence, Rhode Island won’t savor Paine’s prose until February 24.

The Revolution divided Americans in the 1770’s as much as a shooting one would today. The Feds casually, constantly eviscerate the Constitution, yet how many of your friends and family even notice, let alone weep over it as you do? They gripe about their taxes, the dumb and dangerous public schools, or the surly airport screener who abused them, but the dissatisfaction doesn’t extend to government as a whole. Indeed, they may be as grateful for its “protection” from Islamic terrorists as some 18th-century Americans were for the British Empire’s wars against rapacious, tyrannical, Catholic France. Then there’s humanity’s inertia, as well as the belief that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Jefferson noted both in the Declaration: “…mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

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Becky Akers [send her mail] writes primarily about the American Revolution.

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