By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Thomas Paine — or “Tom,” as he was wont to be called — should perhaps be known as the prime mover of public opinion in the late 18th century as we drew nearer to the inevitable beginning of our Revolutionary War.
Paine was born in rural England to a poor family and first worked in his father’s trade as a corset maker. He sought to better his position and became a tax collector, although it was inevitable that he would not continue in that position when he began to write radical political pamphlets.
During one of his many visits to Europe, Benjamin Franklin had befriended Paine, and it was on Franklin’s advice that, in 1774, Paine emigrated to the American colonies, where he found work as an editor of a magazine in Philadelphia. His main interests were in the fields of religion, ethics and politics, and in his thinking he combined traits of liberalism, radicalism, the Enlightenment and republicanism.
In April 1775, after the Battle of Lexington, when British troops openly clashed with American regulars in Massachusetts, Paine, along with possibly only Samuel Adams, was one of the first to see that war was inevitable and advocate independence. In fact, Paine, in an article in The Pennsylvanian magazine, quoted from a speech by the elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham, “The crown would lose its luster if robbed of so principal a jewel as America.”
Though Paine abhorred war, he agreed with Patrick Henry that America had to fight for her honor and freedom. He, in his own “Declaration of Independence,” joined the still small but rapidly growing minority who believed it was too late for the colonies to reconcile with Great Britain.
In June 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought in Boston and was to prove that, though as yet poorly trained, the colonials could stand up to the British “Redcoats.” Shortly thereafter, George Washington arrived in Massachusetts and began training troops in Cambridge.
Eventually, in the fall of 1775, Paine was to accept the challenge of the American Revolution, supporting it not only by serving as an enlisted man in our Continental Army, but also by beginning work on the singularly important piece which would become known as “Common Sense.”
“Common Sense,” published in January 1776, instantly became an unusually popular document. Through it he led the American people to choose independence, and it was to bring him fame not only in the New World, but in Europe as well.
The timing of its publication was fortunate, for by early March 1776, British Gen. Howe found the position of his troops untenable and was forced to evacuate Boston.
Years after the outbreak of the American Revolution, Paine wrote that he had abhorred the institution of monarchy all his life, regarding it as “too debasing to the dignity of man.” This was a theme that would surface in many of his writings, and perhaps his popularity was due to this viewpoint. He continued to write and his pamphlets were published in the thousands, distributed not only in the young United States, but also overseas in Europe.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.