Pick up Thomas Paine’s pamphlet of 1776, Common Sense. Even better, keep it bedside. Reading it will remind you of what it truly means to be an American. You may even find it’s like a message from an old friend….
Encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, the English-born Paine came to America in late 1774 to start his life anew. The colonies were in a state of rebellion, but what they were actually fighting for remained unclear. Paine, however, recognized what Americans themselves had yet to see. As he would write in Common Sense, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And encouraged anew by Franklin, Paine set himself to showing Americans who they were and what they might accomplish, indeed, what history and posterity demanded of them.
Common Sense appeared in January 1776. And it became an instant success! In its fewer than 50 pages, Paine not only inspired Americans to declare their independence and turn their colonial rebellion into a world-historic revolution; he also defined the new nation-to-be in a democratically expansive fashion and articulated an American identity charged with exceptional purpose and promise. As he told his fellow citizens-to-be: “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth…”
Drawing upon both 18th-century liberalism and classical republicanism, quoting the Bible, citing History, and raising up the force of Reason itself, Paine harnessed Americans’ shared but as-of-yet unstated thoughts and aspirations and – expressing them in language bold and clear – urged Americans to recognize their historic possibilities and responsibilities and make a true revolution of their struggles.
Lambasting the British government, making a mockery of monarchies, and revealing the British Empire to be an oppressor rather than a defender of colonial lives, Paine wrote so as to enable Americans in all their diversity to see themselves not as colonists but as a people, that is, as Americans not Britons, as a people struggling to secure not British rights but human rights.
History called to Americans, he said. It called to them to not only fight for their independence and establish a new nation, but also to create a republic, a democratic republic. Doing so they would not simply win better lives for themselves, but all the more critically demonstrate to the world that ordinary people did not need to be ruled by kings and aristocrats, or any other kind of overlords for that matter. In short, that they could govern themselves as free, equal, democratic citizens. Indeed, he said, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”
Urging unity, Paine portrayed America not as thirteen separate states, but as a federal nation-state: “Now is the seed time of continental union, faith and honour… Our strength is continental not provincial.” Moreover, he proposed that the American people hold a convention to draft a constitution with a bill of rights that would create a government empowered to both secure the nation and guarantee that liberty, equality, and democracy prevailed.
Most emphatically, Paine argued for “freedom of conscience” and separation of church and state: “As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of all government, to protect all conscientious professors thereof, and I know of no other business which government hath to do therewith….” And in words that would reverberate through the generations, Paine the immigrant Patriot projected the new nation serving not only as a model to the world, but also as a welcoming haven for immigrants and refugees: “O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the world is over-run with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
Common Sense became one of the greatest bestsellers in American history – and to his everlasting credit, Paine insisted that all royalties should go to buying mittens for George Washington’s troops.
Not only during the Revolution, but in every ensuing generation, Paine’s words were to encourage Americans both native-born and newly-arrived to mobilize – as freethinkers, abolitionists, suffragists, labor unionists, agrarian populists, socialists, progressives, liberals, and civil rights and feminist activists – in favor of extending and deepening American freedom, equality, and democracy. You might say, Paine turned us into radicals in 1776 and we have remained radical at heart ever since.
Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben and Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies and Director of the Center for History and Social Change. An award-winning author and editor of 18 books, Kaye has appeared on a host of television, radio, and podcast shows, including Bill Moyers Journal, C-Span’s BookTV, and Turner Classic Movies. His most recent works include Thomas Paine and the Promise of America; The Fight for the Four Freedoms (2014); and the brand-new Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again (2019).