Delegate Discussions: Common Sense

THIS day was published, and is now selling by Robert Bell, in Third-street (price two shillings) COMMON SENSE addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting SUBJECTS.
I. Of the origin and design of government in general, with concise Remarks on the English constitution.
II. Of Monarchy and Hereditary Succession.
III. Thoughts on the present state of American affairs.
IV. Of the present ability of America, with some miscellaneous reflections.

Title page of Common SenseThe Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the above advertisement on January 9, 1776. This pamphlet written by Thomas Paine (though the world didn't know that yet) spread like wildfire through the American colonies, with Paine claiming in his later work Rights of Man that over 100,000 copies of Common Sense had been sold. Paine and Bell's timing could not have been better — in that same issue of the Pennsylvania Evening Post, on the same page as the advertisement for Common Sense in fact, was the text of a speech King George III delivered in Parliament on October 27, 1775. A speech that expanded on the King's earlier Proclamation of Rebellion and included inflammatory remarks such as "When the happy and deluded multitude... shall become sensible of their error, I shall be ready to receive the misled with tenderness and mercy!" Enter Paine's pamphlet, which argued that "the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth" and "the last cord is now broken".

Since it was first printed in Philadelphia, some of the first readers of Common Sense were the delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Some were thrilled by Common Sense, while others appreciated the section on American independence and dismissed the rest of it. As Steven Pincus explains in The Heart of the Declaration, "perhaps no single piece of writing did more to articulate the importance of unmaking the British Empire than Thomas Paine's Common Sense," but the plan of government described in the pamphlet "was a far cry from that envisioned by most Patriots." One delegate in particular "dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People" (any guesses who?). Find out what these soon-to-be signers of the Declaration of Independence thought about Common Sense, which signer took credit for giving the pamphlet its name, and how John Adams responded to the "Disastrous Meteor", Thomas Paine.

Letter from Samuel Adams to James Warren, 13 January 1776: "I have Sent to Mrs Adams a Pamphlet which made its first Appearance a few days ago. It has fretted some folks here more than a little. I recommend it to your Perusal and wish you would borrow it of her. Don't be displeasd with me if you find the Spirit of it totally repugnant with your Ideas of Government. Read it without Prejudice and give me your impartial Sentiments of it when you may be at your Leisure."

Letter from Josiah Bartlett to John Langdon, 13 January 1776: "This morning I see in the newspaper (which by the way is almost the only way I hear from our Colony) that Portsmouth had appointed Messrs Cutts, Sherburne and Long, to represent that town in Provincial Convention, and by the instructions I find the town is very much afraid of the idea conveyed by the frightful word Independence! This week a pamphlet on that Subject was printed here, and greedily bought up and read by all ranks of people. I shall send you one of them, which you will please to lend round to the people; perhaps on consideration there may not appear any thing so terible in that thought as they might at first apprehend, if Britain should force us to break off all connections with her."

Letter from Thomas Nelson, Jr. to Thomas Jefferson, 4 February 1776: "I send you a present of 2/ worth of Common Sense."

Letter from Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, 13 February 1776: "The only pamphlet that has been published here for a long time I now send you, it is a Curiosity, we have not put up any to go by the Waggon, not knowing how you might relish independency. The Author is not known. Some say Doctor Franklin had a hand in it, he denies it."

Letter from Joseph Hewes to Samuel Johnston, 20 February 1776: "I mentioned to you in my Last per express that we had not sent any copies of the Pamphlet entited Common Sense but finding Brother Penn had a fondness for them have agreed some should be sent, the Council can Judge of the propriety of distributing them. Let me know your opinion on that head."

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Charles Lee, 19 February 1776: "The Bearer, Mr. Paine, has requested a Line of Introduction1 to you, which I give the more willingly, as I know his sentiments are not very different from yours. He is the reputed, and I think the real Author of Common Sense, a Pamphlet that has made great Impression here."
1. See Adams' letter of introduction below

Letter from Josiah Bartlett to John Langdon, 19 February 1776: "The Pamphlet Common Sense has already had three Editions in this City; in the last there is an apendix and large additions, it has also been reprinted at N. York; by the best information it has had a great Effect on the minds of many here & to the Southward."

Letter from Francis Lightfoot Lee to Landon Carter, 19 March 1776: "Before this I suppose you have recd. a Copy of common sense which I sent you some time ago; if not, I now send a parcel to Col. Tayloe of whome you may have one."

Letter from Francis Lightfoot Lee to Landon Carter, 9 April 1776: "I forgot to tell you that a Pamphlet written against Common sense was burnt in the temperate City of N. York by a vast majority of its inhabitants."

Letter from William Whipple to John Langdon, 2 April 1776: "Common Sense has made all the Southern Colonies his friend, and I hope the Northern Colonies will soon open their arms to receive him. It's my opinion under the rose that the salvation of America depends on him."

How Benjamin Rush turned Plain Truth into Common Sense

Benjamin Rush, by Charles Willson PealeFrom Travels Through Life or Sundry Incidents in the Life of Dr. Benjamin Rush2: "About the way 1774 a certain Thomas Paine arrived in Philadelphia from England with a letter of recommendation to his family in Philadelphia. Mr. Paine said his object was to teach a school, or to give private lessons upon geography to young ladies and gentlemen. While he was waiting for employment, Robert Aitkin applied to him to conduct the United States Magazine. he did this with great ability and success for several months. In one of my visits to Mr. Aitkin's book store I met with Mr. Paine and was introduced to him by Mr. Aitkin. His conversation became at one interesting. I asked him to visit me which he did a few days afterwards. Our subjects of conversation were political. I perceived with pleasure that he had realized the independence of the American Colonies upon Great Britain, and that he considered the measure as necessary to bring the war to a speedy and successful issue. I had before this interview put some thoughts upon paper, upon this subject, and was preparing an address to the inhabitants of the Colonies upon it. But I had hesitated as to the time, and I shuddered at the prospect of the consequences of its not being well received. I mentioned the subject to Mr. Paine, and asked him what he thought of writing a pamphlet upon it. I suggested to him that he had nothing to fear from the popular odium to which such a publication might expose him, for he could live anywhere, but that my profession and connections which tied me to Philadelphia, where a great majority of the citizens and some of my friends were hostile to a separation of our country from Great Britain, forbad me to come forward as a pioneer in that important controversy. He readily assented to the proposal, and from time to time he called at my house, and read to me every chapter of the proposed pamphlet as he composed it. I recollect being charmed with a sentence in it, which by accident, or perhaps by design, was not published. It was as follows. 'Nothing can be conceived of more absurd than three millions of people flocking to the American shore, every time a vessel arrives from England, to know what portion of liberty they shall enjoy.' When Mr. Paine had finished his pamphlet, I advised him to shew it to Dr. Franklin, Mr. Rittenhouse, and Mr. Samuel Adams, all of whom I knew were decided friends to American independence. I mention these facts to refute a report that Mr. Paine was assisted in composing his pamphlet by one or more of the above gentlemen. They never saw it until it was written and then only by my advice. I gave it at his request the title of 'Common Sense'. The printing of this pamphlet was the next thing to be done. For this purpose I applied to Thomas Bell, a Scotch bookseller of a singular character, but a thoughtless and fearless Whig and an open friend to independence, to undertake the publication of it. He enjoyed the proposal. I sent Mr. Paine to him, and in a few weeks the pamphlet made its appearance. Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind. It was read by public men, repeated in Clubs, spouted in schools and in one instance delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon, by a clergyman in Connecticut. Several Pamphlets were written against it, but they fell dead from the press."
2. See Delegate Discussions: Benjamin Rush's Characters for more from Rush's Travels

How Common Sense fueled John Adams' Thoughts on Government 

In his autobiography, John Adams recounted Paine's arrival on the political scene: "In the Course of this Winter appeared a Phenomenon in Philadelphia a Star of Disaster (Disastrous Meteor),3 I mean Thomas Paine. He came from England, and got into such company as would converse with him, and ran about picking up what Information he could, concerning our Affairs, and finding the great Question was concerning Independence, he gleaned from those he saw the common place Arguments concerning Independence..." Adams also corroborated Rush's story about giving the pamphlet the title of Common Sense before offering his thoughts:

Portrait of John Adams by John Trumbull, c. 1792-3"The Arguments in favour of Independence I liked very well: but one third of the Book was filled with Arguments from the old Testiment, to prove the Unlawfulness of Monarchy, and another Third, in planning a form of Government, for the seperate States in One Assembly, and for the United States, in a Congress. His Arguments from the old Testiment, were ridiculous, but whether they proceeded from honest Ignorance, or foolish Supersti[ti]on on one hand, or from will-full Sophistry and knavish Hypocricy on the other I know not. The other third part relative to a form of Government I considered as flowing from simple Ignorance, and a mere desire to please the democratic Party in Philadelphia, at whose head were Matlock4, Mr. Cannon and Dr. Young. I regretted however, to see so foolish a plan recommended to the People of the United States, who were all waiting only for the Countenance of Congress, to institute their State Governments. I dreaded the Effect so popular a pamphlet might have, among the People, and determined to do all in my Power, to counter Act the Effect of it."

Adams' method of counteracting Common Sense was to publish a letter he had written to Richard Henry Lee, under the title of Thoughts on Government in a Letter from a Gentleman to his Friend. He left the work anonymous, as Paine had done with Common Sense, but regretted this decision. As his correspondence reveals, many people in the colonies and in Europe attributed Common Sense to Adams — he took this as a compliment for how well-written the pamphlet was, but an insult for how ill-conceived Paine's ideas of government were in comparison to his own. Since he was travelling from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Adams likely picked up a copy of Common Sense in New York (and sent a copy to Abigail, as per the letter below) in early February 1776. Read on for Adams' letters through the spring of 1776, and more from his autobiography on the significance of Common Sense.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 18 February 1776: "I sent you from New York a Pamphlet intituled Common Sense, written in Vindication of Doctrines which there is Reason to expect that the further Encroachments of Tyranny and Depredations of Oppression, will soon make the common Faith: unless the cunning Ministry, by proposing Negociations and Terms of Reconciliation, should divert the present Current from its Channell."

Letter from John Adams to Charles Lee, 19 February 1776: "... I took up my Pen only to introduce you to your Acquaintance a Countryman of yours and a Citizen of the World, to whom a certain Heretical Pamphlet called Common sense, is imputed. His Name is Paine. He is travelling to N. York for his Curiosity and wishes to see a Gentleman, whose Character he so highly respects."

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 2 March 1776: "I am charmed with the Sentiments of Common Sense; and wonder how an honest Heart, one who wishes the welfare of their country, and the happiness of posterity can hesitate one moment at adopting them; I want to know how those Sentiments are received in Congress? I dare say their would be no difficulty in procuring a vote and instructions from all the Assemblies in new England for independency. I most sincerely wish that now in the Lucky Minuet it might be done."

Letter John Adams to Abigail Adams, 19 March 1776: "You ask, what is thought of Common sense. Sensible Men think there are some Whims, some Sophisms, some artfull Addresses to superstitious Notions, some keen attempts upon the Passions, in this Pamphlet. But all agree there is a great deal of good sense, delivered in a clear, simple, concise and nervous Style. His sentiments of the Abilities of America, and of the Difficulty of a Reconciliation with G.B. are generally approved. But his Notions, and Plans of Continental Government are not much applauded. Indeed this Writer has a better Hand at pulling down than building. It has been very generally propagated through the Continent that I wrote this Pamphlet. But altho I could not have written any Thing in so manly and striking a style, I flatter myself I should have made a more respectable Figure as an Architect, if I had undertaken such a Work. This Writer seems to have very inadequate Ideas of what is proper and necessary to be done, in order to form Constitutions for single Colonies, as well as a great Model of Union for the whole."

Letter from William Tudor to John Adams, 29 February 1776: "The Pamphlet called Common Sense is read with great Avidity. The Doctrine it holds up is calculated for the Climate of N. England and though some timid piddling Souls shrink at the Idea 99 in 100 wish for a Declaration of Independence from the Congress. This Peice has been attributed to You, some make Dr. Franklin the Author and others suppose it the Product of a Triumverate; be this as it may, the bold Conceptions of the Author who has convey'd them in the most energetic Language, at once astonish, convince and please Us."

Letter from John Adams to William Tudor, 12 April 1776: "You talk about Common sense, and Say it has been attributed to me. But I am as innocent of it as a Babe. The most atrocious literary sins, have been imputed to me these twelve Years. 'Poor harmless5 I! and can I choose but Smile / When every Coxcomb knows me by my Style.' I could not reach the Strength and Brevity of his style, nor his elegant Symplicity, nor his piercing Pathos. But I really think in other Respects, the Pamphlet would do no Honour even to me. The old Testament Reasoning against Monarchy would have never come from me. The Attempt to frame a Continental Constitution, is feeble indeed. It is poor, and despicable. Yet this is a very meritorious Production. In Point of Argument there is nothing new. I believe every one that is in it, had been hackneyd in every Conversation public and private, before that Pamphlet was written."

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 28 April 1776: "The Writer of Common Sense, and the Forrester, is the same Person. His Name is Payne, a Gentleman, about two Years ago from England, a Man who G[eneral] Lee says has Genius in his Eyes."

Letter from John Adams to James Warren, 12 May 1776: "Common sense by his crude, ignorant Notions of a Government by one Assembly, will do more Mischief, in dividing the Friends of Liberty, than all the Tory Writings together. He is a keen Writer, but very ignorant of the Science of Government."

Autobiography of John Adams: "It has been a general Opinion, that this Pamphlet was of great Importance in the Revolution. I doubted it at the time and have doubted it to this day. It probably converted some to the Doctrine of Independence, and gave others an Excuse for declaring in favour of it. But these would all have followed Congress, with Zeal; and on the other hand it excited many Writers against it, particularly plain Truth, who contributed very largely to fortify and inflame the Party against Independence, and finally lost us the Allens, Penns, and many other Persons of Weight in the Community. Notwithstanding these doubts I felt myself obliged to Paine for the Pains he had taken and for his good Intentions to serve Us which I then had no doubt of."

3. In the manuscript, Adams underlined "a Star of Disaster" and inserted "Disastrous Meteor"; it is unclear which phrase he intended for publication.
4. Timothy Matlack, scribe of the engrossed parchment
5. Adams substituted "harmless" for "guiltless" in these lines from the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot in Alexander Pope's Satires.

For more:

Emily Sneff