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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  

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Thomas Paine

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Thomas Paine immigrated to America from England shortly before the start of the American Revolution. He soon turned out to be one of the most outspoken advocates for separation from Britain. Paine borrowed ideas from the Enlightenment, but he addressed himself to the working classes rather than the intellectual elite. He wrote in a colorful and engaging style that captured the imagination and helped create the idea of an American nation. Paine first published the pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776, before the writing of the Declaration of Independence, but after the first skirmishes of the American Revolution. This influential pamphlet, which had already gone to a third edition by mid February of 1776, attempted to persuade American residents who still held conciliatory attitudes towards the British government that seeking independence was the only logical course.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine
Common Sense consists of four chapters with an introduction and appendix added to the 3rd edition. Paine takes an aggressive stance from the beginning, opening his second paragraph with the statement, "Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in the 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." He goes on to criticize the constitution of England as self contradictory and states that it is too complicated to even quickly identify and unravel the sources of its defects.

In the second chapter, Paine criticizes monarchy as a form of government. He points to Biblical precedent as being in opposition to monarchy, discussing in detail the appointment of the first king of Israel. He points to the line of English kings as springing from a usurper in William the Conqueror. He, moreover, criticizes hereditary monarchy as being of dubious precedent and subjugating future generations to choices they had no part in making.

Finally, Paine presents a two part argument for seeking independence. The third chapter focuses on the inevitability that the Americans must separate from Britain. He points out the difficulty of being legislated by a government so far away and ridicules the idea that an island should rule a continent. He enumerates some of the grievances that the colonists have suffered at British hands. Further, he points out American vulnerability by having to be drawn in to British hostilities that are not shared by American inhabitants, and the difficulty of dealing with threats when rule occurs from afar. He also points out that England legislates the American colonies to the advantage of England, not to that of the colonies. In the fourth chapter Paine emphasizes the reasons he thinks the current time is right to separate from England stating that the colonies should be sufficiently populated and well experienced from the recent wars to be ready to defend themselves. He points to the current interdependence of the colonies as a unifying force that will erode as the colonies become more self sufficient. He also states that time will entrench bad habits and make it more difficult to form a functional government.

Common Sense was successful in engaging the colonists in the idea of Revolution, but the reality of the Revolution was much more trying and drawn out than they initially expected. As Christmas of 1776 approached, the initial enthusiasm of the enlisted men was wearing thin. Many soldiers were contemplating leaving the army when their enlistment expired at the beginning of the new year. In response, Paine wrote The Crisis No. 1, the first of a series of essays that he had published between 1776 and 1783 during the Revolutionary war. It opens with the memorable lines, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Paine encourages the soldiers to make the best use of the winter before them. He states what is at stake in fighting the war, and insists that the gains will be worth the sacrifice. He writes of his own experience as a soldier and offers reason to believe that the American forces will prevail against British troops.

George Washington read Paine's essay to his troops and together with a personal appeal from the general, managed to convince many men to reenlist. Paine was one of the more radical of the American founding fathers. Never-the-less, his ideas of common sense, endeavor and personal merit, human rights, and a rejection of inevitability in human history were strongly grounded in Enlightenment thinking. His courageous prose helped to galvanize resolve and bolster confidence in the Revolutionary cause at a critical moment in American history.

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