cover of Common SenseThe Battle at Concord and Lexington is said to have included the “shot heard around the world.” It is one candidate for the beginning of the American Revolution. If so, one reason would be that the battle tipped Thomas Paine’s opinion firmly to the side of independence and against any further effort to reconcile with Great Britain.  Encouraged by Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin he set himself to the task of persuading others.

In Common Sense he made the case against monarchy in general and the English king in particular. He went beyond earlier proponents of social contract by applying those ideas to the specific situation of the North American colonists late in 1775. In his view that situation was urgent and his readers needed to act immediately both for their own wellbeing and to demonstrate to the world that their purpose — throwing off monarchy and freeing themselves from subjection to imperial power — was possible. To do so he used powerful rhetoric, making bold arguments and sometimes startling images.

I particularly like his assertion that government, like dress, is a “badge of lost innocence.”

Reading Paine’s pamphlet in 2022 I admire his effectiveness as a popularizer of political ideas. Some 125,000 copies were sold. The ideas he presented were discussed widely, not only among an educated elite. Thus popular opinion in favor of revolution was fostered. This is striking 250 years later as we watch the ways political views (misinformation and lies) spread by quite different means and the seeming ineffectiveness of other leaders to counter them.