Thomas Paine was born in Thetford, England, to a father who worked as a corset maker. From his beginnings, it seems unlikely that this boy would one day publish writings that influenced two revolutions of the 18th century. "Common Sense" called for the complete independence of the American colonies, and "The Rights of Man" helped radicalize the French Revolution. By the end of his life, Paine had been forced out of Britain and imprisoned in France. His writings caused controversy, but also provoked thought. Americans can thank Paine for a work that the common man could understand, for "Common Sense" united the colonists under the banner of independence against British rule. Thomas Paine remains one of the most influential writers of the eighteenth century. His work spanned two continents and influenced two revolutions during his lifetime.
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The Impact of Paine’s "Common Sense"
Common Sense was published on January 10, 1776, in response to the uprising in the American colonies against the British, now known as the American Revolution. Within the first three months, 120,000 copies of this 48-page pamphlet were published, with 500,000 copies published in the first year. Paine kept none of the profits from the publication, but instead gave his earnings to George Washington’s Continental Army. The pamphlet Common Sense influenced popular opinion towards the revolution more than any other work of the time. Paine wrote it with the common man in mind, using sermon-like language and biblical references that the colonists could understand and relate to. Because Common Sense was so widely read, it instigated a national debate about the war, independence, and government that had not previously existed.
While Paine’s work was widely read, Common Sense did not necessarily influence the work of the Continental Congress and the founding fathers. For example, John Adams disagreed with Thomas Paine’s radical ideas of republican government and wrote his own work, Thoughts on Government, in 1776 to provide a more conservative view. However, Paine’s popularity influenced popular feeling. His writings were read by Benjamin Franklin, a friend since 1774, and George Washington. Washington even had Paine’s The American Crisis read to his troops in order to boost morale. Therefore, Thomas Paine’s philosophies and writings were an integral part of the American Revolution, but not the only part. He caused controversy and provoked discussion. While the true impact of Common Sense cannot be calculated, his work assisted in the formation of the American nation and has become the foundation for political theorists in the twentieth century.