This question, specifically requested by Claremont McKenna College, explores the impact Thomas Paine, as a revolutionary and a great leader, had on American history with his essay “Common Sense”.
Of all the founding fathers in America’s history, few have played a role equaling the paramount importance of Thomas Paine, and few have been so repeatedly overlooked. At a time when even the most devout patriot stood uncertainly in the shadow of British tyranny, Thomas Paine wrote with power and charisma enough to fortify the resolve of young America; single handedly rousing thousands to join the Revolutionary cause. Rising from a modest upbringing in England to become America’s most outspoken patriot, Paine was indisputably responsible, at least in part, for stirring up the seeds of war that would eventually lead to the birth of a new nation. Born in the country town of Thetford in 1737, Thomas Paine was not always a master of rhetoric and rebellions. For the first thirty years of his life Paine, like his father, worked as a staymaker in England. However, Paine was far from happy with the monotonous banality of his career, so he began to study politics. He wrote furiously for several years, occasionally drafting pamphlets, but ultimately remaining penniless. Then, in 1774, Paine was approached by Benjamin Franklin, who persuaded the struggling writer to seek work in America. Upon arrival, Paine worked a short stint as a school teacher before becoming a successful contributor to the Pennsylvania Magazine. Quickly, he became involved in America’s heated political conflict, which prompted Paine to pen the opening pages of Common Sense. Unlike other political essayists of the 1700s, Thomas Paine wrote in the clear, direct voice of a common person. He realized that war against the world’s most powerful country could not be won or loss with the support of a few rich men, so Paine appealed to the masses of potential Revolutionists. His use of language was not pretentious or diluted with flowery descriptions, and because of that, Paine swayed thousands to rebel against England. As one patriot noted, “It would be difficult to name any human composition which has had an effect at once so instant, so extended, and so lasting… It worked nothing short of miracles and turned Tories into Whigs.” Men, women, and children tore through the pages of Common Sense, which had become an overnight success. Coupled with his straightforward style, Thomas Paine also used various literary techniques to persuade his readers. Predominant in Common Sense is Paine’s infallible reasoning, which expounds his message point by point, driving the author’s logic through his reader’s head like a sledgehammer through cardboard. However, Paine also relies on religious allusions, figurative language, and statistics in hopes influencing a more varied crowd. Additionally, Paine possessed great skill in twisting words and penning inspirational mottos, as shown in his writing: “In America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free governments the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other… Let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished and scattered among the people whose right it is.” Such words, infectious in their simplicity, spread through the colonies like wildfire, igniting passion in the hearts of rebels everywhere. Although Paine spent months writing over fifty pages of rhetoric, the entirety of his work can be boiled down into one concise thesis statement: All citizens have a natural right and duty to free themselves from oppressive governments, no matter the cost. This concept is explained, analyzed, and reiterated consistently throughout Paine’s writing. Even when fleshing out complex philosophical principles Paine never strays far from his thesis, giving the statement more effectiveness. 200 years after writing Common Sense, the ramifications of Thomas Paine’s significance can still be felt. Without Paine, rebel colonists never would have gathered the support needed to instigate revolution. As a result, America would have remained a possession of England, strengthening the British Empire and weakening the rest of the world. So much so, in fact, that there would be nearly no chance of another super power emerging to counter England’s force. And with such incontestable dominance, England would be able to exert its will on people everywhere, good or bad. Considering that, Thomas Paine is almost single handedly responsible for instilling a lasting balance of power and curbing the influence of England. Paine’s powerful, emotionally charged essay stirred up sentiments strong enough to unify a nation and overthrow an empire. After ending his life as a staymaker, Paine rose up to draft the most monumental American essay of all time. His simplistic style and use of persuasion appealed to a wide range of people, and his achievements have spanned the centuries to remain an integral part of today’s culture.