Anniversay Post: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

Common SenseOn this day in 1776, Thomas Paine published (anonymously) Common Sense. As regular readers know, I greatly admire Paine. But not for Common Sense. Don’t get me wrong. Paine was an amazing rhetorician. But there was always a sense with him that he was at heart a rabble-rouser. The content of the pamphlet strikes me as overblown, given what the colonists were going through. And then it is taken to a whole other level in the 13 pamphlets of The American Crisis.

I admire Paine for his more sober writing: The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason. And it is interesting to look at his reputation in the United States with regard to this. In as much as he is considered a hero, it is because of Common Sense. But it contains passages like this that could have been written by a modern glib libertarian:

Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first a patron, the last a punisher.

To be fair, Common Sense is more closely argued than that passage indicates. But still: is this how Americans see the government today? I don’t think so. Yet this is what Paine is loved for. Meanwhile, it was with The Rights of Man that made Americans start to turn a jaundiced eye toward him. And then they actively hated him after The Age of Reason. But these are great works of the Enlightenment. Paine understood the intellectual currents of the time. And typically, most Americans wanted to push back against them. Paine saw that the future laid in humanism, and America became focused on the Second Great Awakening.


On this day in 1927, Metropolis was also released. It was hard not to write about it, because it still amazes me that it wasn’t that respected when it first came out. It blows my mind even today. No one has improved on cinema since then. But I’ve discussed it to some extent in the past, Fritz Lang.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

17 thoughts on “Anniversay Post: Thomas Paine’s Common Sense

  1. Biographers always focus on Paine’s funeral — basically some rural neighbors showed up. And Paine’s last years weren’t as exciting as what came before. Thomas Jefferson, no fool he, knew you couldn’t stop Paine from writing. So he gave Paine a farm. Just big enough to be a source of steady income, not big enough for Paine to be comfortable. It kept him busy and mostly kept him from writing, which was undoubtedly the point.

    But what a life he had! I mean, in the 18th century, you were practically dead by 40. And that’s when Paine’s adventures began. Until Jefferson gave him a farm, Paine was pretty much constantly running from the hangman. (Or guillotine.) It was probably a pain in the ass to be in trouble all the time. Also, hugely exciting.

    What’s amazing is the progression of his writing after “Common Sense.” It’s like he took his popularity seriously. I don’t necessarily blame a Chris Hitchens for wanting to stir up shit by changing sides, having a reputation as a cranky author must be fun. I’d probably do the same. Look at what Paine did, however. He started off writing about the taxman, ended up being brilliant about organized wealth and organized religion. He always aimed at higher targets. He was friends with Edmund Burke (Paine was friends with everybody, he and Washington would hang out lighting files of natural gas bubbling through the river in GW’s backyard) and pissed Burke off with “Rights Of Man.” I’d be surprised if Paine didn’t send Burke a pre-publication copy, hoping he’d convince him. Until his dying day, I think Paine thought he could always win people over to his side.

    (Burke is the guy quoted in “1776” — “a representative owes the People not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.”)

    Is there any better statement on agnosticism ever written than this:

    “Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.

    No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.”

    I’d put that passage on the back of the US dollar bill.

    Paine wasn’t against religion as faith; he was against the myriad crimes and abuses of churches. He wasn’t against government; he was against governments that didn’t help the poor. What a fucking grownup he was.

    If we had an actual educational system, we’d be teaching Paine to kids in fourth grade. I don’t have many heroes. Paine is one of them.

    • Yes, Paine wasn’t against government as a concept, just government as it was practiced. This is, after all, the man who wrote Agrarian Justice about a decade before he died.

      I’m not sure you are right about Jefferson’s motivations. Jefferson was taking pity on his old friend, trying to find a place for him to live out his final years. As I recall, it was hard to even get Paine back into the US. As it is, I think of him as the most American of men, at the same time, I’d have to say that he was British.

      Was Paine a friend of Burke? If so, I suspect it was a temporary thing. Paine had a habit of offending people who once thought him a friend. I’ve been meaning to read a biography of him for some time (I did read part of one a few years back). He certainly did live a worthy life. But that’s also kind of a curse. If he had been a “go along to get along” kind of guy, he would have died a rich man. But then he wouldn’t have been a great man.

      • As to Jefferson and Paine, as one friend of mine puts it, “it’s a little bit column A, it’s it little bit column B.” Jefferson was probably a good friend to Paine; and probably, as a good friend, wanted to shut Paine up. There’s a real naivete in Paine’s writing, like he didn’t know how much trouble he was getting into. That may not be true — maybe he knew exactly what trouble he was getting into — but it’s the tone of inadvertent offense which makes his writing so adorable.

        • I understand that! I’m working on the second edition of the first book I ever wrote and… wow! Boy was I naive. Not that I’m comparing myself to Paine. But I understand what it is to be so certain of something that you are completely out of touch with how other people see you. On the other hand, you need some of that to be real. Otherwise, you’re just a hack. I like to think that I’m not a total hack now. But I mostly am.

          • Most of the reviews say that you were very fair to both sides of the debate. There are worst things to be.

            • Well, I was highly paternal. I still worry about users. I still get email and I still help people detox. But there is still a Johnny Appleseed aspect of it. I am, however, really pleased to make some changes regarding the detox information. And I might add some stuff about pills. One thing I’ve written about for well over a decade is that commonly prescribed pills are more potent than illegal narcotics. The legal status of a drug basically says nothing about its dangers. But mostly, I’m not very interested in the subject anymore. But I’m a professional writer and I’m really good at writing about stuff I’m not interested in. (Well, technically, I have a trick: I get interested for as long as it takes.)

              • Considering what the ones with resources can go through, I can imagine how hard it is for the ones who don’t have them.

                Good trick though for your writing.

          • Hacks change their beliefs in order to make money. That’s a hack. You may not like your writing skills, and while I’d disagree, that’s your prerogative. But you don’t readjust your thinking for cash. So you’re not a hack. End of hack-rant.

            • You always give me the benefit of the doubt. And it does inspire me to do better. I don’t know if I would have done anything different regarding my mice without you. But I did feel your stare the whole time I was dealing with them. And it all resolved itself beautifully.

              Being a hack isn’t such a bed thing. It’s bad to only be a hack. But I did manage to kill an article that was based on The Millionaire Next Door. I’m willing to work on things that I think are wrong but which are matters of opinion. But if something is just factually wrong, I balk. But I’m very willing to help someone make the best case they can for their position — as long as they don’t lie or mislead (or believe something that I feel really strongly against).

              Where the hack factor comes in is in working on things that are factually right but that I believe will be used in negative ways. I did a lot of work a few months back on infographics about hyperinflation. It’s a very interesting topic and and important one. But people reading it today will tend to freak out as though it is something that we have to worry about it. The truth is that the IGs demonstrated that we have nothing to worry about. But people aren’t careful in reading and I can see the IGs being used for ill, even though I was very pleased with the final products.

              There is a whole other hack factor that I can’t talk about. But the work I do is really good — some of my best. And I just wrote some ad copy for one of our websites. Although I have to admit, it is really cool. But I would have found a way to make it sound cool even if I didn’t think it was. But we aren’t talking about writing press releases for the Aryan Brotherhood here. There are far more things I won’t do for money than things I will. For example, I know I could do very well if I wanted to write for libertarian publications. But I’m not willing to do that. So no, I’m not too much a hack. But I’m half a hack. Sometime soon, I’ll put up some samples of the kind of work I do over at Frankly Curious Media. Then you’ll get the idea.

              • Well, everyone has to pay the bills. And when I took adult education courses online, I did my best to encourage people I disagreed with, particularly ones for whom English wasn’t their native language. At least they were thinking about political issues at all, which is more than most do.

                But yeah, I could see how it would be a little creepy to think some work you did might be used for evil. Not like I can talk! My primary contributions to the universe to date promote professional sports teams!

                • There really isn’t anything you can do that can’t be used for evil. My last big job was designing a remote sensing system for fire fighting and detecting oil pipeline leaks. But soon they wanted to use it for surveillance and other nefarious things. Of course, the owners destroyed the company, so no worries!

  2. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard the term “adorable” applied to Paine’s writings before, but it is a description that I wholeheartedly support. The Age of Reason, particularly, which I have now read probably a dozen times, never fails to make me laugh at Paine’s sarcasm or to move me with his humanity – even when he’s being petty (maybe especially then).

    Anyway, there are several very good Paine bios out there, but if you want to see the work of several noted Paine scholars distilled into a particularly moving drama, please check out Ian Ruskin’s one-man play, To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine. It’s thoroughly researched and wonderfully performed. A film version has just been completed, and is due to air on PBS this year. You see catch the trailer here:

    A totally fascinating discussion, btw.

    • Well, to begin with, the one-person show is one of my very favorite art forms. Ultimately, it is about storytelling, and I love that as much now as when I was 4 years old. For those interested, you can get more information at The Life of Thomas Paine. I’ll probably write more about that later.

      Thank you so much, Christine!

      • You’re both very welcome!

        If you love storytelling (as I do too) you will definitely enjoy this play. Mr. Ruskin has a fine sense of narrative and incorporates many aspects of Paine’s writing voice, or rather voices — Mr. Paine has so many.

        It’s a real delight to find Paine’s work here discussed in terms of writer and readers, rather than just political ideologies. For sure, Paine was a political writer, but there is far more to be found in his work than politics. Thank you both for bringing that to light.

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