OTD in History… January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense argues for American independence

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OTD in History… January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine publishes Common Sense argues for American independence

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) publishes anonymously his pamphlet Common Sense arguing for American independence from Great Britain. The popular pamphlet written as a sermon delineated the colonies “grievances” against the British Parliament and the monarchy. The pamphlet’s philosophy “united the colonies” behind the idea of independence, and its publication is considered a major turning point in the road towards American independence, which the Second Continental Congress declared barely six months later. Historian Peter D. G. Thomas indicated, “The crisis of 1774 became the war of 1775 and the revolution of 1776.” (Thackeray, 297) While historian Gordon Wood in his book The American Revolution: A History notes “Common Sense was the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire Revolutionary era; it went through twenty-five editions in 1776 alone,” and sold 500,000 copies. (Wood, 55)

Source: History.com

Paine arrived from Britain in November 1774 with a “letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin,” before the outbreak of the fighting between the colonists and Britain with the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Colonists were aggrieved with Britain for their taxation without representation, and then the Coercive Acts of 1774 in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Paine believed the problem the colonists had against moving forward towards independence was their ties with Britain and belief that reconciliation was still a possibility. The situation only exacerbated in 1775 with the Battles of Lexington, Concord and then in June with the Battle of Bunker Hill. On July 5, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition the thirteen colonies’ last appeal to avoid a full war with Great Britain, while almost simultaneously on July 6, adopted a Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. King George III refused to read the petition, and instead, on August 23, 1775, issued “A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition” saying the colonies were in an “open and avowed rebellion” after the Battle of Bunker Hill. Then to force conciliation Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act at the end of 1775, prohibiting trade or else American ships would be seized.

In the fall of 1775, Paine began writing Common Sense under the working title Plain Truth, which he originally intended to be a series letters published in Philadelphia newspapers, however, it soon grew too long and he decided to publish it as a pamphlet upon the recommendation of Benjamin Rush. Robert Bell published the first edition, Bell publicized it so much that it began a best seller and there were demands for a second printing, however, Paine discovered Bell made no money from the sales. Incensed, Paine decided that the Bradford Brothers, who published the Pennsylvania Evening Post would publish his expanded second edition with additional appendices. Bell, however, refused to cease publishing a second edition. The war between the two and the rivaling publications drummed up interest with the public and contributed to sales.

Source: Brandeis University Special Collections

According to historians Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling in their book Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century explain, in Common Sense Thomas Paine “argued the advantages of a separate national existence.” Paine claimed America could have free trade with any nation, be free from being involved with European wars, and live without “the small island” of Britain ruling a “continent” from “3,000 miles away.” Paine argued that Americans should “immediately declare independence “For God’s sake let us come to a final separation… the birthday of the new world is at hand.” Paine concluded, “To know whether it be the interest of this continent to be Independent, we need only ask this simple question: Is it the interest of a man to be a boy all his life?” (Thackeray, 97–98)

For the first time Paine argued that King George III or as he referred to him a “royal brute” was responsible for the policies imposed on the colonies and Prime Minister Lord Frederick North was doing the king’s bidding. Part of Paine’s revolutionary argument was, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” when at that point colonists saw themselves as British subjects. Paine argued, “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.” Colonists and even the Continental Congress distinguished the policies of the prime minister and parliament from the monarchy, for the first time Paine linked the two as equally as bad for the colonies.

Thackeray and Findling believe “Common Sense was an important piece of propaganda… it helped prepare the public for the final break.” (Thackeray, 97–98) Founding Father John Adams declared, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.” Paine also reached out to a new audience the “common people” with Common Sense, the “artisans” and those frequenting the taverns by not using Latin and referencing literature replacing it references to the “Bible and Book of Common Prayer.” Paine declared, “I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense.” As Wood explains, “Although Paine was criticized for using ungrammatical language and coarse imagery, he showed the common people, who in the past had not been very involved in politics, that fancy words and Latin quotations no longer mattered as much as honesty and sincerity and the natural revelation of feelings.” (Wood, 55)

Paine would go on to fight in the American Revolution until 1777, when he worked for the Second Continental Congress in the Committee of Foreign Affairs. Upon returning to Britain in 1787, Paine continued writing pamphlets championing the French Revolution with “The Rights of Man.” In the pamphlet, he attacked Member of Parliament Edmund Burke, which forced him to flee from Britain to France. In 1792, Britain issued a writ for Paine’s arrest because he advocated overthrowing governments, he was found guilty of seditious libel against Burke “in absentia.” Paine fled to France and he was elected to the French National Convention but by December 1793, he was arrested and in a French prison. In November 1794, Paine was released after James Monroe intervened. The same year Paine published The Age of Reasonarguing against Christianity and in favor of deism. In 1802, Paine returned to America but his influence waned after he criticized President George Washington and because of his views on Christianity. Common Sense, however, remains the best-selling book published in the United States.

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Thackeray, Frank W. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.

“Common Sense (pamphlet).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Sense_(pamphlet)

“Thomas Paine.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Paine

Wood, Gordon S. American Revolution: A History. New York: Random House, 2003.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism.

 

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OTD in History… June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress votes George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution

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OTD in History… June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress votes George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in History June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress unanimously votes George Washington Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. The Congress chose Virginia delegate Washington because in 1754 he served as “Colonel of the Virginia Regiment and Commander in Chief of all forces now raised in the defense of His Majesty’s Colony” for the British army during the French and Indian War. Washington would accept this central post in America’s fight for independence from Great Britain. Thirteen years later in 1789, again the country would unanimously vote Washington the first President of the United States.

Washington served in the first Continental Congress in the fall of 1774, and in March 1775, was again chosen by Virginia as one of their delegates. This time the colonies were inching closer to war. As Virginia delegate, Patrick Henry declared, “We must fight! Give me liberty or give me death!” War and eventually independence would be on the Second Continental Congress’ agenda when they reconvened on May 10, 1775.

At this point, only militia forces were fighting the British, but they needed a leader after victories against the British with the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on April 19. Besides a leader, the militias were lacking “guns, ammunition, and training.” On June 14, the Continental Congress formed the Continental Army, and Samuel and John Adams nominated Washington as commander. New England’s delegates wanted a leader from their area, while others thought having a commander from the South would make the army a “Continental” one representative of the all 13 of the American colonies.

With Washington from Virginia, he became the consensus candidate. The army needed rich and populous Virginia’s involvement. Washington had the military experience, and at 43-years-old was young enough for the rigors of the war, and he was dedicated to the colonies’ patriotic cause. One New England delegate observed, “He seems discrete and virtuous, no harum-scarum, ranting swearing fellow, but sober, steady, and calm.” After his nomination, Washington recused himself from the voting and the Congress unanimously chose him.

On June 16, Washington delivered an acceptance speech, telling the Congress, “I am truly sensible of the high Honor done me in this Appointment… lest some unlucky event should happen unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every Gentleman in the room, that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honoured with.” Unlike the soldiers, Washington refused to take a salary; instead, he asked to be for having his expenses paid at the war’s end.

John Adams wrote his wife Abigail about the Congress choosing Washington on June 17, saying, “I can now inform you that the Congress have made Choice of the modest and virtuous, the amiable, generous and brave George Washington Esqr., to be the General of the American Army and that he is to repair as soon as possible to the Camp before Boston.”

The next day, Washington wrote a letter to his wife Martha informing her of his new post. Washington expressed, “It has been determined in Congress, that the whole army raised for the defense of the American Cause shall be put under my care, and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the Command of it. You may believe me my dear Patsy, when I assure you in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it.” Washington admitted, he had no choice to accept the command, writing, “It was utterly out of my power to refuse this appointment without exposing my Character to such censures as would have reflected dishonour upon myself, and given pain to my friends.”

The Congress drafted Washington’s commission on June 17; they officially commissioned Washington as commander on June 19, and he assumed command on June 3, two weeks after the army floundered at the Battle of Bunker Hill outside of Boston, Massachusetts on June 17. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms also on July 3, explaining the reasons behind the colonies military actions and Revolutionary War against Britain.

As historian James MacGregor Burns and Susan Dunn in their biography, George Washington noted, “From now on, he promised, he would devote himself solely to ‘American Union and Patriotism.’ All smaller and partial considerations would ‘give way to the great and general Interest.’” Washington would serve as the commander leading the newly formed United States to independence and victory against the British, resigning on December 23, 1783. Five years later in 1789, Washington would lead the new nation again, when he was elected the first President of the United States. His two-term presidency would be the model followed throughout American history.

SOURCES

Burns, James M. G, and Susan Dunn. George Washington. New York: Times Books, 2004.

Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn Greenwood Press Birmingham, AL, USA EBSCO Industries, Inc., 1998.

READ MORE

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.

Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency George Washington. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: A Military Life. New York: Random House, 2005.