(Approach shamelessly heisted from D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature).
Common Sense dares Americans to take the next step. In thought and action. It was written during a time of rebellion.
Thomas Paine has no doubt as to what that something is. Paine is not the first person to see the possibilities of his
Common Sense has an edge. Paine wants to sever ties, to chop through knots of temporization and doubt. The method of argument that Paine uses comes out of the skepticism of Voltaire and Montaigne. In his hands it is acid. It burns through the moldy notions of the divine inheritance of kings. It corrodes the supports that still connect the old and the new. Custom is his enemy as much as the British. Custom and the constriction of free thought (Paine talks a lot about commerce but his most important commerce is a commerce of the mind). Paine says: we are not like them, the citizens of
These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated
- The Crisis (1775)
Paine, the son of a corset-maker, can write. This is prose that draws on Shakespeare and the Bible, with a directness that comes with a new American vernacular. He is writing in a language that any person of soon to be countrymen could understand. Even people who weren’t literate – and many weren’t in 1776 – could appreciate Paine’s sweep and dramatic oppositions. Common Sense could be read to indentured servants in a storehouse. A man could stand up on a beer cask in a tavern and sway the hearts of rough workers. All the binaries are there in his ferocious attack: old/new, monarchy/republic, crowded/open, despair/hope. These are the terms that would come to define the promise of
Common Sense is propaganda. High level propaganda but propaganda still. Paine doesn’t dwell on the issues that would threaten his new country: slavery, Indian wars, states rights, growth. He hints at them but it is his belief that the revolution, now, will give the only chance of overcoming them. It was left to others, writing for different audiences, to explore the threat of
In later life, Paine referred to himself as ‘a missionary of world revolution.’ Forced out of
American exceptionalism has been debased many times in the last 220 years. After the Iraq War it’s hard not to see