Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
Summary & Analysis
Tories (or "Loyalists"), colonists who remained loyal to the British crown, made up at least one-fifth of the U.S. population in 1776. Before Tom Paine published his enormously influential pamphlet, Common Sense, in the very beginning of that year, Tories may well have numbered even more. Among the approximately 80% of colonists who were not staunchly loyal to the Mother Country, how many were really prepared to make the radical break with England and declare independence? Though we may never know the answer to that question, it is clear that the American Revolution could not become truly revolutionary until it became a battle for a new government and an end to colonialism. In order for this to happen, the colonists needed to be persuaded that independence was the right aim, that their cause was just, and that now was the time to do it.
Paine and his radical ideas came along at exactly the right time: his stirring call for liberty—Paine was the first to advocate a complete break with England—persuaded a great many Americans who had, up until that time, thought of themselves as loyal, if disgruntled, subjects of the king. In his pamphlet, Paine associated the corrupt monarchy with the despised taxation policy. He convinced most of his readers to become proponents of the world's first republican government (even if it was a government of and for white men). Paine was a master of transforming the complicated philosophical and scientific principles of the Enlightenment—individuality, reason, and liberty—into plain words that the masses could comprehend and rally around. In explaining the urgency and importance of the situation, Paine wrote that "The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz. [namely,] the time of forming itself into a government. Most nations have let slip the opportunity, and by that means have been compelled to receive laws from their conquerors, instead of making laws for themselves." Over 150,000 copies of his pamphlet were circulating within three months of its publication.
The pamphlet began by describing the origins of English government, including its constitution and the establishment of a hereditary monarchy. It went on to summarize the current situation in America and to make the case for independence. Paine embraced republican ideology, arguing that the republican form of government would be devoted, by design, to the interests of the public good, while the despotic monarchy of British rule would always benefit one person—the sovereign. By the standards of the day, Paine's complete rejection of monarchy was truly radical.
Clergymen Charles Inglis and Samuel Seabury, among others, published rebuttals to Common Sense, warning that if Paine's ideas were to persuade a majority then all property would become "unhinged," the old British Constitution would be completely undermined, and everyone would be forced to denounce the king to whom so many had cherished their loyalty and devotion. Inglis sought to incite fear in his audience by warning of the "torrents of blood" that would be spilled in such a revolution, of the thousands who would lose everything and be reduced to "beggary and wretchedness," and of the likelihood that the ultimate result would be only the replacement of a king for an "individual despot." Inglis wasn't wrong: the Revolution did spill torrents of blood, and when it ended many wanted to enshrine George Washington as something like a new king. If not for Washington's unique character and restraint, the country might well have become accustomed to entrusting a strong charismatic leader with a lifetime in office. (Only a quarter century later in France, Napoleon's takeover demonstrated that individual despots could, indeed, capitalize upon the power vacuum created in the midst of social upheaval and revolution to install dictatorship.)
Galvanizing the Colonials; Paine after Common Sense
Paine's first issue of The American Crisis—published in December 1776 just as George Washington and his soldiers retreated across the Delaware River to the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge—began with the stirring words: "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 his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Washington had this piece read aloud to his cold and starving soldiers.
Paine himself later returned to Europe, where he participated in the French Revolution but narrowly escaped the guillotine himself in the resulting Terror. His subsequent writings against organized religion made him the object of scorn and ridicule in America, where he went back to live in 1802 and where—four years later—he was denied the right to vote by former Tories who controlled the local elections in New Rochelle, New York. They claimed that his service in the French Revolution had invalidated his American citizenship. He died three years later.