Study Guide

Common Sense

By Thomas Paine

Common Sense Introduction

You've probably heard of a little country called the United States of America.

Whether you live in it or outside of it, whether you think it's the bee's knees or think that its domestic and foreign policy leave something to be desired, whether you get misty-eyed every time you hear the Star-Spangled Banner or think that maybe you've seen enough eagle-stars-stripes t-shirts for several lifetimes… you know America.

It's, uh, a pretty major player on the global stage.

But in order to know America, in order to really understand the philosophy behind the founding of the country and how its government was set up to operate, you kind of have to read Common Sense.

Thomas Paine first published Common Sense anonymously in 1776 because he didn't want to get tossed into jail for speaking out against British rule in America. And maybe the whole anonymity thing was for the best, because it was the ideas in Paine's pamphlet that quickly caught fire and soon turned Common Sense into the best selling book—at that point—in American history.

Common Sense tore through the original thirteen colonies with a very clear message: America needs to become independent from Britain. And folks heard his message loud and clear, because it was at this exact moment in history that the Americans ramped up their military effort to force the British out of their country.

One of the main reasons Thomas Paine's pamphlet became so popular was because Paine, unlike many writers from his time, used a lot of, well, common sense arguments that average people could understand. Whenever he needed an example to illustrate one of his main points, he drew from the Bible because he could trust that most of his readers would know the Bible almost by heart. Thomas Paine gave common Americans the language they needed to express their frustration over the unfair actions of their British rulers. And once they had that language, there was no stopping them.

History would end up being good to Thomas Paine. Once the American Revolution succeeded, Tommy Paine was able to step forward and actually take credit for his super-influential text. And since then, Common Sense has been a text that readers from all over the world have turned to, again and again, when they consider the ideas of freedom and revolution.

Not a bad legacy for ol' Thomas Paine.

  

What is Common Sense About and Why Should I Care?

It's no secret that the American Revolution ain't the only revolutionary game in town. And by "town," we mean "history since 1776."

But it was the American Revolution that kinda started the revolutionary craze in modern history. We're not just hoisting our itty-bitty American flags and saying "U.S.A! U.S.A!" as we say this; we're citing historical fact.

Revolutions tend to come in waves, or follow the domino effect. The American Revolution (which was a global event in its own right) helped to spur on the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the Bavarian Revolution and a whole slew of Latin and Spanish-American wars of independence. This whole mess of revolution was called the Atlantic Revolutions, and was a huge freaking earth-shaking deal.

And from the Atlantic Revolutions onwards, modern history has been jam-packed with revolutionary waves. But it was, in many respects, the American Revolution that started the revolutionary trend of the last two hundred-plus years.

And what helped (in a big, big way) to start the American Revolution?

That's right: a little pamphlet by Thomas Paine called Common Sense. That "ka-boom" noise you just heard was your mind exploding, Shmooper.

So why should you care about Common Sense? Well, has your life been impacted by a revolution, in any way? We're going to answer that for you: yeah, yeah it has. Wherever you live (including Antarctica, for all you penguins and leopard seals reading this), your life has been impacted by revolution. So we're not being bombastic when we say that reading Common Sense will help you understand the world in which you live.

Thomas Paine totally knows how important his pamphlet is: he writes that his argument affects every aspect of humanity. On the surface, his pamphlet makes the case for why the U.S. should separate from British rule. But when you look deeper, it's also a deep philosophical discussion of things like religious freedom, responsible government, and social cooperation.

But even if you don't care about history at all, you'd be smart to check out Thomas Paine's writing techniques for inspiration if you ever want to convince anyone of anything. As his pamphlet shows us, there is no better way to be compelling than to make your argument sound like a matter of, well, common sense. Take a lesson from our old friend Tommy Paine and you'll be rousing the rebels in no time… or at least convincing your friend to lend you her car for the weekend.

Common Sense Resources

Websites

Thomas Paine on USHistory.org
Visit this site for a quick n' dirty bio of Thomas Paine and some links to his most famous writings.

Thomaspaine.org
The Thomas Paine National Historic Organization would like to invite you to drop in on their homepage and have a look around. Heck, why not kick up your feet and stay a few nights on their couch while you're at it?

The Thomas Paine Society
This non-profit charity is completely dedicated to educating people about the life and work of Thomas Paine. They even get people to dress up and act like the guy for special events.

Articles and Interviews

Who Was Thomas Paine?
This article helps make the case for why Thomas Paine was one of the most influential thinkers in modern human history. Don't you wanna know why?

Thomas Paine: American Radical and Forerunner of the 21st Century
What does Thomas Paine's thinking have to do with today's world? Check out this article to find out.

The Religious and Political Philosophy of Thomas Paine
Want a better idea of where Paine was coming from in Common Sense? Then check out this article to fill in some of the gaps.

Thomas Paine: The Most Valuable Englishman Ever
In case the title wasn't a giveaway, this documentary is pretty high on Thomas Paine.

Video

Thomas Paine Criticizes the Modern Tea Party
According to one actor's interpretation, Thomas Paine wouldn't have thought very highly of the modern Tea Party movement.

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America
Harvey Kaye sits down to discuss how Thomas Paine's writings helped build up the concept of the "American Dream."

Audio

Christopher Hitchens on Thomas Paine
Check out one of the smartest essay writers of his time lecturing on the importance of Tommy Paine. And check out the guy who's introducing the lecture. He sounds like he just ran into the lecture hall.

"Common Sense" Audiobook
For when those eyes start feeling tired…

"Rights of Man" Audiobook
Click this link to listen to a version of Thomas Paine's extremely influential "Rights of Man." It's to the French Revolution what "Common Sense" was to the American Revolution.

Images

Ol' Dreamy Eyes
Just look at that face, so full of love for democracy.

Rendering of an Older Thomas Paine
It's like they always say, "No Paine, no gain."

Handy Paine Quote
For those days when you're tired of arguing with someone…