1776: The Pamphlet That Shook the World

--This story begins with a young English corset-maker, who, without gumption, would’ve likely spent the rest of his days stringing whale bones to stays so women could wreck their health to look ridiculous.

Lady in a corset

Sexy? This makes me uncomfortable.

Yes, our hero had his faults — vain, tactless and untidy, to name three — but, fortunately, he had no shortfall of get-up-and-go.

After realizing how much he hated making corsets, and understandably so, this young man ran away from home… twice. In his second excursion, at the age of 20, he stumbled upon the King of Prussia, a privateer boat set to assist England in the Seven Years’ War. 

(Privateer boats, if you don’t know, were privately-funded boats authorized by governments in times of war to attack foreign boats. Upon success, the spoils were the crew’s to keep.)

Overnight, a boy named Thomas Paine went from sissy-boy corset-composer to a booty hunting pirate. And this would be the first of many radical lifestyle shifts in Paine’s journey to come.

Happy birthday, Thomas Paine.

--Now, this is where opinions diverge a bit. Some claim the King of Prussia came back empty-handed. Others say Paine made a king’s ransom off the gig.

If you believe Paine came back rich, then, after the war, this version of the story goes, he took two years from work to educate himself on the ideas of the Enlightenment, living off of the money he received from the bounty.

If you believe he came back to London penniless, then, we’ll skip the studies. Instead, he immediately returned to corset fancy-work to pay the bills and married a servant girl. He was, thereafter, in short order, reminded how much he hated corset-making and tried his hand as a cobbler. And then as a schoolteacher. And then as a cabinet maker. And failed at all of them.

Of course, these failures likely had more to do with his demeanor than his ability.

“Even at his best,” Harvard history professor Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker, “Paine was rough and unpolished, he was plain-spoken, direct, tactless, blunt. People might put up with that from a man whose work was at the very highest quality, but they wouldn’t put up with it from a man whose work was only average. Nor were headmasters or fellow teachers too keen on it.”

Unfortunately, possibly contributing to his foul carriage, only a year into the marriage, his wife and child both died.

Paine, unable or, more likely, unwilling, to make it legit, turned to thievery once again at the age of 32. This time, though, of the worst kind. He became a tax collector for the English government.

He married again in 1771. And soon, he acquired a tobacco shop after his second wife’s father — a tobacconist — passed away. It wasn’t long until, though, he lost it. And by the age of 35, he was flat broke, his wife had left him and had taken the proverbial dog, too.

--And then, by chance, through a London astronomer, Paine met Benjamin Franklin. And everything changed.

Franklin was impressed by Paine’s knowledge, ideas and biting insight. He recommended Paine board a ship to America — a land flush with opportunity. So he did.

Unfortunately, while on the ship, he fell ill with typhus. Paine arrived in Philadelphia on December 17, 1774 so sick he had to be carried off the ship.

“What saved his life,” Lepore writes, “was a letter found in his pocket: ‘The bearer Mr. Thomas Pain is very well recommended to me as an ingenious worthy young man.’ It was signed by Benjamin Franklin. It was better than a bag of gold.” 

With the help of this invaluable edict from Franklin, a doctor, a friend of Franklin’s fixed him up. Paine then, also with the help of the letter, quickly found work as a schoolteacher and freelance writer, later to meet a bookseller named Robert Aiken. Aiken hired him on to be the editor of his new pet project — the Pennsylvania Magazine.

The magazine, under Paine’s stewardship, took off.  Paine was soon hobnobbing with the “who’s who” of early America —  Washington, Jefferson, Rush, Randolph, Adams and their ilk.

After less than a year at the magazine, in 1775, he quit so he could focus all his energies he quit to focus on a pamphlet he had been scribbling in his free time.

“He worked at a wobbly table,” Jim Powell writes on FEE.org, “scratching out the words with a goose quill pen on rough buff paper. The manuscript proceeded slowly, because writing was always difficult for Paine. He discussed the evolving draft with Dr. Benjamin Rush whom he had met at Aiken’s bookstore. The draft was completed in early December. Paine got comments from astronomer David Rittenhouse, brewer Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Paine thought of calling his pamphlet Plain Truth, but Dr. Rush recommended the more earthy Common Sense.

“With simple, bold, and inspiring prose,” Powell goes on, “Paine launched a furious attack on tyranny. He denounced kings as inevitably corrupted by political power. He broke with previous political thinkers when he distinguished between government compulsion and civil society where individuals pursue private productive lives. Paine envisioned a ‘Continental Union’ based on individual rights. He answered objections from those who feared a break with England. He called for a declaration to stir people into action.”

The 47-page pamphlet, written anonymously “by an Englishman” — was published on January 10, 1776 and sold for two shillings a pop.

“The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind,” the pamphlet reads. “Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all Lovers of Mankind are affected, and in the Event of which, their Affections are interested.

“The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.”

--It was an instant success. The first edition disappeared nearly as soon as they printed it. Soon, rival editions were created.

Printers in Boston, Salem, Newburyport, Newport, Providence, Hartford, Norwich, Lancaster, Albany and New York all stopped the presses to print Common Sense. And within three months, Paine estimated over 120,000 copies were floating around the colonies.

“Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind,” Benjamin Rush recalled. “It was read by public men, repeated in clubs, spouted in Schools, and in one instance, delivered from the pulpit instead of a sermon by a clergyman in Connecticut.”

George Washington said the pamphlet offered “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning.”

John Adams claimed that “Common Sense was received in France and in all Europe with Rapture.”

In all, it’s said, over 500,000 copies were sold.

And just to give you an idea of its impact in the colonies…

--In December of 1775, only radicals called for independence. By June of 1776, only the staunchest conservatives — a tiny minority — stood against independence.

In only six months, the nation had united against tyranny.

“Some writers have so confounded society with government,” Paine wrote in the pamphlet, “as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. 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 is a patron, the last a punisher.”

It was written to incite a revolution. And that’s exactly what it did.

“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth… Now is the seed-time of Continental union… We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth…  O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!… We have it in our power to begin the world over again… The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

--And here we are. Staring in the face of tyranny once more — but this time from within.

In times like these, it’s likely a good idea to take heed to the words of economist Rudi Dornbusch: “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”

Of course, in today’s world, things could go either way. But if a tiny pamphlet can, out of nowhere, incite a revolution so powerful that a small nation wins its freedom from the greatest military force of its time…

Does tyranny really stand a chance today?

That is indeed the question. And the answer, we suppose, is up to us.

“O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia, and Africa, have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”

Until tomorrow,

Chris Campbell
Managing editor, Laissez Faire Today

P.S. Have something to say? Say it! Chris@lfb.org.

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