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Common Sense Knocked Them off the Fence

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Common Sense
Knocked Them off the Fence

This British halfpenny token in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection bears the image of a man on the gallows with the slogan “End of Pain,” a reference to the banished political theorist and British radical Thomas Paine.

The fire crackled in the tavern fireplace near where the tradesman sat drinking his mug of rum and reading aloud to others in his company from the little weathered pamphlet.

Volumes have been written on the subject of the struggle between England and America. Men of all ranks have embarked in the controversy, from different motives, and with various designs; but all have been ineffectual, and the period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resource, decide the contest; the appeal was the choice of the king, and the continent hath accepted the challenge.

Such scenes were likely repeated across the colonies during the winter of 1776.  The previous April, war between the American colonies and Great Britain had begun.  The British were now under siege in Boston by George Washington’s army. But what did Americans hope to achieve by this war? 

A little pamphlet, unassumingly entitled Common Sense would answer that question.  Written by Thomas Paine, Common Sense outlined the case for independence.  The most radical and important pamphlet written in the American Revolution, Paine spoke directly to the common man.  At a time when many revolutionary leaders wrote for their small circle of enlightened colleagues using obscure classical and historical references, Thomas Paine reached out to ordinary working folk with plain language and an unprecedented common style.  This brought all ranks of society into the political debate for the first time.  Even those who were illiterate could hear Common Sense read aloud in public gathering places.  Published anonymously in Philadelphia in January 1776, it was soon available in all 13 colonies and sold over 150,000 copies.  Its impact was electrifying, jolting reluctant colonists off the fence to fight for independence.

Which of these arguments might have persuaded YOU to choose independence and why?

Small islands not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something very absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.

 We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering, that her motive was interest not attachment; that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account…

And a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all, and in that case we pay our money for nothing…

 The debt we may contract doth not deserve our regard if the work be but accomplished.  No nation ought to be without a debt.  A national debt is a national bond …

The present time, likewise, is that peculiar time, which never happens to a nation but once, viz., 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.

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