In the Spotlight
Thomas Paine's Common sense
Thomas Paine. Common sense. Philadelphia, printed; London: re-printed, for J Almon, opposite Burlington-House in Piccadilly, 1776. Foyle Special Collections Library, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historical Collection E211 PAI
By Heather Anderson, Special Collections Assistant
The item featured here was on display in the 2017 Revolution! exhibition in the Weston Room at the Maughan Library.
It will be available to view online, like others curated by Archives and Special Collections, later in 2017.
This exhibition, which marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, also explored other significant revolutions of modern times, including the American Revolution to which this famous work by Paine relates.
When the American Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, the majority of colonists who took up arms against British soldiers did not desire independence. Colonial leaders hoped eventually to resolve the issues that had led to growing tensions between Americans and the British authorities, such as taxation without representation and the presence of the British army in the colonies.
However, over the course of 1775-76 the independence movement grew substantially. This was partly due to the immense popularity of Thomas Paine’s pro-independence pamphlet Common sense.
Common sense was the most widely circulated pamphlet published during the American Revolutionary War.
Within three months of its publication in 1776 it was claimed that 120,000 copies had been sold and second editions of the work were published within weeks. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Paine's life, it is recorded that Benjamin Rush, an associate of Paine and one of the United States’ Founding Fathers, recalled in July 1776:
Its effects were sudden and extensive upon the American mind. 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.
The pamphlet made the case for independence for the American colonies, arguing in favour of a democratic republican government. Paine argued that ‘government by kings runs contrary to the natural equality of man’ and that Americans should regard England as a ‘tyrannical oppressor’.
The text and seditious libel
The text’s accessible prose style and impassioned arguments garnered enthusiasm for the cause of independence, and even those opposed to Paine’s arguments were inspired by his devotion to the cause.
The edition of Common sense held in the Foyle Special Collections Library is a first English edition of the pamphlet, reprinted from the original American edition in 1776. This copy has hiatuses (omitted words and phrases) throughout the text.
It is believed that the printer omitted the most controversial parts of the text, which included personal attacks on George III, to avoid accusations of seditious libel.
The hiatuses in this copy have been filled in with pen and ink, possibly by clerks employed by the printer to do so. This technique would have given readers access to the text’s seditious ideas, whilst protecting the printer from prosecution.
This edition is published with James Chalmers' critical essay Plain truth, which was written in opposition to Paine’s arguments.
There is a half-title page at the beginning of the work introducing both Common sense and Plain truth, but each work has a separate title page, albeit with the same imprint statement.
The advertisement in this edition states how Common sense has been ‘held up as proof positive that the Americans desire to become independent’ and that the publisher is ‘happy in this opportunity of publishing Plain truth; which we take to be as good a proof that the Americans do not desire to become independent’.
Mark Philp, ‘Paine, Thomas (1737–1809)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/21133, accessed 28 March 2017]