Seriously, today is the anniversary of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary masterpiece, Common Sense. In my upcoming novel, Caution to the Wind, my heroine has a copy of the pamphlet. While it doesn’t play a major part in the plot, I like to give a nod to history throughout my stories. We’ll see if it makes it into the final published version.
While many of us have heard of Thomas Paine, and some could name a pamphlet or two of his, I don’t think people know that much about him in general. Here are some tidbits I find interesting:
- He was English. Not English in the way the American Colonists were also English before the Revolution, but really English. He only came to America in 1774.
- His most notable previous profession was as a corset maker.
- He was also an early abolitionist.
- Common Sense was a huge success. According to Wikipedia, it sold 500,000 copies at a time when the population only included 2 million free Americans at the time. In terms of today’s adult population, that would be 56 million sales – way more than it takes to get on the NYT best sellers list. Not all the revenues went to Paine, however, because books were pirated even back then.
- He published another pamphlet in 1776 called The American Crisis. While it is probably not as famous as Common Sense, I think a lot of us are probably familiar with the opening line – These are the times that try men's souls. George Washing read The American Crisis to his troops to try to motivate them to stick with the fight.
- Paine was a revolutionary – and not necessarily always in a good way. Yes, Common Sense and The American Crisis helped rally the Americans, but he also moved to France in the 1790s in time to participate in the French Revolution. He supported the revolution in The Rights of Man – a two-part pamphlet that also sold well.
- French revolutionaries were notorious for turning on themselves. Paine eventually earned the disfavor of Robespierre and was imprisoned. He was not executed, although ironically Robespierre was later guillotined. The French Revolution was a messy affair in more ways than one.
- For some reason, Paine decided Washington was to blame for his imprisonment. I don’t know that he had any evidence, but I would imagine the expectation that you might lose your head at any time has a negative affect on one’s sanity.
- In the end, despite his success as a writer, he died rather impoverished. (May all of us writers escape that fate!) I didn’t know this until today, but evidently, his bones were lost so if anyone is buried in Paine’s tomb, it’s not him.
Like many of the Founding Fathers, Paine was a mass of contradictions. When you dig into his story, you don’t know whether you should revere the man or pity him. As one of his obituaries said, "He had lived long, did some good and much harm."
In the end, I give him the benefit of the doubt. He fought for freedom on more than one continent (France and America) and for all people (as evidenced by his early abolitionist writings). I’d say that stands him in good stead with me. What do you think?