April 9, 2019
The Greatest Op-Ed Ever Written?
Thomas Paine was an English-born sailor and teacher. He had been involved in local and church leadership roles before advocating better pay and working conditions in pamphlets in London. A friend introduced Paine to Benjamin Franklin, who suggested he come to America and wrote him a letter of recommendation. Paine arrived in Philadelphia in 1774 and soon found work as a magazine writer and editor, focusing on workers’ rights, abolition, and a bourgeoning topic – American liberty. Although there were rumblings of discord and revolution, most colonists still considered themselves to be Brits. Most colonists still needed to be swayed toward independence.
Originally published anonymously, Paine argued the case for American independence in a 47-page pamphlet called Common Sense. Divided into four parts, the first half dealt with the perils of English governance and King George III while the second half presented a compelling case for an American nation. Originally passed around and read aloud in taverns, Common Sense went on to sell 500,000 copies – unfathomable at the time. (The entire population was less than 2.5 million people.) One of Paine’s most persuasive passages was:
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
Common Sense is credited with unifying citizens and political leaders behind American independence. Later in 1776, Paine published The American Crisis, a series of pamphlets written to strengthen American resolve in battles against the British. General George Washington had the pamphlet read aloud to his soldiers for inspiration. The first pamphlet begins with:
“These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Did You Know …
Paine would serve in the U.S. Army and work for the Committee of Foreign Affairs before returning to England in 1787. In 1791, he released The Rights of Man in support of French revolution. He returned to the U.S. in 1802 and died in New York in 1809.