I first read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”, the “46 Pages” referred to in the title of Scott Liell’s book, a few years ago and I could not understand why every student in the United States is not required to read it. Is the book considered as dangerous to today’s government as it was to King George’s in 1776? Liell examines the history of the US Revolution’s most influential pamphlet and its author. At only about three times the length of its topic the book is not a heavy, detailed, scholarly work. Instead it is an informative and entertaining introduction to one of the world’s most liberal writers and his best known work.
Liell starts with Paine’s early life in England, how he gained experience as a writer, how he came to know Ben Franklin, and how he came to the Colonies. Liell presents Paine as a regular guy, avoiding the trap that to many biographers fall into, to paint their subjects as all around supermen. When first published Paine’s “Common Sense” and its logic gripped the country, people then saw Paine as something of a superman, he donated his profits to the cause, answered every challenge to his ideas, and joined the Continental Army as an enlisted man when his growing fame could have won him an appointment as an officer.
The real hero of the book is the pamphlet, “Common Sense”. Before reading it George Washington resisted the British Parliament’s unjust laws but was a loyal subject of the King. After reading Paine’s pamphlet Washington’s devotion was to independence. In an age of handset type and hand powered presses, when news spread on horseback, “Common Sense” swept across the 13 colonies changing loyal British subjects who disagreed with Parliament into revolutionaries declaring their independence.
After the United States won independence Paine was recognized as one of the principal catalysts for American independence. In France he wrote more about “The Rights of Man” and the wealthy colonials who now held power, who had once celebrated “Common Sense”, shunned his liberalism. Liell’s book ends with Payne’s death and looks at the way the country he helped found rejected his mortal remains as completely as it did his liberal politics.