Most of Paine’s ideas were not original. What made Common Sense unique was his mode of expressing them and the audience he addressed. Previous political writings had generally been directed toward the educated elite. “When I mention the public,” declared John Randolph of Virginia in 1774, “I mean to include the rational part of it. The ignorant vulgar are unfit... to manage the reins of government.” Just as evangelical ministers had shattered the trained clergy’s monopoly on religious preaching, Paine pioneered a new style of political writing, one designed to expand dramatically the public sphere where political discussion took place. He wrote clearly and directly, and he avoided the complex language and Latin phrases common in pamphlets aimed at educated readers. Common Sense quickly became one of the most successful and influential pamphlets in the history of political writing, selling, by Paine’s estimate, some 150,000 copies. Paine directed that his share of the profits be used to buy supplies for the Continental army.

In February 1776, the Massachusetts political leader Joseph Hawley read Common Sense and remarked, “Every sentiment has sunk into my well prepared heart.” The hearts of Hawley and thousands of other Americans had been prepared for Paine’s arguments by the extended conflict over Britain’s right to tax the colonies, the outbreak of war in 1775, and the growing conviction that Britain was a corrupt society where liberty was diminishing. The intensification of fighting in the winter of 1775-1776, when Americans unsuccessfully invaded Canada while the British burned Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, and bombarded Norfolk, Virginia, gave added weight to the movement for independence. In the spring of 1776, scores of American communities adopted resolutions calling for a separation from Britain. Only six months elapsed between the appearance of Common Sense and the decision by the Second Continental Congress to sever the colonies’ ties with Great Britain.

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