The Roaring Flame
Written for my American Literature class on February 17, 2018, I had to choose a piece by Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine, and either defend or attack his argumentative tactics in regard to both what he was writing about and who his intended audience was. I chose Common Sense by Thomas Paine. As much as I loved Franklin, Paine’s emotion and passion in Common Sense really struck a chord with me.
The essay was written in MLA 8 format, complete with in-text citations and a Works Cited page. I made a 99% on this. My instructor wrote the following:
This is an EXCELLENT essay . . . very insightful, but also sophisticated and nuanced in thought. Fantastic support quotations. There’s not a lot I would change here except paragraphing, which is a bit choppy.
The American Revolution was a wildfire that spread throughout the colonies. Passionate men from all stations took up arms to fight against British oppression and create a better America. Holding the torch that would light American minds and hearts was Thomas Paine. His torch, a pamphlet called Common Sense, argued for independence from Britain. Common Sense was effective because Paine created a character to appeal to a general audience and used that character to ignite the American Revolution with logical and emotional arguments.
Paine wanted to make Common Sense accessible to everyone. Paine understood that a revolution would require wide support. The need to sell the war and enlist the common man was great. Paine realized he would have to write something that would speak to the general population, not just its best and brightest. Colonists were often educated at home, and those who read rarely read more than the Bible (Peterson). Only the wealthy could afford books (Burns). The common man would not be a typical reader. He would not be won over with philosophy, large words, or complex arguments.
Paine succeeded in reaching a general audience. Common Sense sold over 150,000 copies (Harris 1046). The pamphlet circulated throughout the population and was even read to people who could not read (1046). Common Sense is credited with “spreading a national spirit,” and inspiring Americans to separate from Britain (1046). Due to its treasonous content, Common Sense was published anonymously (Miller). This worked in Paine’s favor. Paine, having just arrived in America two years prior to the publication of Common Sense (Harris 1045), was able to effectively write the part of the colonial everyman, creating a character with whom readers could identify. Although the ideas presented in Common Sense are his own, the speaker in Common Sense is not Paine, but a character created by Paine to appeal to readers. This character is the first of Paine’s instruments that makes Common Sense an effective piece of propaganda. Through this character, Paine wrote a straightforward argument with common language, references, and metaphors that the 1776 common man could understand.
One way in which Paine’s character appealed to readers in Common Sense is through relatability. This is accomplished through the character’s language and word choice. Paine begins the third part of the pamphlet, “In the following pages I offer nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” (1047). The words “simple,” “plain,” and “common” set up the piece, as he goes on to make very straightforward arguments. The way in which he brings up arguments is interesting and plays into the character he creates. He uses phrases like, “It hath been reported” (1047), “I have heard it asserted by some” (1048), and “say some” (1048) to emphasize that he gets his information from conversation like many of his readers. He goes on to refer to American problems as his own by using the words “we” and “us” throughout. “We have been long led away by ancient prejudices” (1049). It is hard to imagine Paine is writing as himself, referring to “long” as the two years he was in America. Paine’s word choices are effective because they make Paine’s character, the speaker, seem like one of the everyday people in America rather than someone writing down to them.
Paine further establishes the speaker of Common Sense as one of the everyday people by making references and creating metaphors the common man would understand. Most startling, Paine references Christianity and the Bible to make arguments (Miller). Paine had strong views against Christianity that he expresses in The Age of Reason. “Of all the systems of religion that were ever invented, there is none more derogatory . . ., more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity” (1064). Knowing this, it seems odd that Paine discusses religion at all in his argument for independence until one considers that Paine wrote as a character and not as himself. As someone who values Christianity and the Bible, the speaker is a lot like a large portion of Paine’s intended audience. This was an effective, if not genius move by Paine to push citizens toward a revolution, because they could identify with the speaker.
Paine’s use of metaphors in Common Sense is likewise effective. He calls states “sisters” and Britain their “parent” (1049). Playing on the idea that Britain is the “parent country,” he likens America to a child “who has thrived upon milk, that is never to have meat” (1048). He says as America’s parent, Britain should be ashamed of her conduct (1049). The “parent” metaphor is effective because it humanizes Britain to American readers and makes Britain’s wrongdoings more obvious and grave to those simply seeking reconciliation. Using this metaphor, Paine simplifies the issues with Britain for those who are less informed. Metaphors are also conversational. Writing as a character more like one of his readers than himself, he is able to speak to his audience as a simple brother in the familial relationship he set up with metaphors rather than as a scholarly newcomer to America.
“Simple” is a great word to describe Common Sense. After the character Paine created to appeal to readers, the second instrument that makes Common Sense an effective piece of propaganda is Paine’s simple, straightforward logic. Calling the facts he presents “simple” and the arguments he presents “plain” (1047), Paine presents issues one after the other stating what the general public may think about the issue and then presenting a different picture. He states, “it is but right that we examine the contrary side of the argument” (1048). He does just that with issues that were likely weighing on colonial minds: thoughts on reconciliation, America flourishing under Great Britain, and colonial protection under Britain to name a few (1048-49). Paine presents his ideas as simple and common, as if his ideas are truly common sense. This strategy is effective not only because it is simple and easy for the common man to understand, but because it knocks down the arguments of the opposition calmly and logically.
Common Sense seems like an intellectual analysis of Britain’s treatment of America rather than an emotional attack on Britain. Further establishing the intellectuality of the piece, Paine asks readers to challenge him, appearing willing to accept new information from those who may not agree with him. “I challenge the warmest advocate for reconciliation to show a single advantage that this continent can reap by being connected with Great Britain” (1050). By calling his arguments “common sense” and asking others to challenge his views, it would lead readers without strong opinions to agree with him simply because they could not prove him wrong. This would be enough to bring those who make decisions logically to join the revolution. Unfortunately, even if they could not prove him wrong with logic, many would oppose a revolution emotionally. One must not forget what a revolution would entail: people would have to turn against their country, families would turn against family members, and people would die for the cause. Paine would have to reach many with passion and emotion.
After baiting the reader with paragraphs of logical “common sense,” Paine presents a new type of common sense: an emotional one. Emotion is the third instrument that makes Common Sense effective. It is not until after he presents logical arguments calmly that he brings emotion into Common Sense. His emotional appeal is directed toward those who may not be fully convinced, “men of passive tempers [who] look somewhat lightly over the offense of Great Britain” (1052). He asks, “Hath your house been burnt? Hath your property been destroyed before your face? . . . Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands?” (1052). By asking these questions, Paine makes the offenses of Britain personal, which is an extremely smart and effective argumentative technique. Readers would feel that these things are clearly wrong emotionally; their feelings on these actions can be thought of as an emotional common sense.
Paine’s word choice in the pamphlet is bolder after this. He calls those who can continue to support Britain cowards, and says they have “the spirit of a sycophant” (1052). Strong words like “horror,” “barbarous,” “hellish,” “fatal,” and “madness” are used to describe Britain (1052-53). These words evoke emotion. Because of where they are placed, long after the logical appeal and right after the emotional appeal, these words, which at the beginning of the piece would have seemed treasonous and unnecessarily cruel, seem passionate and just.
Paine continues with passion, ending Common Sense with an emotional plea: “O! ye that love mankind . . . receive the fugitive, and prepare in time an asylum for mankind” (1053). It is not just that Paine argues with emotion and passion that is effective, but that emotion and passion are expertly placed. If he had tried to appeal emotionally to readers before making logical arguments, he would have made many readers feel uncomfortable and would have never recruited them for his cause.
Common Sense begins as a logical analysis of Britain’s injustices on America, moves on to Britain’s personal assaults on Americans, and ends with a passionate plea to stop Britain from harming mankind. It was an effective piece of propaganda in its time because of the instruments Paine employed: a character with whom his readers could identify, simple logic, and heated emotion. These instruments made Common Sense an instrumental piece of propaganda that sparked a flame in America. That flame ignited a revolution and forged a new America.
Burns, William. “Libraries in Colonial America.” Academia, www.academia.edu/6891927/Libraries_in_Colonial_America.
Harris, Sharon M. “Thomas Paine 1737-1809.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 1045-47.
Miller, Dave. “Thomas Paine Lost His Common Sense.” Apologetics Press, Inc., 2008, www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=7&article=2605.
Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 1060-65.
—. Common Sense. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, edited by Paul Lauter, 7th ed., Wadsworth Cengage, 2014, pp. 1047-53.
Peterson, Robert A. “Education in Colonial America.” Foundation for Economic Education, September 1983, www.fee.org/articles/education-in-colonial-america.