This week was the 245th anniversary of the publication of Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was a philosopher and author in the 18th Century who became prolific for his literary works surrounding the revolutionary movements of his time in the American Colonies and France. Paine was well-connected with prominent figures from the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin is said to have convinced Paine to emigrate from England to the American Colonies where he began work as a journalist in Philadelphia. Paine also knew George Washington, Samuel Adams, James Madison, and was spoken highly of by many of these respected figures. It is even said that James Monroe once helped break Thomas Paine out of prison in France, a story we will no doubt look at in greater detail at another time.
Thomas Paine often wrote about justice, liberty, and the human rights. Due to the unpopular nature of such ideas, he often wrote under aliases to try and conceal himself from critics. For example, when he criticized slavery during his time in the American colonies, he published his work under the name “Justice and Humanity” to protect himself. His anti-authoritarian rhetoric would of course draw ire from the powerful authorities at work in the world. Taking a stand against authoritarianism was, is, and likely always will be a dangerous endeavor. Nevertheless, Thomas Paine stood strong in his convictions about the imperative nature of freedom and continued to express his ideas, despite being persecuted at times and even sent to prison.
Thomas Paine was praised as a skilled writer for communicating his ideas using plain language which spoke to commoners and intellectuals alike. His most famous and influential pieces of writing were Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Some other notable works of his include The Case of the Officers of Excise and The American Crisis. In Common Sense, Paine argued in favor of American independence and of the importance of the rebellion against the British Empire. His eloquent way with words helped convince many of the commoners in the Colonies why the cause was important and why they should support it. Paine was credited with using biblical references which were understood by all instead of complex, philosophical language which may have alienated non-scholars at the time.
Not all of Paine’s ideas worked out so well – as some have pointed out – and some of his ideas even became corrupted into detrimental systems later on in history. For example, Paine advocated for ideas like progressive taxation and public education. While great in theory, some argue such ideas have become more harmful than beneficial in practice, something which Paine failed to foresee. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so to speak. As mentioned, Paine’s ideas are good in theory. It is how they have been put into practice and become corrupted which is the problem, and perhaps these ideas have merely gone astray from there they should have veered. Perhaps they are not inherently misguided. Who is to say, and how are they to know for certain of what they say when considering the winds of change and how time moves ideas in new directions never foreseen? It is hard to know what the future holds, and even harder to foretell how corruption will twist our ideas and institutions. Perhaps one small change may have prevented such issues, and we have no one knowing what that small change may have been.
Still, Thomas Paine’s works were instrumental to inspiring the American Revolution against the British Empire. There is also much we can learn from Paine about the effectiveness of his writings. He recognized that the dense language of scholars did not tend to appeal to the masses so easily. He also recognized the need to convince people of all walks of life of the importance of supporting George Washington and the Continental Army, and that the language he chose to convey this message was just as important as the message itself. For any writer seeking to deliver a message with their words, it is always important to consider the audience and how best to connect with them.
As a writer and an advocate for freedom, liberty, and justice, I find there is much to learn from the life of Thomas Paine. We can learn not just from his words, but from his actions as well. Paine was smart enough to realize the importance of appealing to one’s audience with the correct language. Just as it is vital to know what one wants to say, so too it is to know how best to say it. In this sense, Paine embodies the core value of creativity by finding the right words to say what he needed to say. Also, I find Paine to be inspiring for his embodiment of courage and commitment in standing firm against authoritarianism, despite it costing him his own liberty when the powers he criticized came for him. Thomas Paine is a great teacher to us all, and a figure from history whose life we will certainly explore at greater length in the future.
What do you think of Thomas Paine? Do you find him to be an inspiring writer and defender of freedom? Do you have a different perspective? Also, is there anything you would like to add that should be admired about the life of this important figure? Please, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments and share this post with others to get their perspective too.
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