Common Sense

Common Sense Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine was born in England to Joseph (a farmer and corset-maker) and Frances Pain. In his youth, he was apprenticed to his father and then established himself in his father’s trade of corset-making in Sandwich, Kent. By the late 1760s, when Paine was in his thirties, he began taking a deeper interest in civic matters, and his pro-republican, anti-monarchical commitments began to take shape. During a down-and-out period of his life—his business had failed, he had to sell his household in order to avoid debtors’ prison, and he was separated from his wife—he moved to London and met Benjamin Franklin. Soon after, Franklin gave Paine a letter of recommendation, allowing Paine to move and settle in Britain’s American colonies in 1774. Paine began working as a writer and editor, finding success in pitching his essays to a common audience. In 1776, he anonymously published Common Sense and soon followed it up with The American Crisis. After the American Revolution, he served on the Congressional Committee of Foreign Affairs and later moved to France, becoming heavily involved in the French Revolution during the 1790s. For his radical views, he was jailed for a year in Paris, subsequently returning to the United States, where he died in obscurity.
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Historical Context of Common Sense

Common Sense was written at the beginning of the American Revolution (1775-1783) which secured the American colonies’ independence from Great Britain. In particular, Paine references Britain’s taxation of the American colonies without adequate representation, dating back to the Stamp Act Congress of 1765 and building to such protests as the Boston Massacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Following a 1774 Continental Congress, tensions continued to mount as British soldiers occupied Boston and later tried to destroy colonial military supplies, with battle breaking out at Lexington and Concord in 1775 and Britain finally being expelled from Boston by the Continental Army in March 1776, not long after Common Sense was published. Though the Declaration of Independence (citing the Enlightenment-inspired natural rights that Paine champions in his pamphlet) was signed that summer, the war continued. American independence wasn’t officially recognized until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.

Other Books Related to Common Sense

As a political philosopher, Paine was particularly influenced by fellow Enlightenment thinkers. Significant works in the Enlightenment movement include John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In writing Common Sense, Paine was particularly influenced by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s conceptions of human equality and inalienable rights. Paine followed up Common Sense in 1776 with The American Crisis, a pamphlet intended to inspire the American Army in its efforts against the British. In 1791, while living in France, he wrote The Rights of Man in response to Edmund Burke’s anti-revolutionary Reflections on the Revolution in France. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was part of the same “pamphlet war” in which Burke and Paine were engaged and shared Paine’s Enlightenment commitments to human equality and natural rights. Paine’s even more controversial pamphlet, The Age of Reason (1793-1794), advocated free thought and deism.
Key Facts about Common Sense
  • Full Title: Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America
  • When Written: 1775-1776
  • Where Written: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • When Published: January 10, 1776 (first edition)
  • Literary Period: Enlightenment
  • Genre: Political Pamphlet
  • Climax: After breaking down his moral reasoning for American independence, Paine urges his readers not to wait—the present is the appropriate time to incite a revolution.
  • Antagonist: Great Britain; King George III
  • Point of View: First Person; Second Person

Extra Credit for Common Sense

Gone Viral. Common Sense was an unprecedented publishing success. Though estimates vary, it may have sold as many as 500,000 copies in the colonies by the end of the American Revolution, meaning that an estimated 20 percent of colonists would have owned a copy—especially remarkable given that its popularity spread primarily by word of mouth.

Trying Times. In late 1776, George Washington ordered his officers to read part of Paine’s The American Crisis, a pamphlet series following up on Common Sense, to the Continental Army on the eve of the crossing of the Delaware.