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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Common Sense and the American Revolutionhomesitemap
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Workshop 2:  Lectures & Activities

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Lecture Transcript One:
Thomas Paine and American Independence

Lecturer: Professor Pauline Maier


Image of Pauline Maier

Well, today we are discussing Common Sense, which was, I think, without rival the most electric and influential pamphlet of the American Revolution. Among the surprising things about it is the fact that it's written by a man who had only recently arrived in the American colonies. Paine first got off the boat on November 30, 1774. He hadn't been here very long by January 1776, and when he arrived there wasn't much in his life that would lead you to think he was going to do something as remarkable as he did. His life to that point was a series of starts and stops in equal measure, which is to say, he didn't seem to be going anywhere.

He was born in Thetford, England, about 70 miles northeast of London. His father was a Quaker, so the "thees" and the "thous" that come up here start to make a little bit of sense. His father was a stay-maker. He made those bonelike elements in corsets which women unfortunately were wearing at that point in time. They are made of whalebone. Apparently it was a highly skilled occupation. Paine went to elementary school seven years and then followed his father into the stay-making business, and he stuck with it for over a decade. So there is profession number one.

He abandoned it, however, when he found a position in the British excise service; that is, he became a tax collector. And there was no tax, I think, that was less popular in England at that time than the excise tax, which is basically a tax on commodities or on houses. Well, as it happens, however, he wasn't a very good excise officer. He got cashiered after a few years because he had filled in a report on some goods which he had not, in fact, examined. So it looks like it's the end of career number two.

He wanders around; he goes to London; he becomes a schoolteacher for half of his salary in the customs service. This might sound a little familiar to you. And after a few years, he sort of sees the light on the wall and apologizes for his past sins and gets his job back in the excise service. But true to form, he got into trouble again. He rose to the leadership -- was very active in a movement of the customs men to agitate for higher wages. He actually wrote a pamphlet, The Case of the Customs Men, 1772. And unfortunately, he left his post to go to London to agitate in that cause and, as a result, lost his job again.

Along the way he had been married twice, [once] to a woman who served as a maid; that is, a domestic servant. She died within a year. Then he married a woman who was the daughter of a person who had once been his landlord, and that marriage came to an end by 1774. So here we have a 37-year-old Englishman, jobless, without wife or family, who needed a new beginning.

If we look back over this part of life, I think we can see some things which may mitigate this bleak story. For one thing, of course, his leadership in the customs movement is interesting. He did write a pamphlet there. There was a certain political impulse, a certain leadership capacity. Even more, though, I'd emphasize the interest that he developed in science. And in the 18th century, science and technology, if we would have it science and engineering, weren't rigidly divided from each other. Paine attended lectures in popular science that were very, very popular in London of that time, and there he came in contact with none other than Benjamin Franklin, who happened to be in London at the time. And it was Franklin who wrote a letter of introduction that Paine carried with him to Philadelphia. But Franklin didn't seem to be very optimistic about this guy's future. He recommended Paine for employment "as a clerk or assistant tutor in a school, or assistant surveyor, all of which I think him very capable."


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